We are not alone

Anxiety can be a living breathing organism moving through our body as if skateboarding in our veins, not afraid of collisions or falls, not concerned with injury it may bring to its host. Anxiety and I are well acquainted, are on a first name basis. I wish that weren’t so.

The medical community tells us anxiety is our body’s response to a future or imagined threat, whereas fear is a response to an imminent, though sometimes perceived, threat. Further, anxiety and depression are close cousins, oftentimes co-existing. It is almost impossible to eliminate anxiety from our lives, but we can learn to control how we react to it. Psychologists tell us it is especially important for children to develop management techniques early on in their lives – not to avoid things that cause anxiety, nor think we can protect our children from it but learn how to meet and examine the struggle head on.

Many studies have been done to identify how depression, PTSD, trauma play a role in genetic variants. Before these studies, the science community was of the opinion trauma was “behaviourally transmitted”. Now we know the pre-disposition for mental health disease comes from “a permanent change in the DNA sequence” because of our parent’s and grandparent’s trauma. Residential school survivors, holocaust survivors, and survivors of all trauma have the potential of passing the by-products of those experiences to their progeny. It is a known science.

The old expression misery likes company never made any sense to me, as if I might wish anxiety on someone else. Psychology Today magazine (Joel Weinberger, PhD April 2020) wrote about that adage and says, “the need to connect physically, especially when we are distressed, is in our DNA.” And that got me thinking.

Henry David Thoreau described his existence within depression: “Quiet desperation: a large grey hinterland in which beneath an outward surface of endurance, we feel exhausted.” Many of the writers we grew up reading wrestled with anxiety and depression, and some feel their greatest works came from those shadows. Walt Whitman wrote in his poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry in 1956, “It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, the dark threw its patches down upon me also,” telling us we are not alone. John Keats, poet of the extraordinary Ode To A Nightingale, wrote in a letter to his brother in 1819, “Do you now see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?” Mark Twain was laden with depression despite writing his beloved Huckleberry Finn and was considered America’s “greatest humourist”. The Greeks used a term “furor poeticus” to which they credited the gods for “creative madness”. The notion exists that some good comes of this health struggle, as though we can’t quite welcome the beauty of the light to the fullest unless we have dwelled within the dark. It’s a simple premise to a complex and what can be a devastating struggle, but the “what if” isn’t lost on me.

I am reading Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run, published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster. The Atlantic, in reviewing Springsteen’s memoir says, “Springsteen entered a world of chaos and turned to guitars and amplifiers and lyrics to create order”. Springsteen says of his childhood, “It ruined me and it made me.” He chewed his knuckles and blinked uncontrollably as expressions of his anxiety in childhood. His father was “often depressed and harshly judgmental”, later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, having spoken very little to his son throughout Bruce’s childhood. Springsteen says people who suffer often want to name a reason, but he feels we are trying to “name something that’s not particularly nameable”. He has found that acknowledging depression’s presence “often shortens its duration”. The book is incredibly well-written in my opinion and a worthwhile read.

In understanding the challenges of others, I believe we come to understand ourselves more clearly. Suffering is the human condition. In our consumer-driven society we look for some “thing” to fix our suffering. I am inclined to believe we learn to walk with it. Almost without exception, the writers who have written about depression, speak about communing with nature as a “healing salve”. Mr. Rogers shared his wisdom with us, saying, “Anything that is human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be made more manageable.” We are not alone in our struggles.