There’s a brilliant stand-up by Simon Amstell called Do Nothing. There’s a bit right at the end where he gets all philosophical, and the whole thing loops back to the beginning. He ruminates about his trip to Paris with some friends, and how he meets a girl who seems fantastically interesting, bubbly and exuberant with emotion. She suggests that they all run down the Champs-Élysées at four o’clock in the morning, towards the Arc de Triomphe, and he thinks that sounds somewhat silly – they live in the opposite direction, and it seems a little far to go. But he goes along anyway, and they all run – and it seems for him, at least, that everyone else is lost in the moment, lost in the feeling of joy in the experience itself. But instead, as he is running, he thinks, “This will make a good memory!” which is just living in the future discussing the past with someone who, if they asked you how you were feeling at that exact moment, would receive the answer, “Well, I was thinking about what I would say to you!”
I’ve always been excessively occupied with the future; I was a precocious child. I’ve also always been excessively occupied with the past. I’ve become an anxious adult, and I find myself ruminating over conversations I had yesterday or 10 years ago. It doesn’t seem to matter how important the conversation was, whether a mere trifle or something of immense importance.
My anxiety was only diagnosed a year and a half ago, but I have always been immensely preoccupied with the past or the future, never able to be in the moment. This, of course, isn’t the whole story when it comes to anxiety; it’s merely half of a chapter. I have physical symptoms, too, and often avoid situations due to being excessively anxious. I developed an eating disorder partly due to a need to control that anxiety, because it took over my entire life and I didn’t feel that I could function at all unless I funneled that anxiousness somewhere – and so I funneled it into not eating.
But a vast majority of my anxiety is founded on a complete inability to be in the moment. I am so lost in my feelings of terror about the future, of regret over past mistakes, that I feel unable to experience the things before me. Often it can seem as if I am reading a book, as if I am experiencing the situation before me as if it were happening to someone else.
I almost experience life in the third person — because I am constantly evaluating it and worrying about the meaning of it, I lose the experience itself. I become so worried about whether I am responding appropriately to someone’s troubles, whether I am being a kind and supportive friend, that I fail to feel that trouble as if it were my own, and then I cannot empathize and thus feel separate from others and devoid of emotion and empty. I am so focused on saying the right thing that I follow some script in my head, and it then feels as if I am watching the conversation as you would do a film, rather than feeling it.
Recently, I’ve found myself easing into the moment somewhat. There have been brief lapses in my terror about the future and my rumination over the past. I have been able to live in the moment. The way I went about achieving this seemed counter-productive at first. I tried to stop asking if I was irritating people, tried to stop pressing for reassurance. I tried to have more confidence in myself, to accept myself as I accept others – to know that I am deserving of a seat at the table, that I am allowed to take up room in the world.
I took up meditation and started listening to myself breathe. I just listened to myself exist and let myself feel the discomfort with myself and the anxiety without doing anything to distract myself from them. Gradually, I started to feel comfortable with myself, comfortable with existing in the moment, and comfortable with being myself.
As Sylvia plath wrote in her diary:
“Why is it that I find it so difficult to accept the present moment, whole as an apple, without cutting and hacking at it to find a purpose, or setting it up on a shelf with other apples to measure its worth or trying to pickle it in brine to preserve it, and crying to find it turns all brown and is no longer simply the lovely apple I was given in the morning?”
Her own experience feels very much like my own. I was unable to experience anything fully because of my need to pull it apart and analyze it and interpret it. Now I feel like I am on my way to living in the moment.