I – Illness and Wellness
Years ago, a dear friend told me how, each night, he used to sit with his then-fiancée on the floor of their closet for hours, holding her while she shook and shook with inexpressible fears.
Another friend’s currently working full-time to support himself and his wife because her anxiety’s gotten so bad that she’s had to drop out of the job market, despite her passion for helping underprivileged kids get psychiatric services.
As for me, read my biography alongside my partner’s, and you’ll assume that she’s the one who’s broken. When she was 17, a family member threw a knife at her and left her blind. She spent six years homeless in her country of origin, Morocco, before becoming a Fulbright scholar and securing asylum in the States. Compare that to my quiet childhood and caring parents, and it’s indisputable who’s got more right to anxiety.
And yet, when the chips are down, she’s the one who holds me when my nerves are shot. It’s me who trembles.
It’s taken me a while to write about anxiety, not because I fear disclosing, but because the topic seems so damn mundane. Depressed and anxious friends and classmates, bosses and colleagues, professors and strangers on TV have flooded the zone with talk of “mental health.” Some won’t acknowledge what they’re going through explicitly, but that’s immaterial. We’re not good at hiding.
Take my former student, who couldn’t come to class, answer emails or even return the books I’d lent her due to her anxiety. I don’t suspect her of inventing excuses. Slackers tell more concrete stories. They cite dead dogs and family emergencies, alert to a cultural moment whose ableism’s only matched by its materialism.
Ironically, this moment’s zeitgeist also involves normalizing conversations about “mental health”—a version of those conversations, anyway. However, that doesn’t make writing a thoughtful, truthful, useful piece about anxiety much easier. Two years into a viral pandemic, amid spiraling socioeconomic inequality, with WWIII apparently on the horizon and the whole planet slouching toward meltdown, the real question ought to be, Who’s not anxious?
What makes me so special?
I think a brief aside’s in order here: anxiety, like its traveling companion, depression, feeds on navel-gazing. The worse either one gets, the more first-person pronouns make their way into the conversation. Hence the witticism, often assigned to Malcolm X, but actually coined by Charles Roppel, head of the Mental Health Promotion Branch of the California Department of Mental Health: “Take the I out of illness, add W and E, and you have wellness.”
Very good, Mr. Roppel. Hats off to you. If it were only so easy. (Or maybe it is, but the truth is being suppressed by a secret cabal of pharmaceutical companies and meditation studios afraid of losing business to Microsoft Word. That’s probably it, actually. Anxious people can usually trust their instincts when it comes to conspiracy theories.)
More seriously, I resolved to write this only after months of working out what not to write. One thing I won’t do here is try to convey what anxiety feels like. Either you know, or you don’t. Maybe you know what it feels like in moderate doses related to real-world stressors, but not what it’s like to live on the edge of unwarranted panic at all times. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter. Use your memories, or use your imagination. Either will do.
I also won’t try to explain where anxiety comes from, either its immediate causes or ultimate origins. Plenty of writers have already covered that ground, inciting moral panics over modern technology, lamenting the rise of climate anxiety and accusing social media of ruining Gen Z’s mental health–and that’s all well and good. It probably is some combination of smartphones, social media, and the current viral, nuclear, climatic trifecta that’s brought this psychological pox on all our houses.
I just don’t think that’s all it is. Those stories may be true, but they’re not helping.
If anything, they’re making things worse.
What I hope to accomplish here instead is something useful. I’m doing my best to make sense of anxiety—for myself, and now in front of you—using the tools that human beings have always used to make sense of senselessness and chaos: iconography and symbol systems. I can’t promise a path to transcendence, but hopefully this will point in something like the right direction.
II – Jörmungandr and Fenrir
I recall a time, spanning much of my high school and undergrad years, when I made a pact with myself: I’d accept depression, even throw myself into its arms, if it relieved another psychic torment. The latter manifested at the time as anguish over the idea of never finding love. It was largely fueled by anxiety.
My solution, flawed as it was, came down to more than idle bargaining. At the heart of the deal was a lucid, if ruthless, emotional logic. Depression’s a state of extremely low energy. When it hits, it drains every bodily system, from the libido to the T-cells. Much has been made of people’s tendency to kill themselves, not when they’re crawling around at rock bottom, but rather when they start feeling better. That’s when they find the energy to do the deed.
Anxiety’s another kettle of fish altogether. During anxious episodes, far from being sapped of energy, I find myself locked in a self-reinforcing high-energy cycle from which there’s no escape. Exhaustion will set in eventually, but only after my adrenaline’s burned away. When I was younger, I figured that maybe, by inducing depression, I could starve my body of its own anxious energy.
I thought wrong.
Envisioning the energetics of anxiety calls to my mind the ouroboros, the ancient, circular symbol of a serpent chomping on its own tail. Well represented in the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Gnostic traditions, the symbol’s made cameos elsewhere, too. In China, pottery sherds that bear this image have been found along the Yellow River, dating to the neolithic Yangshao culture. In India, textual references to an ouroboros occur in the Vedas. South American oral traditions tell of a snake—the ocean—that encircles every habitable land while munching on its own nether-regions. Meanwhile, in Norse mythology, the malevolent serpent Jörmungandr grew large enough to wrap himself around the world.
In most of these traditions, the symbol seems to point to something like infinity, the cyclical nature of time, sexual fertility, or the ongoing circle of death and rebirth. Not every stage of each cycle is pleasant, but the overall feedback loop is positive, not just in the technical sense that it’s self-reinforcing, but also in the existential sense that it restores a fragile, ever-decomposing world.
The Norse ouroboros, on the other hand, conveys something else. John Lindow, an American philologist, has argued that Jörmungandr’s tail-biting suggests that he’s been bound. This parallels the binding of other monsters, including the giant wolf, Fenrir, and fits with a pattern in which the enemies of the Gods are left to languish in suspended animation until Ragnarök, when they’re destined to break loose.
Fear of serpents ranks among the most primordial anxieties, and yet the binding of the world-serpent isn’t quite equivalent to anxiety’s energetic cycle. In Lindow’s scenario, the act of binding neutralizes the monster itself, at least for the time being. Anxiety does the opposite, monopolizing all available energy in a runaway positive feedback loop that binds its host: in this case, me.
Still, the Norse stories have something to offer. When I tried to trade away anxiety for depression, I was basically trying to bind one monster with another. The Godzilla movies might make this seem possible, but the Vikings knew full well that when the end of the world comes, Fenrir, Jörmungandr and their ilk will always be in league.
III – The Wings of the Fly
My partner grew up in a rural part of the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. She was 12 years old before encountering anything with a combustion engine, but she had ample access to stories. In her community, beautiful women were compared to shrubbery whose flowers distracted from their thorns. “If you want real honey,” people would say, “you better be patient, because you’ll get stung.” She was even told a story of a blind man, years before she was blinded herself, who swallowed the head of a snake by mistake and was told to eat the body, too. Supposedly, in every snake’s body, there’s a cure for the venom contained in its fangs.
When she left her father’s family and moved in with her mother’s, she was exposed to Islam. If a fly lands in your cup, said the Prophet Mohammed, according to the Hadiths, the proper thing to do is dunk the fly and swirl it around in your milk before drinking. The fly’s left wing is coated in poison, but its right wing holds the cure.
If you’re reading this and you’re an entomologist, I’ll forgive you for raising your eyebrows. Still, I suspect that all these stories harken back to something older. To this day, indigenous horticulturalists around the world maintain that wherever there’s poison, there’s also a cure. Real examples can be found in many ecosystems. Consider the Central American chechém, or black sap poisonwood tree, whose toxic fluids can activate terrible rashes by triggering an immunological overreaction. A calming antidote can be derived from the chaka, or Gumbo-Limb tree, which looks similar and often grows beside the chechém, possibly because their fruits are eaten and their seeds dispersed by the same types of birds.
Psychic poisons, I think, play by similar rules. If this is true, it’s important to decide which psychological states might be the “antidotes” to anxiety and depression. The yin that mars the yang must mirror the yang that offsets yin, together composing a unified whole: the snake or the fly whose body holds both venom and cure.
The idea that the renewal of the world hinges on the cyclic differentiation and reunification of opposites is an old one.
Happiness, I can say with confidence, is not depression’s opposite. Nor is anxiety’s opposite calm. The mirror image of depression, I believe, is curiosity. Fundamentally, depression is boredom. It sets in when the things you most enjoy stop serving up their reliable doses of dopamine and you’re too drained to search for new passions. When you’re curious, you’re fully absorbed in something that transcends your own unpleasant feelings. You’re too engaged to fixate on your suffering, too intrigued by new questions to wallow in dread. As long as life’s interesting, no matter how hellish it becomes, it’s still worth living.
I was always a curious child. Even better, my curiosity was always encouraged. Over the years, it’s been degraded somewhat by exposure to depression and the higher education system, but I’ve still retained a lot of curiosity. It’s one of the sustaining forces of my life. I think this helps explain why, even after my ill-advised pact with myself, I’ve only struggled with depression intermittently. It comes in waves for weeks or months, but lets up for extended periods, too. What’s more, even my deepest depressions have had something to do with external events, if not always directly or proportionately. This has kept me anchored to reality, more or less.
Anxiety, on the other hand, rarely has the decency to make itself explicable. It’s just there: a constant, fraying crackle right beneath the surface, like the hum of poorly insulated wires in a wall. No telling when the house might spark, or how fast everything you love might burn. Anxious feelings tend to attach themselves to tangible causes, but the causes don’t precede the feelings. When they fail to find a cause, they’ll compel me to invent one. When my creativity falters, or when I call anxiety’s bluff, it calls mine in return, revealing that it needs no object to persist. It needs nothing, in fact, but the hardware of my sympathetic nervous system, which it rides until I drop.
Against depression, curiosity may be a bulwark, but it offers scant protection from anxiety. I imagine this owes, in large part, to the energy differential. Curiosity can trigger high-energy states like excitement, but it’s not a high-energy state itself. It can just as easily present as an engaged, reflective calm. This makes it relatively more accessible from the depths of depression. If you can’t even muster the energy to get out of bed, you’ll be hard-pressed to work yourself into a lather about much of anything, but energetically neutral states like curiosity may still lie within your reach.
If depression’s opposite is curiosity, I’ve been asking myself lately, then what’s the opposite of anxiety? Physiologically, excitement seems a likely candidate, as it triggers many of the same hormonal processes. Psychologically, the main difference is the absence of fear. Physically, the main difference is that when you’re excited, you keep breathing.
My attempts to convert anxiety into excitement haven’t proven fruitful, though, not even when I concentrate on reasons why I ought to be excited. This has prompted me to look elsewhere.
While learning English, my partner and one of her school friends used to mix up certain terms, including “awesome” and “awful.” “How are you today?” one would ask. “I’m awful!” the other would brightly reply.
Their confusion wasn’t arbitrary. These words are cognate, derived from the same root. “Awful” has retained a negative connotation, whereas “awesome” has preserved the positive, but both recall an overwhelming experience, one triggered by a force or entity whose depth or vastness scrambles understanding. When you stand beneath a starry sky, the constellations can ignite a visceral sense of awe. The word’s too small to capture the feeling in all its complexity: a contradictory mess of intrigue, inspiration, the impulse to imitate and, of course, fear.
I suspect that awe’s what happens when the serpent stops biting its own tail, when the Kundalini energy’s set loose and made available for other, more fruitful endeavors. The “awful” aspect of the experience doesn’t disappear, but it gets re-contextualized within a larger, far more nuanced feeling, one capable of prompting feats of self-expression and self-realization, not just psychological cytokine storms.
This insight’s intuitive, not scientific. Also, I’m not really sure what to do with it. Simply having noticed this relationship between two psychic states does not, on its own, prize apart the snake’s jaws.
Still, it feels like something worth sharing. After all, to have a star to fix one’s sights upon, no matter how distant, seems better than wandering alone in the dark, bereft of a compass, absent either goal or a guide.