Earlier today I started to feel a little stressed out during a meeting. Chest tight, fluttery heart, slightly nauseous. All the classic signs. So I took a deep breath and quietly imagined a little girl with a tape recorder. She was yelling at me. I quieted her down, then pointed her at a playground and told her that she should go play and she could record all the things she needed to tell me. We’d listen to them later. She ran off happily.
Then I pulled myself back to my meeting and continued on about my life, anxiety dying down.
Ok, that’s a weird story, but here’s the point: if someone had suggested trying this to me a year ago, I probably would have thrown up in my mouth a little bit because it sounds so stupid. But there’s a reason for everything in the image. The reason that my anxiety is a five year old is because that’s about the earliest I remember the anxiety, that’s the level of complexity that exists in my anxiety, that’s about the level of noise and obnoxiousness that my anxiety is: a five year old who won’t shut up.
I gave her a tape recorder so she’d feel listened to and so she knows that I’ll hear her concerns at some point. And I sent her to a playground so that she’ll feel safe. Anxiety has too much energy, which means that most calm images don’t work well for her, so I send her somewhere in which it feels like that part of my mind still gets to move and run and yell, but I just don’t have to listen.
And as bizarre as it is, it does actually help to calm me down. Last night I came up with this scenario and one for guilt. Unlike anxiety, guilt looks a bit like this:
He’s quite insistent and doesn’t shut up. He sits on my keyboard when I try to write and sticks his butt in my face when I try to read. So I made him a box with a towel in it and so now he can be more like this:
And while all of this is a little bizarre and a little silly, the point is that it works, even if just a little bit. It changes my perspective on the emotion. It lets me look at what that emotion does for me and whether or not that thing is actually useful right now or not. It jolts me out of the spiral. And so when I remember to do it, I will do it. I don’t care if it’s stupid or if there’s no evidence behind it. I don’t really care if I find it ridiculous. If I can personally feel my anxiety diminish after trying to do this, then I’ll keep doing it.
Cause here’s the secret: if telling my brain-guilt cat to go back to its box will have an effect, then that’s a tool. If building a playground in my brain as a safe space for my anxiety to run in circles for a while helps my breathing even out, then it’s a tool. Anything that I can do to manage my emotions that doesn’t involve hurting myself or someone else or making situations worse is a tool. And the biggest secret of recovery? Take every tool you can get. Regardless of the bizareness. EVERY tool is useful as long as it serves a purpose.
I mean sure, don’t just take any treatment you can get. Research your therapist. But if you notice that you feel better when you blow bubbles then go to Target and buy out the god damn bubble aisle, because you take the tools you can get.
Maybe it’s just exhaustion talking because I’ve been in the treatment game for almost 4 years now, but I think it’s an important insight to remember that your tools don’t have to fit with some sort of value-laden or coolness factor image. You get to make your life easier and better however damn well works for you. It might be weird, it might be trite, it might be woo woo hippie crap. I don’t care. If you feel better after you’ve done it, it’s good enough.
This might be a lesson you have to learn through experience, but I hope if anyone out there is at the beginning of a treatment journey, they can realize that that weird tic they have that makes them feel better is a totally acceptable coping mechanism. I hope the communities around mental illness can start to proliferate tools and offer everyone anyone tools they might need, because they’re hard to come by and shouldn’t be passed up. Here’s to cats in boxes and girls with recorders, the tools that I have.