A portrait of my anxiety

An honest picture of mental health

A watercolour painting of blues, reds, pinks and purples. There is white text saying "A portrait of my anxiety" over it.

Content warning: anxiety, mental health

An unanswerable question has plagued me for what feels like years: why am I anxious?

When I think about mental illness, I envision a physical representation of it. I see a woman, palms on her stomach trying to contain the sensation of something clawing its way out of her; I see a man, dust in his lungs and gasping for help into empty air; I see a child, ink-stained hands trying to communicate what the inside of their head looks like; I see people, humanoid shadows following them, glued to their backs like helpless parasites.

It’s often difficult to realistically convey what it feels like. A constant companion, my anxiety often manifests in my heart flapping wings against my throat. It hides in my shaking hands and averted eyes. It’s the sound of my own voice in my head echoing the same words: be brave, be brave, be brave. Of another voice, quieter, but just as persistent: make it safe, make it safe, make it safe. It’s you are not enough, but also everyone that is not you is not enough at the same time. It’s the whole world thriving as I watch from behind a one-way mirror, banging on the glass and screaming let me in, let me in, let me in. It’s an oil spill in the ocean, constantly on the verge of catching fire. It’s panic creeping into spaces within myself I never realised existed.  It’s realising an assignment is due at 10pm and not 11:59pm. It’s waking up late on the day of an exam and rushing to the wrong side of campus. It’s claws at my throat and my thoughts becoming things with fears. It’s feeling blue; the blue of a blossoming bruise, the blue of wilting forget-me-nots. It’s missing something but not knowing what. It’s losing my keys then convincing myself I will never, ever find a way back home. It’s my heart hammering against my chest, but suddenly it’s not just my heart, but my whole world pounding out of control. It’s aching to go somewhere quiet, someplace holy, somewhere that provides sanctuary from the clamour inside my mind.

But I’m getting better at distinguishing my own voice from the imposter that sounds exactly like me. What I’ve learnt, and what I hope you figure out as soon as possible, is that we are not here to fill empty space, to always be accommodating, to always be in control of every situation we are in. Sometimes, you will feel like you’re standing behind a door that refuses to open. Sometimes, you will feel like everyone else is living their best life and that you are missing out. Sometimes, you will never feel anything other than an all-consuming bitterness. Maybe that is the burden of being human: cursing our parents until we need guidance, cursing the gods until we need a miracle, cursing ourselves until we realise that the only constant in an otherwise lonely existence is our conscience.

I look back at all the times I thought I would be different. Sometimes it’s years ago, sometimes it’s yesterday, but there’s always a constant: a disenchanting sense of incompleteness. Is this all there is? Will I ever be more? Why did I grow up wanting more, more, more? What is more? Is there a chance that this isn’t the end? That I’m always, forever, becoming?

I am all too familiar with wishing for another time, another place; somewhere I will always feel wanted. But, I also know that there’s no use ignoring all I have now for the potential of a better tomorrow. I am proud of being the inarticulate, selfish, condescending, often sad, often grateful, creative, opinionated person that I am. Maybe, there will be a time when I won’t feel so empty from wanting what is not meant for me. Recognising the possibility of it feels like a step forward. But, for now, I am happy.

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