A monster in the sunlight: compromising with anxiety

Describing Croatia to a friend recently, I said that it’s the kind of country where, if this were the 50s and I were the son of a wealthy capitalist, I could imagine holing up for a year or two, coming back tanned, snooty about wine, carrying the dog-eared manuscript of my first poorly-written novel. Even with none of those things being true, Zagreb has been pretty good for my anxiety compared to other cities I’ve visited (or worked in…or lived in). I even have days every now and then when I feel relaxed.

On the other hand, sometimes, like many people, I run out of food and need to go grocery shopping.

At around 9 this morning I finished my breakfast and decided to just get going before it got too hot out. I went upstairs, brushed my teeth, grabbed my phone. Came back downstairs, flipped through social media. Suddenly it was 10.

I could feel the rush of nerves surging up in my gut, catching in my lungs like seawater down the wrong pipe after a rough wave. Why was this taking so long? Was I subconsciously putting off leaving the house? Hoping to build some momentum, I put on my belt, found my glasses, grabbed a fistful of peanuts. Time to go. Paused to check my grocery list. Wasn’t something missing? Then it was 10:30. Stared at the door, willing myself to just stand up and put my shoes on already. Now it’s 11. I killed half an hour trying to convince myself to put shoes on. What the fuck, Ev.

The anxiety here is (at its base) twofold: going out, and how long it takes to do so. The latter is internally motivated, just a part of my usual self-loathing routine. My brain wants to beat up on me no matter what I do. If I go out I’ll stress about when and how it happened, most of what I did while it happened, and whether going out was just an excuse not to do work. If I stay in I’ll stress about why it happened, how much I did or didn’t do while it happened, and whether working was just an excuse not to go out. That’s all background noise. (Loud background noise, but ultimately, omnipresent to the point of inanity.)

The former, though, the anxiety around actually being out, that’s external stress. That’s the bizarre math of figuring out who’s moving where first, who’s looking at me and why, when to speed up or slow down, how to prepare for this standard event, or to respond to that unexpected one. That’s how last time I went to the store the onions wouldn’t scan and I held up a growing line for more than five minutes while they got a new bag because with the language barrier I couldn’t explain that it wasn’t that big a deal and I didn’t need them that badly and I would be happy to just get some next time.

All those externally-rooted stressors are a monster in the sunlight just past the front door, waiting, matching step for step when you walk, scratching or nibbling off another little piece of you every time you notice anything at all in the environment. It’s an infinity of little things, and knowing they’re little doesn’t stop the gestalt from being huge, intense, overpowering. It’s, well, a lot.

At the same time, putting off the monster doesn’t make it go away and doesn’t make it easier to deal with. So today my compromise was to get something productive done before I went out. Unlike my earlier delay (which left me focused on internal anxieties), this is sort of delay builds emotional momentum. It leaves me feeling like if I’ve already conquered something today, maybe I can manage one thing more. It acknowledges that the monster won’t go away, but it also says, hey, would you maybe like a sword to fend that thing off with?

In this case that compromise (writing this blog post) had the side benefit of talking out the feelings until the fuzz was in the air and not my lungs. Maybe it’s just osmosis at work, but I do tend to find that makes it a little easier to breathe.

And hey, over the course of writing, I remembered what was missing on my shopping list.

So I guess now I’d better get going.

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