Both are the kinds of things that come in waves.
Sometimes I’m fine, moving through my life with nothing but a muted hum of anxiety in the background. And sometimes they move to the forefront, drown out everything else, force me to look them in the eye, pull out my coping strategies with trembling hands, and try not to vomit.
Lately, they’ve been somewhere in between.
Also lately, I’ve been talking about them a lot.
Because they’re part of my story. Part of my life. Part of what pushed me off my couch and into an unconventional lifestyle.
But in those conversations, in telling strangers how my dog saved my life, how it was absolute despair that drove me out the door five years ago, how location and schedule flexibility helps me manage the tough days, there are still so many misunderstandings.
It’s still so easy to see depression and anxiety as some sort of obstacle I can and will get past, as something I’m circling in the boxing ring. Round two: Gigi with a black eye. Round three: triumphant!
In other words, I keep seeing people describe depression and anxiety as nasty and horrible. As things to be “overcome.” As things I’m “fighting.”
And something about those words makes me squirm, feels not quite right.
Because maybe when I was first trying to understand, when I was first diagnosed, when I first realized that, no, it wasn’t normal to feel listless all the time and sleep twelve hours a day and wake up with your heart racing unable to move, maybe then I thought of this as a fight.
As something I could win.
As long as I kept getting up and throwing punches.
Maybe then I thought I could “overcome” the strange, unknowable part of my brain that screams at me that something perfectly normal is actually horribly dangerous and about to destroy my life.
But I don’t feel that way anymore.
Because, here’s the truth: most of us don’t “overcome” our depression and anxiety.
They aren’t the sort of thing you can magically remove, that you beat back and move on from.
They’re the sort of thing that, for most of us, come back around.
So there’s a danger in telling ourselves that we can beat this thing. That if we just fight hard enough, we’ll knock those suckers out. That someday—with our meditations, medications, therapy animals, long walks, sweet self-forgiveness, psych visits, big life chances—we’ll overcome depression and anxiety and leave them in the dust.
Because what happens when we don’t? What happens if we’re wrong?
Shame is what happens.
Deep, sinking, sick, I-want-to-crawl-out-of-my-skin shame.
Because if everyone tells you you can overcome something and you find out you can’t? Well, it must be your fault. You must be weak. You must be broken, even more broken than you suspected.
So, I’m here to tell you that’s not true.
That depression isn’t a one-time knock-out-drag-out fight. Anxiety isn’t a mountain you climb and, hooray!, now you’re at the top and will never have to climb another.
For some, they’re temporary. The result of a difficult but temporary set of outward circumstances. For some, they’re background noise, something to tune out.
But for many of us, they’re not something we fight and beat and overcome. They’re something we learn to manage. Something that, although perhaps we wouldn’t have chosen to make it so, is a part of us. A part of our lives.
* * * * *
The last stage of grief is acceptance.
Which is how I feel about my anxiety and depression these days.
Not that I’ve given up, not that I just shrug them off, not that I think I’ve lost a fight. But that I don’t see them as a fight at all. That I see them as part of my life. Something ongoing. Something I manage. Something I can forgive myself for and love myself around.
They aren’t something I’ve “overcome.”
They come in waves, but they’ve never been far away, never really wholly gone.
They’re something I live with and live around, a part of me that I design my life around like any other part of me.
Just like I’m short, so I keep the things I need on lower shelves.
Just like I burn easily, so I wear 50 SPF baby sunscreen.
In the same way, I have depression and anxiety, so I do what I need to do to accommodate myself for those. Which means things like working part time and keeping gentle stomach medications on hand, working with the right clients and making time for long nature walks, traveling with an ESA dog and only ever committing to deadlines I know I can keep.
It’s no different from knowing I’m susceptible to burns and wearing high-SPF sunscreen. It’s not something I “overcome;” it’s something I manage. It’s something that’s part of me and something I treat not with aggression and fight but with kindness and care.
* * * * *
Last week, I took myself on a quiet writing retreat in a mountain house in central Bosnia without Wi-Fi.
The intention: to finish the edits on my book in preparation for a contest I’m entering this August.
I did do the edits. But I also found myself in an unexpected anxious spiral. The isolation of not having Wi-Fi and of being utterly alone 20 minutes from the nearest town got to me, lodged in my chest with an anxious flutter. And I found myself revisiting old physical symptoms. Stomach pains and mysterious itching and a constant awareness of my breath.
I did my edits anyway, even with the looming uncertainty that they’d be any good. As usual, I promised myself that I could throw them out tomorrow or the next day if they weren’t. It’s why I save so many versions of my work. Because anxiety won’t let me soldier on unless I know I’m allowed to retreat the way I came.
This is what I mean when I talk about managing anxiety and depression.
I can’t just shut my anxiety off, but I can comfort it. I can tell that anxiety, “It’s okay. You might be right. These edits might be awful. But if they are, we can go back to the old version tomorrow or the next day or the next day. Anytime we need to. I promise.”
And then anxiety settles back, fretting, into the background again and lets me work.
(And the edits are almost never as awful as anxiety thinks they are; I almost never trash them the next day.)
I suppose this is what people think they mean when they say I’ve overcome anxiety.
But I haven’t, really. It’s still here, nervously chittering in the background, reminding me that the edits are awful and if I publish that blog post everyone will abandon me and “OH MY GOD, DON’T WALK ACROSS THAT BRIDGE BECAUSE YOU WILL DIE.”
It’s still there.
I’m just working with it, around it. Reminding it that I’ve got its back. Telling it that I hear it and that I’m going to save another version of the book just in case it’s right.
* * * * *
So, here’s the point: be careful how you frame things.
Telling yourself or someone else that anxiety and depression are things to overcome—that they’re nasty and evil and disgusting—may hurt more than it helps.
Instead, what if we called them difficult? What if we recognized that they’re challenging and that they deserve some compassion, some careful handling? What if we talked about managing them? Respecting them? Working around them?
What if we told people who deal with them that they’re okay? That we don’t see them as fighting for wholeness.
They’re already whole. They’re already worthwhile.
They don’t have to “overcome” anything. They just need to live their lives.
You’re not broken just because you can’t reach the top shelf. And you’re not broken just because you need to work around the anxiety humming under your skin.