I have been in counseling off and on for anxiety since the age of 10, when I was in Grade 5. I have learned many useful techniques, both standard Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques, and more varied mindfulness techniques. It is one of the lesser known techniques, that of trying to visualize anxiety that I wish to speak of now.
I have viewed anxiety through several different paradigms since I was a child. Actually, I’m not sure paradigms is the best word, but I like it better than metaphors which may be more what the exercise is about. Essentially, capturing how one visualizes anxiety is a tricky business and doing so is never representative of how anxiety is actually experienced, but it does influence how we go about dealing with it.
In Star Wars: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s spirit tells Luke this: “You will find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view”. My experience has taught me that this is very true—and especially so when I consider the different paradigms I’ve had of anxiety over the years. I will go through them now.
The first time I was asked to draw anxiety I was around the age of 12. I was immediately set by two conflicting images—a beautiful, seductive woman, and a many tentacled monster. My 12 year old self decided that the best course forward was to draw a woman who while beautiful and seductive on the outside was an ugly, hideous monster underneath. Sadly, despite always having a vivid image of what I want to draw, Developmental Coordination Disorder means I can’t actually draw the images in my head–which is one reason I never became an artist, always hated art class, and quit art as soon as I could. However, the image was clear to me and I was able to explain it to the counselor.
That image of anxiety stayed with me until about halfway through high school. It was also, interestingly, my worst period of anxiety. I only made my first real friendships near the end of Grade 7, and I struggled with suicidal thoughts and a deep depression through most of Grade 8. As an hormonal 13 year old I was also deeply distrustful of many of the more physically attractive people in the class, noticing a tendency towards a beautiful exterior but a nasty interior. My teachers and mentors noticed potential in me during those years, even noticing out loud a leadership potential that largely went ignored for a few years, but it’s encouraging looking back that even with all my struggles that potential was still evident to people perceptive enough to look for it.
I don’t really know exactly how that paradigm affected things. What I do know is that I did not enjoy much success against anxiety during my elementary school years. I also, interestingly, had a loose Christianity at this time. It was a largely immature view, based on a children’s Bible Story book, an after-school program, my experience in a children’s choir at the local church, and a lunch-time singing group at my local elementary school. This understanding of Christianity was not strong enough to survive the disappointments of this period and I became agnostic in Grade 9 and 10.
Around Grade 11, my perception of anxiety shifted. I viewed anxiety as a dark, nebulous cloud that constantly waged war against my light side. From then until my third year of university, it was always about a fight, a struggle, with anxiety a deceptive and seductive enemy, bent on destroying me. While I did have some successes during this period, as I didn’t require counseling in Grade 11 and 12, and I had a good, though small friend group around me, I also didn’t have a strong enough foundation to avoid a deep depression in my first year of university and I required a summer of intensive counseling to get back on track. My leadership potential also went largely unexpressed during all of high school and the first year and a half of university.
I did become Wiccan in Grade 11 and 12, and after first year I performed the Wiccan initiation ceremony. Finding faith in the Goddess gave me enough grounding to get through the first half of second year relatively well, and in the second semester I started dipping my toes into Safewalk, the Political Science Society, and Guelph Campus Ministry.
In third year, around the same time I was getting involved in GCM and becoming Christian, my paradigm of anxiety shifted yet again. I began to realize that anxiety in particular and darkness in general, was not a simultaneously beautiful and malevolent entity, nor a nebulous dark force to constantly fight. Rather, anxiety and darkness were a part of me–an inexcisable part of me. I became aware that fighting anxiety was not working–I needed a new strategy. And so, as I was becoming Christian, I was also realizing that I needed to accept my darkness, to embrace it—and by doing so, remove its power over me. Becoming Christian encouraged me in this as I saw Christ’s method of dealing with the darkness and evil in the world. My leadership abilities were also being recognized and actually given expression and this helped my confidence levels immeasurably.
Now, I still believe this wholeheartedly. Darkness and anxiety are inseparable parts of me–at least in this life. I have power over them only by accepting them and embracing them. I still have ups and downs–one counselor I had said said my anxiety was severe enough I would always have ups and downs with it. But viewing anxiety this way has allowed me to ride the ups and downs with more confidence and ease than I had before. This is not to say it’s easy, but I no longer worry I’ll lose the fight against anxiety–in other words, I may be in stormy seas a lot of the time, but I know there will be clear days and do my best to navigate towards them. And as I’ve grown and deepened my faith, I’ve learned that God can be found in the darkness as well as in the light, and that there is beauty in both.