Category Archives: Anxiety

Lost in Translation: More from a Stranger in Academia

Decade four and round two in academia—this time at the university level where, one might assume, things would be easier.

First, a flashback.

I am the English department chair, and the entire faculty is sitting in the high school library for a faculty meeting about standardized test scores for our school. Having entered education in the fall of 1984—the first year of South Carolina’s all-in commitment to accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing—I have taught for over thirty years under the weight of test scores.

Before the principal and the math department chair shared our students’ scores on the test-of-the-moment, the principal offered what he believed was a friendly caveat about the English scores: ” Just want you all to remember that we don’t teach grammar here,” with a nod and a smile in my direction.

Now fast-forward to my current situation where I teach two first-year writing seminars, had a now defunct role as faculty Director of FYS, and continue to co-facilitate our efforts at offering faculty develop in teaching writing.

In our Faculty Writing Fellows sessions, I am routinely addressed whenever someone mentions grammar, notably commas, with a similar caveat—although these don’t seem quite as friendly as they are marginalizing.

To be committed to critical pedagogy, critical constructivism, de-grading/de-testing, and authentic writing instruction is to be a stranger in academia.

You are tolerated with bemusement, as the mostly harmless weirdo in the room.

You aren’t credible—although you have worked for over thirty years honing your craft, taking great care as a teacher and writer to teach only warranted practices and to honor above all else the human dignity and autonomy of your students.

Nope, you “don’t teach grammar”—which is both false and used in the sort of condescending way people in the U.S. say “liberal” or people in the South say “Bless your heart.”

My urge to be abrasive always prompts me to say: “Actually I teach grammar the right way.” But I don’t say anything.

Mostly I stew—the same way I stew about writing free verse poetry under the judgmental purview of those who think free verse is a lazy person’s game.

And, I keep at it—doing warranted practice diligently despite the suggestions otherwise.

I teach relentlessly that language, its use and the forces that seek to control its use (including those who shout “grammar rules!”), is about power—as James Baldwin confronts in his brilliant defense of Black English:

It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity. There have been, and are, times, and places, when to speak a certain language could be dangerous, even fatal. Or, one may speak the same language, but in such a way that one’s antecedents are revealed, or (one hopes) hidden. This is true in France, and is absolutely true in England: The range (and reign) of accents on that damp little island make England coherent for the English and totally incomprehensible for everyone else. To open your mouth in England is (if I may use black English) to “put your business in the street”: You have confessed your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and, alas, your future.

I don’t teach students grammar, mechanics, and usage rules; I guide my students as we interrogate the conventions of language—why they exist, how they have changed, and why each student’s own empowerment depends on their being aware and in control of those conventions and their language.

And beyond my ethical reasons for approaching language this way, ethical reasons grounded in critical pedagogy, I am motivated by a negative: I don’t want to fall into a trap confronted by Lou LaBrant:

On the other hand, we should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness. (pp. 276)

The prescriptive-grammarian-as-teacher, I fear, is harping on pet peeves, setting themselves up for sullying the language and their students’ passion for expression—but certainly opening themselves up for losing their own credibility because virtually all users of language are pickers and choosers about strict adherence to the so-called

My stress level is triggered each time I receive emails from a prescriptive grammarian who spells my sacred Southernism “ya’ll.”

I am a writer and I teach writing—both of which are at the core of who I am as a person.

Ultimately, then, I side with LaBrant: “As a teacher of English, I am not willing to teach the polishing and adornment of irresponsible, unimportant writing” (p. 123).

But, alas, it is this sort of principled approach to teaching, and teaching writing, that pushes me farther and farther afield of academia.

And so a stranger in academia, I eye the fire escape, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie anxious with the awareness that “the other boys in the warehouse regarded [him] with suspicious hostility.”


On the Deaths of Prince and Ali: Even More Anxiety Chronicles

Gilbert Gottfried had a joke that included the land of the one-name people—there was also the pretentious first initial people, I think, like F. Scott Fitzgerald—and there was a time I thought the joke was brilliant, especially in the context of Gottfried’s delivery.

But not today.

I have been planning to write about Prince’s death, and the role of chronic pain in that far-too-early passing.

I was sidetracked by nerd-panic over Captain America, and then Ali died as well.

I cannot claim to have been a fan of Prince. What I can say is that I was, from the very first moment I heard and saw Prince, in awe of Prince—the enormity of his gifts, the size of his presence.

Ali was a completely different story because he was an iconic target of the racism within which I was raised. I was brought up to scorn Ali.

From young adulthood until today, I have worked diligently to make amends for those facts of my life that were not my decision, but for which I still feel responsible.

Today, now, as the world has lost both Prince and Ali, I can say without hesitation that I live in awe of both men—I am driven to cold chills and tears because of the grandeur of their lives, their living.

But that Prince fell victim to chronic pain and Ali lived a deteriorated man for years hurt me to the core in a way that I understand in ways I wish I did not.

Boxing great Muhammad Ali, right, pats the head of the Artist Formerly Known as Prince during a meeting in Washington Tuesday, June 24, 1997 prior to a news conference where they were to announce plans for a benefit concert in October. The World Healing Honors will be a grand benefit concert to promote international harmony and tolerance. (AP Photo/Karin Cooper/Rogers & Cowan)

Along with my lifelong battle with anxiety, I suffer under the weight of chronic pain—and I have no real way to separate the two since I think the anxiety and chronic pain are working in tandem, a brutal cycle.

How does someone of Prince’s talent and fame end up dead and alone, fallen by his battle with chronic pain?

I don’t know the facts of Prince’s life, but I do know that anxiety and chronic pain are the twin cousins of a much more powerful and dangerous force: embarrassment.

As a tremendously privileged white male, I am not writing a pity party here, but even my privileges work to create an even greater bubble of embarrassment.

My anxiety and chronic pain make me feel weak, inadequate, and hopeless—less of a man, less human because I cannot enjoy my mortal shell.

Even on the best days and during the most wonderful moments—moments public and intimate—anxiety and chronic pain tag along, hover there, tap me on the shoulder.

In Scarcity, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir argue that the ultimate tragedy of poverty is that people living in scarcity cannot take a vacation from poverty.

That is the anchor of anxiety and chronic pain—there are no vacations, even when we stoop to proper and self-medication.

If we find ways to numb the chronic pain, we still know it is there, that it will return. Chronic pain is chronic, it isn’t a wound or affliction that will heal.

Along while Prince’s pain, I am petrified of the natural deterioration of aging, held before us by Ali’s struggle with disease.

When the mighty fall, we all must be more aware of our shared humanity, a frailty that cannot be ignored forever.

Ali was vilified for his bravado, that scorn a base code for rejecting the nerve of a black man to demand with words his own and other’s dignity.

I live in the shroud of embarrassment created by anxiety and chronic pain, but my heart is drawn to Prince and Ali as they lived, as they celebrated themselves as evidence that we humans can be glorious if we so choose.

Their public selves were the antithesis, the antidote to embarrassment for simply being ourselves.

Today, I am sad, yes, but I also feel fortunate to have been gifted these possibilities of living life freely and proudly—as Ali demanded: “You must listen to me.”

Sunday 20 March 2016 Reader: in Just-/spring?

In many regions of this planet, humans are gifted the changing seasons, including the drift into hibernation and then the rebirth of spring.

One of my favorite poems has always been [in Just-] by e.e. cummings—in part because I read the “Just” as both “only” and the root of “justice,” wondering if in fact spring is just in the human sense of that justice or more so in the less ethics-grounded justice of natural dynamics.

As we slip into spring, then, I offer a smattering of varied readings, many of which should help in meditating on our human sense of justice.

Valentine’s Day: A Reader

love is more thicker than forget

e.e. cummings

Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.

“In Search of a Majority,” James Baldwin

Maybe you should just be single, Laurie Penny

Buried under the avalanche of hearts and flowers is an uncomfortable fact: romantic partnership is, and always has been, an economic arrangement. The economics may have changed in recent decades, as many women have gained more financial independence, but it’s still about the money. It’s about who does the domestic labour, the emotional labour, the work of healing the walking wounded of late capitalism. It’s about organising people into isolated, efficient, self-reproducing units and making them feel bad when it either fails to happen or fails to bring them happiness.

The Truth the Dead Know, Anne Sexton

My darling, the wind falls in like stones
from the whitehearted water and when we touch
we enter touch entirely. No one’s alone.
Men kill for this, or for as much.

I don’t need any help to be breakable, believe me
I know nobody else who can laugh along to any kind of joke
I won’t need any help to be lonely when you leave me

Love Poems | Academy of American Poets

What Depression Is Really Like

In a piercing letter to his brother, Vincent van Gogh captured the mental anguish of depression in a devastatingly perfect visceral metaphor: “One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless.” Anyone who has suffered from this debilitating disease knows that the water in that well is qualitatively, biochemically different from the water in the puddle of mere sadness. And yet, even as scientists are exploring the evolutionary origins of depression and the role REM sleep may play in it, understanding and articulating the experience of the disease remains a point of continual frustration for those afflicted and a point of continual perplexity for those fortunate never to have plummeted to the bottom of the well.

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond, e.e. cummings

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in, e.e. cummings

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)


these boxes (an antiquarian’s Valentine’s Day card)

Fisherman and The Siren (vortex of desire)

The Moment: More Anxiety Chronicles

The worst thing about anxiety is that everything about being anxious is the worst thing.


At the first faculty meeting preceding the new academic year this fall, our university president, Elizabeth Davis, about to start her second year, spoke in part about focusing on the Furman experience instead of always reducing one year of college or college entirely to what comes next. As I listened I thought about talking with my students about the Furman Moment.

This call for appreciating the moment resonates with me because I have no capacity for it. As someone who has always struggled under the weight of intense anxiety, I am forever plagued by what comes next, and I am captive to an overactive brain that not only perpetually cycles through what comes next, but also manufactures always the worst case scenarios for what comes next.

For those of us who wrestle with this irrational anxiety, worrying, and senseless anticipation of doom, we develop outward appearances of stoicism to mask our frantic brains and simultaneously tightening and exploding chests (one of several bodily torture spots where anxiety nests—including shoulders, necks, hips, and hands).

We also are prone to self-medicate, seeking ways to dial us back toward normal. For the anxious, relaxation, even briefly, even if a delusion, is a cherished holiday, a relief. Let us step just for a moment off the merry-go-round, feet firmly on the ground, and we are forever grateful.

And for me, along with the rare oasis of pausing the relentlessness of anxiety and the incessant internal monologue of my Self talking to my Self, the Holy Grail is to be with another person (usually only one for those of us who are also introverts) who has some either shared understanding or graceful empathy for this anxiousness that is irrational and ultimately embarrassing.

Yes, the worst thing about anxiety is that everything about being anxious is the worst thing, but the very worst thing about anxiety is explaining it every time you have to confess to it because you cannot view the world as most others do, because what is pleasure for many people is torture for you.

We learn to confess because naming a demon helps slay a demon, or at least hold that demon at bay.

But we anxious have a language that others do not understand, cannot understand.

And so we are often drawn to the wordless (a tragic paradox for the anxious who are writers)—a hand taken without comment, a hug or cuddling just to, these simple intimacies between two people who know each other, who know that sometimes everything is just beyond words. No expectations, no caveats, but the moment.

The great irony here, of course, is we anxious may dread physical contact or even being close to people virtually 99% of the time—the stress of casual proximity; the torture of ritualistic touching—handshakes, hugs—close talking, and crowds at social events. Let’s not even trudge into formal gatherings.

Anxiety, you see, is being overfull as a human too aware of everything. I mean Every Thing.

So full of recognition and sensation that we are spontaneous criers—more embarrassment—so we clench our entire bodies to try to hold everything in that is near to bursting through our eyes.

It is exhausting.

So as a late teen and young adult, I was immediately drawn to existentialism’s claim that our passions are our suffering, to the yin-yang concept of the impossibility of separating the light from the dark.

This was well before I recognized the anxiety, but I was quite aware that caring deeply was inseparable from feeling deeply anxious.

Relationships—marriage, a child—intensified these responses to the world exponentially, and then as I was more and more unable to manage all that overload of feeling this world, another response was to detach.

The hardest was my daughter’s teen and then young adult years when I had to set aside the urge to carry her around in my arms 24 hours a day. This is a universal issue for parenting, but for the anxious, it is the iceberg that sank the Titanic—others witness only the tip.

So now I am just a little over a year into being reminded of those wonderful and teeth-clenching years of parenting my daughter because she has gifted me a granddaughter.

A granddaughter just beginning her second year is a mostly wordless wonderment who when I am holding her in my arms while she naps is the most precious gift of relaxation an anxious human can enjoy.

A toddler, you see, often shuffles up next to you, a glorious proximity of closeness, raising her arms, longing to be picked up and held. These wonderful and precious years before she will quite literally beg to be left alone.

In the moment, she is wordless and affectionate with all the possibilities a child embodies.

There is more than a little guilt because of my need from this tiny child, to sit there and not worry in the moment because it is easy to believe everything is all right when a child is sleeping on your chest—a chest that is most of the day an artificial shield between the world and all the anxieties expanding there below the breastbone.

For me, my granddaughter sleeping on my chest is the moment I can live in, the evidence that for my students I must make the plea that they work on the very human skill of enjoying the moment instead of being always captive to the past or the unknowable future.

What I owe this granddaughter, what I owe my students—these are the things that make me whole because holding her and that wonderful time teaching, each is the moment that gives me pause and rebalances all the world.


The worst part of anxiety is believing that you are not good enough, believing that you are a fraud and that at any moment other people will discover your secret, at any moment you will be unmasked and all that you care about will be taken away—because that is the dirty little secret about anxiety that is the everything about anxiety that is the worst thing.

The Anxiety Chronicles: Confession 1

Have you ever felt anxious? Right before giving a talk, or waiting on news that could be bad or good, or minutes before a first date?

Well, you don’t understand then; you don’t and probably can’t understand what suffering from anxiety is like because individual events of anxiousness or worry would be a relief to those of us who suffer the unwanted psychological cocktail of anxiety, depression, OCD, and ADHD (among others).

Colleen Flaherty has recently detailed the stigma of mental illness within the academy:

[Peter] Railton’s topic? His battle with depression, which he says he’s hidden for too long.

“As academics, we live in its midst,” Railton said, according to a draft of the John Dewey Lecture he delivered last week at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association’s Central Division in St. Louis. “We know how it hurts our students, our colleagues, our teachers, our families. Of course, most of us are ‘educated’ about depression — we like to think that we no longer consider it a stain on one’s character. We’ve gotten beyond that. Or have we?”

In the same way that don’t ask, don’t tell policies implied that being gay was something shameful to be kept private, Railton said, the social codes surrounding mental illness prevent many who need help from seeking it. He encouraged those who have struggled with depression and related conditions, such as anxiety, to come out and share their experiences, rather than conceal them for fear of judgment.

October of 1999—my lifelong battle with anxiety (I’ll use that term for the cocktail noted above) became nearly debilitating. For almost 40 years, I had managed it, masked it so powerfully that when I was rendered unable to sleep due to some invisible force that gripped me every time I tried simply to lie down and then relented to visiting my doctor, he was completely unable to diagnose my condition.

A new partner in the medical group noted immediately that I was having panic attacks (although I reject the “attack” part in that it suggests incidences over the pervasive weight of anxiety).

Like Railton, I admit that possibly the greatest challenge with anxiety is that it becomes a vicious cycle of masking to hide the most embarrassing weakness of all: anxiety is completely irrational. In the rational world of academia, few things are worse to admit.

So my life within academia, higher education especially, is a constant but unenjoyable Merry-Go-Round of trying to explain the irrational to the rational.

“I don’t fly,” I explain calmly.

“You don’t fly?” the person always asks, as if this is unfathomable.

“I have flown,” I add, anticipating where the conversation is going. “And in part, that is why I don’t fly.”

“Just take something,” comes the next round.

“It is not the flying,” I continue diligently. “It is the entire concept, and thus, I would have to be medicated from the moment I knew I was going to fly and then until I returned.”

But virtually no one who ventures into this with me understands. Go back to the opening above.

There is nothing rational about a 54-year-old man with a doctorate and successful academic and scholarly career not flying but driving his car every day and cycling 9000-10,000 miles a year (and having been run over by cars twice during that 30-year hobby).

Nothing rational at all.

But if you are interested, I can detail that anxiety: I hate any sort of formal situation (generally they make we want to run to anywhere else), I hate not knowing (and this isn’t about control; it is genuinely about not knowing), and sleep is both the most wonderful thing ever in the human condition (during my collapse in 1999, I was on sleeping meds and cannot explain the joy I discovered at 38) and a constant struggle (I often wake in the night with one or both hands gripping the headboard, white knuckled).

And just as it took decades for me to recognize my anxiety, I have been forced lately to see that my daughter likely shares some of these challenges (although I had been fooled into thinking that she is quite unlike me) and that my granddaughter, fists always clenched and feet crossed and flexed, will soon carry on this unwelcome family tradition.

The Zombie Apocalypse and Other Stories

If I wanted to be a jerk about it, I’d say, “Clench your fist. Now hold that for 54 years and then get back to me.”

While that is entirely fair, it really isn’t helping for those who sincerely wonder what this anxiety is like. So as I mentioned above, my anxiety is a pervasive condition, a fact of life from which I basically never have any relief (except for the cycling, which appeases both my OCD tendencies and creates durations of pain that nearly shut off my mind).

It is a constant (and I mean constant) internal dialogue not of a split mind, but one singular mind that functions simultaneously in the irrational and rational worlds.

Exhausted yet just thinking about it? Sorry, but that is getting you close.

Michael J. Totten, writing about the popularity of zombie narratives, explains:

The fascination with the zombie apocalypse, I believe, is a cultural reflection of the new age of anxiety that opened on 9/11, with its fear of social collapse. As Penn State professor Peter Dendle puts it, the zombie is a “barometer of social anxiety”—and we’re plenty anxious. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America claims that anxiety disorders are now the most common mental illnesses in the country, affecting more than 40 million people.

And for me, The Walking Dead (graphic or TV series) is exactly that—a recreation of living under the weight of anxiety. Rick Grimes and his band are under the relentless fact of zombies, forced into an irrational world of the living dead.

With Season 5 and episode 12, the power of this TV series to portray anxiety is now in full view.

Safely behind the walls of Alexandria and apparently among new friends, the primary characters have a different challenge:

Much of the episode “Remember” deals with the group learning to live in a new place surrounded by strangers. Although everyone can have a new house, the survivors sleep together, play it safe. They have every reason to worry, every reason to find safety in numbers.

Living during the zombie apocalypse is never being allowed to live in the moment, existence dominated by the glaring light of the next moment.

Living during the zombie apocalypse colors everything, as Rick tries to explain:

Rick’s interview with Deanna is the most important. He keeps telling her—and everyone else—not to trust him. Not to trust anybody.

“You should keep your gates closed,” he tells Deanna. “Why?” she asks.

“Because it’s all about survival now, at any cost,” he replies. “People out there are always looking for an angle, looking to play on your weakness. They measure you by what they can take from you, by how they can use you to live.”

“Are you telling me not to bring your people in, or are you already looking after this place?” she asks him, but he doesn’t answer.

And I think this is why so much of the TV series focuses on night, as viewers watch Rick, Michonne, and Daryl sitting awake or suddenly waking in this new safe haven.

Anxiety as a disorder is relentless as the zombie apocalypse; it fosters an irrational response to the world that feels completely rational while you are inside it.

Just a couple days before The Walking Dead episode above aired, I read “Sleep” by Haruki Murkami from his collection The Elephant Vanishes.

“This is my seventeenth straight day without sleep,” the narrator, a wife and mother, begins, adding: “I’m not talking about insomnia.”

Like The Walking Dead, this story can be read as a story of anxiety about a woman who admits, “It was literally true: I was going through life asleep.” Reminding me of Kafka (Samsa lives a bug’s life before the transformation into a bug), Murakami transforms metaphor into the literal.

The power of this story, I think, is the careful and gradual blurring of the narrator as rational and then irrational due to sleep deprivation, all the while maintaining the ability to narrate in a reasonably controlled tone (a narrative mask).

The main character also echoes Meursault from Camus’s The Stranger, who admits one can adjust to anything (prison or not prison is no difference): “Without noticing it, I had become accustomed in this way to a life without books.”

Murakami’s story details a woman who can no longer sleep but believes that condition allows her to live life more fully, although as readers we watch as she becomes more and more isolated from the world, notably her family:

No one noticed that I had changed—that I had given up sleeping entirely, that I was spending all my time reading, that my mind was someplace a hundred years—and hundreds of miles—from reality. No matter how mechanically I worked, no matter how little love or emotion I invested in my handling of reality, my husband and my son and my mother-in-law went on relating to me as they always had. If anything, they seemed more at ease with me than before.

“Sleep,” then, falls into an existential tradition of literature in which the human condition is portrayed as starkly alone: Samsa as bug in a human family, Meusault as heartless murderer and social pariah, and this sleepless woman who loathes the faces of her sleeping husband and son.

“In other words,” she explains, “people live in the prison cells of their own tendencies.”

And as inadequate as words may be, I have to confess that this captures well what anxiety is, the prison cells of our own tendencies.

But prison cells we did not choose, do not deserve, and like the haunting lyrics of the California rock of my teenage years, prison cells where we can check out, but never leave.