Allen Mark

Putting Words to Paper. Or Your Screen.

Finding Anxiety's Name

NBC's This Is Us isn't typically the type of series that I would watch--though I guess ever since my obsession with Gilmore Girls a couple years back, anything is fair game now. But thanks to the ladyfriend's unstoppable praise for the show paired with the year long hype surrounding Sterling K. Brown, I gave it a shot and never looked back. Sure, it's a show riddled with emotional cliches, but its authentic heart and some great performances help make it all worthwhile. In instance in particular just happened in last week's episode, "Jack Pearson's Son."

*Spoiler alert for those who are behind or still want to watch it.*

In that episode (aired February 14th), you see first hand the anxiety that Randall (portrayed by the inimitable Sterling K. Brown) experiences. The director offers the audience subjectivity through the camera lens, giving us his perspective of suffering from a panic attack. The heavy breathing, the blurred vision, the trembling hands; this scene has been lauded for its realism. What struck me the most, though, is how much that final scene (embedded above) stuck with me long after I had shed a few tears for Randall and finished watching the episode. Why did it resonate so strongly? It was only after I watched the scene again (thank you This Is Us twitter account) that it hit me how familiar all of those feelings were. And they were nothing new.

The more and more I reflected on Randall's suffering, the more I recalled the nights that I felt the exact same way. I remember times just like in the flashback where I would sit in front of my computer screen, staring at unfinished (and often times even blank) word documents with my chest tight, breath short, and feeling absolutely helpless. I remember being at a Thursday night kick it at some friends' house during my time at UC Santa Cruz and feeling a sudden panic about work I still had to do. I ended up exiling myself to a secluded staircase, hands shakily attempting to type while all I heard was the distant raucous partying from the other room. Honestly, I'm not even positive I ever finished that essay. The more surprising realization happened when I remembered how often this happened to me in high school, up far too late struggling to find what word should follow its predecessor for some assignments. So like a cold shower washing upon my face came the shock that I've had anxiety for over a decade.

If I had to approximate when I started experiencing those moments, I must have been around 14, 15 years old, thus I had unknowingly been living with anxiety for 12-13 years. The strange thing about it is that I never defined those moments as anxiety before which is why it was so surprising to me; I had no idea that's what it was. I always manifested my panic attacks as self-blame, a swell of emotion caused by my own guilt. I believed myself to be incredibly lazy and an avid procrastinator, so when I found myself in helpless situations tied to my schoolwork, I thought it was no fault other than my own. "You're the reason why you feel like this; you're setting yourself up for failure." These late night demons convinced me that my failure to work easily and succeed was invariably because I was unable. Maybe I just couldn't, and that's all I was. Sadly, I think that these whispers still follow me to this day.

It wasn't until the end of 2014 that I was able to define my anxiety, though in a completely different context. April and I happened to go to Downtown San Jose's Christmas in the Park. Like dummies we decided to go on a December Saturday meaning Plaza de Cesar Chavez was absolutely flowing with bodies. Constantly brushing beside anyone going any which direction they pleased in way too close proximity to every person caused my chest to tighten and breath to shorten. Sound familiar? It was then that I gave my feelings a title: panic attack. (Side note: I only feel this way with chaotic crowds. Everyone facing the same direction at a concert? Cool. Hundreds of people decked in blue and gold pacing across the bridge towards the Coliseum BART? Totally fine.) 

Before then I never really thought of anxiety as something I could have, it was a struggle I tried to help other people overcome. Thankfully in noting my own struggles, I've been able to gain more control over it for the most part. Writing for myself helps a lot. Being open about it with others helps even more. Of course, the fear still persists.

Back to This Is Us, not only did watching Randall deal with his own anxiety help me discover mine, but it also reminded me that I'm still susceptible to it. His panic attack relapse happened while he was at work--work as an adult. As for me? I'm newly employed (surprise!) and I'm just rediscovering the pressures that go along with that sweet paycheck. Nowadays the work mindset seems to be the expectation that you're working even when you're not, especially in the tech-ridden Bay Area. With these expectations follow a fear that what happened to Randall could easily happen to me someday. Possibly even sooner rather than later.

Just as Kevin bolted to Randall's side, I also have to remind myself that I will be okay. I'm lucky to have people of support whom I love dearly, and I got to remind myself to slow down and pause if I feel it coming on. It's still scary, but I'm happy to know that it's not impossible anymore. Because of this, I'm incredibly thankful that a show like This Is Us exists, and that it, and especially Brown's wonderful performance as Randall, may always hold a place in my media loving heart for beautifully holding a mirror up to my own anxiety.