The Nameless Waltz We Do in Circles

by Bre D’Alessio South

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The word anxiety derives from the Latin angor, and the verb ango, meaning to constrict.

Something that takes up space and applies subtle, consistent pressure. The stigma of anxiety has morphed into words like crazy or unhinged. Or maybe those are the words I used to tell myself when I would pace around the neighborhood trying to free the pressure from inside.

A subtle but consistent pressure.

Anxiety was first placed in the Hippocratic Corpus, a collection of Greek medical texts. A man named Nicanor is mentioned as having a phobia of “flute girl.” It seemed each time he was at a party and heard the flute begin to play, a terror overwhelmed him. And so, our disorder was birthed.

I’ve heard friends say they get anxiety around flying or speaking in front of a large group for a presentation. Those anxieties sound like amateurs.

The anxiety I own sits closer. It’s nestled itself into my body like a virus that found the perfect host. If I don’t feel it, then I’m not in control; if I do feel it, I’m slowly losing control.

“You should name it,” she offered. “Naming something makes it real but it also helps to visualize it.”

This was probably the tenth or maybe a twentieth time the therapist had offered this suggestion. Just name the anxiety. Just name it. It’s already been a part of you for so long, it’s rude you can’t find a proper name for the guest you’ve kept safe for so long.

This feeling, this insecurity that pushes me repeatedly, as I sit across from her each week and pick at the hangnails through cracks in my skin.

A cue from Nicanor’s flute girl, the unholy sound of an instrument that stirred such terror and awoke such panic. It’s later noted that Nicanor only had these terrors during the night; during the daytime, the flute playing caused no harm. As though the darkness warped his senses and forced him to look inward. A whole self can be examined in the bright light of day, but at night it retreats.

My whole self is fragmented and worn at best. Its spine is slightly curved, an oversight during a routine check for scoliosis in middle school.

My hips slightly uneven, the left side hovering slightly above its counterpart.

Within those curved bones and the tightly wound fascia, a host of tiny specks flutter throughout my limbs.

My anxiety, a gray mass, sits proudly in my sternum.

Pressing against my ribcage and extending a limb out to squeeze my heart.

It pushes and bounces and creates a queasiness in the pit of my stomach. A sinking feeling and a rapid heartbeat I’ve come to nourish.

Without this adrenaline, I don’t know how to exist.

It’s as though there is a string between my brain and the mass that sits in my chest, and it pulls and pulls until it is white-knuckled from the grip it has on both.

Pull, flex, repeat.

I sometimes wish I could just peel the layers off, unfolding like a reptile shedding unwanted skin. Everything is just so tight, I’ll complain, nothing can release as though my bones are begging to breathe.

Joseph Lévy-Valensi, a psychiatry professor in the nineteenth century, explains anxiety to be a “dark and distressing feeling of expectation.” He uses phrases like “spastic constriction,” “intestinal cramps,” “shortness of breath.”

He took his time to outline the narrative of anxiety, using the body as its anchor.

“My bones are old,” I’ll say to my husband whenever a knee cracks or the audible noise of my back yawns as I flip over to my side. I’m always sure to draw out the ba-ownnns on my tongue, filtered by a Southern drawl.

He knows the anxiety dance by heart. My guest partner in a duet he was unaware he had a starring role in fourteen years ago.

When phrases like “spastic constriction” and “shortness of breath” were new and something to dissect. Now they fall into a schedule, as though an expected performance.

“I’m having one of those days,” I’ll text at 2 p.m. on a nameless Tuesday, filling his phone with all the context he needs in one notification.

“What’s the story you’re telling yourself?” he’ll ask. Right on cue. He steps one foot in, putting his hand gently on my hip, guiding me to my second position.

I flip the phone over.

“You don’t need to plan right now. Take one day at a time, a week at the most,” the therapist offers.

It’s hour 12,890 of a pandemic. I’ve stepped outside my home a handful of times, each time intentional, each time with purpose. I tell myself which places are safe. These are places typically with the most wine.

The mass humming a light tune beneath my chin, “don’t tell anyone you drove five hours outside the city, you’ll be judged for that.”

But I can’t breathe in here anymore. I need to see something new.

We would all love to see something new. Count your blessings.

I’m begging it. Talking to myself in circles. I can convince myself of what I need to hear and convince myself out of something so quickly, no wonder I had whiplash as a kid. No wonder my spine is slightly curved. A slight press on a sciatic nerve to remind me of the mess.

The good old fight-or-flight response. Walter Cannon explained this swing in hormonal energy to help us adapt in emergency situations.

Planning is how I stay alive, it’s how those around me stay alive. A voodoo crystal ball meditation I unconsciously created years ago so nothing would be a surprise. I’ll prepare myself for the emergency, I’ll think through the worst, and through this meditation, nothing will happen.

“What messed up voodoo dolls you got hidden in that room?” the therapist asks. I wonder if under my bed or in the depths of my closet I’ve untombed my demise in hopes of protection. Instead, there is a being within me. Watching from its chamber carved from muscle and pulsating with each flutter of an irregular heartbeat. It loves to pick up the pace. Just a little flicker of thought to get it moving.

He’s ten minutes late from work.

She hasn’t sent back a text in over an hour.

My mom’s phone went to voicemail.

Pick up. Pick up. Pick up. This can’t be that time. This won’t be that time.

“Each phone call or text is life or death, isn’t it?” the therapist squints. “You must be tired.”

I hate the sound of a phone ringing.

Perhaps this is how Nicanor felt on those flute-filled nights.

The mass is idle today. It’s been quiet for a few days. But I still feel it rising during its sleep. The slightest tick can cause a small stir. Nothing good lasts for long.

You still haven’t buried your grandmother.

You’re going to be stuck here for much longer.

Why hasn’t she responded to my text?

Your coworker seemed annoyed at you this morning.

It’s always as though a distant flute is starting to warm up.

He holds my hand under the weight of a light duvet cover. Pressing his thumb into my palm. He’s repeating the steps he knows by heart.

My face sticky with tears, eyes swollen, and rapid breaths begin to slow down. I focus on the cushion of the mattress. The way my legs sink softly but also urgently into the frame. The air from the ceiling fan above flicking pieces of hair in front of my face.

We’ve been here before. Post-panic. He is asking me to describe what I’m touching, what I’m feeling, a reset of the body.

“I’m sorry,” I say aloud. Mostly to myself but really to him.

There is a learning theory tied to the understanding of anxiety. Anxiety is a secondary drive, it’s the conditional part of fear. Orval Hobart Mowrer pressed this. Another old white dude to add to the psychological buildup.

I count my breaths and press my thumb over his finger. I fiddle with the band on his left hand, slowly pulling it from the skin it grasps and moving it back into place. I exhale loudly, or maybe it’s a scream.

We are sitting across from each other. In this new reality where the computer screen is a connection to each other. The therapist and her patient.

Remember when we were reading about how we should disconnect more? What a waste of a year. I’ve been here so many times before. The same mass that sits within my breastbone. Curled up in the fetal position just waiting for me to let go.

What month is it again?

I’ve lost track of time as I count my days by the level of my leg twitches. I can’t think ahead anymore. Trying to plan feels like walking in circles in a snow globe. She’s going to ask me if I’m meditating more. If I’m counting my breaths when I’m overwhelmed.

I exhale loudly, perhaps for dramatic effect. I twist the two silver bands on my left ring finger. Pulling the two pieces apart and then closing them together.

“So, what have you named it?”