Acknowledging the River – Natalie Timmerman

Author photograph

“Everyone has anxiety.”

“Be thankful for what you do have.”

“Others have it worse.”

When I sunk chin-deep into my anxiety, when I waded through life with a churning stomach, pale skin, and clenched jaw, these phrases thickened the current; they made the wading harder. Sure, they varied in words, tones, and intentions, but they all meant the same thing: “What you’re going through isn’t that bad, and you’re the one complaining? Get over yourself.”

From experience, this type of phrase, in response to anxiety, is the most common. I’ve heard it a thousand different times, and I’ve heard it a thousand different ways. Perhaps you’ve heard it. Perhaps you’ve spoken it. I’m imperfect – I’ve spoken it, too. We speak it with good intentions, we don’t mean to cause pain, but we do. How?

These responses may vary, but they revolve around the same concept: dismissal.

Dismissal, naturally, is the easiest solution when faced with someone else’s struggle. When we dismiss something, we pretend the problem isn’t that grand, the struggle isn’t that grim, and the pain isn’t that grueling. And as long as we aren’t reminded we’re wrong, we begin to believe what dismissal tells us. It coats our sour reality in sugared lies; it’s the sweetest and quickest release from an uncomfortable situation.

Dismissal lets us turn our gaze from our sunken-eyed friend – they’ll get over it, they always do. It tells our sons with shaking arms that if they’re strong, they’ll be fine. It tells our daughters they’re overdramatic, that they just need to wipe the crocodile tears from their eyes and “think clearly for a moment”. It tells those struggling that what they’re going through doesn’t have value; dismissal tells us with anxiety that we’re nothing more than someone stuck in our own minds, than a worry-wart, than someone who needs to get off the couch and “live a little”.

For those facing the problem, dismissal stings. Dismissal tells us that the problem we’re facing isn’t really a problem at all.

When dismissal joined my river of anxiety, it weighed down my stride with guilt. It made me feel awful for being sick; it made me feel responsible for something I couldn’t control; it shut my mouth and forced me to trek the currents in silence as I squeezed at my arms, tugged at my cheeks, and begged myself, “It’s not that bad, it’s not that bad – if it’s not that bad why can’t you just get over it?”

When dismissal ran through the river, it splashed my skin, and it dripped into my bones. Soon enough, I waved away my own pain, anxiety-driven or not. I went to school, stumbling with fevers. I clenched my jaw and “toughed out” a panic attack every other day. If I didn’t, I was weak. That is what dismissal told me as an eleven-year-old.

Today, I still believe I’m overreacting, that I’m not sick (even when the thermometer reads one hundred and two degrees). Today, when the world spins around me, I still ask myself, “Am I doing this for attention?” Today, part of me still feels bad for having anxiety.

I’m afraid I’m not the only one who’s gone through this. Dismissal runs rampant—it always has.

As long as dismissal leaks its poison, it will force us with anxiety to keep quiet or feel guilty for expressing our pain. As long as dismissal leaks its poison, our society will never truly accept anxiety; we will never bring those suffering with anxiety to light.

The first step towards accepting anxiety is to acknowledge it. To take it as it is. To swallow the stone and get it over with—to walk past the ease of dismissal and fall into the realm of discomfort.

Acknowledging the pain may lead to more pain. It may lead to awkward conversations or scary revelations. But the difference between, “Intrusive thoughts? Yeah, everyone has those…” and “Intrusive thoughts? My anxiety gives me them—they’re awful, aren’t they?” is the difference between leaving someone to wade alone because the river’s not that deep…

… and taking their hand, telling them, “This pain is real, this pain is valid. But you are not alone.”

*

Natalie Timmerman’s writing honors and finds a strange beauty in the unpleasant: the gritty, gruesome, and the gross. An upbringing swallowing down her severe nausea from anxiety inspired this style, as many deemed her suffering “unpleasant.” In a way, it’s a reclamation—a celebration of what makes us human: unpleasantness.

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