Heart pounding, pulse quickening, shallow breathing-these are all very real symptoms of anxiety. I know because my anxiety is severe and at times crippling.
In examining my work as a writer, I have discovered that anxiety stands out as one of the great forces driving my narratives. What I have also noticed is that, when describing the condition, writers, myself included, focus on the physical manifestations listed above. We use these descriptions because they are accurate. Stating that, in the midst of an anxiety attack, your heart rate increases and you feel a pounding in your chest is not melodrama; it is truth.
The issue for the author, however, is because we use these descriptions so often, we have weakened their power. So, my self-assigned writing task for today is to describe anxiety in a way that reflects the truth yet eschews phrases that may, unfortunately, sound trite.
For me, when anxiety strikes, it is like hearing a knock on the front (or back) door. I assume that when most people hear a knock, they don’t panic-unless of course they have committed a crime and are waiting for the police to show up and arrest them. Most think that perhaps it is a neighbor wanting to borrow a tool or a cup of sugar, or it could be the UPS carrier delivering a package. But, for a person with anxiety, a knock on the door always generates fear. The knock can mean that, in fact, the police have come to arrest you, although to the best of your knowledge, you have committed no crime. Or it could be someone coming to deliver tragic news. Or a home invader is positioned right outside the threshold. That knock on the door brings terror, and that terror spurs all those physical sensations we are going to avoid in this bit of writing.
What’s important to note here, is that if you suffer from anxiety, there is a constant rapping on your door-it comes in the sunlight, the moonlight and the shadows.
It reminds me of something I experienced as a teenager (true story). My father was a prison warden, and high-level corrections staff and their families were required to live on prison grounds, so, when I was ten years old, we moved onto state property. Our house was one of four built atop a hill. Behind our homes were miles of forest. In front were fields and on the horizon, one of three prisons. For a child, the experience was what you would imagine-lonely and frightening.
One New Years Eve, my parents went out with my father’s colleagues who lived on the street. My brother was with friends and that left me alone on the hill with my best friend who came over to watch movies. I remember it was after midnight and we were upstairs watching Stand By Me when we heard a rapping on the back door. We ran downstairs to see who it was, but when I turned on the back light, there was only darkness. Nothing else. We grabbed knives from the kitchen and waited until my parents returned home.
So that’s it. Someone emerging from the darkness to rap on your door. That’s anxiety.
A side note: a few months ago, I was startled awake by a rapping on the door. I looked at my phone; it was 3am. I checked on my children before running downstairs and peered out the window to find nothing. Just darkness.