Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing | Aphantasia

Anxiety after all

I recently suggested that my habitual “unspecific nostalgia” results from feelings that were originally attached to (or stimulated by) memories that, because of SDAM, I no longer experience vividly. The nostalgic feelings are still there but they become generalized because their particular occasions no longer hold any particular significance for me.

It’s just occurred to me that something similar is probably happening with my feelings of anxiety. I’ve written before about the fact that it was only in my late 50s, after some sessions with a psychotherapist, that I at last recognized that I have been affected by anxiety all my life. The unexpected and unfamiliar sense of wrongness that I experienced during the year after I came back to Ireland at the end of 2011 was, I now think, in large part unacknowledged anxiety.

Because of a variety of factors — my age, the post-crash economy, the idiosyncratic nature of such work skills as I had managed to develop, and the fact that I had often in the past found job-search difficult — I believed it was unlikely that I’d be able to get a job and that I was probably about to fall into poverty and maybe homelessness. The prospect terrified me, but I wasn’t able to recognize that this was the case. I remained puzzled while I considered various other possibilities. I suffered wild mood swings.

When, at least five years later, the therapist pointed out to me that my main problem seemed to be anxiety, I briefly believed that I had found the reason for my inexplicable reaction to being “home” in Ireland after 24 years. A few months after my last session with the therapist, I realized that I have aphantasia, and that seemed to provide more context (and a possible explanation) for my difficulties in handling anxiety. In effect, I thought that my inability to visualize reassuring scenarios and successful outcomes was making it more difficult for me to get past the anxiety. Some friends and family members that I outlined this hypothesis to thought it was unconvincing, to put it mildly.

But already I was starting to play down the anxiety and play up the aphantasia. In the same post linked to in the previous paragraph, “Aphantasia is not a disability”, I wrote:

I began to wonder if anxiety isn’t my core problem after all, but just a consequence of my general inability to picture possible futures.

Soon, I was considering all sorts of aphantasia-related alternatives to anxiety as explanations for my life-problems: an inability to plan, schedule or prioritize because I lack a visual imagination; ADHD and/or a difficulty with executive function (nonverbal working memory); absence of motivation caused by not being able to imagine a future worth aiming for; and so on. Any explanation, in short, that would minimize the significance of anxiety.

It was easy to believe that the problem was something other than anxiety because very often the task at which I was digging in my heels seemed safe and innocuous: there was no objective reason why it should make me uneasy. I’d sit down at the computer to edit a document. It would be a document of a kind I had edited hundreds of times before, with no unusual features and nothing to suggest that it would cause me any unexpected difficulty. Yet, I’d have that horrible sharp, churning feeling in the pit of my stomach, and a sense that I would have to push past an immoveable physical barrier before I could even open the document and start to read it. Or I’d procrastinate for ages before making a perfectly routine, unconfrontational phone call. How could the thing that was stopping me be anxiety, when there was clearly nothing to be anxious about?

It was only after I wrote about unspecific nostalgia that it occurred to me that I might equally be experiencing unspecific anxiety. In other words, the feelings of anxiety had been caused by particular experiences and episodes that had actually happened to me but that I could no longer remember except in general, almost abstract, terms. The feelings were still real but I couldn’t associate them with particular (episodic) memories. If this is true, it makes sense that I should be more susceptible to these feelings while I’m in Ireland.

When I lived in Ireland in the 1980s, there was plenty for me to be anxious about, much of it economic. I don’t want to go into details, partly because SDAM would make it difficult for me to remember them and partly, of course, because even if I could remember them the process would be painful. But, as with the feelings of nostalgia discussed in my previous post, I now think it likely that I became anxious because of specific occurrences, situations and interactions, and that the anxious feelings have survived my memories of the events that gave rise to them. As with the unspecific nostalgia, the anxiety has become generalized, and associated with Ireland/Dublin as a whole, instead of with actual incidents, encounters and things that happened.

Posted by Art on 10-Oct-2020.