Earlier this year, I got on a stage and spoke about anxiety.
I reflected on what it was like to lose my husband, Jamie, and what grief had taught me about managing my anxious thoughts. I shared anecdotes from hard-fought battles with panic attacks and tried-and-true tips on how to calm my overactive mind. The talk was filmed, I published the transcript, and still, months later, I hear from people who said my advice helped them.
I conquered anxiety and helped other people! That’s awesome, right?
Except, I didn’t actually conquer anxiety. While my advice may have helped others, I regularly forget to follow it. I identified things that helped me manage my emotions, yes, but remembering those tips — especially while navigating the ups and downs of grief — has been surprisingly hard.
Though I started 2018 by talking about anxiety in front of a crowd, I’ve spent a lot of time since then feeling anxious, wanting to hide in the shadows. Who am I to give advice?
I recently revisited my speech, wondering if it’s just empty talk. If I’m being honest with myself, I think the advice is actually pretty good. Whenever I do follow my own wisdom, I feel a lot better. But for whatever reason, I continue to slip up. I revert to my old anxiety-inducing habits and thought patterns. My brain, however well intentioned, doesn’t seem to get it.
* * *
Jamie was a smart guy. He went to college on a full academic scholarship. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of movies and art history. He could carry a conversation with seemingly anyone, no matter the subject. He taught himself how to cook like an acclaimed chef and build furniture like a fairly impressive Boy Scout. He was one of the funniest people I knew. But Jamie would sometimes get frustrated with his inability to adopt healthy mindsets or behaviors — to remember the things he intrinsically knew. And whenever he’d get upset, he’d complain about his “dumb brain.”
I soon picked up Jamie’s habit, and would commiserate whenever my dumb brain was also struggling with something. But unlike Jamie, who talked about his sometimes-disappointing mind in a joking and loving way, I was simply mean to myself. My brain, i.e. me, wasn’t good enough.
After Jamie died, my brain got really dumb. I would forget that I was a widow. I would cycle through the same hopeless thoughts. I would walk zombie-like from room to room in my house, unable to remember what I was looking for. I would desperately cling to the past or panic about the future, and never actually spend any time in the present.
Everything I was going through was a completely normal (and necessary) reaction to grief. I discovered pretty early on that being unkind to myself and my brain during that period was incredibly damaging.
So, I became gentler. I started referring to my “sweet dumb brain.” That simple phrase made talking about the things I was experiencing a little easier. It helped me feel more in control when most everything was out of control. After all, I was doing as best as I could, with my sweet and mostly good brain that also happened to be a little dumb sometimes.
I’m doing better now. I don’t walk zombie-like around my house. Thought spirals still happen, but a lot less frequently and with less intensity. My struggles are familiar issues that I’ve faced for years, like anxiety and depression. Sometimes I get frustrated with my ability to focus and be productive. Other times, my confidence is completely shot.
For better or worse, there always seem to be plenty of issues that keep my sweet dumb brain occupied.
And so here we are. My Sweet Dumb Brain is a weekly newsletter featuring essays about relatable brain struggles. I’ll be writing the essays (with a few rad guest writers along the way), and my amazing friend Rebecca Coates (who’s the sweetest and the smartest) will be editing. I’m not entirely sure how this will all take shape, but I’m excited to watch it happen.
I started this newsletter as a way to remind myself that I do have good advice and valuable experiences to share, even if I’m not always the best at listening to myself. Hopefully we can listen and learn together.