Having anxiety is like homeschooling a petulant child. My schedule is built around meditation and yoga, medication and therapy; the day’s gaps are occupied by psychiatric babysitting. Still, it occurs to me now and then that I have no idea what anxiety even is. My idea of it is just the sum of its effects. But sometimes I’ll write a totally bullshit essay for a class and accidentally understand the material by the time I’m through with it, you know? So here goes.
In the foyer of my home hangs the first painting in a triptych by John Hilling documenting the burning of Old South Church in Bath, Maine. The two subsequent panels—the burning and its aftermath—hang elsewhere, in faraway homes. Viewed in isolation, our pre-fire panel is banal: man and wife walk peacefully before an unassuming church. But when considered in light of its successors, the apparent mundanity is actually drenched in anticipation. It’s not the calm before the storm, but the cohabitation of serenity and calamity. It captures the future’s grasp on the present; anxiety is in the very air. Or in the sky—strokes of hazy orange augur a fire not yet lit. The clouds are singed with hints of things to come, as if the vapor were bracing itself. The base of the steeple is flanked by the stark faces of two black clocks: time runs on, and therefore runs out.
Standing here now on the cold tile floor before the painting, I feel suddenly flushed. Instinctively, I sniff the air for smoke. I’ve always found it strange how doctors characterize anxiety as a kind of warped soothsaying. What are you worried about? I try to picture the painting as a standalone work. But the dread, that slow, creeping panic, lingers. If not fire, then entropy. My ancestors missed a boat to the U.S. that sank, killing everyone onboard. But they’re long dead anyway.
The church in the painting stiffly awaits combustion: today, tomorrow, next year—eventually. That tightness in my chest is the heart bracing itself, as though the column of air hanging down over my head—the billions of particles floating between my scalp and the stratosphere—were in slow-motion freefall. Forgive the cognitive dissonance, but as much as I understand it’s all my head, I also think it’s all in my body. I’m not religious or anything, but I know that Jesus (or God or the Bible or whatever) says, “The body is a temple.” Still, even the priest sleeps under a secular roof. He retires from daily meditations to a house built for comfortable complacency, to forget the chain woven between his ribs that stretches from the earth’s core to the heavens. We aren’t meant to be permanently bound to mortal realities of biblical proportion. Sure, sometimes it can be perversely satisfying to think about mortality and our infinitesimal smallness, like, “Oh, maybe that C+ isn’t such a big deal in the grand scheme of things…” But habitually thinking like this will make you chronically sad and weird at parties.
It’s common when couples break up for the less aggrieved party to say, “We just had different priorities.” This is, obviously, total bullshit, but I think it describes my anxiety pretty well. My mind and body are just like Siamese ex-partners with incompatible priorities. As my mind goes about its day, pondering the future of Dogecoin and ranking flavors of CBD-infused seltzer from most to least shitty, my body silently ruminates on its fragile impermanence with terror. It’s like if Lil Pump and Charles Bukowski got paired up as roommates.
Even during my most surreal, hallucinatory panic attacks, some part of me is completely cogent; this part experiences the anxiety-event as a kind of macabre 4-D movie. It’s my homunculus—the shell-shocked little man at the helm of a malfunctioning leviathan. It’s the same part of me that moves about my dreams at night, a test subject for the dream-weaving subconscious. It’s funny to me how people lament the fact that we only use 10% (or whatever) of our brain power, as if those inactive 2.7 pounds of pink matter were just a latent wellspring of dopamine and essay-writing prowess. My little homunculus already seems like a fish in a murky pond; I’d rather it didn’t migrate to an ocean. Evolution’s wittiest one-liner is definitely the retreat of proto-whales and proto-dolphins back into the ocean from whence they came. It’s like some depressed hippo just decided it had had enough of terrestrial existence. My homunculus dreams of just the opposite kind of habitat change: to leave footprints in the sand on the shore of the amygdala.
In the painting, the body is the literal temple: the church, its clocks impatiently anticipating its demise. The blissfully ignorant couple strolling past are the homunculus. They don’t even look at the church, or the clocks. They’ve lost themselves in the bright cold day. What’s left over? Just a psychic gaze, maybe. This kind of unhousing isn’t a flame retardant; it’s a fire escape, an axe to slash through stained glass. Jungian psychology says: neurosis is the futile attempt to direct the current of the subconscious. I feel comfortable adding that anxiety is the futile attempt to dig your toes in the mud and claw at the bank to resist being swept away. During panic attacks, I try to inhale deeply. Apparently, this isn’t advisable, since it accelerates the adrenal response. I think it’s pure instinct: a chest full of air is nature’s lifejacket.
The man in the painting points beyond the canvas with his cane. The indicated thing isn’t pictured because it doesn’t need to be. The world enters us through the eyes; who’s to say we can’t just as well dart out through that very same door? Now, engrossed in the painting, I forget to monitor the tightness between my sternum and shoulder blade; I check my pulse: ba-dum, ba-dum.