I have struggled with anxiety to a greater or lesser degree for most of my life, and in recent years it has become unprecedentedly worse. Although I don’t always talk about it, my philosophical and artistic interests are all very much a direct response to my anxieties.
My anxiety really started to get bad about three years ago, when I had a series of episodes that lead into a kind of permanent depression (in both the psychiatric sense and in the topology of my mindscape). These were mostly characterized by a particularly nasty and not very common form of anxiety called derealization. There is not a lot of information available online about derealization, and much of what is out there is just online postings and message boards full of people with no expertise who essentially just sit around exacerbating each other’s symptoms by sharing how terrified they all are of life. Needless to say it has not been easy learning about or overcoming my anxiety and derealization, but I hope that this post will find others out there who are struggling to come to terms with this scary and confusing problem.
I want to say a few words, first, about derealization. It is one of the scariest things you can experience, because, just like it sounds, it makes you feel like you are no longer in reality. It’s like being on a hallucinogenic drug all the time. It is a subtle yet pervasive feeling. It makes things sound distant, it makes the world literally look different, as if everything were flat, viewed through a TV screen. It makes you question your connections to reality, making you feel like you are locked in your head all the time. You always feel as if you are on the brink of losing your sanity, yet you never quite get there, which is almost worse. It is almost like being a schizophrenic who is aware of his delusions, yet can’t escape them. The big difference is that there are no real “hallucinations,” but rather subtle changes in perception that nevertheless make you constantly question and second guess everything around you (and isn’t that what being anxious is, after all?).
At the same time that I had this anxious breakdown, my life and my thoughts about life were also going through major upheavals. I had been out of school for a year, and no longer had the safety net of academia to give my life any structure. At the same time, I also didn’t know where I wanted my life to go.
This was also the time that I really started to reevaluate my interest in philosophy and literature. I realized that I had to find something to fill that gap of meaning in my life that had been left open post-undergrad. Yet I realized that I was not expecting this and had not prepared for this, and it would not be easy to recover after having the rug pulled out from under me.
My ideas about the meaning of life up until then had largely come from my rejection of Christianity and religion, but hadn’t gone much further than that. I was an atheist, but not for any real reason other than to not be a Christian. The nihilum of that stance became fully apparent to me. I had to find a way out of it, but I didn’t know how.
Incidentally, that way out was back through Christianity itself. Around that time my dad recommended Thomas Merton to me, and I read a lot of his books with great enthusiasm. Even though I didn’t agree with him theologically, he opened up an escape from Christianity that I hadn’t known before. Through his mysticism, he opened up a world beyond God that was not a denial of God, but a view of the world where the dichotomy of faith and atheism was simply no longer adequate. Through his mysticism I found my way to Zen, and in Zen I was able to find what I hoped could be a better ground for my life.
But just having found something inspiring is not enough. I still struggled just as intensely with anxiety and derealization. I was able to make improvements bit by bit but my anxiety still ruled my life. The derealization symptoms would lessen sometimes, but as soon as I started to think about it, or noticed it, it would rear its ugly head and get much worse. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I needed to stop thinking about it in order for it to go away.
I finally found a good therapist, and he was able to help a lot. Having someone who knew my problems as well as I did, but who, unlike my mind, was not susceptible to the logic of my anxiety, made a big difference. Whereas I could “outsmart” myself very easily when fighting with my anxiety, having a therapist just say to me, “well, that’s just not the case, that situation doesn’t have to make you anxious,” was hard to refute. My logic fell apart in front of statements like that, and my anxiety started to recede more along with it.
When we got to Hawai’i I was feeling much better, but my anxiety was still there. I made a decision though, a pledge to myself, that I would leave my anxiety in Hawai’i. It is not something I want to take back to the mainland with me. At the same time I made a pledge to myself that I would rev up my meditation practice, and use this silence and solitude for self-reflection and self-discovery.
The more time I spent looking at my anxious self and meditating, the more I realized that these two goals were the same. This was not necessarily a good discovery. It meant that if I wanted to improve my meditation practice, there was anxious baggage, serious anxious baggage that I would have to get rid of first. How could I embrace the dynamism of life when I was so afraid of much of it? And how could I efface my ego when so many of my preoccupations and spirals of anxious thought originated precisely in my own selfishness and egotistical desires? The “other” that I felt was in my way turned out to be in fact, nothing other than myself.
In the last week or two I feel like I have really changed. I have finally achieved something that feels like genuine self-overcoming. This is a huge step for me. I have constantly felt that I was slowly getting better, slowly chipping away at my edifice of anxiety. But there was still a massive, unknown force inside me, a black and awful poison that would course through my veins and literally take me over. A monstrous anxiety that I hated, yet that I was also afraid to confront, because deep down I knew that would amount to a self-confrontation.
Now it is as if I have found the IV from which that black poison flows, and can simply turn off the switch. I came to a point in my meditation where I realized that my anxiety itself was the thing holding me back from overcoming it. It took a long time for me to get there, though. I had to wade through so much detritus before finally seeing the self-overcoming I would have to undertake.
Of course this is only the beginning. I am not “cured,” my anxiety is still a problem. The difference is that now I am being more vigilant with it, the tables have turned. Whereas before it was a feeling that overtook me, now I must be the power that overtakes it when it strikes. And it will continue to strike I think for some time, probably the rest of my life in one form or another. I just need to remember Ikkyu’s wise words:
in war there’s no time for thinking
carry a strong stick bash your attackers