If You’re Anxious And You Know It

July 6, 2017 | By | 1 Reply More
Being a writer is nerve-wracking for everybody. Self-doubt, uncertainty, writer’s block, nerves–it all kind of comes with the territory. Right? Well, while everyone feels these things sometimes, or to some degree, a lucky group of us feels it all the time. That’s the difference between what I call lower-case anxiety (as in a commonplace feeling of worry, concern, unease, apprehension, disquietude–yup, somebody consulted a thesaurus) and Anxiety™.

Lower-case anxiety makes your hands shake a little when you click send on an email submission to your editor. Anxiety™ makes you go back to your Sent box three times to check if it really sent, including once from a computer at the library in case yours has a weird, spontaneous glitch that causes it to make emails appear as though they sent when they really didn’t.

Lower-case anxiety leaves you nervous before you speak to a group. Anxiety™ convinces you to think about it once an hour for the two months leading up to it, alternating with frantic bouts of googling how much it costs to hire a stunt double for a 10-minute speaking engagement.

A little bit of lower-case anxiety is fine, manageable, okay, no big deal.

But when you’re in the throes of Anxiety™, it feels really, really not okay.

I’ve always been an anxious person but I didn’t realize just how anxious I was until about two years ago. I was at a doctor’s office for a physical and the doctor said something that doctors have been telling me my whole life, which was, “Your heart rate is really high.” I waved her off and said what I always said, which was, “Yeah, it’s just because I’m nervous.”

We went back and forth about this for a while, me insisting I was just “nervous,” and her insisting on “an EKG.” Except not in quotes. Because I was “nervous,” she thought there was something the matter with my heart, which only made me more nervous. The writer in me appreciated the irony here. Eventually, I managed to calm myself down a little bit through some very controlled slow breathing, the nurse did the EKG, the doctor was satisfied that I was not actually having a cardiac event, and then she sat down with me and said, “Are you always like this?”

I was totally always like that. “No!” I said. “Doctors just make me so nervous.”

But as we talked, I allowed that other things made me nervous too. And that when I was nervous, my heart often raced. Not a little. A lot. But I was used to it. No big deal. I was a writer, a creative type. Sensitive. Misunderstood. Doesn’t all good art come from pain, or something?

Well, no.

It’s embarrassing how long it took me to learn that lesson–and that even if you’re used to something, it can still be a big deal. And I wasn’t without clues. There was the aforementioned string of doctors who commented on my heart rate (none of them cared enough to question my weak “I’m nervous!” defense, but to be fair I generally avoided doctors anyway). There was the time I spent seeing a therapist, who gave me plenty of coping strategies for dealing with the lower-case anxiety I admitted to feeling.

There were the friends who offered me reassurance and put up with me cancelling plans at the last minute because I just couldn’t deal. There was the sticky black panic that filled up my chest when I didn’t get a response to my text right away, when my car made a weird noise, when a person looked at me, when practically anything was out of my control.

There were all the hours I should’ve been writing stories, but instead spent composing long, ranty emails about my irrational fears, then deleting them without sending because I didn’t want to seem “crazy.” There were all the elaborate excuses I contemplated to avoid training classes or big meetings at my job (stunt-double, anyone?), the times I left a cart full of groceries at the check-out because I couldn’t talk to the cashier, the fact that I almost hyperventilated every time my agent called me.

That’s Anxiety™.

It had gotten worse over time–so much worse–but gradually. And like the frog in a pot on the stove, I just stayed there while the water went from room temperature to boiling. Part of it is how much I avoided looking inward. I looked outward instead–to others and their problems, to the characters I wrote. Part of it is we’re told to relax when we express feelings of anxiety. To get over it. To stop being dramatic. That we just need to face our fears and everything will be fine. Like we should be able to take control of what’s in our heads. After all, it’s our heads. Like it’s as simple as choosing not to be this way. And I think a part of me believed it, too. If five years of therapy and coping mechanisms galore couldn’t fix me, then maybe I couldn’t be fixed. Maybe I should just get over it.

I had a bit of an “a-ha” moment there in my fashionable paper gown at the doctor’s office last year: Of course it isn’t that simple.

Now, I take a tiny cream-colored pill every morning. I will probably never be a devil-may-care gal who adores attention. But that’s okay. I don’t need to be. My anxiety-meter is dialed down out of the danger zone and into a level that’s–for real this time–manageable.

With the release of my first novel in June, I had a party where I got up and read the first chapter of the book, and my knees or voice didn’t shake, and I didn’t fantasize about a stunt double even once. I’m not sure how I would’ve coped with all the considerable uncertainty that comes from being a debut writer if I still had the same level of Anxiety™ as I did two years ago–or if I would’ve been able to cope at all. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to enjoy it.

Of course there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health, no easy fix for anything. But if you’re also an anxious writer, know this: you definitely aren’t the only one.

Kristen Lepionka
Author of The Last Place You Look, out now from Minotaur Books

Nobody knows what happened to Sarah Cook. The beautiful blonde teenager disappeared fifteen years ago, the same night her parents were brutally murdered in their suburban Ohio home. Her boyfriend Brad Stockton―black and from the wrong side of the tracks―was convicted of the murders and is now on death row. Though he’s maintained his innocence all along, the clock is running out. His execution is only weeks away when his devoted sister insists she spied Sarah at an area gas station. Willing to try anything, she hires PI Roxane Weary to look at the case and see if she can locate Sarah.

Brad might be in a bad way, but private investigator Roxane Weary isn’t doing so hot herself. Still reeling from the recent death of her cop father in the line of duty, her main way of dealing with her grief has been working as little and drinking as much as possible. But Roxane finds herself drawn in to the story of Sarah’s vanishing act, especially when she links the disappearance to one of her father’s unsolved murder cases involving another teen girl.

The stakes get higher as Roxane discovers that the two girls may not be the only beautiful blonde teenagers who’ve turned up missing or dead. As her investigation gets darker and darker, Roxane will have to risk everything to find the truth. Lives depend on her cracking this case―hers included.

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Category: On Writing

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  1. Hyl says:

    Hi Kristen,

    I want to say, ‘it me’ to this essay.

    Congrats on getting any of it, anything at all, to manageable levels. It frees up a lot of time (not a joke).

    My personal story has been that over time (a long time), I have gradually done a couple things (besides meds). Worked my way thru the worst instances if it was something I really wanted (such as your reading in public), and two, gotten older and less likely to, you know, give a f******. I will read in public WITH my knees shaking.

    Cheers

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