For years I was desperate to escape anxiety. Then I discovered a better way to be free.
The ocean nearly took me once. I was in Hawaii with the man who, three years later, would become my husband. We had packed two sets of snorkels in our suitcases. I swam with the blue pair in the water while my boyfriend and the green pair sunned on the shore.
I grew up in Illinois, about as far from an ocean as you can get, but my heart loves the sea and I am enchanted by snorkeling. It’s like a magic trick: Put on a special mask, fall forward, and — poof! — a kingdom of color and texture and movement appears.
That day in Hawaii, I was mesmerized. I saw iridescent indigo fish. I saw one colored candy cane red and white. I saw another sunflower yellow fish with a pipette-like snout. I wanted to touch everything, wanted to absorb it all. There in the coral, I had no sense of time.
I also had no sense of my body. So I have no memory of the moment where the gentle up and down bobbing became something else. All I remember is the pull and the panic.
I was a passable swimmer, but I was unprepared for what was happening to me. Something much bigger and stronger than I had grabbed my entire being and pulled every bit of it in a direction I did not want to go. The current commanded I go right. With animal desperation, I rallied my arms and legs, all of myself, to fight this force. I needed to pull myself back to the left, to my boyfriend, to safety. I fought, and I was fierce. But, the truth is, I had no control over what was happening. I was helpless.
The pull to the right continued, ceaselessly. Ceaselessly, that is, until my body slammed into an outcropping of black volcanic rocks. The determined ocean kept pulling me anyway. It pushed me out and yanked me back, slamming my body again and again into the black volcanic rocks. They were sharp, and they were much harder than my skin. I grabbed hold. I hugged my boyfriend. It would take weeks for the scrapes and bruises to heal, but I was free.
* * *
I’ve been thinking of that day in Hawaii because I have felt the pull again. I live in Minnesota now, a place even farther from an ocean than Illinois, so this is a surprising feeling. Even though I am so far from the ocean, when I close my eyes, I am certain it is the exact same pull. Except, this time, it is not originating from deep within a body of water. It is coming from deep inside my own body.
* * *
Not once in my 33 years can I remember a time I haven’t been anxious.
I have tried a lot of things over the years to make the anxiety go away. I have swallowed pills and run lots of miles and needled my Qi and talked to therapists. I am exhausted by all this trying. Recently, I became curious about what, exactly, it is that I am trying to do. What am I trying to obliterate? What is anxiety? Where is anxiety?
Anxiety, or at least my anxiety, lives in a few different places. It lives in my stomach, which cramps. It lives in my chest, where my heart races and bumps. But its main corporeal residence, I’ve discovered, is in my skull.
It starts out like the tablecloth trick — the one where you have a table set up with all kinds of glasses and plates and bowls on top of a nice white table cloth. Then, all of a sudden, a hand takes hold of the table cloth and pulls, hard. The glasses and plates and bowls are all still there, but now they are on a bare table. The tablecloth is gone. My anxiety is like that, but something goes sideways. Maybe the hand hesitates. Maybe the speed is just a bit off. Either way, something gets caught and everything on the table is pulled along too. Glasses and plates go everywhere. It’s a mess. My thoughts are a mess. And it all starts with that pull.
This pull in my skull feels bad. It is a rough kind of pressure, originating just below my right ear. It feels like being yanked by the ocean. It starts with this pull then continues to whirl uncomfortably fast, like a washing machine set to a spin cycle. This is what I have been trying to escape.
* * *
Four years after the ocean tried to pull me away, I endeavored to become a stronger swimmer. That summer, two times each week, I pedaled my bike to a lake three miles away where I swam. I bookmarked YouTube videos on freestyle stroke for survival. I recorded myself and watched the playback. When I crossed the finish line at a YWCA triathlon at the end of that summer, I felt alive and powerful. I felt like I could outswim the sea.
* * *
The winter after that triathlon, I entered graduate school to study psychology. The abnormal psychology professor there told us that anxiety disorders impact 19% of American adults at any given time, making it the most common type of mental illness. “This is good news,” he continued, “Because we know what to do about it.”
He went on to explain that there is a broad consensus among psychologists on the treatment for anxiety. Consensus is a comforting word when it comes to healthcare. It means that if you walk into the office of any mental health professional in this country and report anxiety, it is nearly certain that they will recommend you do some kind of cognitive behavioral therapy.
CBT has been so fully absorbed into today’s ethos that its core proposition borders on pithy. Proponents of CBT believe that what you think and what you do impact how you feel. CBT’s biggest proponents have been the Becks, Aaron and his daughter Judith, who have written book after book about CBT. The Becks have influenced generations of psychologists who themselves have created dozens of protocols to address the many ways anxiety can look for the many people who have it.
CBT protocols for anxiety attempt to disrupt the thoughts and behaviors that lead to anxious feelings. A typical target for this disruption is problematic thoughts that psychologists call cognitive distortions. These reality-bending thoughts tend to sneak into your head. A classic tool for ferreting them out is a thought record. A thought record is a simple tool that anyone can make with a pen and some paper. On the paper, you would draw a table with five columns. You would title the columns: situation, emotion, thought, behavior, alternative thought. You would fold up this paper and carry it around. If you were to become anxious you would stop what you were doing, unfold your paper, click your pen, and fill out the chart. For instance,
Situation: My husband hasn’t answered my last text
Thought: He’s probably dead
Behavior: Checking my phone
Alternative Thought: Maybe his phone battery died
By creating an alternative, the Becks would say, you undermine your first, distorted thought. By undermining your distorted thought, you undermine anxiety itself. That is the tidy logic of CBT.
During my graduate training, I practiced using thought records and other CBT techniques. I watched hours and hours of CBT sessions conducted by master therapists. I recorded my own, novice sessions with patients and listened to the playback. By the time I graduated, I felt competent. I felt like I could really help people.
* * *
My swimming self-education helped me finish in the top quartile at that lake in Minnesota, but it wouldn’t do me much good in a rip current in Hawaii. My strokes on the lake that day were solid but they were slow. It took me 165 seconds to freestyle 100 meters. Rip currents are faster — much faster. It would take a rip current just 41 seconds to go 100 meters.
It’s not only me who would be unable to outswim one. The National Ocean Service points out that even the fastest humans can’t. The current world record holder takes just over 47 seconds to go that distance.
The sheer force of rip currents overwhelms even the strongest of us.
* * *
When I was in graduate school, I was also pregnant with my first child. This turned out to be a disastrous combination for my mental health.
It was because of this combination that, one winter night when I should have been at a karaoke party for my husband’s work, I sat, shoeless in a room with no windows with a very professional, very licensed psychiatrist. This psychiatrist asked me many questions, which were really all variations on just one question: Are you going to kill someone if I let you out of here? I knew what he was doing, and I hated it.
I wasn’t going to kill someone, and he did let me out. As I was leaving, he handed me a list of providers. “Don’t give up hope. There is a lot we can do,” he told me, “You know, CBT is a very effective treatment for anxiety.”
My hate and my hormones surged. How dare he tell me what to do. He didn’t know me. Besides, what did very effective even mean? It was only partly demoralizing when I found the answer. It means that CBT works for anxiety approximately 46% of the time.
I thought about my professor, the one who said we knew what to do about anxiety.
I thought about the Becks.
I thought about myself.
I thought about the majority of anxious people, the ones who failed to get better.
It seemed to me that there were a great many limits to what we know how to do.
* * *
Eight years home from Hawaii, I was between students at my writing instructor assistantship and I, productively, used the time to look at pictures of myself on Facebook. I clicked to a close-up of my face, underwater, with a blue snorkel mask, wide brown eyes, and long brown hair floating out of frame. I had taken that photo with a waterproof camera my grandmother had given me especially for the trip. I took that photo sometime before I learned that waterproof did not mean saltwaterproof and also before the ocean tried to carry me away.
I opened another tab and typed “how to survive a rip current.” I learned that you should not do what I did and try to engage the current directly. I learned that you should make your efforts more oblique. The crucial thing is not to swim against the current but to swim parallel to the shore or, even, to float and let the current do what it will until it is done.
* * *
What I had learned — what I had been taught — to do with my anxiety was to do. Anxiety was a notification system. For life’s problems. For pulling out a thought record. Anxiety was a red flag that I should not, could not ignore. “Urgent!” It proclaimed, “Action required!” I heard this, and I — conscientious by nature — got to work.
In the midst of the bustle, it was easy to miss something: The alternative. The alternative was that it was not urgent. The alternative was that no action was required. Not about my thoughts, not about my behaviors, not about my anxiety. The alternative undermined what I had learned, but it also expanded it. I did not know what to make of this possibility.
So I did what I had been trying to do when I did not know what to do: I returned to the feeling. I had been treating anxiety as if it was a notification system, but what it actually was was a pull in my skull. That familiar pull that started just below my right ear and continued with a forceful spin like a washing machine.
Maybe anxiety operated like that washing machine — around and around irrespective of the laundry inside it. This anxiety could and would run in my body autonomously, allowing me no control. It was embarrassing to have no control. But it was also liberating.
If anxiety is just something the mind does, the same way that swimming is just something fish do, it could mean that I could feel it pull and I could feel it spin and I could…not do anything. I could just float on until it is done.
* * *
Next time I snorkel, I will be stronger and smarter than I was that time in Hawaii. My freestyle stroke will be more correct. I will know not to apply it in opposition to the current. I’ve grown so much.
I know this can help if I am caught in a rip current again, and I am grateful for what I’ve learned. But I think what might be most helpful of all is not to be caught in the first place.
This is a tricky prospect. I am no expert on the sea, but I have given this a lot of thought, and I think this is how you could do it: Pay attention. You must pay attention, carefully, to your body. To what it feels. You must notice the very beginning of the very first pull. That is your cue to untangle yourself. The most important thing is not to be stronger or to be smarter but to be aware. The most important thing is to pay attention.
It nearly always is.
* * *
A few times a year, for my mental health, I try to get away somewhere by myself. This winter, I drove our family car to the top of my state. At the top of my state is a very big lake, a great lake, the greatest lake: Lake Superior. There on the shores of Lake Superior, I hiked and I wrote and I read.
I had packed How to Relax, a slim book by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, in my backpack. In it, he describes how he and fellow survivors of the Vietnam war were meditating one day and heard the sound of helicopters. The sound of the helicopters entwined with their memories of the war in a way that was deeply unpleasant. But, on that day, the meditators found a way to work with the sound, to use it to bring them back to the present moment. They practiced:
This is an old meditation tactic: A sound or sight or smell or sensation can be a cue to collect the mind and bring it back to the present moment. It is the reason there are bells in meditation halls. It is the reason behind breathing meditation.
When I closed the book, I realized what I could do. With my hand still resting on the smooth paper cover, I closed my eyes to the gray water, and I said:
The pull in my body
Bring me back
To the present moment.
I said this, and — in that moment — I was free.