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May 12, 2020

Dear Anxiety, it’s Not Me it’s You.

I’ve spent my adult life reconciling myself to a sad truth.

I’ve been living with a creeping realization that there’s something wrong with me. Melodramatic, I know, but with every decision, move, and action, peace has seemingly eluded me.

I don’t ask for a storybook life. I know that’s a fallacy and that ups and downs are normal. But I feel like a square peg living in a world of round holes. I go to great pains to shove myself into things, but I don’t fit. Inevitably, it takes chunks out of me. Nothing seems to feel right.

I’ve been zealous in the “fix myself”‘ mission. I’ve tried therapy, self-help books, meditation, yoga, and given up booze. None of these has worked. The off-kilter feeling continues to permeate many aspects of my life despite my best efforts.

The off feelings are at their strongest when I first open my eyes—before the rational mind can bastardize it with recriminations for being ungrateful in my life. I feel lost, disorientated, and untethered, and it’s not because I’ve just woken up.

But, this is clearly not a practical feeling to indulge or explore on a Tuesday morning. So, I turn to my ritual of coffee and chain-smoking. Most days, this helps. I fill my body with these and my mind with to-do lists. This reduces the space available for my daily existential crisis. I step out into the world and tell myself I’m up for this day, this job, and this life.

But, anxiety is an unbridled horse. And while I read the newspaper on the train, a white-hot charge will shoot through my chest and catch me off guard. I want my money back because I’ve faithfully followed the instruction manual for life.

I live in a London suburb. I do brunch with girlfriends. I fill my weekends with activities that make acceptable Monday morning office fodder. I’ve forsaken passion for security, plumping for sensible career choices with a clear progression.

Do I like it? Well, does it matter? My choices legitimize me to friends and acquaintances—whatever the personal cost may be.

I’m speaking sardonically. But, when we have a good quality of life, and we’re still miserable, we have to wonder: what in the name of God is wrong with me?

But while quarantine has brought boredom and isolation, it’s also given me clarity.

What if I’m not the problem?

While anxiety and panic grip the world, my levels of neurosis are the lowest they’ve been in years. Yes, I’m worried about job security, money, and loved ones, but that feels different. That’s normal, and I understand it. What’s vanished from me is the sense of ill-fit. I’m 180 miles away from London, up north, away from my ordinary life, and I can safely say that I’m happy.

After years of torturous self-inquiry and self-torment, the penny drops. I am not the problem. My choices are—my work, environment, and priorities. The choices I’m making are not congruent with the life I want to lead. I have pain and anxiety because of this. I have repeatedly made choices that are not congruent with who I am. But up to now, I saw the chronic stress as a sign I was flawed and needed to be fixed.

It’s making me take a long, hard look at anxiety and depression. When either appears, our instinct is to eliminate them. Which is understandable—they are uncomfortable. We’ll turn to mindfulness, exercise, medication, ad talking therapies. We’ll rationalize our way out with gratitude practices, positive thinking, and self-affirmations.

What we don’t do is see anxiety as a good thing. What if, in some cases, anxiety is our personal messenger, asking us to look within? What if it’s there, like physical pain, to tell us we need to pay attention to something? The problem with anxiety is that it’s not sophisticated. It can tell us something’s wrong, but it can’t tell us what or how to fix it.

In the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that my life is wildly different from the one that I crave. I’m a free spirit who loves the natural world, despises bureaucracy and corporate structures, and loves to be creative, autonomous, and independent. My current life crushes all of this.

It’s funny. I’d thought it was a defect in my personality that was causing my anxiety. I’d thought if I could find my jagged edges and round them off, temper my character and desires, I’d find happiness. I felt that I needed to change to fit the world.

Now I see that all I’ve been doing is waging war on myself—one I could never win. I was never going to be able to change who I am.

But perhaps that’s what the journey was for. To teach me how harmful it is to reject our true nature. Like it or not, it’s here to stay. So, the best thing to do is to learn to honor it.

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