Growing up on a farm meant periodically creatures who belong outdoors found their way indoors. In winter or after a field was harvested or mowed, the wee (and not so wee) creatures seemed to look up for the first time and notice a ready-made shelter hitherto unexplored. That was our house.
We had a battle with rats who, once poisoned, would make the unreachable crannies of the house their deathbeds. Only alerted to their untimely demise by smell, we played a fun game of “where’s the rat corpse,” followed by “how do we remove it?” I once negotiated a fifty-dollar fee to crawl under the house and locate and extricate one such specimen.
The problem was we couldn’t seem to find and plug every nook and cranny by which a small to medium rodent could squirm its way into our palace of warmth and unlimited feasting. That was how the squirrels got in.
How my parents knew they were squirrels, I’m not sure. These creatures, unlike the smaller rodentia, seemed content to remain in the attic and ceiling. Unlike the smaller rodentia, they scratched incessantly. If our house weren’t a mere twenty years old with no previous owners, I would have questions about ghosts. In quiet moments–falling asleep at night, reading, or studying–I heard it. Tiny claws and teeth winnowing away at wood and sheetrock.
The first attempt to eradicate these beasties came in the form of “Have a Heart” traps. After the offenders were caught and released back into the wild, an exterminator came and plugged up all the holes in the house.
We believed we were finally rid of the pests.
Until one day I went into the attic. My parents’ attic is split into two sections–the finished and climate-controlled section, and the unfinished and not climate-controlled section. The latter section contained Christmas lights, old books, the track for an old train set, supplies from when my sister was a teacher, and decorations for the exterior of the house and lawn. The door is kept shut and locked, and we rarely need to go in it.
A couple of weeks after the exterminator made our wildest pest-free dreams come true, I opened the door to the unfinished part of the attic. I didn’t see a squirrel, but the evidence of its presence was everywhere. The top of every cardboard box had been shredded, exposing the corrugated layer. The shredded pieces were strewn about, along with bits of insulation. And various stains indicated a living creature unable to relieve itself in a more appropriate location.
The exterminator, it turned out, had done an exceptional job. Such a great job he trapped the one remaining squirrel in the house.
Seeing the havoc and mess left behind, my mind conjured up a vision of the squirrel. I pictured it realizing there was no escape, and frantically clawing its way through everything in sight. Desperate and neurotic, it scrabbled and scraped making a home for itself and looking for the way out.
I weirdly relate to the squirrel. Perhaps it’s my tendency to hyper-empathize and obsessively search for meaning in everything. Nevertheless, I feel for the little guy, even looking back nearly a decade later. Because that scene is a wee representation of how anxiety can feel sometimes.
There are times when my brain feels like a bunch of tangled Christmas lights, and I can’t seem to pull one cohesive thought out of the miasma of general anxiety. Sometimes it’s more like a hamster on a wheel–the same thought pattern repeating over and over. And sometimes, it’s more like a squirrel trapped in the unfinished attic of my brain, clawing its way around, looking for a way out and a home. My unhappy and inflamed brain would also like it to calm the eff down and get out, but all the holes seem to have been plugged.
Mayhaps the analogy doesn’t totally track when it comes to the solution. My parents put out the tried and true trap baited with peanut butter and caught this last vestige of the plague of squirrels. It was released back into its natural habitat and, as far as I’m aware, they haven’t had any more trouble with squirrels.
I’ve found it helpful when experiencing this type of anxiety, to let it have its say. I recently did an exercise, led by writing coach Steph Jagger, where she had us think of a particular situation that was causing stress or anxiety. She gave us a few minutes to write ourselves a letter from our fear. Afterward, we were instructed to make notes about what we noticed in our bodies.
She had us shake it off, inviting us to move around and stretch or make some noise. Then, we visualized our wisest selves and wrote a letter about the same situation from wisdom and love. Again, we made notes about how our bodies felt. The difference, both in the voice of the letter and how we felt, was dramatic.
When it feels like there’s a squirrel loose in my brain, it’s tempting to go into panic mode and think the only solution is to make it stop whatever the cost. I’ve only found this to exacerbate the situation. What if, instead, we could give the squirrel some time to tell us what’s wrong, then speak to it from a place of wisdom and love?
I wrote a blog at the very beginning of this here panarabola called “6 Practices To Help Move Through Anxiety.” One of those practices is journaling. I wrote, “It is an act of release, a way of letting [the anxious thoughts] out of our head and releasing them onto the page.”
If your brain feels like a squirrel trapped in an attic, what’s one way you could take a beat and non-judgementally listen to what it’s trying to tell you? Consider presenting that fear to God and asking God to help you speak to it from a place of wisdom and love.
I am not a medical or mental health professional. The advice in this blog is based on personal experience and should be interpreted and applied at your own discretion. If you are in distress, please reach out to a trusted counselor or call a hotline, such as the SAMHSA helpline (1-800-662-4357).