PSYCH OUT: Melissa Unger
Psych Out is an ongoing series on the topic of fear & creativity.
In response to many of our readers expressing that fear often blocked their creative flow, Seymour asked a variety of entrepreneurs and artists to share their experience in their own words. Discover how they get over anxiety and self-doubt and find the strength to move forward with their projects.
MELISSA UNGER is a writer, creative consultant & the Founder of Seymour Projects. Her first novel GAG will be published by Roundfire Books this Summer. After having asked so many others to share their experiences battling anxiety, she felt it was high time to share her own.
“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you down, it’s the pebble in your shoe.”-Muhammad Ali
All my life I have struggled with anxiety. Living with anxiety is like running a marathon with a pebble in your shoe, not a big enough handicap to take you out of the race, but just disruptive enough to slow you down. Every time you take a step, your body protectively contracts. It’s frustrating and exhausting. But if you’re persistent and brave, you keep running, masking your discomfort. You look at the other runners and ponder enviously how easy the race must be for them. The pebble, partnered with your pissed off perspective, curbs your ability to be fully open and enjoy the race. Worse, because no one can see the pebble, to most it looks like you’re running just like everyone else, but you know you’re not at your best. That discrepancy between who you know you are without that pebble and what the pebble keeps you from being is what lies at the heart of most anxiety-related depression.
In my case, I ran the race for a long time thinking that every runner had a pebble in his shoe. Pebble pain was all I knew so I assumed that everyone else had a pebble in their shoe too. I wish I could remember the exact moment when I had the insight that I was running with a handicap, it would make for a more poignant story, but I can’t recall exactly. All I know is that sometime in my mid- 30’s (yes, that late) I began to realize that my natural way of being in the world was unnatural. Essentially I became aware that not everyone had a pebble in his or her shoe. I began to notice that my friends were achieving things, with great joy and ease that seemed incredibly challenging to pebble-shoed me. I wondered why this was and started observing everything more closely and began to notice that I walked a little differently. As they loped and frolicked on the world’s stage, I always dragged behind, a little off-kilter. After a while, the distance between us was so wide and the pain I felt from the pebble rubbing against my foot as I sped up to keep the pace, so intense, that I began at first to visibly limp (this is the time when everyone starts to either ask if you are okay, or criticize you behind your back), before dropping out of the race entirely (you’re under the covers at this point, or it’s you that is criticizing everyone else). Under the covers, wrapped in shame, you weep for your present and mourn the past that you now understand was largely stolen from you by an heretofore unseen intruder called anxiety. The realization that you have been inadvertently living a severely restricted life is perhaps the most painful of all.
Now deep into my anxiety-fueled depression, I would wake up each morning in protective warrior mode, full armor on, expecting assault. A healthy mind is able to see 180 degrees around a situation, a brilliant mind can see 360 degrees around a situation, an anxious mind narrows the possibilities to a sliver. Anxiety leads the sufferer to always look at the world through the tiny slit in the helmet of their armor. So there you have it, my experience living with anxiety was like navigating the world everyday in full, heavy, restrictive armor, and with a pebble in my shoe.
I trundled along in this state for a while until about a decade ago when I was given an unexpected insight. I’ve previously written about how this particular experience effected and altered my understanding of creativity, but now I’d like to tell you a bit about how this paradigm shift also powerfully impacted my anxiety.
I was scribbling in a notebook one afternoon and was suddenly aware that my conscious mind had clicked off and something else had taken over my writing. The words flowed onto the page and I watched them from a witness perspective. I didn’t feel like I was writing, I was just watching myself write. Noticing that space, that gap, that sanctuary of distance between me and my thoughts and actions, saved my life. Suddenly, there was a thinker thinking my thoughts, my thoughts weren’t thinking me. It’s impossible for me to accurately express the intensity of the liberation that I felt in that moment; when you are riddled with anxiety you are essentially a victim of your own thoughts. It is perverse. It feels like you are beating yourself with a stick of your own making. You create your own pain, and yet have no power over its cessation. This sensation of life in the throes of an anxiety attack has been widely described as similar to being a rider on a horse barreling forth at breakneck speed. If someone were to ask, “Where are you going?” You could only yell back, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.”
Anyway, the unexpected perspective shift that pivotal moment afforded me allowed the first faint sliver of light into what had become a very dark room. Suddenly, I was aware that the space I had been inhabiting wasn’t the ‘real’ world and that there was something outside of my anxiety-imposed prison walls. In that place there was light, and more importantly lightness, ease.
The past decade of my life has been a journey of research, trial and error, triumph and disaster in which I have endeavored to find the right methods and tools by which to remove my armor and step confidently into that brighter space where most of you live. I approached each intricate piece of the constraints that bound me with fervent interest and exigent purpose. I tried some tools that worked, others that didn’t but eventually I was able to loosen every screw until each one came away. Some were easy to shed, others were wrought terribly tight and required much time and effort. But I did it, and here I stand before you in all my nakedness, the door to my cell flung wide, and like any good former prisoner, my greatest wish is too free as many others as I can through this newly open door.
So, I am writing this essay to tell my fellow anxiety sufferers that there is hope, that there is an inexpressibly bright place waiting for you beyond the prison walls. If I were a guru, a preacher or a prophet I would profess to hold the answer to your liberation, but I am neither of these so I know not what shape your deliverance will take. Each of you must uncover your own means and methods to shed the shackles that bind you. What I can offer you are the weapons that worked for me. I have found that most effective are: enthusiasm, curiosity, perseverance and hope. With those in your arsenal, you can gain freedom. I’m not going to lie to you: this experience has far and away been the hardest of my life. There were times when I didn’t think that I would make it. The pain of peeling armor from the skin with which it has fused is excruciating, but ultimately worth it.
Another reason I am writing this essay now is to tell you about an experience I had just last weekend which I feel marked the culmination of this part of my life ‘s journey.
Armed with enthusiasm, curiosity, perseverance and hope, I stepped outside of my comfort zone (something I am more frequently comfortable doing these days) and attended a workshop in Paris called Instant Pudding! : a collaborative platform for instant composition and scenic improvisation, hosted by Catharine Cary – an artist I recently met through my incredible friend Eric Sheckler. One of their goals is to teach people how to anchor themselves in the present moment in order to tap into fresh ways of creating. I was told to wear comfortable clothes and sneakers and to bring a pillow and an object. I knew very little about what I was getting myself into, only that the whole thing would last four hours and that it involved body movement and improvisation. Deep in my mind I thought it would likely be a fun afternoon reminiscent of some theatre class from college. Little did I know that inside that studio lay the liberation that I had been working toward for the past ten years.
I have written and erased this paragraph you are currently reading about a dozen times. Even as a writer and lover of metaphor, I can’t seem to find any means to accurately describe what happened to me in that room. Even when I do find some words, I don’t feel that they add up to transmitting the transcendent feeling I experienced. It would seem that when one finally comes to ‘understand’, the irony is that understanding is specific to each of us and as such is ultimately ineffable. Hackneyed as it may sound: it is only by traveling the road toward freedom ourselves that we are able to truly experience it. Which is why you should never listen to anyone, no matter how well meaning, who professes to have the ultimate answer for anything, the definitive point of view on a subject, or the absolute recipe for enlightenment. I feel that the only responsible way to help and teach others is to give them the tools, inspiration and support with which to question the Status Quo and find by extension, find their own answers.
In my case those answers came unexpectedly on a Saturday afternoon behind the battered blue metal door of an out of the way rehearsal studio in a worn out part of Paris’ 20th arrondissement. As I interacted for four hours in complete silence with seven strangers, I understood for the first time the sacredness of the space between objects, words and people. I understood that we live in a world of infinite possibility in which man has simply created arbitrary constructs and subjective rules. I understood that there is no right and wrong, only a variety of different options and perspectives. I understood that once freed from this notion of right and wrong the fear of making a mistake evaporates. I understood that mistakes are actually impossible and that what are called mistakes are simply contrast, black by which we can see the white better, dark that ultimately enables us to see the light.
I now find myself in a brave and beautiful new world in which I strive to realize all my once impossible dreams. It is with great fervor that I endeavor to make up for lost time, though paradoxically I also understand that nothing of my experience can be considered a waste, every pain of it was necessary to arrive where I am today.
So, my fellow pebble-shoed runners, I leave you with this: Look around, question. Is there a pebble in your shoe? If so, do not ignore it for within it lays your liberation. Though the struggle will be a brutal one, I promise you that nothing is more exhilarating than the sensation of a victory won against the worst of odds. Be courageous, be curious, and never lose hope even … yes I am going to say it: even when all hope seems lost.
If I can do it, you certainly can. I’ll meet you at the prison gate. We’ll celebrate our freedom.
For more information on Instant Pudding! www.instant-pudding.com
Published: May 6th, 2014