When my daughter was in kindergarten, she made her acting debut as a Munchkin in her elementary school’s performance of The Wizard of Oz. On the day of the play, she had stayed after school with her fellow young cast members to rehearse and prepare for the show. That afternoon, I got a call from one of the school administrators asking me to pick her up immediately and take her home because she was anxious, crying and saying she didn’t want to perform. I wasn’t entirely surprised at receiving this phone call; my daughter had always been a highly sensitive child, and had a tendency toward anxiety. But she always relished new activities and didn’t often shy away from social opportunities. Her anxiety usually was in response to external stimuli: loud noises, thunderstorms, scary visual images. So my motherly instinct told me that her fear this time was likely not about performing. But of course I jumped in the car and dashed to the school. After I wrapped her in big mama bear hugs and wiped away her tears, she admitted to me the real reason she was afraid: the Wicked Witch of the West. And more specifically, her evil laugh.
Suddenly I remembered hearing that very laugh when I had volunteered at one of the rehearsals. And it was eerily convincing! Especially when emitted from the vocal cords of a 5th grader. And although developmentally my daughter was old enough to distinguish appearance from reality, and of course knew that the witch was not really a witch, her deep capacity for empathy and vivid imagination was more powerful than that knowledge. Her reaction to the witch is a perfect analogy for what happens when anxiety itself, or any strong emotion, seizes us: our rational brain gets overridden. The emotional experience is far more powerful and convincing than any information to the contrary—however reasonable, accurate, or obvious.
I could have tried to comfort my daughter by reminding her of the rational info: It’s all right, she’s just another kid, she’s not a real witch! But that fact was nowhere near as affecting as the visceral terror she felt upon hearing that wicked laugh. The terror that made her want to cry for Mom to take her home immediately rather than perform in the play that she had been so excited about for weeks.
But I knew she could do it, and that deep down she really wanted to. To help her accomplish it, I could think of only one way. I asked her if she had ever met and spoken to the girl who played the witch. She shook her head no and her little face scrunched in intimidation. But I took her hand and led her over to the witch-girl, who was at this point only half in costume. I whispered in the girl’s ear and then stepped back and watched her lean down to my daughter. And gradually, I watched a smile spread over her face.
After this little meeting, the evil laugh was one of a cool kid she looked up to. But no amount of simply telling her this—nor running in the opposite direction—could have transformed it that way. She had to experience the witch and dialogue with her herself. And sure enough, once I took her by the hand and encouraged her to actually talk to the witch, she began to actually see and experience her differently. Just as in the Wizard of Oz the wizard gets revealed to Dorothy as simply a “common man,” this evil Witch became humanized to my daughter, and was revealed as someone she thought was pretty darn cool. Someone she looked up to and, in fact, wanted to be just like someday. Once she had a relationship with the witch, and considered her her new friend, she excitedly lined up amidst the other Munchkins on the yellow brick road to the elementary school stage.
It strikes me that anxiety itself is like the Wicked Witch in my daughter’s play. When it doles out its effects, you feel it in your body. Your breath quickens, you sweat, your stomach lurches. You want to run and hide, shield yourself from it. You Just. Can’t. Deal. So you pop a Lexapro or a Klonopin to escape. Or cuddle up under a blanket for Netflix and chill yet again. Psychological equivalents of calling for Mom to come take you home. Which, lo and behold, work! That is, until the next “attack” comes. Sure, such tactics and “treatments” can provide immediate comfort and relief. But they’re not (in and of themselves) going to help you get out on the stage of your life and do things you can be proud of. They won’t help you change, or grow, so that when you experience something similar again, you’ll feel and behave differently.
To do that, you have to befriend the evil “witch” that is your own anxiety. Get up in its sickly green face and get to know it, personally and intimately. And, I dare say, honor it. It’s playing an important role, which likely is to protect you. From all kinds of dangers, real and imagined. But in doing so, remaining foreign and witchlike, it has a spell over you. It’s keeping you from your role, your rightful freedom to live your life. So you have to talk to it, ask it questions. Figure out why it’s here. How it got here, what its purpose is. Learn from it. And in so doing, let it lead you.
It takes bravery, yes, and some support and encouragement. Some hand-holding from fellow “munchkins” who’ve already met that witch and maybe even sit next to her in math class… Such support could come from a friend, a therapist, or even a simple paper journal in which you give the “bad” feelings a voice. Anything or anyone that will nudge and guide you toward the Witch rather than let you off the hook to cower backstage or remain seated in the audience.
In my opinion, mental health treatment can often be too focused on ridding individuals of unpleasant emotions and “symptoms,” banishing them from our psyches for the “disorder” they cause… Thereby offering relief but prohibiting us from growth. But what if we view our symptoms as guides? Dare to hang out with them, befriend them, walk with them rather than run away? What if we allow ourselves to learn from them?
Your very suffering is the only ruby slipper that—if you can step into it fully—will get you home. To a genuine, authentic you. But first? You’ll have to dare to get to know that mean old 5th grade witch.