I have nightmares. They feel real in a way I can’t describe. I wake up gasping for air and drenched in sweat. I’ll give myself a pep talk: “Shake it off, Gab. Have a drink of water. Read something. Take a shower.” And when I lie down again, they pick up, like a movie that was just on pause. Only, it’s a movie about my life: about people I love and things I care about. In the morning, my jaw hurts from clenching my teeth, my body aches, and the idea of a full day in the world is daunting.
I haven’t figured out what the through line is for these nightmares. Managing my anxiety – what I affectionately refer to as “basketcasing” – is a patchwork quilt of trial and error.
I don’t have solutions, but I do have strategies. Doing more of these is my New Year’s resolution. Maybe these could help you, too.
Don’t do what you don’t want to do
This doesn’t include eating salad. You should eat more salad, for sure. But don’t go to the party or the bar when you don’t want to. I may have been a party girl at one point, but I’m not anymore and that’s okay. I know that too much social butterflying tuckers me out and makes it harder to cope with other things. You can’t pour from an empty cup, and if that social obligation is draining your metaphorical cup, then stay home and watch The West Wing with your cat.
Know your boundaries and stick to them
I hate disappointing people that I care about, and that means I have a hard time trusting myself when it comes to friendships and relationships. It’s different at work: my compass is strong, and I’m confident in my decisions. But I don’t trust my gut as to which are the hills to die on when my emotions are involved. I try to manage this by making a plan before a situation pops up, so I can fall back on trusting the more analytical version of myself.
Have an off-ramp
When I’m anxious, I feel trapped. So I plan to have two escape routes: an actual one and an intellectual one. I like to drive myself to events that I may not want to stay at indefinitely, because then I can leave when I feel the need to tap out. When I’m stuck in a conversation that feels like drowning, I have a few ways to stop my thoughts from spiralling. My favourite is to say the ABCs backwards in my head: it’s tough enough that it’s engaging, and accessible enough that I’ll actually use it as a coping mechanism. Let me know how far you get in your first few tries!
I‘ve got a hawk eye for details when my mind is engaged: I’ll find that one awkward phrase in a document that jars or clangs, I’ll notice that you’re picking your cuticles because you’re nervous, and the key figures in a briefing always stick. But I lose my glasses. And my car in the parking lot. And my debit card. These things get lost when I’m lost: deep in thought about something terrible that is – while possible – not probable. These gaps aren’t a surprise to me, so they’re something I can work around. I have many pairs of glasses, I take a picture of where I park, and I can always just get a new debit card.
None of these strategies are foolproof. Nothing works all the time, and I haven’t figured out the trick to a peaceful night’s sleep or how to stop the ouroboros of toxic self-flagellation. Sometimes, I lose my glasses and my car and my debit card and everything is awful and all I want to do is cry. Not glistening artistic single tears, either; I’m talking ugly crying.
There are more days (a relentless number of them, really). More chances to get it right. Always more days.
Gabrielle Gallant is a communications professional, politico and equestrian. With a warm smile and quick laugh, she’s not what most people picture when they think of mental illness. She writes about her experiences with anxiety in an effort to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.