Authentic Eagles: On Anxiety

As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our struggles in the constant quest to appear perfect. Embracing our  truths can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials and tribulations of being one’s authentic self at BC.

Johnny Steichen, A&S ’15

“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Let me begin by saying that my experience here was not the first or last of its kind, only the most profoundly troublesome and cleansing.  Anxiety plagues my existence and manifests itself in many ways. I despise it. I cannot do without its light. Anxiety is my torturer and my lover, my enemy and my friend. Anxiety is the darkness in and through which its very own light shines and guides. In my anxiety, I am lost; through my anxiety, I am found.

During the second or third week of my freshman year, I found growing within me the first chutes of the smallest seed of the darkest self-doubt.  Panic-stricken, confused, and overwhelmed by a new environment and a few bad decisions, I found myself thrown into the uncharted depths of rigorous, though clumsily inexperienced, self-examination.  What I found was repulsive.  I felt as if my very own mind was rebelling against me.  Somehow a single, unbelievable, and destructive thought crept past my defenses and surrounded the entirety of my consciousness. Silently, it screamed and commanded me to accept it as truth. Again and again, like the infestation of a foreign pulse beneath my very own flesh, this thought—this sickness—this obsessive anxiety—grew within me and throttled my confidence.  This monster threw me from the foundation of the rock, wrestled me through the tumultuous seas of seemingly interminable anxiety, and finally subdued me in the desert of depression.  Something inherent to my very “self” was overrun and overthrown by none other than my very own brain.  I was stripped down to nothing. My consciousness slowly bore all; I stared, horrified, at its nakedness.  I doubted everything I knew about myself.  I understood nothing.

At first I fought; I ceaselessly armed my consciousness against the invasion of its own, now self sufficient, creation.  I hated the infestation.  More than anything, I want the siege against my peace of mind to end.  How could I do this to myself! Relentlessly, I sorted through my memories, trying to prove that there was no ground for this tiny invader’s massive overhaul.  But my mind was a mess! Memories were only what I made of them! How could I trust them?  Oh, how greedily the doubt spread! I spent hours upon hours searching the web for others with my same condition.  I changed the wording of my search phrases again and again, hoping to find any mildly solidaritous account of another’s suffering.  Consequently, I learned more about intrusive thoughts and anxiety than I care to share. I just didn’t want to be alone.  I couldn’t bear to believe that maybe—just maybe— I was denying a hidden truth about myself.  Was it possible that I couldn’t accept myself? Didn’t I know who I was? Didn’t I love myself?  Somewhere deep within the confused hurricane of my mind—hidden deep down in the middle of it all—was the truth.  But I’d lost it.  I stumbled, searched, and stumbled again.

Slowly and rhythmically the seedling’s tendrils took root.  The doubt grew. The intruder violated all that was mine as it wove its way deeper and deeper into my thoughts.  I didn’t sleep.  I continued to fight.  I still had a say and wouldn’t give in! Then I caved.  I wanted to give in to submission and acceptance but fell prisoner to apathy and depression.  I couldn’t accept the thought, so I hid from it.  I gave up.  I became tired.  I slept.  I slept a lot.  I was alone. I hated my waking hours.  I couldn’t stand myself.  I began to wonder if I was just denying this tiny idea its proper place.  Maybe it was true.

Again, I tried to accept the intruder’s presence.  Once or twice, I even watered the growing seedling, making matters worse.  But maybe acceptance would bring peace. Maybe once I got past some previously unacknowledged fear of myself, happiness would flow though my veins once more.  I worked up my courage, stripped away my old certainties and expectations, and tried to make way for a new part of my identity that maybe wasn’t so bad at all.  Weeks passed.  I was sad.  One day I would thrash about in the high seas of anxiety, the next I would lie hopelessly still in the dry heat of depression.  At the same time, I felt constantly drenched and weighed down like a towel that fell into a pool.  If I forgot about the weight of my sopping clothes for but a moment, the lightening struck, cruelly reminding of the storm within.  I was subdued as my mind hammered away at its own slowly petrifying heart.  “Everything I know about myself is a lie.” I had to accept this  thought. That was the hardest part: the deconstruction.  I tore down everything.  I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t, so it all went.

I finally reached the breaking point.  Whether I found strength or just gave up, I don’t know; but I started to actually accept the thought that frightened me so much. Endless tears fell from my eyes onto a hotel event-room floor in Plymouth Massachusetts.  Chris put his arm around me.  My 48 hours group looked at me strangely; I hadn’t revealed anything to them during the entire weekend.  I dug deep—further than ever before—and encountered a question. “Who would still love me if I wasn’t me? If me really was a lie and the truth was someone else?”  A picture of my grandmother flashed in my mind. “Would she still love me?” If anyone could, she would.  I sobbed silently and compliantly. I struggled with that question for a long time…

“Yes. She would always love me.” I didn’t know what it meant then, but if my Grammy could still love me, I could still love me.  I let go.  I accepted everything I’d fought against for so long.  I welcomed it.

Horror—absolute horror! The deepest wave anxiety that ever penetrated my being ripped through the curtains of my consciousness; I was accepting a lie. I didn’t know the truth, but this intruder was a liar! I was absolutely certain.  This compulsive, anxious thought was nothing but a lie! It was just a fear that my brain latched onto during the heights of stress!  I was afraid to accept it because I was worried it might be true.  That’s the problem with anxiety: when it strikes, nothing feels realer.  Fighting does nothing. The only way out is through.  Once I accepted my anxious thought as truth, the real me spoke up and spat up the intruder.  The original thought even seemed ridiculous.  I laughed.  I was relieved beyond measure.  The truth is that I never loved myself before that day—I still didn’t—but I knew I could.  The knowledge didn’t take the form of a thought, but I felt it.  Who am I? I couldn’t answer that question, but I was becoming surer of who I wasn’t. The lies within started to crumble.  I came to life and began to build.  I felt refreshed and clean. Only then did I know the most profound joy.  For a moment, I believed God.  That was my most authentic hour.

My anxiety—my tormentor turned friend—helped me learn to be honest with myself.  While developing, clinging to, and struggling with a possible yet terrible thought, I taught myself to delve deep into my psyche, analyze my thoughts, break down the lies, and build the true me from the ruins.  I found a way to work through my struggles, and today things are much better.  Nevertheless, I must say that I never could’ve done it alone. If it weren’t for those who loved me through it all, I’d still be as lost as I was during that first semester.  The wonderful friends and BC students that I am beyond privileged to share my life with picked me up when I was down and brought me back to myself.  I love them and am forever indebted to their love. Without them I wouldn’t be here today; I wouldn’t be me.

This I believe: honest and naked self-examination is an incredibly anxious and uncertain experience; it is worthwhile beyond measure.  Doubt is the father of faith.  Love and acceptance are the keys to authenticity, and love is only possible with the presence of an other.  Love is everything.