Anxiety: A Driving Force That Compels and Obstructs

I was nine years old when I first realized I was going to Hell. The day began unremarkably; my two younger sisters and I went swimming in our pool, and this particular morning, I was the only one too lazy to grab a towel on my way outside. Much to my parents’ exasperation, I needed constant reminders to plan ahead.

It wasn’t like I was a slob because I wasn’t opposed to cleaning up my messes; I was just more likely to be the kid who didn’t show up with the one crucial thing they needed for whatever serious pursuits fourth graders undertake. My lack of preparedness was less of an issue during summer break, but without the routine schedule provided by school (even if it was a torturous one), what precious few organizational skills I possessed flew out the window.

That July afternoon, I saw my mother coming with lunch. Pushing past my sisters, I jettisoned out of the shallow end and stole one of their towels. Greedily snatching as much food as I could, I plopped myself down on the lawn triumphantly. “You snooze you lose!” I howled, as my youngest sister began to wail in protest—last one in the pool was a rotten egg, after all. “Really, Emma?” My mother’s incredulous glare stung ice-cold as she hightailed back inside to get Rosie a towel. It had been a long summer of me pulling various—relatively harmless, but cumulatively annoying—stunts like this.

Ultimately, I was becoming a royal pain in the ass (unintentionally) by the time the towel incident took place.

Like a beachgoer with their back turned blissfully unaware toward the ocean, I had a feeling stronger and more terrifying than any undertow suddenly sweeping over me. I felt it in my gut, and I felt it in my throat. I couldn’t breathe. This must be what it felt like to get sucked out to sea―everything is fine until it’s not. Life changes in a second, and the minutes continue to tick by, indifferent to the ebb and flow of time.  

I tried to breathe slowly as a terrifying thought crashed into the forefront of my consciousness: “You’re going to Hell!” I felt like I was going to vomit. I watched as my arms offered Rosie her towel back, and I felt disconnected as if someone else had taken over my body. As I looked down at the alien limb extending toward my younger sister, I saw that my hands were quivering. All I could feel through the daze was my heartbeat racing so rapidly that I could feel my pulse trembling throughout my whole body. I was sweaty and suddenly breathing like I’d just run the mile test in PE.

As my sisters returned to the pool, I sat dripping and shivering next to my uneaten food, refusing the extra towel my mother had brought outside. I told myself that to avoid going to Hell, I had to be quiet until the sun’s rays dried me. I had apologized, and that was good. But I was still bad, very bad, which I noted, feeling a certainty about my “badness” that I never had before.  

Shortly before sunset, I heard my father pull into the driveway. I loved the purr of his car’s engine, and I listened for it early every morning because that’s how I knew he was heading to work. My sisters and I knew that by early evening, we’d hear him jokingly rev the engine as he turned the corner toward our house. “Daddy, you’re home!” we shrieked, jostling past each other as he tried to walk through the front door, each wanting to be first to wrap him in a bear hug.

My father was my protector. After all, he was there for me when kids at school bullied me, when my mother got angry at me for what felt like me just being me, and when my sisters decided our games were more fun with an even number of participants, which didn’t include their neurotic (my dad was nice and rephrased it “enthusiastic”) big sister.

I felt sick to my stomach at school a lot, and I was frequently sent to the nurse’s office to lay down. The dull ache in my stomach felt real to me, but I’d noticed it flared up before things I found extremely stressful, such as being paired against my classmate who’d skipped a grade (and was, therefore, a genius) to do as many math problems as we could in a minute on the board in front of the entire class. Or, during recess, after my disastrous performance at the whiteboard, when Hayley, the class bully, screamed in her best attempt at Forrest Gump’s drawl, “Stupid is as stupid does, and boy is you dumb!”

Nausea felt real to me, and it was, but it was caused by how I felt emotionally. I worried that if I told any adults what was going on inside my head, they’d think I was even more abnormal than I already was, and it would just be another thing I’d end up getting bullied over.

My father was attuned. Telling him about my day, reading together, and just hanging out before dinner with him was the highlight of my day. He was able to sense when things were “off,” even when I denied it. He also knew when to back off, while my mother’s go-to tactic was to scream in my face and say, “Tell me what’s wrong. You HAVE to tell me; I’m your mother!” I’d stand there crying, but I was silently defiant. In my eyes, I didn’t have to tell anyone anything. Most importantly, when I did trust my dad enough to let him in, he didn’t tell other people what I’d told him.

Our mutual respect allowed me to share my hatred and dread about things such as rocket math. The words I heard back were a comforting message that I didn’t often receive: “Me too. You’re not alone.” My dad frequently told me about all the hard and scary things he felt when he was a kid. He thought he was crazy, but I knew he wasn’t.

That afternoon, when my dad got home from work and saw me sitting, dripping cold and wet, holding my legs in a vaguely fetal-like position almost cradling myself he exclaimed,“Em-bo, how goes it?” in a light and casual manner, but his eyes gave away his concern. This was far beyond rocket math anxiety or bullies. I had just realized that I was going to Hell, despite the fact that I was raised by an atheist and a non-practicing Presbyterian and never actually set foot in a church.

This was a whole different level of weird, even for me, and I didn’t want to risk hurting the one person I loved most by breaking the unfortunate news that I’d lost my mind. How could anyone normal have felt what I’d just felt, which I later realized was my first panic attack? Knowing I was as defective as the bullies at school said (I guess, somehow, they’d just sensed it) would only hurt him. I hated disappointing my father; I couldn’t tell him. This is dramatic and stupid, be quiet! Stop it. I thought to myself.

Ultimately,  however, angrily acknowledging that as I sat on the lawn in silence, terrified internally, I felt certain that I was going to die. I didn’t want to die, and I really didn’t want to go to Hell.

That said, it’s important to note that feeling afraid of dying or thinking you’re dying is a common occurrence during panic attacks. It happens with such frequency that it’s listed as one of the main symptoms, so in a way, it’s “normal” within this “abnormal” emotional experience. As a nine-year-old with no access to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), and an unwillingness to admit my “insanity,” I had no idea what was going on emotionally—let alone what was “normal” to feel during a panic attack.

In the midst of my inner panic, I made a deal with myself. I had apologized to Rosie, I didn’t eat the food she should have gotten, and I refused the towel my mother tried to give me. That was good; it meant I could “make up for it.” But, I also had to sit in total silence. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about the bully in my head—just like at school. I needed to be quiet because talking would only make it worse. Somehow, I had managed to sit in silence for the entire afternoon and used that time to reflect upon how I was “bad.”

My attempt at repenting was ruined by my father’s question. I felt stuck. I knew if I ignored him, he’d repeat himself and possibly begin to really worry. So I squeaked, “It goes, Dad.” I knew that since I spoke I was in trouble. The feeling of sudden terror I’d felt earlier was horrible, but in a way, the dread I felt about the possibility of it happening again was just as bad as the panic attack itself.

From that afternoon forward, I was always waiting and felt on edge. I began to apply a sort of “magical” thinking to control situations and emotions (like anxiety) that felt uncontrollable. It continues to this day: If I never drive down that street again then that thing can never happen to me again, or If I hadn’t been in that building, which is on that street, then that wouldn’t have happened.

I understand that avoiding driving down a specific street simply moves me from point A to point B by a different route. But the alternative, which is a reality, is that when I had no control I felt paralyzed. In the natural world, things often occur without any underlying reasons. But accepting random events means bad things could happen to me again, and I can’t survive that. I won’t allow it.

My failure to stay silent when my father asked me a benign question led to a chain of irrational behaviors on my part, each aimed at causing or avoiding seemingly inevitable events or outcomes. For a nine-year-old, this was a logical way to “make things better,” with the bonus of being unperceivable to others around me.

As I grew older, my bizarre rituals were a topic of discussion amongst family and friends, but they were typically dismissed as “quirks” because many of the things I did were long-standing patterns of behavior.

I was obviously insane, but I wasn’t crazy enough to tell anyone about the magical thinking. After all, I didn’t want to “out” myself and get sent away. To where? I don’t know, but that was the central fear: to be sent to a place where I wouldn’t have control, which would be a version of Hell for me. Ironically, it probably would have been far less uncomfortable than the world I lived in at the time.

For much of my life, my behavior and actions felt like a sham. Probably because they were. The only thing worse than being crazy and having no one know would be having people know and avoiding me for it. I’d rather feel like this in silence than have others know and feel uncomfortable around me. So I behaved how I felt I “should,” but even then, it was a bit…different.

For example, I didn’t just want to get all A’s; I had to, or else my mom or dad would get into a car accident on the way to work and die, and it would be my fault. So, of course, when I failed at my rituals, which aligned with my element of magical thinking, and failed to achieve the outcome of success, I was devastated.

On the outside, I looked like a control freak who couldn’t handle not getting what she wanted. I was “Type A”: a rule and goal-oriented individual. Even when the rituals failed, which they always did, I kept engaging. The number of times I’ve felt certain (though I know this is a logical fallacy) that my behavior has causal power over unrelated outcomes is unquantifiable. This coping mechanism is maladjusted, but it also provides a feeling of safety and sense of control, which makes the things I can’t yet talk about feel manageable.

The fear that I feel when I “fail” to engage properly with whatever I’m supposed to do is instantaneous and runs deep. Most often, my anxiety about failure presents itself as anger, and I quickly become terse with others around me. When I snap the way I’ve been known to do, I appear unhinged, and I get it. How can anyone understand what’s going on without knowing about the invisible battle I wage?

Wrestling with the cognitive dissonance, which is included—free of charge—as part of a package deal with my brain, is exhausting. And when I hurt people and push them away, I hurt too—though they don’t know it. I wish I could tell the truth: “I’m just angry at myself and, therefore, snapping at you because something awful is going to happen based on actions that have no causal effect whatsoever.” Yeah, let’s see how that goes down.

Friends accept my foundational cracks. They think I’m just angry, uptight, and type-A, and I let them. Anxiety isolated me, and at times, it still does. The process of attempting to understand and come to grips with it has taken years, and I’m still not “cured.” This will be a lifelong process.  

For now, I figure it’s better to have fractured friendships than none at all. Most friendships and relationships are built on this unstable foundation of dishonesty (out of shame) on my part.

Anxiety is strange. I often feel paralyzed by thoughts, which aren’t logical, and yet, on the other hand, I manage to compartmentalize some questionable moral choices. Though I feel intense guilt, I also don’t mind it enough to change my behavior.

Sometimes, I wonder if my brain’s overreaction to fear, guilt, and shame has also created apathy toward the things I feared the most as a child. I don’t mean that I get to run around doing whatever I want to people; I think there are certain things you can feel terrible about, or “repent” for in whatever way you choose, but still feel, deep-down, as if there’s no hope at whatever version of salvation you do or don’t believe in. Yes, I feel terrible, and yes, I can do all sorts of things to try and be “better.” I believe Heaven and Hell exist here on earth, and I’ve lived in both of them.

I’m no longer terrified of going to Hell the way I was at nine-years-old. Commit a mortal sin or two, and maybe you’ll feel the same way. If you’re damned, there’s not much use in worrying about it. Of course, fire, eternal suffering, demons, and whatever else you may find down there sound scary.

Know who else you’d find down there? People like me. People who’ve lived with shame, pain, guilt, and fear, and people who’ve suffered in silence. Maybe Hell is actually just what I need—a support group for the most unlikeable people you know, deserving of scorn and scrutiny. At least there, we could talk without the fear of judgment or the “I’m so sorry, but I can’t handle this. You deserve to talk to someone who can.”

4 followers

Flexibly analytical. A paradox, but that's me. With an insatiable appetite for research and an equally deep yearning for connection through artistic expression, I'm frequently pulled in opposing directions. In an attempt to integrate both sides of my personality, I write. I explore topics​ others often​ ​find uncomfortable, those moments in life when we're expected to look or “move on from,” without pause. But sometimes we can’t, or we won’t. So let's not, let's talk.

Want to start sharing your mind and have your voice heard?

Join our community of awesome contributing writers and start publishing now.

LEARN MORE


ENGAGE IN THE CONVERSATION

Anxiety: A Driving Force That Compels and Obstructs

I was nine years old when I first realized I was going to Hell. The day began unremarkably; my two younger sisters and I went swimming in our pool, and this particular morning, I was the only one too lazy to grab a towel on my way outside. Much to my parents’ exasperation, I needed constant reminders to plan ahead.

It wasn’t like I was a slob because I wasn’t opposed to cleaning up my messes; I was just more likely to be the kid who didn’t show up with the one crucial thing they needed for whatever serious pursuits fourth graders undertake. My lack of preparedness was less of an issue during summer break, but without the routine schedule provided by school (even if it was a torturous one), what precious few organizational skills I possessed flew out the window.

That July afternoon, I saw my mother coming with lunch. Pushing past my sisters, I jettisoned out of the shallow end and stole one of their towels. Greedily snatching as much food as I could, I plopped myself down on the lawn triumphantly. “You snooze you lose!” I howled, as my youngest sister began to wail in protest—last one in the pool was a rotten egg, after all. “Really, Emma?” My mother’s incredulous glare stung ice-cold as she hightailed back inside to get Rosie a towel. It had been a long summer of me pulling various—relatively harmless, but cumulatively annoying—stunts like this.

Ultimately, I was becoming a royal pain in the ass (unintentionally) by the time the towel incident took place.

Like a beachgoer with their back turned blissfully unaware toward the ocean, I had a feeling stronger and more terrifying than any undertow suddenly sweeping over me. I felt it in my gut, and I felt it in my throat. I couldn’t breathe. This must be what it felt like to get sucked out to sea―everything is fine until it’s not. Life changes in a second, and the minutes continue to tick by, indifferent to the ebb and flow of time.  

I tried to breathe slowly as a terrifying thought crashed into the forefront of my consciousness: “You’re going to Hell!” I felt like I was going to vomit. I watched as my arms offered Rosie her towel back, and I felt disconnected as if someone else had taken over my body. As I looked down at the alien limb extending toward my younger sister, I saw that my hands were quivering. All I could feel through the daze was my heartbeat racing so rapidly that I could feel my pulse trembling throughout my whole body. I was sweaty and suddenly breathing like I’d just run the mile test in PE.

As my sisters returned to the pool, I sat dripping and shivering next to my uneaten food, refusing the extra towel my mother had brought outside. I told myself that to avoid going to Hell, I had to be quiet until the sun’s rays dried me. I had apologized, and that was good. But I was still bad, very bad, which I noted, feeling a certainty about my “badness” that I never had before.  

Shortly before sunset, I heard my father pull into the driveway. I loved the purr of his car’s engine, and I listened for it early every morning because that’s how I knew he was heading to work. My sisters and I knew that by early evening, we’d hear him jokingly rev the engine as he turned the corner toward our house. “Daddy, you’re home!” we shrieked, jostling past each other as he tried to walk through the front door, each wanting to be first to wrap him in a bear hug.

My father was my protector. After all, he was there for me when kids at school bullied me, when my mother got angry at me for what felt like me just being me, and when my sisters decided our games were more fun with an even number of participants, which didn’t include their neurotic (my dad was nice and rephrased it “enthusiastic”) big sister.

I felt sick to my stomach at school a lot, and I was frequently sent to the nurse’s office to lay down. The dull ache in my stomach felt real to me, but I’d noticed it flared up before things I found extremely stressful, such as being paired against my classmate who’d skipped a grade (and was, therefore, a genius) to do as many math problems as we could in a minute on the board in front of the entire class. Or, during recess, after my disastrous performance at the whiteboard, when Hayley, the class bully, screamed in her best attempt at Forrest Gump’s drawl, “Stupid is as stupid does, and boy is you dumb!”

Nausea felt real to me, and it was, but it was caused by how I felt emotionally. I worried that if I told any adults what was going on inside my head, they’d think I was even more abnormal than I already was, and it would just be another thing I’d end up getting bullied over.

My father was attuned. Telling him about my day, reading together, and just hanging out before dinner with him was the highlight of my day. He was able to sense when things were “off,” even when I denied it. He also knew when to back off, while my mother’s go-to tactic was to scream in my face and say, “Tell me what’s wrong. You HAVE to tell me; I’m your mother!” I’d stand there crying, but I was silently defiant. In my eyes, I didn’t have to tell anyone anything. Most importantly, when I did trust my dad enough to let him in, he didn’t tell other people what I’d told him.

Our mutual respect allowed me to share my hatred and dread about things such as rocket math. The words I heard back were a comforting message that I didn’t often receive: “Me too. You’re not alone.” My dad frequently told me about all the hard and scary things he felt when he was a kid. He thought he was crazy, but I knew he wasn’t.

That afternoon, when my dad got home from work and saw me sitting, dripping cold and wet, holding my legs in a vaguely fetal-like position almost cradling myself he exclaimed,“Em-bo, how goes it?” in a light and casual manner, but his eyes gave away his concern. This was far beyond rocket math anxiety or bullies. I had just realized that I was going to Hell, despite the fact that I was raised by an atheist and a non-practicing Presbyterian and never actually set foot in a church.

This was a whole different level of weird, even for me, and I didn’t want to risk hurting the one person I loved most by breaking the unfortunate news that I’d lost my mind. How could anyone normal have felt what I’d just felt, which I later realized was my first panic attack? Knowing I was as defective as the bullies at school said (I guess, somehow, they’d just sensed it) would only hurt him. I hated disappointing my father; I couldn’t tell him. This is dramatic and stupid, be quiet! Stop it. I thought to myself.

Ultimately,  however, angrily acknowledging that as I sat on the lawn in silence, terrified internally, I felt certain that I was going to die. I didn’t want to die, and I really didn’t want to go to Hell.

That said, it’s important to note that feeling afraid of dying or thinking you’re dying is a common occurrence during panic attacks. It happens with such frequency that it’s listed as one of the main symptoms, so in a way, it’s “normal” within this “abnormal” emotional experience. As a nine-year-old with no access to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), and an unwillingness to admit my “insanity,” I had no idea what was going on emotionally—let alone what was “normal” to feel during a panic attack.

In the midst of my inner panic, I made a deal with myself. I had apologized to Rosie, I didn’t eat the food she should have gotten, and I refused the towel my mother tried to give me. That was good; it meant I could “make up for it.” But, I also had to sit in total silence. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about the bully in my head—just like at school. I needed to be quiet because talking would only make it worse. Somehow, I had managed to sit in silence for the entire afternoon and used that time to reflect upon how I was “bad.”

My attempt at repenting was ruined by my father’s question. I felt stuck. I knew if I ignored him, he’d repeat himself and possibly begin to really worry. So I squeaked, “It goes, Dad.” I knew that since I spoke I was in trouble. The feeling of sudden terror I’d felt earlier was horrible, but in a way, the dread I felt about the possibility of it happening again was just as bad as the panic attack itself.

From that afternoon forward, I was always waiting and felt on edge. I began to apply a sort of “magical” thinking to control situations and emotions (like anxiety) that felt uncontrollable. It continues to this day: If I never drive down that street again then that thing can never happen to me again, or If I hadn’t been in that building, which is on that street, then that wouldn’t have happened.

I understand that avoiding driving down a specific street simply moves me from point A to point B by a different route. But the alternative, which is a reality, is that when I had no control I felt paralyzed. In the natural world, things often occur without any underlying reasons. But accepting random events means bad things could happen to me again, and I can’t survive that. I won’t allow it.

My failure to stay silent when my father asked me a benign question led to a chain of irrational behaviors on my part, each aimed at causing or avoiding seemingly inevitable events or outcomes. For a nine-year-old, this was a logical way to “make things better,” with the bonus of being unperceivable to others around me.

As I grew older, my bizarre rituals were a topic of discussion amongst family and friends, but they were typically dismissed as “quirks” because many of the things I did were long-standing patterns of behavior.

I was obviously insane, but I wasn’t crazy enough to tell anyone about the magical thinking. After all, I didn’t want to “out” myself and get sent away. To where? I don’t know, but that was the central fear: to be sent to a place where I wouldn’t have control, which would be a version of Hell for me. Ironically, it probably would have been far less uncomfortable than the world I lived in at the time.

For much of my life, my behavior and actions felt like a sham. Probably because they were. The only thing worse than being crazy and having no one know would be having people know and avoiding me for it. I’d rather feel like this in silence than have others know and feel uncomfortable around me. So I behaved how I felt I “should,” but even then, it was a bit…different.

For example, I didn’t just want to get all A’s; I had to, or else my mom or dad would get into a car accident on the way to work and die, and it would be my fault. So, of course, when I failed at my rituals, which aligned with my element of magical thinking, and failed to achieve the outcome of success, I was devastated.

On the outside, I looked like a control freak who couldn’t handle not getting what she wanted. I was “Type A”: a rule and goal-oriented individual. Even when the rituals failed, which they always did, I kept engaging. The number of times I’ve felt certain (though I know this is a logical fallacy) that my behavior has causal power over unrelated outcomes is unquantifiable. This coping mechanism is maladjusted, but it also provides a feeling of safety and sense of control, which makes the things I can’t yet talk about feel manageable.

The fear that I feel when I “fail” to engage properly with whatever I’m supposed to do is instantaneous and runs deep. Most often, my anxiety about failure presents itself as anger, and I quickly become terse with others around me. When I snap the way I’ve been known to do, I appear unhinged, and I get it. How can anyone understand what’s going on without knowing about the invisible battle I wage?

Wrestling with the cognitive dissonance, which is included—free of charge—as part of a package deal with my brain, is exhausting. And when I hurt people and push them away, I hurt too—though they don’t know it. I wish I could tell the truth: “I’m just angry at myself and, therefore, snapping at you because something awful is going to happen based on actions that have no causal effect whatsoever.” Yeah, let’s see how that goes down.

Friends accept my foundational cracks. They think I’m just angry, uptight, and type-A, and I let them. Anxiety isolated me, and at times, it still does. The process of attempting to understand and come to grips with it has taken years, and I’m still not “cured.” This will be a lifelong process.  

For now, I figure it’s better to have fractured friendships than none at all. Most friendships and relationships are built on this unstable foundation of dishonesty (out of shame) on my part.

Anxiety is strange. I often feel paralyzed by thoughts, which aren’t logical, and yet, on the other hand, I manage to compartmentalize some questionable moral choices. Though I feel intense guilt, I also don’t mind it enough to change my behavior.

Sometimes, I wonder if my brain’s overreaction to fear, guilt, and shame has also created apathy toward the things I feared the most as a child. I don’t mean that I get to run around doing whatever I want to people; I think there are certain things you can feel terrible about, or “repent” for in whatever way you choose, but still feel, deep-down, as if there’s no hope at whatever version of salvation you do or don’t believe in. Yes, I feel terrible, and yes, I can do all sorts of things to try and be “better.” I believe Heaven and Hell exist here on earth, and I’ve lived in both of them.

I’m no longer terrified of going to Hell the way I was at nine-years-old. Commit a mortal sin or two, and maybe you’ll feel the same way. If you’re damned, there’s not much use in worrying about it. Of course, fire, eternal suffering, demons, and whatever else you may find down there sound scary.

Know who else you’d find down there? People like me. People who’ve lived with shame, pain, guilt, and fear, and people who’ve suffered in silence. Maybe Hell is actually just what I need—a support group for the most unlikeable people you know, deserving of scorn and scrutiny. At least there, we could talk without the fear of judgment or the “I’m so sorry, but I can’t handle this. You deserve to talk to someone who can.”

Scroll to top

Follow Us on Facebook - Stay Engaged!

Send this to a friend