“I can’t feel anything!” the woman wailed. A taxi driver making a left turn on a snowy Thursday night had plowed into her, and then, realizing what he’d done, reversed, running over her legs a second time. “Is it my knees?” she asked as I crouched beside her. “I just got a double knee replacement. Please don’t say it’s my knees.” I told her I wasn’t sure, but the alignment of the taxi’s tires suggested they’d been crushed. I asked her name and told her mine, held her hand, and draped my coat over her upper body. I learned she lived just a block away with her husband, but he wasn’t answering the phone. So I sprinted, slipped past the doorman, and, when he opened their apartment door, said, “Everything is OK, but your wife was hit by a taxi. Grab your coat and come with me.” We made it back just in time; he clambered into the ambulance behind her.
I felt like a regulation hero, but really, I’m just a highly anxious person who thrives in a crisis. Years ago, I got a diagnosis (generalized anxiety disorder) and some affirmation of how bad it is (Doctor: “I’m impressed by how highly functioning you are, considering”). For a long time, I didn’t think dealing with chronic anxiety and being good in emergencies were linked. It actually seems like the opposite would be true. But then, in 2016, I read the essay collection So Sad Today and came across a quote that forced me out of bed to get a pen. “For someone with anxiety, dramatic situations are, in a way, more comfortable than the mundane,” Melissa Broder writes. “In dramatic situations, the world rises to meet your anxiety.” I underlined the passage, added a star in the margin, and dog-eared the page for good measure.
A few years before, dealing with a particularly severe bout of anxiety, I had tried cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s less “Tell me your first memory of your parents abandoning you” and more “Let’s see if we can figure out how your thought patterns are distorted by anxiety.” There were worksheets and homework assignments, new terms to learn and lists to make. Where previously I’d endlessly and obsessively worried about the smallest tests, that summer, I considered CBT the most important test of all. So while I started to recognize how persuasive and pervasive my anxiety is, I also happened to be dealing with said anxiety exactly the way I was used to — by treating it as a means to an end. Unsurprisingly, using anxiety to fuel my treatment of anxiety just resulted in more anxiety.
Wisely, my therapist suggested I see a psychiatrist to explore pharmaceutical options. She offered a simile about drowning and said an anti-anxiety drug might help me get my head above water so I could start swimming to shore, a.k.a., making real progress in and outside of her office. It was a compelling visual, but the idea of taking an anti-anxiety medication did not inspire confidence or anything resembling calm. I wasn’t so much worried that the drugs wouldn’t work, I was worried that they would. What if I get this taste of a different life, but then the drugs stop working and for the rest of my life I know how great things could but will never be again? I fretted.
But also, to be honest, I was afraid that the drugs would work indefinitely and my anxiety would evaporate. It felt weird to be clinging to a part of me that also drove me to misery on a daily basis. Finally, my therapist asked, “What would happen if you were no longer this anxious?” I hemmed and hawed and then admitted that I saw my anxiety as fuel; without it, I might not be as driven. “But what if your anxiety is hurting you, not helping?” she countered. “What if you’re successful in spite of your anxiety, not because of it?” It struck me as a completely absurd idea. “Well, I’d certainly have a lot of free time to think about other things,” I conceded. Riding the subway home, it occurred to me that just as often as it propelled me, anxiety rendered me completely immobile.
Soon after, I decided to try taking something for anxiety. A psychiatrist recommended a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), which is a type of antidepressant that’s commonly used in the treatment of anxiety disorders. It helped, a lot, especially initially and in combination with therapy. After the SSRI began to work, I thought I might be able to outrun my disorder, that I would someday graduate to being a person who has anxiety sometimes rather than a constantly anxious person.
That doesn’t seem to be the case. The SSRI helps me deal with — but doesn’t cure — my anxiety. Sometimes, as I shake one of the tiny white pills out of its orange plastic container, it feels like a lifeline. Other days, I’m not even sure it’s doing much of anything, given how anxious I still am. Honestly, it’s hard to tell, as there are so many factors that influence my anxiety levels, from work to what’s going on in the world to whether I’m doing all the boring #selfcare things that actually help, like going to the dreaded gym.
Talking about today’s highly anxiety-inducing climate in a recent set, comedian Aparna Nancherla said, “It’s weird that anxiety is finally on message. Like, if you’re an anxious person, it’s kind of like, ‘Well, this is what we trained for. This is our Olympics.’” As a gold-medal neurotic, I’d definitely qualify, but I don’t think I do much better than most people in dealing with the free-floating the-world-is-probably-ending-any-day-now angst. I mean, I’m still worrying over a History Channel special from five years ago about a rogue comet that could wipe out the globe’s electricity, plunging us into a food crisis. And I only watched the commercial.
But when it comes to a sudden emergency, I snap to. For fear of sounding like I’m bragging, I’ll just say that I’ve helped a nice number of strangers in awful circumstances. My anxiety is always there, humming in the background, sometimes so present I can’t listen to anything else. It’s a deadweight, one I sometimes wish I could chuck in the Hudson River. But carrying something like that around doesn’t only give you a neck ache, it also gives you a particular type of strength. I think that’s why I knew to crouch down next to the old lady under the taxi, to direct other bystanders to step back and give her space, to speak clearly and kindly. Even if I haven’t been pinned under a four-thousand-pound taxi, I know the feeling of something pressing down on you like it’ll never let up.
Alex Ronan is a writer living in Berlin, mostly.