Survival Strategies (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

A while back there was this game going around social media where you listed which three fictional characters are most like you. I did not participate because I know exactly which three characters I am, and I did not want you to know, but what the heck:

  • ·         Chilly, the snowman/hypochondriac from Doc McStuffins

  • ·         Bert, of Bert and Ernie

  • ·         Chicken Little, of "The sky is falling" fame

I have terrible anxiety. Not the getting worried about worrisome things like everyone does sometimes. Constant, always there, low-grade but occasionally flaring into meltdowns and panic attacks anxiety. This is my natural state. I have to fight it every single day.

I know that it's not my fault, that it's the unfortunate way my brain is wired, and that we're not supposed to be ashamed of ourselves for things like this anymore, but I was raised in a world of stiff upper lips and brave faces and suck it up (to be clear, not just my family, but nearly every person I've ever met), and I am ashamed of it. Almost no one knows this about me, not even my closest friends and family, and here I am telling the internet, but again, what the heck.

And I know there are some people who will say, "Well, if worrying about things is the worst thing that's ever happened to you, aren't you lucky? Some people have real problems." I know this because they've said it to me. And yes, I have been lucky. But also, ha. ha. ha. And also, shut up because you clearly have no idea what anxiety is.

The 24-hour news cycle has never been my friend. I can trace the escalation of my anxiety to the development of social media and the constant onslaught of information—true, maybe true, and patently false—and opinions—informed, misinformed, and uninformed.

These days, I feel like I'm constantly being told that it's my duty to be informed, to be watchful, to never rest.

But that leaves me immobilized, not empowered.

So I have done what, ultimately, all survivors do.

I have given myself permission to survive.

I have given myself permission to put my own oxygen mask on first, like they tell you on airplanes.

Maybe it's not admirable, but it's necessary.

If I continue to let the news into every moment of my life, I will quite literally be sick. So, in the spirit of New Year's resolutions, here's what I'm doing.

  • ·         I have an app called Calm that I highly recommend, although it is pricey, and I meditate before bed and upon waking, when I remember.

  • ·         I read. I have discovered that my anxiety is so much worse when I'm not in the middle of a good book, so I must always be in the middle of a good book.

  • ·         I have taken up cross-stitching again. I did it some in high school and college, and then I quit because who wants cross-stitched stuff. I tried to learn to knit, but it is not my thing because it's just tying a bunch of knots and it escalates my anxiety. The counting part of cross-stitch is calming. It's hard to be too worried when you're counting 40 tiny stitches. Also, it is easy.

  • ·         Yoga. I pay for the Gaiam app, so I can do it anywhere. Again, pricey, but worth it.

  • ·         Exercise and healthy food. This sucks because I love sugar, but it doesn't love me.

  • ·         Tea. Tea makes everything better. The British are not wrong about this. I'm so committed to tea that I import it myself, from the UK, because I discovered that Twinings gives the UK all the good tea and passes off the stuff that tastes like mud puddles to the Americans. My local grocery store carries Taylor's of Harrogate Yorkshire Tea in the international section, and guess what? It's like three times cheaper and a thousand times better, but they don't have it in decaf, so I'm still ordering the decaf.

  • ·         At the beginning of January, I gave myself the gift of deleting Facebook from my phone. I love/hate social media, and this allows me to be more intentional about its use. It's a good compromise between being always "on" and keeping up. I've been crazy more productive, and I've realized how strong that itch to scroll through things I don't really care about is. Facebook is tough for me because it reminds me of all the things I can be anxious about, so if I was having a calm moment, I can be reminded of all the terrible diseases children can get, and all the ways I could die before my child is grown, and all the bad people who want to do all the bad things, and all the ways people misunderstand each other, and to top it all off, the people I think are on my side are screaming that I MUST BE AWARE OF ALL THE BAD THINGS ALL THE TIME BECAUSE IF I'M NOT I'M A BAD PERSON. And then I just want to go hide under a blanket, which does neither me nor the world any good.

So there you have it. My own oxygen mask goes on first. Not just so I can help others, but also so I don't pass out—because I deserve oxygen, too. My life doesn't have to be an endless stream of sacrifice and selflessness. I don't have to justify taking care of myself  with "because it will help me take care of others." (They love to tell you that after you have a baby. "Take care of yourself so you can take care of your baby." Um, take care of yourself because you're worth taking care of, you know?)

I get to take care of myself because I'm worth taking care of, and if I don't do it, who will?

You're worth taking care of, too.

So take care of yourself.


  1. Well said, Courtney. I know first-hand how debilitating anxiety can be. Thank you for being brave enough to write about it. The more I started talking about my own struggles with anxiety, the more I realized it was more common than I thought. Having people around me who understand makes me feel less isolated and also has the bonus effect of calming me down when I'm on the verge of a full-blown panic attack. I've been caffeine-free for years but you inspired me to go out and buy tea today. :). I deleted the FB from my phone last year during Lent. I may have to do it again.

    1. I have given up FB for Lent several times. Deleting it from my phone works on a more permanent basis. I don't want to be completely disconnected, but I also don't want to let it into my life all the time. On another note, I'm delighted that you bought tea, but I hope I haven't put you on the path to caffeine addiction!

    2. I got decaf tea :)

  2. I am Bert too, but more because I like things to be tidy and organized (paperclips!), not because I like pigeons. Thank you for your courage and honesty. I'm trying to handle the fury and anxiety I'm feeling about what's happening in the world by taking the action I feel capable of without drowning in the paralysis of THERE'S SO MUCH TO DO I CAN'T DO IT ALL! We all need to do what we can do, no more, no less. And yes, you are valuable and cherished and you should value and cherish yourself. That's a message that we all lose around the time we're 12 or so but we need to pick it up again as adults.

    1. Haha, I didn't think about the pigeons! I was thinking about the song he sings about how he wants everyone to leave him alone and let him read his book. I've identified with Bert for a long time. My brother and I were very much like Bert and Ernie as kids. I am also feeling the "what do I do when I can't do it all" paralysis. Thank you for reminding me to do what I can.

  3. Thanks for being really brave at a time when anyone who can string three thoughts together is scared shitless. I also understand the need for constant vigilance, having had addiction sitting on my left shoulder for most of my life. If ever there were a time to speak out and help break the sense of isolation for teens, for anyone, it's now and I applaud you for sharing.

    1. Oh, gosh, I don't think I'm brave at all. Most of the time, I'm a terrible coward. Yes, when you deal with something like addiction or anxiety, you deal with it every day. But the more we speak up, the more other people speak up, and the more we realize we're not alone, and that it's okay to ask for help and it's okay to help each other. Self-sufficiency is a dangerous myth.

  4. I've heard that saying too about putting oxygen on yourself first so you can take care of others, and I never questioned it. It's true of course, but it's also true that we, ourselves, are worthy and deserving of care. Thank you for reminding me.

    1. I've started asking myself if things (whatever) would be good enough for my daughter. If it's not good enough for her, it's not good enough for me.

  5. Yoga is the BEST. Take care of yourself, Courtney.


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