Welcome to End It Now?, a narrative advice column. In each installment, Alissa Nutting and Dean Bakopoulos will address a question from a reader who is thinking about quitting something: a relationship, a job, a habit, a project. Dean and Alissa will respond with stories from their lives and the lives of others, and then deliver a verdict: Should the letter-writer end it now, or not so much, and why?
Dear Alissa and Dean:
I am somewhat of an anxious person. When my anxiety is acting up, I start to rub my thighs or gnaw at the skin on the fingers. It’s second nature—I perform these actions without my brain even registering that I'm doing it. My mother says she can always tell when I’m nervous, and she thinks this is becoming a social barrier for me. Yes, it’s annoying; on the other hand, I’m not hurting anyone, and my tics do help me. They make me feel like I have control over something in a world where so many things are out of my hands. Do I need to end this simple habit?
DEAN: Perhaps I can begin with something that, twenty-five years later, still feels awfully embarrassing. That should loosen things up.
When I was sixteen, I was lucky because I had wheels—a rusty ’84 Chevy Cavalier with an AM radio that my sister left behind when she went off to Michigan State—and ideas for escapades. Not sexual escapades yet, but romantic ones. I had the idea that I might become a great Romeo of our high school, known for taking my love interests out for stargazing or kayaking or, lo, even to the symphony—anything beyond the movies and mini-golf my peers, my competition, had so lazily relied on.
I was dating a girl I really liked that fall; we’d gone to a homecoming dance together—and she was cute, smart, and funny. The first day I met her she’d been making a necklace out of tiny flowers that she draped over my head like a medal. She had braces and an infectious laugh and I loved being with her, and I wanted our next date to be special. It was a beautiful October afternoon and I had packed a picnic, which was not all that original, I realize, but for a sixteen-year-old boy it was pretty revolutionary, especially since I managed to think of everything: a blanket, bread and cheese, grapes and apple slices, sparkling cider, and two plastic wine glasses for the sake of maturity and festiveness. I drove us north of the city to a small county park, and we hiked to a quiet spot on a grassy hill, where I spread out the blanket, unveiled the feast at hand, and kissed my date on the lips.
And then I had to pee.
The timing wasn’t ideal but, I reasoned, most people pee, right? I excused myself and went off into the woods and I peed, grateful that my anatomy made such a thing so easy. And then I returned to the blanket, sat next to her, and smiled as I washed my hands with a wet wipe. (I really had thought of everything!)
And then? I had to pee again.
This could not be, I thought. How in the world could this be? I leapt up, excusing myself once again, and made some comment about needing to adjust my belt. In the woods, I peed again, a few scant drops, and returned to the picnic, opened the sparkling cider, and sat down. I poured out a glass for her, and a glass for me, and tried to say something charming, a mature-sounding toast, but then, suddenly, I had to pee again.
I’m the child of immigrants, and the milieu I grew up in was of the lower middle-class. Nobody spoke of anxiety disorders, nor psychosomatic symptoms, if we spoke of symptoms at all. Ours was a language of stoicism; you endured discomfort in silence, you buried your worries, and you never complained about fear. I realize now that I was simply nervous. I liked this girl so much that my body was reacting in strange ways. But I also realize now that the only way I knew how to deal with nervousness back then was to hide it, with macho bluster or clownish distractions, though neither of those would work.
We stopped and sipped our ciders. My date kissed me again and reclined back on the blanket and looked at the clouds, inviting me to do the same. But my bladder made such a relaxed pose impossible. Still, I knew that if I stood up a third time, and went to the woods, my date would have to assume one of three things: that I was doing drugs, that I was masturbating furiously in the trees, or that I was dating another girl I’d stashed away in some thicket.
So I tried my best to ignore my bladder, but I could not. All I could think about was the horrific image of me, wetting myself, as we began to make out. I leapt off the blanket, and went back to the woods.
When I came back to the picnic, I told my date I was feeling unwell. Then, I drove her home, and we kissed half-heartedly in her driveway, and we never went out ever again. She wanted to, she’d told me on the phone, but I was too worried that the phantom-pee-anxiety would come back. I told her I thought we were better off as friends. I dated many girls after her, and I never had the pee problem again, but I also never found one I liked as much as that one. And to this day, I can’t give a reading or lecture without peeing immediately before I go on stage. Just in case.
ALISSA: Bathrooms! Since we’re on that topic, they’ve long been a place of refuge for me in the face of anxiety. Stuck at an awful party? Just go to the bathroom and look at funny cat gifs on your iPhone!
My first day at a new junior high, the thought of sitting down at a lunch table of strangers petrified me. So I went to the bathroom instead of the cafeteria. Then, in an anxiety double-header, I added a mild form of trichotillomania to avoidance: I’d sit on the toilet with tweezers, plucking leg hair stubble and squeezing at ingrowns. I did this for the entire lunch period, for weeks. It stilled my mind; I scanned my calves feeling the objective distance of a gardener enacting order. It was like my own bizarre form of personal bonsai.
I began to get scabs all over my legs from overzealous plucks and squeezes. I started wearing makeup on my legs if it was too hot out to wear pants. My parents noticed and expressed concern—my mother in particular was worried about scarring.
But this was my form of coping. I didn’t have friends yet; I wasn’t seeing a counselor. I have no idea how else I would’ve gotten through that time. The picking didn’t get to a point where it flipped—where the behavior I was using to deal with my lunchroom anxiety became a greater obstacle in my life than the source of the anxiety itself.
At other times in my life, though, this flip has happened, and I’ve had to get professional support. Ditto when I’ve chosen coping mechanisms that were inherently destructive or harmful.
Any behavior can become a problem if taken to an extreme. I certainly do things I’m not proud of, often, to get through the day. It’s when I start to do them every single day, or many times a day, or feel I need to do them despite not wanting to that I stop and pay attention. Picking is still one of my go-to self-soothing behaviors. When I notice I’m doing it often, I see it as a flag to check in with myself. The frequency I’m picking at is a thermometer for me. It helps me gauge my current level of distress.
DEAN: Manifestations of anxiety are thought to be weaknesses in our culture, so when we see someone with a weakness we pounce. Your mother says she can always tell when you are feeling nervous. Is this a bad thing? Is a nervous tic any different from laughter or tears, in that it is a manifestation of a natural human emotion?
However, sometimes it’s good to let someone else—a colleague, a potential lover, even a child—know that we’re nervous. Had I named the fear during my ill-fated date, had I been confident enough to laugh at myself, let on what I was thinking, things might have turned out differently.
ALISSA: Everyone has nervous behaviors that may stand out to others. Sometimes Dean rubs the flat palm of his hand in giant circles on the fabric of the couch as he talks, intently and impulsively, as though his ability to speak is dependent upon him making those circles. It drives me crazy and I don’t know why, but that’s my problem and it doesn’t get in the way of me adoring him. (I don’t even want to know what I do that drives him nuts; I requested to write my response second so that he doesn’t have the opportunity to say. I’m a much weirder, damaged person than he is, so mine are way more irritating, and also usually gross.)
The social dance is one of tolerance and compromise. Maybe we tactfully ask our co-worker not to produce loud tongue-clicks as he’s thinking. Maybe he says no. Maybe we get headphones or find another way to deal with it. Maybe we let a downstairs neighbor know that we like to pace back and forth at night as we work late on deadline, and if it’s keeping her up, to tell us so we can adjust.
Dear Anxious Reader,
If you feel that the tics are becoming a barrier, keeping you from experiences you’d enjoy, begin taking steps to manage— not end—them now, with support. A therapist who specializes in anxiety might produce useful suggestions. Alissa once had a therapist who made her stop, close her eyes, and think of a particular urge as a wave she would surf to the shore, literally riding it out; Dean occasionally keeps a running list of things to worry about, and when it becomes overwhelming, he takes long walks in the woods until he feels comfortable tearing the list up into tiny pieces and leaving it there amid the trees and the twigs. Online or in-person anxiety support groups can be helpful, too.
We all have our “thing” in the face of nerves, and that’s human. It’s when we’re feeling out-of-control or helpless in the face of them that we might look to consider change.
Alissa and Dean
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