People with anxiety know the pattern well. A thought occurs, then another and another. One’s mind unwittingly goes down a rabbit hole of progressively unreasonable thoughts with the same subtlety as aging. Only as an older soul looking back at photos of one’s younger self is the change apparent. In the moment, those most extreme unreasonable thoughts seem reasonable because the mind takes care to get there gradually. Only when one calms down and thinks back to the start is the severity apparent.
The most recent episode has a silver lining – I avoided a panic attack. By neurotypical standards it’s still problematic, but by my standards it does indicate progress.
Zero panic attacks, but plenty of anxiety and possibly a touch of depression. The thoughts at their most extreme are varied.
The first line of anxiety relates directly to my current situation. We relocated across the country because my wife’s job prospects were not great and I felt comfortable finding work anywhere – plus we would rather live where we are now anyway. Unfortunately, at the end of my probation period with the new employer thinks were not working out and now I am unemployed. It came as a surprise to no one. We all knew it was not a good match; the hope was that I could find something else quickly. That did not happen.
As we set about the process of searching for a home and, you know, generally living, the loss of an entire income was a blow. Our student loans are manageable now and we have savings so things are not destitute, but it sets back the expectations a bit and we have the fear of unknowns like sudden expenses.
That, in turn, applied pressure to the relationship. We have no marital issues, least of all regarding the current situation, but I worry constantly about when and how that might change. Each week I am not back at work feels like it delays buying a home by another month. How long would anyone tolerate that?
Other anxieties border on the downright absurd: How will I cope when our oldest dog dies? What about the youngest? Will I be the one who arrives home to discover it? As I fill out job applications and tackle my writing from the apartment, I look at their adorable faces and project my general anxieties onto them. “What’s the worst case scenario with my friends? I know, what happens when they are no longer here?”
It reached a crescendo with the release of the new “Little Women” movie. As I have covered in other posts, Alcott’s novel is perhaps my all-time favourite. My paracosm, complete with a mind palace where I retreat mentally, takes much of its aesthetic influence from how I viewed the March and Laurence homes. The March girls and Teddy are fictional friends and some of my favourite characters.
I loved the 1994 film with Winona Ryder and Christian Bale, two actors I already esteemed for their other work.
Then came the announcement that Greta Gerwig, writer and director of the amazing “Lady Bird”, would be helming a new adaptation. Taking the role of Jo would be “Lady Bird” star Saoirse Ronan whose earnestness and innocence in public appearances and track record for brilliant performances virtually guaranteed I would enjoy the acting. That felt especially true with veterans like Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, and Chris Cooper attached as well. Timotheé Chalamet, my favourite up-and-coming male actor, signed on to play Teddy (seemed fitting, he reminds me of a young Christian Bale). They added Eliza Scanlen (who I know exclusively from “Little Women”) and Florence Pugh, who was at the time unknown to me before dazzling in “Midsommar”.
Emma Stone was set to take the role of Meg March and that excited me as well. She is a fantastic performer. Then came the news that she encountered a conflict and stepped aside leaving room for Emma Watson to join the project. I have written about Emma Watson before, but new readers should know that I have nothing but fondness and adoration for the woman who already brought Hermione and Belle to life on screen. Why should she not also appear as one of the March sisters?
I could not tell if the casting was sincerely perfect or merely felt perfect because the project cast individuals with whom I felt a positive connection in general. It’s the sort of thing one sees on social media where someone with zero film experience casts an upcoming movie with people they like – only this was the actual cast.
Anxiety: When Positives Become Triggers
Why is the release of an adaptation of my favourite novel by a director I admire and featuring a cast I adore such a problem with the anxiety? That was purely an accident of timing. Had this film come out a few months earlier I probably would have enjoyed it without all of the anxiety baggage. The issue is that all of this perfection appeared at a time when I, a perfectionist, felt at my lowest in ages.
The film was a pick-me-up because it provided a respite from my anxieties in the form of entertainment. It deserves all of the accolades it receives (and several for which it did not even receive a nomination, ahem, Best Director, ahem). It also provided a stark contrast for my situation. Their perfection, my lack of perfection.
Now, I should mention that the film also helped a great deal. That is a separate piece though. The main theme of the film seems to me to be these “perfect beings struggling against the inevitable onset of imperfection” as discussed in the other post.
But that is ironically the problem. I felt Jo’s struggle too deeply. As I struggle to find a job about which, frankly, I do not care much so that I have the economic freedom to pursue writing that no one may want, I look back at younger versions of myself and think, “Was that my peak? How am I to move forward in this world?”
An answer exists, of that I am sure, but it remains unknown to me. I trust that the answer exists because of others’ experience. Viktor Frankl’s “A Man’s Search for Meaning” showed me that humans will find a way no matter how far life deviates from what one wants or expects or even needs.
For now though, I have no answers and clouded thinking. Only my emotion is clear. I cried hard as Jo watched the assembly of her novel and finally had it in her arms. I felt her pride as she asserted control over her copyright – a notion that plagues me about my as-yet uncompleted novel. I would rather earn less money and retain control of my story than to relinquish it. It has an emotional connection. Jo’s similar passion brought to bear moved me to tears.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was Amy March, a character I long disliked for her whiny ways. Florence Pugh and Greta Gerwig transformed that in the new film. I began to understand Amy and at no point more than when she described to Laurie the exact way in which love was an economic proposition for women even when done out of love. The inability to divorce economics from passion is a common theme in art, but delivered in Amy’s context during my emotional state seemed to hit so much harder.
Not Good Enough
The other part of this feels absurd. I hesitate to mention it for fear of how it makes me sound (more anxiety), but I do believe there is something relatable about it. At the least, the honesty should be revealing in a constructive way for others dealing with mental health issues.
I struggle not only with anxiety issues but also with obsessive compulsive personality disorder. The cocktail of these things has made interpersonal relationships quite difficult for me through no fault of anyone else. People are messy and imperfect. When one is already an introvert and then has these mental health matters to boot, spending time in the company of imperfection becomes Herculean.
It’s not that I expect perfection of others. The issue is that I demand perfection of myself and I obsess about the interactions. “Am I paying enough attention to their needs? Am I monopolising the conversation? Am I being interesting? I don’t want to give them so much attention that it feels like I am diverting from myself. If they do something wrong do I call them on it? Probably not for something small, but when is it big enough? How strongly should I push back if they do something wrong?” And a million other questions.
I tend to keep people at a distance not because I hate people or think they are terrible, not because they are not interesting to me, but because restricting the exposure felt like the best way to promote positive interactions. People have told me that I am quite charming. It feels both alien and altogether probable because I put tremendous effort into making my interactions with others positive. I love when I talk with someone and they walk away feeling like, “What a great guy. I want to spend more time with him.”
I don’t want to spend more time with them though. Why? Because I’m not perfect and neither are they, so it’s only a matter of time before one of us realises that and the interactions stop being so positive. They lose their efficacy. It’s not that the relationship falls apart, but that it would become stale and uninteresting. Does that always happen? No, but I have zero faith in my ability to sustain a relationship because I am acutely aware of my imperfections.
Through the years I developed a sense of camaraderie with fictional characters and certain celebrities, people who are not known to me personally but that I see often enough to form an opinion of what they are like “in real life”. I realise it’s inaccurate (and possibly unhealthy), but it satisfies my social needs without applying that anxiety.
The ideal cast of “Little Women” includes Saoirse Ronan, Timotheé Chalamet, and, perhaps to a greater extent, Emma Watson. They are young stars whose choice in roles, public appearances, and attitude about work speak to something in me and I find myself thinking, “Man, it would be great to be friends with these people.” I find myself supporting their professional ambitions the way I would a friend’s, revelling in their success and sharing their pride for work well done.
The anxious flip side to that is I often feel….unprepared….for seeing them. As the trailers came to a close and “Little Women” started I felt a twinge of anxiety. Saoirse, Timotheé, and Emma would soon be on-screen performing my favourite story and I did not deserve that.
Genuine thought: I do not deserve this.
As all things anxiety do, it begins small with simple truths. “You’re unemployed and have not been able to find a new job. While you’re home you spend time writing and puttering around when you ought to be doing more to help your wife. I often do only the chores prescribed to me when I could look and simply determine what could be done as well.”
From the initial observations come more anxious conclusions and self-flagellating observations. “You aren’t being a good enough husband. Why should you get to watch Saoirse and Emma for two hours? Why would Timotheé want to spend time with someone like you? Now you’re sweating. You sweat at the slightest provocation. It’s disgusting. Look how fantastic they always look and for all their effort it’s being subjected to your sweaty, disgusting, unemployed, unaccomplished self for entertainment. Good you could enjoy this escape from the nothingness that is your existence right now.”
Even I think that’s excessive. I see a lot of truth to it, but it’s also excessive. My rational mind gets that. It’s the perfectionist in my mind issuing a stern call to action, and it learned to leverage the anxiety for greatest effect.
Shorthand: it takes everything and reduces it to “not good enough”.
Sure, there’s truth to the observations but it’s the constant insistence that it’s “not good enough” when, by its definition, nothing is ever good enough that becomes the problem.
Viewing “Little Women” was the most intense emotional experience of the last several years for me.
On the one hand I had all of the anxieties. It brought to the surface all at once every concern and criticism I had about myself and my relation to the world. “You’re unemployed. The people with whom you’d most like to associate would view you as not worth their time. You’ve accomplished nothing. Your novel is nowhere near ready. You have not found work and you live in a world of economic propositions where, in order to live, those considerations must come before all else.”
The experience also provided inspiration and comfort though (as the story always has). Gerwig’s characters seemed less concerned with direct questions of marriage – the context with which I am most familiar with the story – and more concerned with a sense of identity as they transitioned from a ‘perfect’ childhood into their adult lives. I watched how Meg managed her domestic life with love albeit a fraction of the exuberance seen in her younger self. I watched Jo and Amy discuss the mercenary nature of their prospects. Laurie gained more depth as he struggled on the fringes of March life with his own expectations. Marmie gained depth through Dern’s wise and vulnerable take.
Apologies for a lengthy post. I suppose at the end there’s not much here except a description of a very specific mental health story – anxiety and OCPD framing a particular movie at a unique point in one person’s life. I feel both beaten up and oddly restored by the experience. If there is anything other than solidarity to gain from sharing the broad details of this experience it’s that no matter how severe or absurd the situation feels, and even if you feel the best days are behind you, someone out there gets it, life goes on, and beauty and happiness may still be found.