Inside Pandora’s Box

I didn’t used to have anxiety, so talking about it now, just six months after my first panic attack ever, makes me feel like a bit of a poseur. Who am I to talk about something I have only known for six months when others have dealt with it for a lifetime – when others need a pill just to get out of bed in the morning – when others suffer daily the racing heart, tremors, and nausea that strike me only in waves?

Anxiety snuck up on me. Until this year, I would have said I was “intense,” “high-strung,” or “stressed out,” never “anxious.” I would have chalked it up to being an empath and a perfectionist; I take everything too seriously and feel everything too deeply.

But maybe that was the kernel of it. Maybe anxiety was always there, masquerading as righteous doubts and frustrations. Maybe I was drowning it out at concerts, smothering it with romantic affection, or speeding just out of its reach on a snowboard. Maybe I was giving it chase between the lines of my favorite books. Maybe I was dressing it up in new clothes, new glasses, pink hair and purple Chucks to make myself look – and feel – brighter.

Because I needed that brightness, however superficial. Because I was always afraid of the dark, and I could not accept that the dark was inside me. I would not allow it to be inside me.

But, maybe, it was.

In those days I had the leverage to pack it down, to shut the box and sit on the lid, fingers clutching at latches to lock it all away. What changed? Was it simply the combination of too many pressures, peeling Pandora’s fingers from the box one by one? Life is a lot, after all, and I only have ten fingers.


[Photo credit: F.S. Church]

Whatever the cause, anxiety is here now. I’ve grown familiar with the vacuum that forms behind my brow before a panic attack. I recognize the way my shoulders curl in as if to shield my heart from what’s coming, the way my fingers grasp and clench – like if I hold rationality tight enough, it won’t get away from me this time. I have learned to remind myself not to hold my breath. But when tears burn hot on my eyes and demand to be let out, I don’t know how to stop it.

Do I “have anxiety,” or am I still just “stressed?” Can I count myself “one of them” when I am still (usually) getting out of bed and still (usually) eating okay and still (always, somehow) producing a newspaper at work every single week? I don’t look like “one of them,” so maybe my experience is less valid than theirs.

I have to shake that mentality. If it feels valid, then it is valid.

I never could do anything the way other people did it. I didn’t get acne as a teenager; I got it in my twenties. At twenty, I was the last of my friends to experiment with alcohol. When I graduated college, I still thought sex was “icky.” And at twenty-six, while some of my peers are popping out second and third children, I am still not even engaged.

It doesn’t negate the experience that it happened to me later or differently from how it happened to them. My acne is my acne, my sex is my sex, and my anxiety is my anxiety… complete with the appearance that I am confident and thriving in a life that actually feels like quicksand.

Here’s the funny thing about quicksand, which the movies never tell you: humans can float on it, if they lie on their back instead of standing. And people do this all the time with life. Everyone has stressors – expensive rent, healthcare, or car repairs; conflict with spouses, roommates, or friends; jobs or families that take too much, paychecks or partners that give too little. It’s not that floating people aren’t bothered by those things, but they don’t get sucked under by them, either.

People who “have anxiety” get sucked under. And I am, at least for now, “one of them.” This experience is valid.

The good news is, even though I’m not floating now, I still can. Quicksand will never suck you all the way under – that’s not how buoyancy works. Quicksand cannot, will not kill you.

So how do you get out?

For starters, don’t do things that make you more stuck. They say you shouldn’t flail around; it will only make you sink faster. I have burnt myself out trying frantically to act like everything is fine.

Last fall, I started a side career shortly after getting hired for my first full-time job; I dove into National Novel Writing Month; I could not stand a Saturday without social plans. And then I crashed. I thought I was coping by keeping busy, but I was just getting myself more stuck.

They also say that you shouldn’t have your friends try to pull you out of quicksand. Pull too hard, and they’ll sooner tear you in half than save you. That’s kind of how it feels when a friend who doesn’t have anxiety tells me to “just breathe” or rattles off my achievements to stop me from feeling like a failure.

Those friends mean well, but here’s they don’t understand: anxiety doesn’t answer to rationale. Rationale can actually make it worse. Rationale suggests that I have no right to feel the way I do, and I should be able to fight it. Then the guilt kicks in. Why can’t I fight it?

The fact that I “shouldn’t” feel this way doesn’t change the reality that I do. If you want to help, please, don’t try to talk me out of a panic attack.

Instead, feel free to say vaguely comforting things like “it’ll be okay” or “you can get through this.” Take me into another room, or outside. Bring me some water if it’s hot out, or herbal tea if it’s cold. Definitely find some tissues because I will feel awful if I get snot all over my clothes or yours. Bad jokes can help – the worse the pun, the better I’ll feel. But finally, understand that your company may be the best thing you can give me. I know you want to, but you cannot pull me out of the quicksand.

No, to escape quicksand, a person must save herself. She must make slow, calculated moves. Start with the legs. Wriggle around to loosen the sand. It will take time and work, but eventually she’ll be free.

That’s why I’m writing this. This is me, wriggling my legs first, trying to take one small step in the right direction. I had to commit to writing something that wasn’t for the newspaper. Maybe, soon, I’ll be able to look at my novel again without feeling the vacuum form behind my brow. I can already feel the sand starting to loosen, and I will continue to fight.

Take that, quicksand. You suck.


This post originally appeared on the Odyssey Online.


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