In my life I have experienced, and will continue to experience, painful anxiety. I state this not with resignation, but with resolve. Because I have learned that to accept my anxiety, to not be ashamed or afraid of it, to embrace it as part of who I am, helps to “defang” it, to take away its bite, and it’s power to overpower.
I am at this moment of acceptance thanks in large part to psychotherapy. But my entering treatment was not without its difficulties, including an irrational fear that the analytic process would diminish my creativity as a writer. To the contrary, being in therapy helped me to think more clearly, work more productively, and tap deeper into my artistic self. It also helped me realize that my earlier concern was mere excuse making, another way for me to avoid facing challenging truths about my past. By justifying my pain as pivotal to my writing, I gave myself a reason to remain in pain, in a place of discomfort, which while feeling oddly safe, was wrecking my body and my soul. Here is my journey out of that place, a journey that saw my passion for writing intertwined with my desire to heal emotionally.
As a young child, my anxiety came out in classic OCD behavior. I had a phobia of germs, compulsive worrying, counting repetitively, you name it. Despite this, I was able to do well in sports, school, and make friends. I also felt an early desire to express myself creatively. Unfortunately, I was (and still am) terrible at fine arts. I could not draw a circle that wasn’t shaped like a square, and all my school ceramic projects were off-balance, even ashtrays. But I loved reading and words and was constantly daydreaming, making up different scenarios, writing stories, so to speak, in my head.
I graduated from high school, went to college, and discovered how much fun it was to be away and on my own. But when I went back home, my anxiety peaked – perhaps a clash of my old self meeting my new one. It was very bad the summer after my freshmen year, not sleeping, losing my appetite, depression, so bad that my parents took me to a psychologist who told me “it would pass” and prescribed to me anti-depressants that made me even more anxious and afraid that I was “going crazy.”
But with my symptoms, I never did. I just suffered. And when I went back to school, started to have fun again, got busy and distracted, these symptoms went away.
And this went on and on – for the next four years, and after graduation and into my twenties. I would have bouts of anxiety, sometimes as short as a week, other times for months, where I felt as if I would never again be normal or happy. But the feelings would always go away, and after I would celebrate and live it up – acting as if I had been given a reprieve from the electric chair.
When I started treatment, my avoidance presented itself in shielding my answers to my therapist’s questions, deflecting away from issues I found shameful. My goal was to be the most “well-adjusted” patient in history, and I worked so hard before a session to think up what I would talk about and how I would shape it to make me look good that I would be drained and exhausted before it even started. And while I did several times allude to my aspirations as a writer, I did it in a very non-committal way, as if it was an afterthought and not something I wanted with all my heart and soul.
During this early time of treatment, I had the misconception that my therapist should be able to intune my thoughts and feelings, read through what I was really saying and find the truth to my problems and cure me. I was so used to hiding my desire to be a writer that I also expected he would pull this out of me as well, like the King laying a sword on a knight, christening me a writer and I would be off and on my way.
What I learned, and when I began to make headway in sessions, was that therapy was only as good as I wanted it to be – what I put into it is what I got out. If I held back, I lost. If I was vulnerable and forthcoming, I won. So I began to open up about my aspirations, talked about writing projects, and our work together became more intense and beneficial.
With encouragement from my therapist, I began to take continuing education classes in writing, joined a writing group, and then applied and was accepted into a graduate writing program. As I was making this progress, and perhaps because of it, cracks started to appear in my marriage and I got divorced. This was a very difficult time, but also an empowering period.
With the guidance and support I was receiving in analysis, I was able to grow from the experience and gain confidence. It was also one of the most prolific times in my writing life, as I penned story after story about love and loss, many which were included in my published collection, Two Syllable Men.
So many artists are self-deprecating about their creative desires, either because of insecurity, shyness, or fear of rebuke. It is why I often say that I became a writer when I said I was a writer. Not to sound like a self-help guru, but the words we use to describe ourselves do often define ourselves.
If we say we’re not really an artist, we will think we’re not really an artist. And this relates to therapy. How we talk about the experience is how we will feel about it.
For me, taking responsibility for my writing, my treatment, what I was passionate about, making it my identity, was crucial in making it real.
Being creative is a courageous act in itself. And so is entering into treatment with a mental health professional to work on yourself and to be all you can be. I have found that in my writing life I am often faced with moments when I must pull up this courage – be it sitting down after not writing for some time and facing the pain of the words not flowing, but continuing to push forward until it does get easier. Then courage to send work out, to journals and publishers, to face rejection, to not get daunted, to take criticism with an open mind.
It is this process of testing and building courage that I feel truly distinguishes the artist and gives them opportunities for enjoyment and understanding of life beyond those who do not take on these challenges.
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