The Anxiety of Creation: Coping with Anxiety through Literature

By Allyson Vaughan

I was not allowed to leave the classroom though the bell had rung out, telling everyone in my first grade class to hurry out to the front of the school to find their parents. Mrs. Martin, my teacher, told me to wait in my seat and that I was not allowed to leave. “Why?” I asked, but she offered me no answer. I remember feeling a sickening tightening, the same feeling you get going up a hill on a rollercoaster, building inside of me and my chest aching like it did when I ran too hard on the playground. I had orders from my mother to meet her in the library where she worked as soon as the bell rang, but I was not allowed to go. All I could think was that I needed to get to my mother, but there was no way out. The bright room grew hot to me and I began to feel tears rolling down my chin. It wasn’t the first time I’d felt fear tighten a harness around my chest, pulling. Each day after school, Mrs. Martin would never let me leave the classroom until after all the other children had. For ten minutes each day, I was told I could not see my mother though I desperately wanted to. And for ten minutes each day, I would feel as if I were being squeezed to death by an invisible hand. Until one day I began to hum. We learned songs in school, and in my panic I could not remember words but I could remember music. So I began to hum as I waited out those minutes, until finally I was released. If i’d told someone, perhaps they would’ve taught me what that feeling was. Perhaps, they could’ve told me it was unusual for a child to feel that way, not just in those ten minutes, but always.

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I didn’t know the word anxiety then, it wasn’t something I’d come across in the books in the bins we were allowed to read from. But at 22, having been shackled with an anxiety disorder my whole life, a disorder that would grow and meld with me, I can look back and see how the little girl in the classroom shouldn’t have had to hum to feel safe. The humming would continue; humming I labeled in my mind as “GOOD” because even when I felt like I wasn’t, humming let me pretend to be. Mrs. Martin never knew how anxious I was when she made me stay, often times as I left (still humming) she’d say, “I love that beautiful humming” as I walked past her. But soon the humming wasn’t enough to calm me down. All throughout the day I felt that hand in my chest squeezing so I would rip little pieces of paper under my desk. Usually, things were OK. But i’d begun to get bored during class; all the books in the reading bin were below my reading level at that point, and I’d tired of trading with other kids in hopes that I could read newer, better books under my desk when no one was looking. I no longer had anything that could distract me. And then one day, Mrs. Martin asked us to write a story of our own.
Anxiety2I wrote about the dark. I’d never been truly afraid of the dark. It wasn’t the blackness of rooms that scared me, but the shadows and the tricks my eyes played on me. I could stare into space and see colored shapes moving and those were what I called “BAD” and the only way to kill the shadows was to keep the TV on. As a kid, I hardly slept because I couldn’t. I’d stay up all night reading books and watching TV-Land and Nick at Night turned low (GOOD). If I didn’t have a constant influx of fresh distractions, I would lie in bed totally still with my eyes closed, but wide awake. I didn’t say as much in the story I wrote then, but Mrs. Martin made me read it in front of the class once, and then again for another teacher. That of all things didn’t give me the slightest strike of fresh fear. Afterwards, Mrs. Martin looked down at me and said, “You’re going to be a writer.”

And I looked back up at her, the woman who in my eyes was a criminal for making me wait after school for my mother, and said, “No, I’m going to be Britney Spears.” This couldn’t have surprised her, as I’d gotten in trouble for singing “Oops, I did it again” during a spelling test. But Mrs. Martin encouraged me from that point on, changed out the books in my bin and let me and my friend perform the skits I’d come up with during playtime. Skits I based on whatever i’d seen on the TV the night before. The skits were written on construction paper and i’d direct people as I did my best Sophia impression from The Golden Girls. But first grade ended, and life would go on and so would my anxiety.  Life got complicated, my anxiety got complicated, and then so did I.
Anxiety3But all along the way, through the side effects and the struggles and the shadows that changed from eye tricks in the dark to the shadows of memories, new and old, to haunt me, I had two things: Books and writing. The books I sometimes stole from the library, and the books my mother bought me all eased me through those sleepless nights. And the writing, the journals I kept after Mrs. Martin’s words started to feel a little more reasonable and Britney Spears a little less so, became the new way I coped. Most of my life my anxiety was undiagnosed, so coping was the only way to keep my head above water. Books were  (are) my coping mechanism, each one a different life-not mine-where feelings were described just as I felt them, and the only shadows I had to worry about were Peter Pan’s and honestly, I rather liked his shadow. Books were reason when I had none. I could never describe to anyone how a new book cover felt as good as a hug from my mother to hold and touch.

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An anxiety disorder, I would learn, has no known specific cause. Later, I would suffer more from symptoms of PTSD, which would complicate my anxiety. And even with a specific cause for that,the anxiety was still all about the unknown. And it dawned on me one day as I read Crime and Punishment, reading about Raskolnikov’s fear and guilt, so much of which came from what had not yet come, that I realized while I read to escape my constant, unrelenting fear that I was plunging head first into someone else’s. And by that point, I’d been creating fear in my own characters for some time. And the symptoms of anxiety I had: trouble sleeping, numbness in the hands or face, heart palpitations, nausea, shortness of breath, and bleeding stomach ulcers from the stress were on par with someone who’d committed murder (yay me?). All things I would’ve paid to never feel again, I felt right along with Raskolnikov, and I’d actually paid for that book. I wondered if Raskolnikov ever considered humming.

But as I read, in the midst of an anxiety attack, I realized why I’d always NEEDED books, and later NEEDED to write in order to maintain a functional level of calm. Because all of my life, unknowingly, the fear in me came from creating it in myself. Anxiety Disorders aren’t within the sufferer’s control, we don’t want to create the fear, it creates itself. But, nevertheless, something inside me created it. But books were of other’s creation, and the fear inside the characters so often felt unanimous with mine. And it is some comfort to see that fear there on the page; it lets me know fear is as real for others as it is for me. Mrs. Martin told me I was going to be a writer, and I thought she was wrong. But writing turned out to be the ultimate form of creation, and unlike my anxiety, I could control it and I could put myself out of the mindset of creating anxiety, and instead create art. Art itself is full of uncertainties and imperfections, but I think I was drawn to it because I was a natural creator of fear, of hope, and of strength because I had to be. I needed those things to survive the helplessness I felt, but above all I saw in my dedication to reruns of I Love Lucy on those sleepless nights and the skits I wrote and the songs I hummed, that most of all I needed the stories.

 

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