Sometimes life is very loud. Thoughts, worries, ideas and concerns spin around and around inside my head all at the same time, jumbling together to create a mess of confusion that’s impossible to find a way through. Finding myself in the middle of this mess is often totally overwhelming.
I have spent many years in doctors’ offices and counselling sessions in an attempt to treat my severe anxiety. I have talked a lot, been given drugs, advice and numerous meditation CDs, but beyond all those things, what stuck in my head the most was being told during one such session “Don’t try to get rid of your anxiety. It’s not about making it go away.”
Initially, that didn’t make sense. Surely that was the whole point of having all this treatment? To make my anxiety go away so it wouldn’t be a problem anymore. Then, and only then, would I be able to get on with my life without being so anxious that some days I didn’t even want to leave the house, let alone go out into the world and try to function!
It’s not the purpose of this blog to recommend books, or specific treatment approaches but I do want to share one of the most helpful metaphors I’ve ever come across, from a book called The Happiness Trap, by an Australian author named Russ Harris. The best way to explain it is to share the (short!) video below.
Even though I initially thought this concept was strange, it eventually made sense, and I felt like it was ok that the demons on my boat (my anxiety) might never completely go away. They could roar and shout and scream and jump up and down all they liked, but they couldn’t take control of my boat, and they certainly couldn’t throw me overboard, regardless of how much they threatened to try! All I had to do was keep steering towards the destination I had chosen. It didn’t matter whether they were hiding underneath the deck, or whether they’d decided to jump out and growl at me, because that was all they could do. Either way, I was still there, and I was still in control. I was still in control because I had learned to manage the anxiety demons and discovered that I could now not only cope with them myself, I could encourage other people that it was possible to learn to manage theirs as well. While I knew I wasn’t “fixed”, I was doing better than I had been in a long time. I had started to emerge as a “role model” and a “leader”. My little boat was sailing along quite nicely thank you.
Fast-forward about 18 months. I was experiencing several extremely stressful situations at once, some were health-related, some weren’t, but all of them had descended upon my life at the same time. The demons had reappeared from the bottom of my boat, and there were more than there had been in a long time.
In amongst the noise and crashing waves and panic and growling demons, there was overwhelming confusion.
“I should be past this point by now.”
“I’m supposed to know how to deal with this.”
“I’m a terrible role model.”
“People are disappointed in me.”
“Maybe I never REALLY got it in the first place.”
“Maybe I can’t REALLY cope.”
“Maybe I never could.”
These thoughts really bothered me. They made me question the progress I was convinced I’d made, and cast major doubt over whether I’d ever really been able to cope. How could I, if the wheels fell off as soon as I was faced with a hurdle that challenged me?
Eventually there was a break in the storm. Once the noise and panic had died down a bit, I realised something. I was still onboard my ship. I hadn’t fallen overboard or had the steering wheel ripped away from me by some hideous growling monster. Yes, they were there, and they looked scarier than ever before, but they still hadn’t done anything more than growl.
I, on the other hand, had done quite a bit. Not only had I continued steering my ship towards where I knew I ultimately wanted to go. I had managed to follow my map. On my map were the skills and strategies I knew I had learned to help me manage these exact moments. They were the conversations where people I trusted told me I hadn’t completely lost the plot, they were the lists of One Thing At A Time, they were the days when I did nothing just to give my brain a break, they were the steely resolve of “I CAN do this”, they were the constant reminds not to overthink stuff.
These things, and the fact that I hadn’t drowned in the storm, were all the proof I needed.
“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.”
– Little Women, Louisa May Alcott