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Angst Begets Art: On Finding Beauty In A Life Of Anxiety

Deborah Vlock: "In spite of all the psychiatric dysfunction passed down along generations of my birth family and my built family, we are also the lucky heirs to a special gift: the ability to transform emotional chaos into things of beauty." (porsche-linn/Flickr)closemore
Deborah Vlock: "In spite of all the psychiatric dysfunction passed down along generations of my birth family and my built family, we are also the lucky heirs to a special gift: the ability to transform emotional chaos into things of beauty." (porsche-linn/Flickr)

In my family, we worry. Not much is too banal to strike fear in our phobic hearts. By “family” I refer not only to the one I was born into, but also the families my siblings and I have created. For some reason, we all married into angst, which is not so advantageous as, say, marrying into money. The riches we bequeath to our children can largely be reckoned in currencies of fear.

Our fears and phobias come in all flavors: generalized anxiety, panic disorder, agoraphobia, OCD, emetophobia, acrophobia, ornithophobia and whatever you call bat terrors. (That last one belongs to me.)

I don’t need reason to kindle my anxiety; I can conjure worrisome things out of thin air.

I have irrationally feared ending up in Auschwitz since watching “Night and Fog” against my will at age 10, in 1973. A child of mine has wasted billions of seconds fretting about doomsday scenarios involving wayward asteroids and an apocalypse borne of cleverly resistant superbugs. Our extended relatives engage regularly in superhuman feats of worry.

Certain fears make sense. In the wake of the marathon bombings in 2013, the great brow of Boston contracted in terror and woe; I was far from alone in my breathless anguish then. But that was rational dread. I don’t need reason to kindle my anxiety; I can conjure worrisome things out of thin air.

For example, my fear of Fatal Familial Insomnia, a nightmarish condition introduced to me by my old frenemy Google, keeps me awake several times a month, which foments more fear of never sleeping again. And there’s plenty more where that came from.

Whatever the reason I married into angst –- crazy love? — I can lay half the blame on my husband, Lars. What scares Lars is waste, particularly waste of food, against which he constantly campaigns. Few questionable viands are too risky for Lars’s consumption — better to swallow fast and chase it down with a shot of Kirschwasser than leave it as an offering to the maggots. This bizarre reluctance to let go of food in any form seems to be a legacy from his Nazi parents, who experienced hunger in the thick of World War II. I myself am a waster of food who might not even be here to toss out old meat if the Nazis had completed their diabolical work, so I claim the moral high ground in negotiations on the food front.

Although my impulse is to summon humor when writing about the anxiety and other psychiatric disorders running riot through my family, the reality is that anxieties like ours are not so funny when you are living them, dating them, parenting them or otherwise dealing with them. Checking a pre-adolescent child into a psych unit for the fourth or fifth time in three years will nearly kill you –- especially if you are inclined toward anxiety or depression yourself.

The bottom line is this: the world we occupy today is inhospitable to those of us with chronic anxiety. So many things go wrong: murderous funnel clouds that toss houses and human beings like pieces of litter; assaults by vengeful ocean tides; mass shootings. These events expose our collective vulnerability. Every media report about them only exacerbates the fragile equanimity of anxious people like me, who struggle to take in bad news without imagining that the end of the world is nearer than advertised.

Our perpetual state of anxious arousal is inseparable from our keen sense of wonderment at this wide world, in all its moods and hues -- and from our desire to translate our impressions of the universe into aesthetic work.

But here’s where things get interesting. In spite of all the psychiatric dysfunction passed down along generations of my birth family and my built family, we are also the lucky heirs to a special gift: the ability to transform emotional chaos into things of beauty. Our perpetual state of anxious arousal is inseparable from our keen sense of wonderment at this wide world, in all its moods and hues — and from our desire to translate our impressions of the universe into aesthetic work.

Angst is the sister of imagination. I have no idea which arrives first, but where you find one you are likely to see the other.

So when stress runs high, we get busy. Whether in words strung together or scavenged odds and ends joined unexpectedly into some new gestalt; whether through making music or paintings or intricate, folded papers, we respond to our life-swallowing angst by giving it a transformative twist. Angst begets art, and calm sets in. Until the bats swoop at twilight.


Related:

Deborah Vlock Cognoscenti contributor
Deborah Vlock is an essayist, fiction writer, anxious person and regular blogger for Psychology Today. Her current project is a collection of essays on, among other things, disability and self-reinvention.

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