The Weight of Anxiety
Last year, in early March, DC shut down because of snow. Excited for a day off in the middle of the week, my partner and I finished watching the first season of Homeland, which follows CIA agent Carrie Mathison – who believes that Nicholas Brody, a Marine prisoner of war, has been flipped and now works for al-Qaeda. After watching very male-focused shows like Justified and Mad Men, Carrie was a welcome and refreshing change.
I immediately identified with her – she was doing the sort of work I wanted to do in high school, when I was amped up on spy dramas and one of the few politically-minded people I knew. I had even gone so far as to apply for a CIA scholarship, which guaranteed summer internships and a job after college. I managed to convince my mentor to write one of my recommendations, even though he had deep misgivings about it, but I did not manage to convince the CIA. Years later, it was easy to imagine myself in Carrie’s place.
It was her struggle with mental illness, more than her career, that I identified with. The day after finishing the first season, I had an anxiety attack that lasted a week. And that was only the beginning of a months-long endeavor to escape from the inner voices that hounded me, telling me I was too crazy, telling me that everyone I loved would leave me.
Early in the show, Carrie reveals to Virgil, who has helped her spy on the Brody family, that the pills she takes are for her bipolar disorder. This moment solidified the instant connection I felt to Carrie – though not because I suffer from bipolar disorder. What connects me to Carrie is the weight of mental illness. It is a thing that bears down upon you, whether it is bipolar or anxiety or depression.
Carrie also reminded me most viscerally of myself at sixteen, when I self-diagnosed as bipolar because my time was spent either being depressed and anxious or manic. The girl who broke my heart would pull me in with some small kindness and then jab me where she knew it would hurt the most. I nursed that heartache for a year and a half. I called those periods when my depression mingled with anxiety over the future “existential crises.” (I was reading Camus that year.) I didn’t sleep because I kept picturing my own death.
So I wasn’t just with her when she became obsessed with Nicholas Brody, with her when she realized she might love him, with her when her heart broke – I was her. Her feelings mirrored my own so closely that it was hard to watch the last few episodes of the season, which depict Carrie’s mental breakdown. She spent a weekend in a cabin with Brody on a whirlwind romantic getaway, confessed that she spied on him, told him she thought he was a terrorist, and shortly after was hospitalized for injuries sustained during a bombing. Like Carrie, I wanted some sort of reconciliation between her and Brody. My heart broke with hers when it became increasingly clear that such a thing would not happen. I wanted things to be okay for Carrie, because I wanted things to be okay for me.
While Carrie’s life unraveled, I felt like the strands of my own life were being tugged apart. A dear friend moved across the country. My grandfather died. On the day of the wedding rehearsal of one of my best and oldest friends, I got a call telling me that my grandmother had also died. My partner applied for grad school, making the future even more unclear. My responsibilities at work increased dramatically. But watching Carrie’s breakdown seemed to be what broke me.
I found myself unable to breathe, trying desperately to suck in oxygen. My mind ran wild with negative thoughts like an oversized, vicious dog I couldn’t control. My heart tightened as though anxiety had fingers that could wrap around it and squeeze. I cried all the time – most embarrassingly at my desk at work – and over anything. The tiniest provocation would bring me to tears. I could not get a handle on myself. I knew that if I could not get a grip, my crazy would drive everyone, especially my partner, away from me. Who would want to deal with me, with this, after all? I certainly didn’t want to. If I was getting tired of dealing with it, I couldn’t imagine how bad it must have been for the people who had to put up with me. I reached out to friends, unloading my anxieties on them, apologizing as I did so for being out of touch and then burdening them with my problems. (Each and every single person I opened up to in that time period told me they did not mind. It was pretty much the only good thing to come out of the anxiety, that blessing of friendship.) That week I thought that the shape of my life had changed, that I would be a mess of anxiety forever. I was terrified that I would never get better.
Suddenly I understood what would lead Carrie to electroshock therapy. Yes, I thought, I know this desperation. I would have done anything to get rid of the near-paralyzing anxiety I felt almost all the time. I called a dozen therapists (one of whom graciously scheduled an appointment with me that same week). I would have taken pills. I would have, yes, probably even have undergone electroshock if someone had guaranteed it would work.
I’d had bad bouts of anxiety before. As I mentioned before, I suffered through insomnia, depression, and anxiety when I was sixteen and heartbroken. Despite the year and a half that I clung to that familiar heartbreak, it never felt as unending as that week in March did. It was akin to the dripping of a leaky faucet: more or less constant, with some moments of solace in between. Four years after that, at the end of my junior year of college, I was dumped. That time depression and anxiety mingled and I started to experience anxiety attacks: unable to breathe, feeling alone no matter who tried to comfort me, knowing with certainty that nothing would ever be okay. I found myself wishing to go home to a state I hated. I wrote pages upon pages in my journal. I self-medicated with booze and Jeanette Winterson novels.
None of it compared to that week in March. It truly felt like it would never end. When I thought about it, though, one thing seemed odd to me: generally before a bout of really bad anxiety, I had my heart broken. There was no such impetus this time – unless, of course, you count my empathetic heartbreak for Carrie. I can’t say for sure if it was actually connected with the onset of my anxiety last year, but the fact remains that Carrie Mathison (circa the first season, anyway) is an unusual creature on television. The show never seemed afraid to show her at her worst (or craziest, for that matter), but it still maintained a sympathy for her. It was easy to watch her make choices and know they were both unhealthy and inevitable.
Luckily for me and for national security, any unhealthy and inevitable choices of mine were not made on such a grand scale as Carrie’s. (It is probably for the best that I did not wind up going into government work.) They were much smaller things. At sixteen, I continued to try to be friends with the girl who broke my heart while she tore me down piece by piece, all because I couldn’t stand to lose her. At twenty, I had learned that particular lesson and I resolved to stop talking to my ex but tortured myself with social media, which made it easy to see how well he seemed to be doing.
I saw myself in all of Carrie’s worst qualities, regardless of scale, and some of her best, too. (Especially the ones that pertained to her romantic life. She may have fallen for a terrorist, but look at what a huge capacity for love she had. Carrie loved Brody so much it threatened to destroy her and nearly did.) Anxiety – along with depression and several other mental illnesses – lies to you. It tells you to believe all of the bad about yourself and none of the good. It urges you to hide your “real” self from everyone else, because if they knew what you really were they would leave you. It whispers to you to pick up the knife, the pills, the gun. It assures you that you are not worth it. And the worst of it is, knowing yourself as you do, having lived with mental illness as long as you have, you know exactly what to tell yourself to make it really hurt.
I gathered an arsenal of tricks to see me out of that prolonged anxiety attack and the months of anxiety that followed, but one of the most used was constant vigilance. I had to keep reminding myself that so many of my negative thoughts were anxiety lying to me. My partner asked me, during the writing of this, if showing Carrie at her craziest made me feel less crazy and the answer is no, it did not. But it did make me feel less alone.