Out With the Old Anxiety

(Originally published in the NY Times)

Middle age arrives not with a birthday, with 48 candles on an angel food cake, but with a sudden unbidden insight in the middle of a sleepless night. You roll over and eye the clock and see all at once that the phrase “anything is possible” is not true. That is, it is no longer true for you, if it ever was. You are not going to become a doctor, or run a marathon or have a baby or sail around the world on a solo voyage documented by National Geographic. You simply haven’t the time, the feet, the eggs, or possibly even the desire required to mount such elaborate dream sequences.

In a way, this comes as a relief. When possibilities stop being endless, you can narrow the choices. Indeed, you can make hard choices, without resorting to dreams, without relying on maps, without abandoning duty. Is that not what wisdom is? Knowing when to unload what one will not need or use before approaching the next bridge.

A few years ago, I made a list of things I had long wanted to do but hadn’t yet. Not exactly a bucket list, but yes, the same idea. I took up boxing. I started taking photographs. I got a tattoo — and then another, and another, and another, enough ink, in fact, for a whole slew of lists. I did some traveling. I tried a few things I’ll refrain from mentioning. Finally, I moved to New York, something I had wanted to do since I was a kid. With that, the to-do list was nearly completed.

Illustration: Guido Scarabottolo
Illustration: Guido Scarabottolo

Now, safely on the other side of 50, it seems a good time to revisit it. I could add to the list, make it 50 items long. Someone told me recently about visiting Hungary, and I felt a kind of ravenous desire, almost erotic, to get on a plane and visit. But within days the feeling passed, as desires often do, and I thought, if I should die tomorrow without seeing Hungary, so be it.

My aim instead is to reduce the list to just one item. I want to set myself a major challenge as I face my last quarter-century. And here it is: to be rid of my most marked trait, extreme anxiety. It has served its purpose, right there when I needed to be extra cautious, say, or to worry about a person I loved. But more often anxiety has caused needless worrying, even suffering, and I am done. Anxiety, I am bringing our relationship to an end.

I know it is not as easy as just saying so. Anxiety is like a virus that lodges for life on sections of nerve fiber innervating the skin. Perfectionism is its perfect host. You must hit the home run or not play at all. You must answer every question correctly. Deliver the speech flawlessly. Execute the business plan exactly. Perform in bed spectacularly. Sleep eight hours without waking. Anything less, less than perfect, and you risk a meltdown — the shakes, the dry mouth, the ruminations that become recriminations that become insomnia.

I once had a brief affair, and only long after it was over did I realize that I had been so filled with anxiety that I didn’t have the good sense to enjoy it for what it was: a harmless fling. Likewise with some professional opportunities that have come my way. I was once invited to be a guest on a major national radio show, the show that every author would want to be on. But I was so anxious the night before that I didn’t sleep and I was such a nervous wreck during the interview that my voice shook and I could barely answer questions. Fortunately, the interview wasn’t aired, which unfortunately caused an anxiety hangover that lingered for years.

Over-worrying has always been my default mode, but I didn’t have my first full-scale anxiety attack until five years ago, shortly after my longtime partner died: racing heart, vertigo, knees buckling, drenched in sweat. It was not pleasant. In fact, it gave me a glimpse of what it might be like to have a nervous breakdown. The sensation was not of falling apart but of flying apart, as if sucked into the eye of an unseen tornado. You are surprised to find you survive it.

But you do. And in this is a valuable lesson. Rack up enough episodes; learn to manage them; and you see a pattern emerge: Anxiety itself is not going to kill you, any more than a sleepless night does. But it makes life so much less enjoyable. The things that do kill you are far less ambiguous, like brain tumors, heart attacks, Alzheimer’s, suicide, car accidents. You see these take friends and family members and gradually, almost without noticing, you find yourself worrying far less about things going perfectly, or about minor mistakes in your wake. You cut yourself some slack. You are glad to be still going.

The flip side of anxiety is excitement: both are fueled by the same neurotransmitter. One can therefore choose to view anxiety as positive rather than destructive. In this, I take a cue from the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. In his autobiography, “The Magic Lantern,” he wrote that depression per se was not his thing (as one might expect) but instead it was anxiety. He called it “my life’s most faithful companion, inherited from both my mother and my father, placed in the very center of my identity, my demon but also my friend spurring me on.”

Anxiety and I are not on quite such good terms yet. What Bergman called a friend, I am currently calling my ex. Still, I recognize that we must coexist. And if this is so, I expect something in return; it shall serve as my most effective motivator — the sense of aliveness that gets me out of bed, to my desk, anxious to work. Indeed, without some anxiety, I would not be here right now, typing furiously, searching for the perfect words to describe it.

Ultimately, I have had enough experience with anxiety to sense when it may turn destructive. My strategy is to call it out when it surfaces. As it starts to crest into a wave that threatens to turn tidal and take me under, I take a step back on an imagined beach: “Hey! You!” I silently yell. “I see you coming.” I take a deep breath. I stand my ground. The acid-green water begins to still, the swirling winds die down. Something lifts. I dive in soundlessly and swim.

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