This might be fucked up to say, but I kind of miss my crippling anxiety. Wait, no. Maybe “miss” is the wrong word for it, but my anxiety’s absence is definitely...unsettling. Of course, in typing this, I worry I’m jinxing myself and thus it will return in full force as karmic retribution. So, no, my anxiety is not completely gone. It’s still very much a part of my life, only weaker than it once was. It’s more like a supporting character now, no longer the co-star of my psyche. The intensity has lessened over the past few years and, as much as I know that’s a really good thing, I have to confess that it also feels fucking weird.
It’s worth noting what should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: I’m not a doctor or a therapist or a psychiatrist or a professional of any kind so don’t take my word as absolute fact. My diagnosis and understanding of this stuff comes from my own therapist as well as the Google search bar. With that said, what’s become quite clear is that I lived for a long time with generalized anxiety in the form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. My OCD presented itself in the form of intrusive thoughts. This kind of OCD is called “Pure O” as in “purely obsessional” meaning it’s primarily of the mind, without the more stereotypical physical behaviors commonly associated with this affliction. Obsessive thoughts -- often catastrophic in nature -- barged into my life, regularly leading to my imagining scenarios and consequences which will probably never happen. And yet, regardless of the logic applied to these feelings, I would still experience an intense fear of them. I did occasionally develop subtle physical behaviors that accompanied my obsessive thoughts (as do many others with Pure-O). For me, it was in the form of rituals and clinging to objects associated with luck and protection. That’s why some sources I’ve looked into dismiss the notion there is an OCD that is solely “in the mind”. The physical aspects play out one way or another.
So yeah, this all started when I was a child. I was kept up at night preoccupied with the fear that I was angering God. Yes, God. I would pray to God, assuming he could hear my thoughts, and then a separate involuntary thought in me would follow with, “Fuck you, God”. No matter how much I told myself to stop, those “fuck you’s” would just keep coming. In fact, the more I told myself to stop, the greater their intensity. It’s ridiculous, yes, but I was seven years old and just learned there’s such a thing as “bad words”. Give me a break. Following the curses, I’d be angry with myself for my inability to refrain from blaspheming the figure I was told controlled my life and destiny. I feared repercussions and apologized to God profusely, begging him not to hurt me or my family because of my F-bombs. See, I was raised in a religious and superstitious household. My mother and her family are God-fearing Jews, which didn’t help at all when it came to stuff like this. To them, one can literally offend God and thus you must be careful about what you say in regards to Him (yes, their god is a man…huge red flag). I never told my mom about how much it scared me that I was involuntary saying “Fuck you” to our creator. The good news is, I was disillusioned by God and religious Judaism not long after. Being forced to go to Hebrew school, and hating every minute of it, sucked the piety right out of me. And, with the devotion gone, the praying went away and the cussing felt less damning.
This emotional whiplash was just the beginning of an ever-worsening pattern that would carry well into adulthood. In my late teens and early twenties, it reached monumental heights. Being in college and having increased independence brought on new stressors, but conversely, I was also having some fun for the first time. In a completely stereotypical manner, college was an opportunity for me to party. I experimented with drugs, drank loads of alcohol, fucked, got piercings, and all the other stuff I couldn’t do while my parents were around. I was finally doing all these things, but coupled with it -- in very Jewish fashion -- was an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame. I wanted to be fun and chill like all my friends but everything I did made me spin out of control. Not outwardly, mind you. It was all in my head; unleashed in the form of late-night panic attacks, involuntary fixations, and magical thinking.
For instance, one sniff of cocaine, when I was 22, had me spiraling for weeks after, terrified I might have a flesh-eating disease on my face (because someone told me that was a thing going around from cocaine). Casual sex left me convinced I had contracted HIV, or syphilis, or herpes. I would obsessively google symptoms and convince myself anything new or weird on my body was a sexually transmitted infection. I’d regularly find myself doing things like purchasing at-home syphilis tests at 4am. I’d convince myself that men I hooked up with lied to me about who they were and had some dark sinister other life where I now might be the target of murder or kidnapping. Once, I drove home from a friend's house late at night, a bit buzzed from having a few drinks in my system. On the way, I stopped at a 7-Eleven to get some food. Normal shit. Well, the next morning, all I could think about was how I must have run over someone in the parking lot of that 7-Eleven. The guilt of driving semi-intoxicated was so overwhelming that I had to call the 7-Eleven and ask if there was a car accident in their lot that night. Needless to say, there wasn’t. No one was hurt. The only thing in imminent danger was my digestive system after downing four questionable taquitos. But still, the fear of potentially hitting someone continued to haunt me for months to come. As I drove, I’d imagine a dead body being dragged behind my car. If a driver in a nearby car looked at me funny, I immediately told myself it’s because there was a dead person attached to my bumper.
What’s so hard to express to people who’ve never been in that headspace is that, even while these wild tableaus were playing out in my head, I was still fully aware that these thoughts were completely irrational. As were the intrusive thoughts about what if one day I accidentally murder someone, or lose someone’s child in a park, or drive off a cliff? What for most might be a fleeting thought was living in my head rent-free. In true shitty roommate fashion, it would hog the remote, always deciding what we watch. That’s why, since childhood, I could never go to bed without the sounds of my actual television accompanying me. Whatever was on was always going to be better than what was playing in my head.
I lurched constantly between knowing I was overreacting and being unable to stop the overreactions. That self-awareness is why I continued to participate in the “fun” activities that also set me off. Because I wanted to rage and do all the stuff my friends did. I wanted to be like them and tried to force myself to feel adjusted and normal. To them, I was. They never saw my panic. I hid it well. That’s how I liked it. No one needed to know what was going on inside my head as long as I seemed okay on the outside.
My junior year of college, I met a guy at a hardcore show who I thought was going to be my first legitimate boyfriend. Let’s call him, I don’t know, Spud? Spud caught my attention primarily because he gave me attention. He wasn’t particularly attractive to me, or special. I guess he was kind of funny — an idiot, but in a fun way. He reminded me of a hair metal dude in an 80’s movie who says shit like, “All I need in life is babes and booze and rock ’n’ roll!” I hate that I found that hot. I hate that I still find it hot. Okay, let’s be real, I don’t hate it at all. So yeah, he was an older punk guy who still hung out with kids in their early 20s. He wasn’t that much older, but the age gap was enough for it to be kind of pathetic for him to still be crashing college house shows... Anyway, the point being, he gave me attention.
The first time we had sex, I insisted Spud wear a condom, but he didn’t want to. Mind you, this was the third guy I’ve ever had penetrative sex with. He assured me he was recently tested, and though I still felt uncomfortable, I didn’t say so. I wanted Spud to like me. I didn’t want to come off as fussy. He was older too, which made me think he must know more than I do about this. Lots of people fuck without condoms. This is growing up. I’ve got to be cool and not make a big deal out of it. Well, Spud went to town. To say it was the worst sex of my life is an understatement, but at the time I didn’t have much to compare it to. So I just thought of it as sex. Spud kept thrusting without giving any sort of care toward me or my pleasure. He went at it like this until he was finally ready to release the fruits of his hard labor. I assumed that he would pull out and ejaculate somewhere on my body, but he did not do that. No, Spud released his goo right into me, without warning. This was the first time a man had ever come inside me.
I was horrified but didn’t want to show it. I remember the feeling. The drip that ran down my leg as I walked to the bathroom. The combination of shock and awe. I knew I wouldn’t get pregnant because I was on birth control, but I still felt scared. I was violated but refused to feel violated. This is being a woman, I thought. I cleaned up the mess all around me, while a new mess began forming inside me.
I continued seeing Spud for a few weeks, letting him come in me every time we fucked. I didn’t protest because I wanted to keep him in my life. But, in my head, I was uneasy about it each and every time. When we were apart, my thoughts would race, imagining scenarios where Spud reveals to me he has an STI. That’s when I would text him and make sure he had been tested. I needed confirmation he was free of STI’s, nearly every time I thought about it. Regardless of my rational brain telling me I was being over the top, and that I should just go get tested on my own, and that even if I did get an STI it wouldn’t be the end of the world -- most are treatable (and all are manageable) -- it didn’t matter. My mind was still in a war zone.
My brain was at ease when actually with Spud in person, though. I still wanted him to be my boyfriend after all. Who else would be my boyfriend if not him? As soon as we were apart again, my anxiety texts would be sent, “You sure you’re clean? When was it again? How many partners have you had since?” Naturally, Spud stopped talking to me after a few weeks of this. I was heartbroken. I had fucked everything up. Scared him away. My self-esteem, clearly already low, was now lower. To make matters worse, I remember seeing a photo he posted on Facebook and clicking on it to see the comments. The photo was of him simply standing next to some statues. The comment I read under it was from a friend of his, who jokingly wrote (this is to the best of my memory), “You better make sure to wear a condom or else you might get STD’s”. This was obviously his friend making a dumb joke about me. I was the source of humor among him and his buddies. The crazy bitch obsessed with condoms.
I will never forget my embarrassment reading that comment, but that still didn’t motivate me to dig deeper. I continued to anticipate “punishment” for engaging in casual sex all the while still enjoying it and wanting to partake in it. New and unfamiliar experiences, particularly in regards to sex, were always coupled with guilt. That guilt would set me off. The good news is, over time, the more experienced I got with fuckin’, the less fear I had about it. I ultimately ended up getting much more comfortable engaging in casual sex (some might say too comfortable), and thus, the paranoia and distress mostly eroded. The less guilt I felt, the more my intrusive thoughts dissipated… about that particular thing, I mean. My brain would always move on from one source of anxiety only to find a new thing to cling to, obsess over, and repeat the pattern. First God, then sex, now what?
It didn’t help that I grew up in a culture of self-blame. My family instilled the mentality that if something bad happens to you in life, it’s because you did something wrong to make that happen. Like when my college apartment was robbed and my prized possessions stolen (laptop, camera, and a bunch of DVDs), my mom’s immediate reaction was to tell me that perhaps this happened because I’m not Jewish enough. Like, if I was more devout to God he wouldn’t have let it happen. Obviously, this is some bullshit, but it’s how I was taught to look at what most others would think is bad luck or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time or what have you. No, somehow I am to blame for my misfortune regardless of the seemingly random or accidental nature of it. I did something wrong to deserve this and if not directly me, whoever I let give me the “Evil Eye”.
Here comes the now what? from before. In more recent years my anxiety swayed toward magical thinking and the fear of the Evil Eye. While my family believed in many superstitions, the prevailing one was this curse rooted in envy. If you speak too highly of yourself to certain people, show others your good fortune, or have any form of self-confidence or pride, that can lead to harm. Those envious people either want what you have or simply don’t want you to succeed and thus, they give you “the eye”. A really cool thing to believe when you’re trying to be a successful comedian and writer, right? I was careful about every little thing I said to people out of fear of being cursed. If they know too much they can hurt me with this information. I began the habit of constantly lighting up sage when I had a bad thought and regularly buying a new crystal for protection or for good luck. I wore a red string around my wrist again -- like I was instructed to as a child (the red string serves as protection…allegedly). All of this was a way to control the uncontrollable. Participating in these rituals, and clinging to talismen felt like I had some kind of control over how things would turn out for me.
I did eventually reach a breaking point. I was fed up with living in fear and with my anxiety making life Hell for me. More importantly, I was sick of spending so much fucking money on rocks. So, I finally bit the bullet and dedicated myself to weekly therapy sessions. For the first few months, it felt pointless. Nothing was changing and I didn’t feel much better. I’d just talk and my therapist would listen, often not even giving me any advice or definite actions to take in order to change things. Then, after a few more months I realized that the more I talked, the more my behavior started making sense. I suppose that’s what ultimately did the trick for me. Making sense of it all is what led to me chilling the fuck out. I began accepting that life is out of my control and came to understand that the guilt and intense fear of harsh consequences I was feeling all stemmed from my childhood. There are a plethora of other things I’ve come to learn about myself in the process but we can talk about those another day. The point is, though it took time, something in me changed. Four years later, things are a lot calmer. Maybe getting older had something to do with it. Maybe drinking less helped too. It’s likely a combination of everything but, suffice to say, things are now better... and that’s what I’d like to complain about.
Simply put, healing is boring. Having improved emotional regulation, a more balanced brain, and healthier coping mechanisms when the shit occasionally goes out-of-whack, makes for a much less chaotic life. The lack of chaos, for me, genuinely feels something like ennui. It’s not that I liked the unpredictability of my anxious mind but, I don’t know, maybe I did? In a weird way, I think having such extreme thoughts made me feel different. As a teen, I began romanticizing my anxiety the moment I watched my first Woody Allen film. Okay, so I may not feel as lovingly about him now, but the 13-year-old me watching this man on-screen was truly the first time I ever felt seen.
While my feelings about him have changed over the years, sure, I can’t deny that Woody Allen was a transformative figure for me. My dad introduced me to “Annie Hall”, and from that moment, I became completely fixated. I walked to the local Blockbuster and rented every Woody Allen film they had available (or begged my dad to do it for me if it was rated R). Each film was more and more life-affirming. I finally saw what I felt was me on-screen. Decades apart in age, I wasn’t even alive when his best movies were made, and yet there was still an instant bond. His unique brand of reluctant Judaism and his overwhelming neuroticism struck something in me that’s never truly gone away. I had a mind like his, and his mind was celebrated, so that must mean mine ought to be celebrated too, right? No matter how much strife it gives me, my anxious brain can also be funny and quirky and even relatable.
At times, my anxiety almost felt like a sort of power. As disturbing as some of my thoughts were, they were also...imaginative. When I began therapy, one of my initial genuine fears was that if I “fixed” my brain, I would lose this important part of myself. It would stunt my creativity and my analytical skills. Yes, I thought that improving my mental health would somehow make me a less talented, less interesting person. Fucked, I know, but that’s the sort of chokehold my anxiety had on me and my identity. I mean, it’s who I’ve been pretty much my whole life. Would I still be me if these thoughts went away?
What I now have to frequently remind myself is that my tendency to negatively overthink everything was a distraction more than a source of excitement or creativity. It was bad. I never enjoyed when my brain went into those spirals, so why the fuck would I miss it? They were rarely positive, upward thought spirals. I was never kept awake at 4AM imagining my life if I was married to a handsome prince from a country no one knew even existed (that’s the sort of shit people fantasize about, right?) But no. Rather, they were worst-case scenarios about everything from dying of disease to being cursed, punished, and more. These scenarios kept appearing no matter how much I tried to let them go, and I believed at the time that I had no control over them. They could exist in my mind for as long as they wanted to. Often, they felt very real, as if this thing I’m imagining could and will happen, despite me knowing I am not the kind of person to do bad or violent or destructively irresponsible things.
I cannot go back to that.
So yes, maybe I’m a little bored now, but I’m still not done doing the work to keep my anxiety in check. I know at some point I will have a better perspective on this so-called boredom and see it for what it really is: growth. The idea that the best artists have something perpetually fucked up about them haunted me into inaction. But since I started clearing my thoughts of so much worry and panic, it actually made way for a more authentic me to come through. My brain is still the same, just less fearful. I’m more sure of the decisions I make. I haven’t lost anything special about me. I will keep growing, and keep being me. To anyone else in a similar place, know this: the process works. Give yourself the gift of not freaking the fuck out all the time. Or, at least equip yourself with the tools needed to better handle it when you do. There’s nothing cool about hiding pain. You know what is cool? Sex and drugs and rock n’ roll!! And telling God to fuck off!!!! Or at least just being able to have a good night’s sleep without reruns of “Frasier” playing in the background.