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Silencing My Self-Critic: Adventures in Anxiety and Depression, Part 1

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I am my own worst enemy. I am my biggest critic. I am the biggest thing holding myself back. I'm plagued daily with feelings of inadequacy, and a panic that I'll never live up to impossible self-imposed standards. I am anxious. I am depressed. And, now, I realize this is okay. I can never separate myself from the hissing whispers that tell me that my life and work aren't good enough, and these voices have been with me as long as I can remember, even as a young child. It's important here to distinguish "voices" from a schizophrenic dialogue; it's not that I hear voices, but it's that my interior monologue is always active and saturated with doubt. It's the voice that sees a stunning movie or reads an explosive novel and says, "Yeah, that's great, but you'll never do that." This is not to say that I don't enjoy good art -- I'm capable of appreciating something of high quality, but that voice is always the once to come in and make the enjoyment bittersweet. A sour taste as the credits roll, or a twisted face when a book's spine falls back from its arch into repose.

My relationship with anxiety and depression is a complicated one -- something that I'm learning more about every day. After a number of personal circumstances threw me into a dark mindset, I came across a glimmering truth three weeks after the anxiety began: I wanted to write for a living. I wanted to write fiction. I wanted to write a novel -- something I had always told myself I was either incapable of or that I was pretentious for wanting to do it in the first place. The nugget came unexpectedly as I was locking up my bike outside the gym; despite my mental state, I'd been forcing myself to carry on with my daily routines. Maybe this is an indication that my affliction wasn't too serious, or maybe just that I knew this was my life raft; if I continued to adhere to my rigid day-to-day schedule, I could continue to tell myself that I didn't let my anxiety rule me, something that I unwittingly and inevitably ended up doing. In any case, my competence and togetherness was a thin veneer -- a precarious veil of schedule covering a quaking, shivering mess. I stuck my key into the oiled lock but was struck dumb before I could turn free the mechanism from itself. I stood, face blank, and stared into what immediately struck me as a good title for a novel. I didn't know what about, or why, but the two words that hovered before me shouted down and begged me to write them, to expand them, to make them become 20,000 from the simple two.

This came after a hard two weeks of sleeping six or seven hours a week and barely surviving panic attacks that, rather than coming and going, managed to stay and unpack for nine hours at a time. During these weeks, my thoughts ranged from, "Come on, why can't you conquer this?" to "If you can't manage your mind, you can't manage anything," to "Will this ever change?" to "Why can't I go back to how I was before?" These sentiments would swirl and come in waves, compounding my worry, piling anxiety about anxiety on preexisting panic. These acutely awful thoughts were unmitigated in their severity; I was used to being my own critic and being mired in self-doubt, but this was different. This time, the voice of self-doubt was shouting and waving its hands in my face because I was down and out. The usually sneaky self-critic was running wild because my confidence in myself was shaken so severely that I had nothing with which to quell it.

This is what made the novel title vision so interesting. I held the words in my mind and mouth, saying them quietly to myself as I resumed locking my bike. "Saturn Return," I remember thinking, "That needs to be a novel. And I need to be the one to do it." At this short glimmer of self-confidence, doubt extinguished the hopeful reverie that had me, for the first time, considering myself as a novelist. The self-critic barged in, raising an eyebrow. "You? A novelist? Nope. No way. You can't write a novel! Are you an idiot?" This in itself was not unfamiliar or surprising, but what followed was. For the first time in my conscious life, a voice stood up against the critic. Confidence raised its hand and asked why not. Why couldn't I write a novel? I was perfectly capable. And with just that small push -- that tiny shove of resistance -- the critic cowered and scurried away, leaving me light but not elated. I was shocked at myself; I'd never toppled that voice before and was simultaneously proud and worried. It was a triumph, yes, but not as jubilant as you'd expect. The battle of the voices left me empty rather than congratulatory. With my voice of self-doubt banished, I felt hollow largely because this critical voice is one that I consider an integral part of my personality; it's so deeply ingrained that, perhaps, I've been falsely attributing it to a part of me that I couldn't possibly give up because then I'd be losing myself.

This is where the problem starts to snowball. Anxiety and depression are difficult things on their own but can (and usually) fester and develop into something more complicated. Upon my revelation that I wanted to dedicate myself to writing fiction professionally, I came across a difficult impasse, largely fueled by my conversations about people about my mental state. For the three months (and counting) that I've been wracked by anxiety and depression, I feel like it has started to define me. When I see my friends or family, the first question they usually ask is "How are you feeling?" or "Are you better?" or "Are you sleeping at all?" This in itself isn't detrimental, and I know people were just trying their best to talk to me and help me; mental illness is still such a touchy subject that many don't know how to approach it. I don't blame anyone for this, but after weeks of it being the dominant topic, I began to regard it as such. I became anxiety. I became depression. Because, if these weren't a part of my life, what would I talk about with people? Would I be boring? The anxiety I would encounter when imagining my life without anxiety was terrifying. I almost began to like the turmoil I was facing because, on some nearly perverse level, it gave me an identity, which is one of the things a 20-something wants more than anything. Another contributing factor was the logic that writers and other creative people "usually have anxiety and depression." It's a type: the tortured artist. I would tell people how I was feeling and that I had anxieties about wanting to pursue a creative profession and often they would shrug and say, "Well, most writers are messed up!" as if the two were a necessary package deal. I bought into it as a way of rationalizing my mental state, which I knew was a total wreck. I told myself, in a precariously constructed false syllogism, that a) all writers are messed up, b) I am a writer, so therefore c) I have to be messed up. I know this is not true. I knew it wasn't true then, but I was so desperate for answers as to why I was feeling the way I was. But then I realized that maybe there weren't answers. Maybe this was just a series of unfortunate coincidences coupled with the onset of seasonal depression. Maybe I was just reacting to a number of events and experiences in a way that anyone else would. This is when I started therapy and began to understand where that critic came from.

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