Lately I have been plagued by bouts of anxiety. Normally it wouldn’t bother me, I think a twinge of anxiety is healthy when triggered by something appropriate. Public speaking – makes me anxious; meeting new people – yes, mildly anxiety inducing; crossing paths with someone who is combative and prone to attack – yup, makes me anxious. When things are going well – nope, not supposed to make me anxious; and yet as of late it does. It’s like the emotion has gone rogue.
And why does it have to be so darn sneaky? Sure, there are the warning signs – the vibrations in my nerves, like the shuddering surface of a puddle from the footfalls of a large beast in the distance, that tell me something scary is coming my way; or the tension across my shoulders, subtle and barely perceptible against the tightness starting in my chest. You know the kind, when you want to take a deep breath for no apparent reason other than you suddenly need to. I usually try to ignore these signs, giving them a courteous nod of acknowledgment and dismissing them as non-existent, like I wish they were, instead of being my own personal Paul Revere, warning me that “anxiety is coming, anxiety is coming!”
Thinking back, I don’t recall ever having had an actual full-blown, stop-me-in-my tracks, anxiety attack. If I did, or started to, I’m sure I dealt with it much the same way as I dealt with all emotions I had no use for over the years, by relegating it to a closet in the deep recesses of my psyche and entrusting the key to a gatekeeper, to lose. Then came breast cancer.
A funny thing happened when I got breast cancer. It seems all my trusty gatekeepers who had so adeptly kept me and those pesky unpleasant emotions from crossing paths took me at my word and flung open all my closet doors, then abandoned ship, or body, as the case may be, and headed for cover.
I suppose I brought it upon myself (lest you think that on top of dealing with breast cancer you will have to deal with all sorts of buried emotions bursting free as well). After I was diagnosed, I went on an emotional spring cleaning to root out any issues that may have been poisoning my body from the inside out. It was exciting to rummage around in my deep, dusty internal closets and see what unpleasantness lurked there. If healing meant inviting back from the depths the parts of myself I had previously exiled there, then so be it. Every unpleasant, embarrassing, hurtful memory and event, inflicted on me and I inflicted on others, that tumbled out; I welcomed with open arms. I won’t say it was all fun, but it was necessary.
It’s funny what you forget, or remember, as the case may be; which events still hold a punch and which ones have faded to a dull gray, mere shadows of their former selves. Some are easily reinvigorated by current reactions, others resist reanimation no matter how much poking or prodding is proffered their way. I am proud of myself on this front; I did the work, turning over stones and staring old wounds in the face. I won’t say we all hugged and parted friends, but we did come to an understanding and let bygones be bygones.
Then came the actual emotions, the ones I didn’t care to feel. Out they tumbled and I had to learn how to incorporate them into my life in a healthy way. That’s not to say I have lived my life with no emotions, I was more like a painter working with a limited range of colors, limiting my expression to the bright, happy colors and never using the sadder tones. I’m not sure where anxiety falls on the spectrum, as an emotion or color, but currently we are off to a rocky start, because anxiety is sneaky.
I still have never had an actual anxiety attack; this feels more like a cat toying with a mouse. It always happens when I’m happy, usually embarking on a new adventure of expression or creativity. When I’m just about done with whatever it is I’m bringing to life, excited about this new untapped mode of expression, I start to feel this panicky sensation. Then Paul Revere makes his ride.
If I think about it, these anxiety flareups began when I started going to the Orlando Health Community Clubhouse to make earrings for cancer patients. Once a week, patients and caregivers get together to make earrings that are then offered free to Orlando Health cancer patients. It’s a keep-one-donate-one activity. It’s quite fun, and very relaxing, to let the earrings come to life, born of my imagination and creativity. They have easily over one hundred types of beads of all sizes, shapes, patterns and materials to choose from. It’s a closet creative’s dream come true! The first week I made two pairs, then the second week, six pairs. I loved them all, so it was hard to pick one pair to keep. Technically, it is keep one-donate-one, and technically I’m a cancer patient there so I can take free earrings anyway, but the point for me is also to give back, so I just choose one pair no matter how many I make.
Back to that sneak, anxiety. Sure, I know a bunch of tools to stave off anxiety – exercise, yoga, meditation, breath awareness – but the thing with me is, I need to know why. Why now, when the hard part is over? Chemotherapy, surgery and radiation is behind me. Why now, when I’m healthy and happy? I’m engaging in new activities, exploring different creative outlets, connecting with myself in new ways …
I suppose that says something about me, that a year plus of cancer tests and treatments didn’t elicit an anxiety attack, but a little creative expression reduces me to a squeak toy for an imaginary monster. And so more work begins, the exploration into why a little carefree, creative fun has me leery of shadows. Truth be told, the real boogy man, cancer, has already been vanquished by my knights in shining armor at Orlando Health.