If I was a house, my anxiety would have a room all to itself. Most likely an uninviting storage room, filled with useless things that I don’t want and, frankly, would rather donate to those who call themselves my enemies.
The anxiety is within me, unextractable, like some inoperable growth that I was born with but never really meant to have. It accompanies me faithfully in everything I do and it flares up, irritated, whenever it so chooses.
But in 2013, I developed my own personal remedy for these flares. I may not be able to remove the source, but I can sure as hell address the symptoms.
By this point, I was happier than I had been in years. I had overcome the depression that ensued after my two-time dropout experience and I was thrilled to finally begin my studies in Creative Writing. For the first time in a long time, I fit. I belonged there. The anxiety room grew dusty, lying dormant as I became more myself than I had ever been before.
And then, the reality of completing a one-year course came harshly into focus: I was finally happy. I had finally found my place. I finally felt as though I could achieve something… but it would all be over soon. The days were numbered and the number was small, shrinking all the time.
Thankfully the depression didn’t manage to sink its sharp edges back into me, but instead I was pierced deeply and thoroughly by depression’s protégé, anxiety.
I’d had panic attacks before and had come to recognise them as waking nightmares; horrific but infrequent and with abrupt endings, after which life would go on as usual. A brief stroll through hell, if you will. That year, though, the attacks really gained some momentum.
The first one hit in the college canteen. It was big and messy and unexpected. The canteen was cleared, the nurse was called… the canteen staff gave me free tea which was loaded with about ten sugars, a pitiful consolation prize.
The second one hit as I sat outside one of the classrooms waiting for our lecturer to arrive, and after that they all blur together. My mental log was no match for their persistence and frequency. I didn’t need the exact numbers and stats to know that my panic was absolutely battering me. I was being bullied by my own anxiety.
But then, one night, I remembered something: I can’t stand bullies. So this one, this internal bully of mine, had to be challenged.
That was the night that I began my Positive Thoughts Book.
I didn’t know what I was doing at first; I had no set plans for the pocket-sized polka-dot notebook that had been sitting, blank, in my bedroom since my September birthday. I just started writing.
The first page became a letter of complaint directed at one of our most universally-loathed lecturers. He was one of those people whose names you can’t really say without it seeming like a curse word, mostly because of the grimace you wear as you say it.
Once the letter was written I lit up a cigarette which I had stolen from a friend (a vain attempt to protect his lungs) and I burned the page, one cigarette-stain at a time. It seemed fitting, because the cigarette disgusted me just as much as the person at whom the letter was directed.
The idea was that I would let go of all that negativity with the destruction of the letter. My new coping method was developing.
Overnight, the purpose of the book had evolved. The next day my friends were all taking turns to fill up its pages with kind messages and promises of lasting friendship. So, suddenly, the book was no longer about expelling negativity; it was about recording moments of positivity.
I began to carry it with me everywhere, always ready to record a happy thought, a witty observation or an inside joke, and before long the pages were brimming with funny memories, diary entries, doodles, games, autographs and inspirational quotes, each and every page laced with positive associations.
In keeping the book on my person at all times, I was also constantly armed for the moments when my panic would attempt to launch a sneak attack. The book had become a piece of evidence attesting to every wonderful part of my life, and every single happy moment that I collected acted as a weapon in my recurring battle with anxiety.
This was my investment in my mental health; a little message from me at my best to me at my worst; a message to say “Hey, look at all this good stuff that’s happened so far. Imagine what’s left to come if you just keep going.”
Sometimes it can be hard to believe someone when they tell you that you’re fine and that things will get better. After all, how the hell would they know? But I can trust myself. So the message, this book, holds a lot of weight in those just-want-to-run-away-and-hide moments. It’s what keeps me going.
The anxiety may be within me, unextractable, but I have learned that it is not uncontrollable.
To anyone out there with their own roomful’s worth of anxiety, anyone looking to exorcise their panic, I encourage you to explore this method of logging your best moments. Maybe not in a book; maybe in videos or photographs or drawings, maybe as lyrics to a song, maybe as post-it notes scattered around your room.
Whatever works for you, I encourage you to find it and use it to your advantage. These thoughts will become your allies and your weapons.
So arm yourself. And when panic attacks, fight back.