Why you should care
Because anxiety is a crappy houseguest.
We all have our coping mechanisms, those hard-won ways of dealing with daily stress. In this series, we at OZY share our secrets to staying sane.
It’s been 21 years since the winter when I stopped eating, stopped talking, stopped getting out of bed. SparkNotes version: I slept for three months, and then I woke up, decided I wanted to live and got myself some help.
Still, when I opened my eyes on a recent Sunday, I heard a familiar voice: “Waste of space.”
No, not the morning-after salutation of an ill-chosen hookup. Being alive feels second nature most of the time now, and things for me are terrific in a way I couldn’t imagine when I was 20. But all these years after the winter of sleep, I continue to manage anxiety, which shows up primarily as shame (at my existence) and foreboding (at leaving the house). And it’s vocal.
But I happened on a fix in 1998, when I was living in Brooklyn and still about as stable as the San Andreas. I would burst out of my apartment in Williamsburg and charge up to the tip of industrial Greenpoint. I’d pace along the waterfront, which back then was a ramshackle kingdom of rats, and then I’d come back, more strolling than charging. Walking for hours — that excursion was about five miles — soothed me. It made me feel part of the resplendent urban leviathan I call home. By then I’d swung from hypersomniac to insomniac, and those walks exhausted me enough that I could get a few hours of sleep.
I no longer need five miles of walking to shake off the anxiety. Just dragging myself outside for a walk around the block or a yoga class or to read a book in a café can successfully interrupt it. In the Brooklyn years, I had a city pool down the street, and swimming had the same effect. It’s like a machete in a fuse box — it cuts off the bad circuits. Whatever the movement, it has the power to shift me from bad place to OK place. Or even happy, another new-ish skill. Out here in California, I go into the woods every weekend. The more hours and the more miles the better. Movement is my mental-health machete.
Don’t know why walking works. Maybe the sound of dirt or pavement beneath my feet drowns out the voices. Maybe my brain can’t prevent me from tumbling over a verdant NorCal cliff and castigate me at the same time. Maybe it’s genetic — my maternal grandfather, Joseph Nejedlik, walked the 6.1 miles between his house in Hamilton and his job at the Baltimore Sun every day.
Don’t really care, though. The anxiety is a poltergeist from an old life that is dead to me. And sometimes, although definitely not all the time, I have a way to decapitate it when it rises back up. So I force myself to move.