Running between the couches in my therapist’s office is a wooden coffee table with a chess set on top. The pieces on his side are charcoal gray. The pieces on mine are gold. We never touch them during our sessions, but we always play.
He types quick notes while I talk and glances at me over the rim of his glasses with the dissecting look of a person who knows how to wait, and that’s his game: wait, coax away knights and bishops until I’m vulnerable, check me, but let me win. I grab fistfuls of tissues and play a different game entirely: overthink, slide a square back after tentatively sliding one forward, stall, protect. In my game, I am the king. The queen is always the harder one to beat.
Last week, my therapist gave her a name and gave me a new strategy: this is an anxiety disorder and you should probably take medication. One to three orange pills per day and one white pill per day, my physician confirmed. They’re bitter on my tongue and I’m told that winning will still be a slow process this way, but I’ll stand a better chance against the despot wreaking havoc on my body.
With boots on, I am 25 1/2 years old, 5’4″, and 114 pounds. The prongs on my belts have begun the thrilling and terrifying exploration of fresh new holes they’ve never been able to reach. I’ve begun the thrilling and terrifying process of leaving my house on my own after work hours and existing like a normal person again. One day, one morning, one hour, one pill at a time. I have to.
I have a mental illness. Most days, I feel reluctant to call it that because there are others who have it much worse. That doesn’t eliminate the fact that my brain is frequently playing its own game of chess, fixating on single pieces and unforeseeable outcomes as it lazily emits the basic data required for me to function: worry worry worry wake up worry worry worry go to work worry worry worry check emails worry worry take care of your loved ones worry remember to eat worry pay rent worry. This has been my life for almost half a year. Until now, I have not had enough mental room to give words to it, enough distance or practice to tell a person what mental illness and anxiety look like. Here’s one more strategy: I’m going to talk about it in every way I know how.
Anxiety is a small, ink-black worry hovering over your mind that only needs to drip once to be everywhere and in everything. It’s a hurricane that you keep on the inside and let silently devastate you, because letting it out means you immediately become a human evacuation order. Mental illness teaches you many sad things, and one is that there are less storm chasers in the world than there are people who flee.
When it’s especially bad, anxiety is waking up to ballistic missiles, stepping out of bed and into a battlefield where you are the only one fighting. Anxiety is slipping out of your pajamas and kneading the curves of your stomach like clay to make sure it’s still capable of holding anything because you’ve been skipping meals again, or so you can berate yourself one more time for every pound of what if and worry that’s found its way there and stayed.
Anxiety is driving in silence because you’re afraid the songs on the radio will somehow trigger panic. Anxiety is sitting at work with a strained smile and solving other peoples’ problems when you’re dealing with a rising hazard that you can barely contain — shallow breaths, a throbbing heart, lack of energy, nausea. Anxiety is rushing to the bathroom so that no one can see you crying, so you can bend yourself over an open toilet just in case, so that you can fold yourself into a corner like a paper crane and pray to not be so delicate. Anxiety is smiling uncomfortably when a coworker says they need a mental health day, because you know you can’t ask for the same thing and be taken seriously when you desperately need to be. Vomit gets you a day off with sympathy and no questions asked. Mental illness does not.
Anxiety is putting your key in the lock when you get home and opening your front door into a cell that you want to leave, but don’t know if you can. It’s hesitantly pulling back the covers and slipping into bed, knowing you will not be roused by pink sunlight filtering through your eyelids but black panic twisting in your gut. Anxiety is the fear of being awake — or for those of you who handle humor better, anxiety is being dragged to a party you never wanted to go to, spending the whole night wondering how you can both seem really chill and quietly want to never leave your house again, and stressing out because your ride out is nowhere to be seen.
I have a collection of metaphors to describe it when I don’t want to feel completely deprived by it, and a growing list of advice from loved ones and friends I’ve told myself I am never to listen to:
“Maybe you need to make different life choices.”
“Just stop worrying.”
“You don’t need to see anybody. There’s nothing wrong with you.”
You don’t win at chess by running from or minimizing the challenge. You win by playing the game one bloody square at a time. Prayer and faith are my squares, my days at a time, and though I know that many people who struggle with mental illness don’t share the same beliefs I do, I know that there is hope. It is sometimes a wild and fleeting thing, perhaps even a distant thing, but never an impossible one. So I’ll get up and I’ll play. Some days I’ll have it really good, and others I’ll struggle. Some days I won’t know how to move and worry myself sick about what will happen if I do. But I won’t quit. Kings don’t quit.