How I fight anxiety with the awesome power of Alan Dershowitz
Anxiety takes many forms. I used to picture mine as a sleeping tiger: draw close, get as good a look as you can, but don't linger too long unless you want to be mauled. Until recently, I was sure that engaging with my anxieties — which spanned a dizzying spectrum from existential dread to impostor syndrome to paralyzing guilt for things that happened 20 years ago — would probably destroy me in some way.
The tiger was a useful metaphor, as metaphors go. But lately, I've found a new home for my anxieties, and one I'm much more able to engage with: the anxiety prosecutor.
How did I end up with an anxiety prosecutor? It happened about a year ago, and in retrospect, it was as simple as asking my feelings of general dread to manifest verbally. I remember looking in the mirror one day, giving the anxiety that had wrapped itself around me that morning a new problem to focus on, and summoning a clear and accusatory voice: You look so haggard already and yet you've done nothing with your life. And immediately, another voice appeared.
BULLSHIT, it said. HAVE YOU EVER SEEN ANYONE MORE TERRIFYINGLY GORGEOUS? SHE'S GOT A FACE LIKE A DIAMOND AND HAIR LIKE A LION'S MANE. NEXT.
And who, I thought, are you?
But I knew that voice. I'd been hearing it for years — just not in this context. It was the voice — the register, the brazenness, the sheer volume — that I summoned when I was most furious and most determined to defend what I knew was right, or at least most determined to defend my own position. It was a voice that belonged in a Hollywood version of litigation, because that was where it came from: Because, when I was in high school, AMC apparently got cheap broadcasting rights for Reversal of Fortune, in which Ron-Silver-as-Alan-Dershowitz ardently defends the constitutional rights of his very rich and (seemingly) very guilty client, Claus von Bülow.
It seems to me now that I watched Reversal of Fortune constantly during high school, partly because it was on all the time, and partly because I came to love it, which in the end had a lot to do with Dershowitz/Silver: He knew what he thought and he yelled at people about it all the time and they were all, ultimately, persuaded. (Even though I now wonder if non-Ron-Silver Alan Dershowitz will ever be able to persuade me of anything again.)
I didn't yell at people then, I don't yell at people now, and when I am working hardest to convince someone of an argument or a point of view, I spend most of my energy controlling my desire to tell them outright what I think, and instead work on understanding their positions and looking for connections between their worldview and mine. But still, a part of me wants, so badly, to yell at people. There is so much you feel like yelling at, sometimes: the dangerous voices on the news; the dangerous voices in your psyche. And so, in response to the latter, my psyche produced a voice like a fist, ready to bellow objections over all the frivolous motions that the voice I came to think of as my anxiety prosecutor filed, all day long. It was my anxiety defense attorney.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about hiring an anxiety defense attorney was that it meant, for the first time, that I constantly had to force my anxiety to use its words. Until then, my anxiety rarely tried to tell me what I was dreading: only that this was the way life felt for me, because I deserved it. But once the anxiety defense attorney came on board, he needed to know what charges his client was answering to — which meant that I needed to turn to my anxiety and say, "Well, what? What am I feeling awful about today?"
"The defendant feels awful, justifiably so, because everyone hates her."
And the defender was at his feet. "Your Honor, I know of a great many people who love and care deeply for my client, and I will now list just a few of them. Exhibit A…"
At its most essential, I think, the message underpinning the voice of anxiety — at least my voice of anxiety — is often: Stay here. Just don't do anything different. You're safe. Don't challenge that. Not for anything. The voice that arises most keenly when you try to do things that will allow you to grow, to change, to connect with others, and to feel deep and sustaining joy — the voice that says you're worthless, you're awful, you're stupid, everybody hates you — is a voice that is doing its best to keep you safe. If you never believe in your abilities enough to test them, you will never be disappointed by failure. If you never reach out to someone in search of connection and intimacy, you will never be disappointed by rejection. And the voice of anxiety — or at least my voice of anxiety — can only read disappointment one way: You will be crushed. You will die. Only death and doom await. Stay where you are. Everybody hates you. You're safe here.
But forcing that diaphanous cloud of dread to articulate itself does something amazing: It starts to sound not just wrong, but silly. It's easy to follow the dictates of an emotion that not only surrounds you, but feels at times as if it has settled into your bones. Harder is listening to a sense of dread you have forced to speak to you on your terms — especially once you find that it makes no sense at all.
"Everything you do comes to nothing" is a classic example of my anxiety prosecutor's rhetoric — and noticing when he uses it can tell me a lot about what I'm doing that might be making him file that particular motion, over and over. I noticed this thought recurring constantly in February, while I was working on a project that took me into a more emotionally deep field of journalism than I had ever experienced before; I was petrified of failing the people who had entrusted me with their story. And so my prosecutor argued, over and over: Everything you do comes to nothing. It's another way of saying stay safe by giving up now.
Now that I've kept track of that phrase enough to know when it occurs — and usually it's when I'm attempting something new, ambitious, and meaningful to me — I can experience it as a symptom pointing to a larger malady. It's a way of listening to what my mind is telling me about what I'm going through. And knowing why I feel anxious and afraid can help me feel better. I still feel taxed or overwhelmed by anxiety sometimes, but more and more I can say to myself, Ah, yes. Good old "everything you do comes to nothing." This means the projects you're working on are scaring you enough to make you talk to yourself this way. This means you're working hard and doing what matters to you.
And over time, my anxiety defender has mellowed. Unless I'm caught in a particularly bad week of anxiety night court, I don't often feel the need to shout down the anxiety prosecutor when I hear him. Everything he says has become too familiar to be scary. The accusations that used to make my heart race are now less powerful after so much repetition: Pure emotion doesn't lose its power with time, I don't think, but words do. Now, my anxiety defender often responds with a sense of amused exhaustion:
"Really? This is the argument you dragged me all the way down here for? Do you realize that I could be eating a sandwich right now?"
In response to the "everything you do comes to nothing argument," the defender, too familiar with the prosecution's extremely small collection of tricks to feel particularly worried, will take his time and have some fun.
"I find it interesting," he has said many times — and will say again by the end of today — "that my client is the only person who has never done anything right. Yes, she might often fail — at many things, at almost everything, let's give you that, why not? — but is she truly the first person to fail at everything? To have every creative venture — no, every venture of any kind — come to literally nothing? Is that truly possible? Even our president did some good work in commercials. He was utilized very effectively in Pizza Hut's stuffed crust campaign, for example."
The voice will come back — it always does — but for now the prosecutor is distracted, embarrassed, searching desperately for something that will stick. And really, your anxiety defender would like to remind you, it's time for a recess. You've been in here for far too long, and we've heard this all before.