I have this sweater. It’s not really that old, but it is well worn. I admit that, even when I bought it, brand new, it looked that way. I liked that it resembled something I could have inherited from my dad. Or more likely my father-in-law.
The thing about this sweater is that it brings me comfort, beyond the comfort of warmth I mean. It is familiar.
That sweater stands in contrast to another familiar thing I wear, my anxiety. Perhaps the recent ‘state of the world’, the constant onslaught of bad news, is a big part of my public acknowledgement of my anxiety. I don’t know. What I do know is that anxiety has always been a part of my makeup.
My first memory of an anxiety-induced behaviour was, at age seven, crawling into my mother’s bed, and placing my hand on her back to make sure she was still breathing. I did not do this just once but for weeks and weeks.
In between that first memory and today have been years of churning stomachs and over-reactions.
I need to clarify that I am not talking about debilitating anxiety, nor am I significantly impaired in my day to day life. On the spectrum of anxiety and panic, I have ‘symptoms that would indicate anxiety’ and a ‘well managed panic disorder’.
One thing I learned is that as an anxious person, your body is always in a heightened response mode so when some new event or thought occurs, you quickly move to ‘overload’. I have also learned that once you have an anxiety or panic episode, this in turn makes you more anxious, fearing the intense physical reaction will reoccur.
I keep returning to meditation. Within moments of the start of a session, I realize that, like my sweater, this is a form of comfort that I want to wear more often. A form of comfort to replace that ever present heightened response mode that triggers anxiety. The practice of meditation can, given time, move my churning stomach and racing heart to a peaceful place.
A monk who has practiced meditation for decades, and is a leader in the field of mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh, had a stroke last year along with other health complications. Doctors have been amazed at the peaceful response of his body to the traumas. The doctors feel it has helped his healing process, but more importantly it has helped Thich accept and work with the changes to his health.
Anxiety and fear are very familiar to me. And sometimes, one returns to the familiar simply due to that familiarity. Not because it makes you happy, or brings you peace. But because you recognize it. You know what to expect.
“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” Thích Nhất Hạnh
I was struck a while back when someone called me brave.
I want to be brave. I want to be the strong one, someone people turn to when they need help. I want to continue to live my life from beyond the safety of my couch. I am motivated to make the calm feelings of meditation, like my sweater, the familiar. To see the world with joy and full of opportunity.
On this day of Mental Health Awareness, we need to recognize mental health as a key component to well being. If we can remove the stigma of mental health and openly speak about our experiences, we can support each other in our daily lives and in our journeys of health, both mental and physical.