My Demons and My Dog and This Anxiety and That Noise

Anxiety is clearest when it’s loud—and most dangerous when it’s quiet.
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liebs dog anxiety demon

Liebs looks up as if to say: "If only for today, I am not afraid." (Photo: Laura Willis-Abdurraqib)

I married into dog ownership. Years before she even knew I existed, my wife Laura found our dog Liebchen (“Liebs” for short) in the middle of a country road. Alone, scared, and not even a month old. In rural Ohio, where Laura is from, it isn’t uncommon for people to let unwanted puppies loose on old farmland, leaving them as tiny burdens for the world.

In the spring of 2014, a few months before my wedding, I sat in a dim and mostly wooden room, across from the therapist I’d started seeing three years ago, when I first decided to crack my long-diagnosed anxiety disorders. I told him that I thought I was becoming a dog person. What people seem to love about cats is what I had always loved about them: They do not depend on our love. Rather, we depend on them to dispense whatever affection they can spare. When it comes—a joyful surprise. When it doesn’t come, it is just the nature of the animal. To care for any creature that depends on your love for comfort and survival is perhaps the most overwhelming pressure that we nonetheless welcome. Loving a cat is like loving a ghost. They arrive unexpected, take from you only what they need, and vanish again.

Now, in a room designed to shake the richest emotional honesty out of a person, I declared my new allegiance to dogs.

To say Liebs is an anxious dog doesn’t fully capture her history, and the truth she lives each day. Even though she’s now eight years old, it’s hard not to see that she still holds, beneath her skin, the fear and memory of being an abandoned puppy. Before I first met Liebs, on an early date, Laura said: “You have to meet my dog so I can make sure she likes you. Otherwise this won’t work.”

As it turned out, Liebs and I had a lot in common.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 18 percent of the adult population.

Liebs looked afraid. Not of me, I think, but of the idea that I wouldn’t like her. She is half beagle, which shows mostly in her face, meaning that she has eyes that always look concerned, always skeptical, wondering what’s next. She is what any casual observer would call a “good dog,” often silent, generally loving (or at least obliging) toward strangers. But beyond that, she is deeply anxious, often on edge about being left, or forgotten. Nothing has helped with this, and I imagine it is a life she has accepted. I wake to the sound of her biting her nails at the edge of our bed some nights, eager to be invited up into bed with us, but sad about the lack of response to her whining. She has stretches where she aggressively and repeatedly licks her lips, a calming method for dogs. For some dogs, it is brief. For Liebs, it is common for her, at her most stressed, to lick her lips 30 times a minute for extended blocks of time. She trembles when she believes that there is any chance she might end up in a car, something that we try to subject her to as little as possible. Still, if a bag is being packed, or if I’m pulling my shoes on for the day, she retreats to the corner of our couch and shakes violently.

Of course, her separation anxiety is what haunts her the most. When Laura and I are both gone from the apartment, Liebs doesn’t eat any food or drink any water. Occasionally, this will lead to a classic scene: We get home, and Liebs expresses her excitement by eating a whole bowl of food before running circles around us and throwing up. Whenever I return home, whether I’m gone for 10 minutes or 10 hours, the process is the same: Liebs meets me at the door, darts to the top of the inside steps, and waits for me to ascend them, wagging her little half-tail and pacing in circles until I get all the way to the top.

I usually scratch her back lightly and say, I know, Liebs. I know.

And I do.

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Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 18 percent of the adult population. Part of the diagnosis’ ubiquity is due to the expansive varieties of the condition; beyond generalized anxiety disorders, there are various other more specific disorders that fall under the same umbrella, including panic disorder and social anxiety disorder, the two that I most suffer from.

I consider all of anxiety in terms of a volume knob. There are the loud ones, the ones we all feel. When a friend tells me that she’s “really anxious” about a job interview or a test, I understand. It is the howling angry violins cutting through a quiet night, the disturbance we can locate and cringe at, even though we know it will eventually go away, the hands tired of playing the strings. Still, however common or inevitable, the loud anxieties deserve whatever attention and comfort we can afford. Enough of them make for an emotionally paralyzing symphony.

Then there is the low drone. The white noise, or the sound that has been there since before you knew it was a sound. The sound you then got used to and built your life around. The haunting whisper that you know is always present. I think about living with an anxiety disorder as this. My biggest fear is that I know there will always be more fear to take in. This isn’t to say that I don’t have brief bursts of loud anxieties. It is to say that, for me, the volume knob is controlled by a small and experimental child, twisting and turning at will, in unexpected directions. The lowest volume is the constant itch, the knowing that everything good could become immediately worse, which instantly makes the present good slightly worse. The loudest volume is, well, predictable only in how deafening it will be.

Some days, anything that is not complete continuity can send me into a spiral of panic and anxiety.

There are very few people in my life who have been with me in a supermarket. I can do poorly in a lot of places, but I do consistently poorly in supermarkets. I panic if I’m not familiar with the layout of a store. I panic if a store I am familiar with is out of something that they have had before. This spring, I paced in an aisle at my neighborhood grocery store for 10 minutes in an attempt to calm myself down after realizing that they no longer carried a tea that I enjoyed. Some days, anything that is not complete continuity can send me into a spiral of panic and anxiety.

Despite living a life that requires me to engage with people fairly regularly—I’m a poet who is fortunate that people want to hear me read and/or talk to me about my work—I generally make poor eye contact. Depending on the day, I will either sweat my way through a few half-hearted attempts at eye contact during a conversation, or not try at all and offer a genuine apology to those who aren’t familiar with me while staring at my shoes, or the sky, depending on which is a more calming color in the moment.

As with all mental illnesses, the behaviors most people associate with anxiety disorders are generalized by pop psychology, lumped into whatever we can get from a movie or read in a book. The words “panic attack” are often used as unconscious hyperbole, words that substitute for an actual feeling of something that was not, clinically speaking, panic. We see it across the board. Feelings people believe to be so common that they can’t imagine them being associated with any illness, even when they are feeling them. Only about one-third of people suffering from anxiety disorders receive treatment. I understand this. It was hard for me to separate the bursts of loud and brief anxieties from the quiet consistency of an anxiety disorder. But then I lost a pen during South by Southwest in 2011, became overcome by a wave of irrational panic (what if I can’t take notes what if I can’t write what I need to write what if I fail I’m going to fail everyone will know I failed), and spent the next 24 hours locked in a hotel room, refusing to allow myself to face the world.

When I got home to Columbus, I met with a therapist.

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I value the comfort of historical certainty: things that have happened, and therefore cannot change. It is how I can tell you where almost any NBA player attended college without looking. Not just current players. For example, if you asked me where former Phoenix Suns player Dan Majerle played college basketball, I could rattle off “Central Michigan” without thinking twice. It is a trick that doesn’t work as well on the page, but you’ll have to trust me. I find comfort in statistics. When I was young, during moments of anxiety that I didn’t yet know to name as anxiety, I would find solace in the backs of basketball cards that my brother and I collected. I’d study the stats, the backgrounds of players. When I awake in the middle of the night now, emerging from a wordless panic, I reach for my phone and look at NBA box scores, even for games that have long ago been played and forgotten. I look at the biographies of the players, even the ones I know already. There is an overwhelming calm in looking at something that you know will be the same when you go to look at it again. A history that is not yours, one that asks nothing of you but to put eyes on it.

I often wonder what others who share my struggle do to keep calm during the uncertain night, or the loudest days. I realize how difficult any mental illness is to discuss with strangers, and even with people close to you. I still find myself unsure how to explain to people whatever it is they see in my behavior. So many of us have experienced targeted anxiety that it becomes hard to discuss the disorder as something constant and unbroken. To say well, I’m anxious literally all the time is true, but it is hard for people to imagine anxiety as something that doesn’t just go away, as a relentless and hungry shadow that hangs above your own. Anxiety disorders are complex, with moving parts. These quiet distinctions can be difficult and sometimes frustrating to explain.

When I do these things now, Liebs often huddles in a corner, looks at me, and offers a yawn and a slight sigh. By now it has almost been established that we’re in this together.

What compounds this frustration is the reality that anxiety disorders, much like the other mental illnesses they most closely resemble, are rarely visible or obvious. There are people close to me who wouldn’t be able to tell when I’m having a bad anxiety day, and perhaps wouldn’t even know what that looks like. Like many people I know, the ways I’ve learned to cope with the daily stress of it all either happens behind closed doors, or, if publicly, in a completely unspectacular manner.

There’s nothing to see here—but a lot to hear.

I chew gum far more than I should. If I get anxious during conversation, I very lightly tap out the beat to a song I know on my leg or some other available surface. When I am deep in thought, or attempting to process something—even as I write this essay you are reading—I lightly scratch my legs and arms without even realizing it (which, I might add, has compelled me to develop some pretty great fingernail-trimming habits). I often pace or walk in circles while trying to build myself up to do anything, which some days means simply leaving the house.

When I do these things now, Liebs often huddles in a corner, looks at me, and offers a yawn and a slight sigh. By now it has almost been established that we’re in this together. Two unexpected allies, trying to find small pockets of silent peace. After days where I’ve had to handle being in public and fully engaged with people for multiple hours, and I have nothing left to give, I’ll sometimes come home, put my things down, and sit on the floor. Something about being close to the ground has always made me feel more whole. Liebs will come over, collapse next to me, and put a paw on my leg.

The last time I talked to my therapist, I sat in my living room in Connecticut and told him that I had stopped thinking about people I love dying. I am becoming more comfortable with the future. I think of children sometimes, of loving even more people beyond myself. Selfless love, that mountain that stretches and stretches to the sky, and calls for us to attempt it. I am finally halfway up, and less afraid. I do not say this to say that love is a cure for mental and emotional ills, merely to say that it is the light that pushes us closer as the cacophony recedes.

On a walk with Liebs last week, a much bigger dog approached us and barked loudly at her, something that generally terrifies her and sends her running behind my legs. After the dog passed, Liebs shook only for a moment, looked into the sun, and then looked back up at me. As if to say: If only for today, I am not afraid.

I scratched her back lightly.

I know, Liebs. I know.

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Demon Week is Pacific Standard's series of essays exploring all things diabolical—from devils to dogs, monsters to mental illness.

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