Two weeks after separating from my first husband, I booked a bus tour through Italy, my first trip alone. Just two years prior, my anxiety, obsessive compulsive and panic attack disorders had become so intense and all-consuming they rendered me agoraphobic. But then I found sufficient help to pick myself up off the floor (literally) and start managing and hiding my symptoms enough to function. I asked for a divorce in part because the relationship didn’t have space for my mental health issues; he didn’t understand and dismissed them, which only made things worse. I realized that in trying to create a picture-perfect life—husband, house, dog, career—to feel safe and hide my secrets, what I’d really created was a prison.
Breaking free from my marriage was just the first step. Suddenly alone, this trip was an attempt at exposure therapy. It wasn’t that formal at the time; no psychiatrist prescribed or labeled it as such. It was my own attempt to find the walls of my prison and push their boundaries.
In Rome, I met my tour director and hopped on the bus with racing heart and sweating palms. What have I done? Over the next five days, I had some panic but even bigger epiphanies. Like when I visited Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. I had expected to be awestruck by him and was. What I hadn’t expected was the emotional impact of the Michelangelo sculptures that lined the hallway leading to David. The Prisoners appear to be works-in-progress; they are blocks of marble with human forms escaping from them. What drew me in was not their unfinished state, but what they represented.
Michelangelo described his work as a sculptor as liberating the forms imprisoned in the marble. He deliberately left The Prisoners incomplete to symbolize the human struggle to free our spirit from our flesh. I had almost 30 years of struggling with my disorders, and these images struck me on a very deep level. They embodied the burdens of the flesh—body and mind—I had been carrying for so long. I was enslaved by intrusive and terrifying thoughts I couldn’t control and bodily sensations that overwhelmed me, as if the anxiety would overtake every inch of my being. The Prisoners and I were struggles in progress. Not struggling to find our form but struggling to be free of it. Those figures represented my true self, still buried in layers of mental illness.
If Michelangelo could free David, what could I learn from him that would help me free myself?
1. Believe Hard. Take action from a place of belief rather than fear, guilt and shame. Michelangelo sculpted to liberate the forms imprisoned in the marble. He believed that form already exists even when he could not see it. Even if others can’t see it—maybe you can’t even see it yet—believe that your true self still exists, deep within, behind your diagnosis. And maybe the broken pieces you see are the excess marble being chipped away to reveal it.
2. Don’t Identify with Your Diagnosis. Adyashanti said, “As soon as you believe that a label you’ve put on yourself is true, you’ve limited something that is literally limitless, you’ve limited who you are into nothing but a thought.” Currently, treatment of still-stigmatized mental health issues is less about healing and recovery and more about handling and managing symptoms. Identification lets a diagnosis seep into your bones, making it difficult to break free from: Maybe this is just who I am and will always be. Observe your thoughts and feelings with compassion and curiosity to reframe this narrative and gain separation. Rather than “I am anxious” say “Sometimes my mind has anxious thoughts.” Remember, you are not your anxiety or depression.
3. Do the Work. Michelangelo toiled with his tools because the David wasn’t going to carve itself. Picture yourself inside a block of marble. What parts have you allowed the world to see and what do you hide? Identify the marble hiding your deepest fears and holding you back from living your fullest life. This work will point you to what needs attention, forgiveness and healing. Shed what is not serving you so you can grow beyond it. Chip away at that marble until you free your true self.
4. Find Your David to Find Your Why. I once thought David represented the ideal, perfect form. But given the metaphor of The Prisoners, I now see exactly what Michelangelo saw. That in his naked, vulnerable physical state, David represents the spirit freeing itself from the shackles of form. So if David represents the highest expression of self, unburdened by mental health issues, create your David. Meditate on your most authentic, true self. How does she look, sound and feel? What are his best qualities and strengths? How does she carry herself and show up for others? How does he show up for himself when challenges arise while doing the work? Tap into your David and keep it close. This “why” will fuel you as you grow. Back home, I continued my own work, one chip at a time, believing hard that it was my job to free my spirit, my true self, my David from the excess marble that was my mental illness. Terrified by what may be revealed, but with the courage to keep chipping without attachment to what I was leaving on the sculptor’s floor and the confidence that it no longer served me.
**Originally published at InnerSelf
Wendy Tamis Robbins, author of The Box: An Invitation to Freedom from Anxiety, is a lawyer by day, writer by night, and a “professional panic attacker.” Despite near-crippling anxiety, she worked her way through Dartmouth College and law school before, in her 30s, she set her mind to overcoming the anxiety and panic attacks that increasingly limited her life. For the past 20 years she has worked in corporate finance, creating and preserving affordable housing and lending to underserved communities. Learn more at www.WendyTamisRobbins.com.