Anxiety has a lot of gall. She chooses to show up, uninvited and sits inside you without any intention of leaving.
She can keep you up at night.
Anxiety does not play by the rules. She will surprise you with this unexpected persistence. She will show up for reasons that sometimes make no sense at all.
I have been blessed not to have suffered too much from anxiety, but as I get older and my burdens got heavier anxiety has crept into my life and hit me sometimes harder than I ever could have imagined.
When anxiety comes to visit, I find myself feeling incredibly sad for people who live the majority of their life anxious, worried, and afraid.
Covid-19 has brought out many people’s anxieties.
And because anxiety doesn’t play by the rules, she will show up when you least expect it, keep you awake when you need to sleep the most, and make you sweat and embarrass you.
I once was so anxious I actually started to stutter.
The thing about anxiety is that what makes one person anxious is nothing to others.
The same event that can practically push someone over the edge might not affect another at all.
In the past 10 years I have implemented the Advot Project’s Relationships 101 curriculum dozens of times. At the end of this 10 week curriculum there is always a culmination event.
I have watched my tough gang bangers become riddled with horrible anxiety about performing before a live audience.
When your voice has almost always been silenced, being given a stage can be the most frightening thing in the world.
“Ms.,” she wailed after she peeked out and saw the people in the audience before the show.
“I am going to shit in my pants. I am so fucking nervous.”
“You will not. Don’t worry,” I tell her.
“You don’t know that,” she answers. “I don’t think I can do this, Ms. I can’t go out on the stage.”
I remember looking at this kid who FYI, was locked up because she participated in an armed robbery.
She had a tattoo of a gun on her forehead. I got a little anxious the first time she came to my group. She looked so tough.
“You got this,” I told her. She was so nervous she was shaking.
I put my hand on her back and I stood close to her.
“You know, Ms., when I point my gun at people, they give me attention and then they give me money cause they have to.”
I smile. “No, I don’t know. I usually don’t point guns at people to get money. I go to the ATM.”
“You’re not funny, Ms.,” she says. “Listen. Hear me out. All these people out there, they don’t gotta be here. I didn’t make them come, didn’t point my piece (slang for gun) at them, but they came. They want to be here. They want to hear me. When you told us this gonna happen, I ain’t believe you, Ms. This is scary now, for real.”
I looked at her and that tattoo on her head.
I asked her, “Did it hurt when you got that tattoo?”
“Like a mother fucker.”
“What did you do?”
I held my breath and counted.
“Look at me,” I said. “Take a breath with me and let’s count. Walk through the anxiety. Be in it. Don’t fight it.”
She looked me straight in the eye. We took three deep breaths together and counted to 100. The show started. She was brilliant.
After the show she came to me. She put her arms around me.
“Ms. This was the bomb. I walked right through my shit – and, you know what? It didn’t stink! I had the best time. Your friends are funny, especially the rabbi dude with the hat.” She talked about her experience and the audience’s reaction.
As I lie awake trying to calm my anxiety these days,
I breathe, I count.
I pray the shit will not stink.
I think of my friends.
I think of my beloved “rabbi dude with the hat,” who never fails to show up for me with wisdom, support, and kind words.
I try desperately to walk through my anxiety, hand in hand, and not fight it.
I accept the knot in my stomach. I coexist with it.
I thank god that I don’t experience this every day.
There are nights when anxiety wakes me up. I welcome her.
“Hey, anxiety, it’s been a while. Welcome back,” I whisper.
But what helps me the most is to think of my cherished students, how they rise up, how they push through, and how again and again they surprise and humble me to no end.
“I never sung in front of people,” she told me.
“Well, today that is going to change,” I say.
She asked, “And then what?”
“Then, you will change,” I tell her.
Anxiety can be unbearable, but if you try and hang in there and get to the other side, change will be waiting for you once anxiety decides to leave.
I promise you eventually she will. She always does.
Naomi Ackerman is a Mom, activist, writer, performer, and the founder and Executive Director of The Advot (ripple) Project a registered 501(c)3 that uses theatre and the arts to empower youth at risk to live their best life.