What It’s Like In My Head: Snapshots of an Anxious Mind

TW: anxiety, OCD, self-harm, vivid daydreams about bloody ends

This is going to be long, and overly honest. It’s mostly snapshots of anxiety when it runneth over from the last year. I don’t really know why I’m sharing it other than I’m reading Turtles All The Way Down and it’s really real, and I appreciate it so much, because I don’t think I could write this book. It’s so close to home. It’s so close to home.

Okay. Here we go.

I am an excellent daydreamer.

Standing in the shower, I have a split second image of myself slipping and falling forward, striking my face against the towel rod in front of me. I decide immediately that I’d likely fall to my right slightly as that’s my dominant side, so it’s likely my right eye that takes the brunt of the fall. There’d be a lot of blood, and trauma to that eye, but I’d be calm. I’d step out of the water, running red around my feet, and onto the bath mat. I’d have to throw the bathmat out because of all the blood. I’d cover my right eye with my right hand, using my left hand to pull the towel around me before I call 9-1-1. I’d tell them on the phone calmly where to find the spare key to the house, so they wouldn’t have to break the window, and the dog is in his crate, so they wouldn’t have to worry about them. I’d probably lose the eye. There’d be surgery, but there’d be an infection that set in so I’d have to have it removed. It’d be painful, but I’d be stoic. I would learn to do everything with one eye. Because my depth perception would change, I’d relearn how to drive with one eye. I’d wear a patch over my eye, instead of getting a fake eye, largely due to the trauma to the bone and nerves around that side of my face from hitting it on the towel rod. I’d tell some people, but it’d take awhile for news to get around. And then I’d run into someone who didn’t know, and I’d have to explain that I lost my eye to a towel rod in the shower. I’d have to discuss with my agent and publisher how to get a new author photo taken. I’d have to decide how to talk about my eye, rather than eyes, on panels and at signings. I’d have to tell the story again and again and again.

This is a fairly typical 5 minutes of letting my mind wander. (This was an actual daydream I had a few months ago. I think about it every time I get into the shower, which is every morning, because OCD makes me bath very very frequently.)

When I let my mind wander, there’s a split second image in my mind of what might happen, followed by an immediate spiral of everything that possibility would lead to. Sometimes, frequently, it’s death. It took me a long to separate that out from passive suicidal ideation and realize it wasn’t wanting to die, it was an obsession, a compulsion to chase down every mental image to its conclusion.

Some of my mental flashes are productive. I wrote The Girl with the Red Balloon because of one.

Most of them aren’t.

They’re what the mental health world calls “catastrophizing.”

My superpower is turning anything into a catastrophe in my head. I can sit at a red light and imagine what happens if the car behind me doesn’t stop and shoves my car into the intersection, and then I get hit by another car, and what that looks like, and what people do, and where the ambulances come from and how it sounds and what the hospital is like and what my injuries are like and how I have to write emails getting work and writing projects pushed back just because of this one red light incident.

I have what one might call “an overactive imagination.” It makes me a good writer. But I am a writer because of this imagination. I don’t have this imagination because I’m a writer. I suspect I develop storytelling in my head as a way to prevent my own mind spirals, and to give my brain something to do. If my brain is always working on a story, then it doesn’t have the opportunity to see death and destruction around every corner.


Last November, I was on a writing retreat where I said something to another writer, someone I deeply admire, that ended being not the wrong thing but a wrong thing. It was at the end of the retreat, and I’ve already learned that I can do about 36 hours, and then I will end up needed to cry somewhere at some point. So I was at my breaking point, and this happened, and I had a panic attack. Or an anxiety attack. My memories are fuzzy, so the time lapse of how it set in eludes me now, but I ended up on the floor of the bathroom, crying and trying desperately not to self-harm (knowing that self-harm of any sort would do more damage to my reputation and my ability to ever talk to any of these people ever again). I promised myself I’d be honest here, even though I rarely talk about self-harm and I am uncomfortable with that.

Anyways, the person to whom I had said the thing was informed that I was crying on a bathroom floor and they showed up and I can’t honestly remember what they said but they talked to me quietly and got me water, and I’m grateful for that, though I wish they hadn’t been called (again, being honest here) because I’m more mortified that they saw me crawling out of my skin in hysterics than the fact that I cried over some stupid thing I said in the first place. Jury’s still out on whether I’ll ever be able to face this person again because just talking about it makes me cry all over again (this person is extremely kind and has not treated me any differently and I know through mutuals they do not think less of me, this is 100% a me thing.)

In June, I went to Book Expo America. As result of November’s Writing Retreat Meltdown, which had been followed by crying on the floor of the bathroom at my friend’s wedding in January for no reason other than my arms felt fat (“Fat is not a feeling”, chants the therapist in my brain. I swear to God, once you go to eating disorder treatment,  those little chants never leave you, though I’m not sure how well they work either), I was armed with DRUGS. Legal, prescribed drugs. Ativan, an as-needed panic attack medicine, of which I do not take a full dose because then I’m loopy as hell and useless. But a half dose twice a day is working well for me.

I took a dose of Survive the Event Because You Want to Be Here meds. A writer friend turned to me partially through the day and became irritated that I was not sufficiently excited about my first signing. I was excited. It was just that the medicine keeps me from feeling the full excitement. Because for me, strong feelings about anything in any direction end in tears. If I am extremely happy, I will have an anxiety attack and cry. If I am extremely angry, I will have an anxiety attack and cry. And since I had no intention of crying at my first signing, I used chemistry to keep my neurochemistry in line. I don’t regret this. I just didn’t know how to explain to this friend that in order to survive things like BEA and BookCon, I can’t FEEL everything. I can’t.

On that Sunday, when I arrived back at BookCon to say hi to a friend, the woman at the baggage check asked me “How long will you be here?” and I burst into tears. She looked at me, bewildered, and said, “Honey, it’s just a question.” And she wasn’t wrong! It’s just…that was day three. I know from experience, from November, that I am a 2-day person. I can’t do three days of anything. It ends in tears. (I also didn’t take Ativan that day. REGRETS!)


Traveling is a trigger for my anxiety.
Leaving my cats is a trigger for my anxiety.
Doing events is a trigger for my anxiety (not the speaking part. I am great at speaking and I don’t mind it at all! It’s the whole…THING…)
Being photographed is a trigger for my anxiety.
Letting people down is a trigger for my anxiety.
Being with people for whom I feel like I’m performing is a trigger for my anxiety.
Being in one place for a few hours is a trigger for my anxiety.
Not having something in my hands is a trigger for my anxiety.
Three days of the same people is a trigger for my anxiety.
Gender is a trigger for my anxiety.
Clothes are a trigger for my anxiety.
My hair is a trigger for my anxiety.

I am a trigger for my anxiety.

The reality is my anxiety feels like a bomb vest that I wear all the time. It doesn’t take much, or anything sometimes, to set it off. And sometimes it’s in public. That sucks. But it happens. I’m figuring out ways of coping with anxiety and managing it while being a professional author, but that’s a different post for a different time. Hopefully soon.

And if you have a mind like mine and you feel like you are wrapped in dynamite, I understand.







2 thoughts on “What It’s Like In My Head: Snapshots of an Anxious Mind

  1. Carrie DuBois-Shaw says:

    Thank you for posting this, Katherine. It makes me feel so much less alone with my own anxiety issues when others share their thoughts.

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