Feel-tank: the pleasures of anxiety

by Anne Moore

The term “feel-tank” comes from a group of theory wonks who wanted to come up with an alternative to “thinktank.” I like it.

On our way to visit my sponsor in the hospital yesterday, where she’s in a holding pattern waiting for diagnosis of a chemo-related ailment so she can move on to a bone marrow transplant, Ariel and I were in a minor car accident. It was no big deal, really–a nice older couple sideswiped us on Beacon Street in Brookline. I stayed in the car for a bit as Ariel traded information with them, and there was no dispute as to who was in the wrong, just a lot of embarrassed apologizing and shuffling for papers. After an emotionally grinding week, I was already upset, and gearing up for the hospital visit felt like no small feat. The moment of impact crystallized this element of my current experience of being in the world: Something Terrible is about to happen, and it’s Too Late to do anything about it now.

So today, after a restless night and into an uncertain day, I’m thinking of anxiety. Specifically, I’m curious about its benefits and purpose. How has this particular response to the world–elevated heart rate, the feeling that I’m not so much moving as being hurtled through space, hyper-sensitive startle response, prickly supercharged skin–gained such purchase in my mind/body, and why?

The obvious answer is trauma, right? I’ve been following the advice of my friends and sponsor and team of mental health helpers-out in my attempts to Stay In The Day, but sometimes staying in the day seems like the worst idea in the world. If I know there’s going to be a storm, I should have a store of canned food, right? That’s just good planning. But the logic of trauma leads me to believe that no amount of canned food will ever be enough–an entire basement full of beans and rice will eventually run out, and then we’re really screwed once the zombie army arrives at the door. I’m driven by experience (filtered through the hazy lens of adolescent memory) to anticipate the worst, but to simultaneously resign myself to the knowledge that no preparation will ever be enough.

When I got out of the car to meet the Brookline Bashers, I tried to keep it light, joking, “well, that was bracing!” And maybe that is the pleasure of anxiety: the specified attention it affords. It’s strange, since the word I use most frequently to describe the feeling is disassociation–as if I’m able, through the engine of my anxiety, to remove myself from disturbing stimuli. But the truth is (of course) a bit more complicated than that. It’s not that I’m not paying attention, but that my attention becomes incredibly focused. The air on my skin, the noises around me, my heart in my chest–they’re inescapable (and almost unbearable) in those moments. Like it or not, anxiety makes me know I’m alive.