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Let It Be: The Only Thing I Know For Sure About Anxiety

If my mother's name was Mary, she'd tell me the same thing.
There's an important message in Paul McCartney's finest song.
There's an important message in Paul McCartney's finest song.

'Let It Be' is the second greatest song ever written. Paul McCartney's ballad about enduring troubled times is only just pipped by the Stones' seductive 'Sympathy For The Devil'.

In both songs I've found messages about mental health. 'Sympathy For The Devil' explores a catch-22; the devil in your head begs to be challenged but you're better off letting him stay. Keep your enemies closer, and all that.

McCartney's key message is that "there will be an answer, let it be". A beacon of hope to be sure. But he was only half-right about anxiety.

Let's start with what's right: let it be. I adopted this mantra after my first couple of years with a psychologist, who coached me to understand, accept and ultimately embrace obsessive-compulsive disorder, an insidious and not-at-all-quirky-cute condition that's at best debilitating. I've analogised OCD as a faulty email filter, but let's let that be and get back to McCartney.

Letting anxiety be is not only nearly impossible, it's the only thing I know to be true about the condition. In my early 20s I began to scrawl 'let it be' on my arm with a Sharpie as a daily reminder. Instead of sticking a post-it note on my mirror and my work computer, I had it permanently inked on my left bicep.

I'm not personally familiar with the 12-step program but it calls for something like surrender; letting go of any sense of control. This is what letting it be really means. While surrender connotes hopelessness, or simply giving up, I know the opposite to be true. With surrender comes great power, by simply embracing the idea that we have none.

And this is where McCartney is wrong.

No, there will not "be an answer". And there never will be. This is the cruelest truth for anyone gripped with anxiety. For the same reasons we have come to rely on our brains -- problem solving, reasoning, empathy -- we're trapped by them in moments of panic-inducing anxiety. It seems reasonable that we'd trust our brain, especially when that brain has led to good grades, strong job performance, the ability to relate to others and help us figure out how to navigate myriad mundane scenarios.

But the brain can never -- ever -- be trusted to give us the answer we need to solve the anxiety problem. To borrow a grossly overused modern phrase, it is what it is. My preferred translation is that anxiety is, just, kinda fucked.

Here's what generally happens to an anxious person during an episode. We're confronted by a troubling idea or notion that we become convinced must be urgently addressed. We turn inward for solutions, searching our brains for reason, ideas and evidence. We ruminate for minutes, hours, days and months for the answer to a problem that most likely never existed. These scenarios range from the benign to the sinister: 'did I do something to piss off my girlfriend?' to 'if I step out on that balcony, am I going to lose control and throw myself over it?'.

The irony here is that while the balcony situation is demonstrably more threatening on paper, both will trigger a tumultuous episode of incomprehensible terror. This is where surrender comes in. If you don't acknowledge your own inability to control or stage-manage the situation, you'll be seduced by the insidious idea that if you just search through your internal library, you'll find the right book. But there's the kicker: the book isn't there.

The only answer is that there is none.

If you're anyone who's been through the ringer of clinical anxiety, you'll certainly look for it anyway. Because just as a smoker (guilty) knows that cigarettes are deadly, he'll still light up anyway (once he's finished this blog). You might find something that looks, feels, sounds or smells like an answer, but before you reach the librarian's desk, the book is gone.

Simply knowing cigarettes are bad for you isn't a recipe for quitting.
Simply knowing cigarettes are bad for you isn't a recipe for quitting.

Where did it go? I need to find another! I just had it! You may spend a few more hours in a frantic search, only to find out one of two things: there are a lot of books with shiny covers but nothing on the pages, or the book I'm looking for simply doesn't exist.

When I've found myself in times of trouble, as McCartney famously crooned, I've turned to well-worn sources. Excessive overthinking, alcohol, one-night stands, drugs. The short-term, cumulative effect of these lifestyle choices has been to convince me there is indeed an answer.

But the only answer is that there is none. The only thing I know for sure about anxiety is the power of powerlessness. There's a marked difference between surrender and giving up. Letting it be means acknowledging, accepting, knowing that your visceral desperation to control the narrative is, in fact, out of your control.

So where does that leave us? Write your own book. Fill the pages with meaning. Join a netball team, write a screenplay, start a book club. Educate yourself. Find a therapist. Speak to your doctor. These are far from bubblegum solutions. The power of community and of identifying and engaging in things which build value -- from spending time with your family to bingeing The Good Place on Netflix -- pays extraordinary dividends.

You don't need to give in, or even give your left arm, to let it be. Your parents were right: The Beatles really did change the game.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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