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Figuring Things Out

Jul 21, 2020

After growing up in a house with a lot of rules and spending little time outside of it, I found myself loving the idea of not having commitments. Without commitments, any chunk of time is for whatever I want. My whims can choose where the time goes. Not anyone else, except for me. Even as I work a full-time job, I wonder what it would be like to find a more autonomous gig, where I wouldn’t even be bound by location or 9-5 expectations. With the freedom, I could spend more time with the people close to me and write as much as I want and read as much as I want and live the idealized life of my dreams.

But as I began to dig into it, I realized that my desire for personal autonomy wasn’t a virtue and that ceding to my desires wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Even though I often found autonomy in my day-to-day life, I didn’t use it, often spending the freedom just laying in bed or watching TikToks. I just wanted autonomy for the sake of autonomy.

This desire for autonomy is why I would always say “maybe” to plans or why I would often cancel on things even if I was looking forward to them. It was giving myself enough leeway to cancel plans since I never committed. It was using my weak immune system as a plausible reason that I “got sick” as often as I did. The want for some amount of independence was why I would refuse to fully be vulnerable to the point that I feel distant from even my closest friends. For nearly my whole life, I’ve thought of freedom or autonomy as virtues, as solutions to my anxiety and worry, when really they were forms of avoidance. And each time I chased freedom, I ran away from connection. I raised my walls in hopes of peace, making it too hard to be known.

Maybe I’m a fool
Maybe I should move and settle
Two kids and a swimming pool
I’m not brave (brave)
I’m not brave 1

As I’ve been planning my move to another apartment in SF, I daydream about settling down, and not having to move every year, like I’ve done since I graduated high school. Things could just lay where they are, and I wouldn’t have to be anxious about where I’d go next. I could skip out on shattered expectations by landlords deciding to let someone else sign. I’d never have to read another Yelp review about movers again.

My daydreams don’t save me. California will be devastated by an earthquake one day. Georgia has incompetent leadership. New York will be underwater soon. There’s nowhere to go. Or at least that’s what my anxiety tells me.

I’m not brave.

I don’t want to be alone. Intellectually, I’ve always wanted to be an energetic member of communities, working hard for change, putting aside my needs for those of others. I don’t see a path to a better world without it. I don’t see a path to happiness without it.

I step into the larger tide of uncertainty and fear, my anxiety for the world and the future swells, and then that same feeling, that same anxiety, shrinks me into myself—into my petty, personal worries. The concerns of the world quickly transmute into the concerns of the self. What does the pandemic mean for me? Will I get sick? Will I lose my livelihood? Will my inadequacies, my disgraceful flaws and inabilities, be exposed in the harsh light of crisis? What could I have done better to prepare for this catastrophe? What irredeemable mistakes have I already made? What irredeemable mistakes am I still making? How will I get through? How will I concentrate? How will I work? How will I live? How will I manage? What will I lose?
I, I, I, I, I, I: the eternal song of anxiety. 2

But I sometimes don’t see a path to happiness at all, when it feels like this is how I am and this is how will always be.

For a long time, I never realized how much my anxiety had shaped me, but it’s essential to what I am. I’m a sometimes insomniac who has lived every first day of school at least twice, once in a stress-dream (usually sans pants) and once in real life. High cortisol levels associated with anxiety lead to poor immune and digestive function, which is why I get sick a lot and love bathrooms (and will never go camping). I show up late to things intentionally sometimes because I hate waiting for people by myself. My legs shake relentlessly if I’m in a group of people I don’t know well. Most of the time when I enter a space, I make sure I know where the closest exits are, just in case. I’m afraid of a lot of things, sometimes have trouble focusing, can barely handle caffeine most days, and often get overwhelmed by small things. But, because I’ve always worried a lot, I studied a lot in school and was able to do okay in life so far. My worries have kept me relatively healthy and make me think twice before I say something that might hurt someone. I think about almost every mean thing I’ve ever said on a weekly basis. The summer after high school, I decided that I would use art to calm down. I started writing and did an illustration challenge that would put me on the path to becoming a designer.

All of this is to say that if I could go back in time and somehow prevent anxiety from affecting my younger self, I don’t know if I would do it. I don’t know what that person would end up to be like, but he wouldn’t be me. And if I can stay here in time, I don’t know if I’ll be able to change things, but sharing feels like the right first step.

  1. “Godspeed” by Frank Ocean ↩︎

  2. The Influence of Anxiety” by Daniel Smith h/t to KT for this article and edits ↩︎