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2 July 2024

Anxiety has its own logic and momentum

Immersion in the tragic, personal art of the photographer Nan Goldin provides some counter-intuitive comfort.

By Tracey Thorn

My anxiety’s bad at the moment. There are reasons for this and I know what they are, but that doesn’t help. Some of them are obvious and visible to others; things I can describe. Look! This worrying thing is happening! And this one, and this one, all at the same time. It’s quite a lot to bear and it’s all taking a toll.

But, on the other hand, I’m aware that the precise level of anxiety is determined by my own mental calibration, my own somewhat flawed response mechanisms. Other people would have a different reaction to the same events. Some of this is just coming from my own head. The caller, as they say, is inside the house.

Like depression, I think that anxiety has its own logic and momentum, and once it starts it can be hard to stop. We can pinpoint triggering events, and set it in a context of real-world experiences, but it also seems to run according to its own timetable, and can come and go as it pleases. Or at least, mine does.

A friend, who knew I’d had a stressful week, said to me at the weekend that she hoped I’d be able to enjoy the sunny weather and relax. I flinched a bit and realised that I quite often have this reaction when someone tells me to relax. I know it’s meant well and comes from a place of love, but telling an anxious person to relax is a bit like telling a depressed person to cheer up.

If we were able to do those things at will, we wouldn’t be in this position. Do you think, I wondered, that the idea of relaxing simply hasn’t occurred to me? That I CHOOSE to be in this state because it’s what I prefer?

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None of these thoughts were helping my state of mind, so early on Saturday morning I decided to go into Soho. When it turned out that the coffee machine at Bar Italia was broken – a ravens-leaving-the-Tower level catastrophe – I almost gave up on the day. But I persevered, had breakfast, and then went into the Gagosian Open space in the old Welsh Chapel to see a Nan Goldin art installation.

I realise that this is a very “me” way of dealing with mental distress. No one could accuse Nan Goldin of producing comforting or relaxing work. This piece is a 20-minute slideshow telling the story of her sister’s teenage incarceration in a psychiatric facility, and eventual suicide, and the lingering traumatic effect this had on Goldin herself.

It’s a sobering piece – occasionally harrowing, as in the scenes where she chronicles her own self-harm, and the cigarette burns she inflicted on her arm. I want to look away, but that feels disrespectful. She is asking us to face up to what this kind of pain can do. As always in Goldin’s work, there are moments of beauty juxtaposed with the ugliness. Childhood photographs bring her sister back to life – laughing, playing the piano, showing off in a new dress – and others lovingly capture the friends Goldin made later on, after she escaped from her biological family and found her own people.

The music is elegiac: Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Elizabeth Fraser singing “Song to the Siren”.

I sit on the floor in the darkness of the old church, staring up at the triptych of screens and watching this sad, sad story unfold. And of course I realise that I am in fact finding some comfort in the experience.

The day before, I’d tried to cheer myself by watching the new Richard Linklater film, Hit Man, which I’d read was a comedy, and “thoroughly entertaining”. I was so bored I couldn’t make it to the end, and it did nothing for my mood.

The Nan Goldin show, though, focused my mind and my emotions, distracting me from the loneliness that can lie at the heart of mental suffering. I came out feeling sad – but also connected, and humbled, and strangely soothed by being in a space where it was OK not to have to put on a brave face. I felt “better”.

[See also: The cheering sounds of childhood]

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This article appears in the 02 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Britain