“I always go on until I am stopped. And I am never stopped,” said Percy Shelley. The Romantic era poet was a force of nature in human form, gallivanting across Europe, teaming up with Byron and Keats, running off with Mary Godwin and eventually marrying her. The only thing that stopped him was death: sudden, untimely, and tragic.
When I first read that saying, I adopted it as my personal mantra. I always go on until I am stopped. It powered me through grad school and years of teaching high school English literature and writing. It was my cheeky response whenever a friend commented on how much I was taking on. After all, if it was good enough for one of the greatest poets in English literature, it was good enough for me.
We know that Shelley was a powerhouse, but we don’t know if he had anxiety. And I only bring it up because I do, and Shelley’s quote, my mantra, became a coping mechanism for my anxiety. I always go on until I am stopped, because I am afraid to stop. What happens when I have to be quiet with my thoughts? What happens when I pause between being a mom, working my day job, working my adjunct side gig, practicing for my voice lessons, writing my books, tending my garden… what happens when I stop?
It’s kind of terrifying. I remember one time, about eleven years ago, I was working as a full time English teacher; enrolled as a full-time student in a low-residency MFA program that had me producing book reviews/analyses and original or heavily revised pages each month; and taking on extra work running the clock at school sporting events. I subsisted on coffee, sugar-free energy drinks, and microwave meals. I didn’t stop. I’d gotten out of an emotionally abusive relationship that made me question my worth, my drive, and my ability to handle it all.
One weekend night after basketball season was over, and after I’d turned in my grad work for the month, I found myself miraculously caught up on grading homework assignments. I didn’t have my Xbox 360 yet, so I didn’t have any games to play. I could have read a book, but why start something that would just get interrupted by my constant to-do list? I was stopped.
I had an awful panic attack that night.
I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to die. My hands were shaking and my walls were closing in. I couldn’t handle being stopped, having to be alone with myself. I was using constant motion as a coping mechanism.
I laughed when a friend suggested I was doing that. At the time I just said I liked being busy. “I am never stopped,” I’d say with a laugh as I agreed to take on one more thing, be responsible for something else, pack my schedule and my life so full I couldn’t hear myself screaming inside.
I have this problem where I feel like I’m never doing enough. I should be able to handle more than I currently have on my plate. This has led to burn-out and getting overwhelmed, and yes, more anxiety. I mentioned my writing to a superior once at work and she looked at me strangely. “When do you sleep?” She asked.
I had flashbacks to that year of coffee and energy drinks, of never stopping, and I think to a degree I’m back there. COVID-19 has made it worse. I need to keep going, I need to not stop, because if I do stop, I’ll have to think about everything that’s going on. “One day at a time, and lots of coffee!” I’ll often joke, when the reality is that the bleaker things look and the more I really should relax and reflect, the more I feel compelled to take on.
- I started a garden. It’s small, but mighty.
- I’m learning how to jar and can.
- I’m obsessively editing my novel, Sneakthief.
I’ve been working from home since March, and my job has proactively decided that we will continue to work remote until at least mid-December. My son is supposed to start kindergarten in the fall. I get well-meaning people asking what we’re going to do about it. I smile and tell them I plan to just drink a lot of coffee and hope for the best. That I run on caffeine and chaos. It’s true, I have a shirt that says so.
Since this has been my modus operandi for so long, it took a LinkedIn Learning on anxiety to put a label to it all. I’ve been going, hardly stopping, for a long time. I’ve been well aware of my anxiety and depression, and been on medication for it, for years; but it took that online learning unit to make me realize why I go until I am stopped, and why I try so hard not to stop.
If I stop, if I’m quiet and alone with my thoughts, it allows fear, doubt, and uncertainty to creep in. If I stop, I have to think about what school in the fall will look like for my small human, and if I can balance teaching a special needs kindergartner with working my full time job, and hoping to continue working on my books. It’s easier to just keep going, fueled by caffeine and chaos.
Going nonstop doesn’t make any of it go away, though. Shelley didn’t stop until he was dead; he couldn’t shut himself off, and continued on in a frenzied life as if he knew he was going to die by the age of thirty, unexpectedly and tragically. The fact he went out boating when he didn’t know how to swim makes me wonder if he was tempting fate. “I am never stopped,” he said. Just try to stop me, he left unsaid.
We’ve been so socialized to go, GO, GO that stopping feels wrong. But maybe we need to stop and face those doubts and fears. Maybe it’s okay to allow ourselves to stop, to face real chaos and understand what we’re afraid of and what we doubt, and why we doubt it. Maybe going nonstop, always busy, always focusing on something else, isn’t the best way to go through life, only to be stopped by death.
Maybe it’s okay to stop before that final point.
Shortly after Shelley, Keats allowed himself to lie languorously abed, transported away by the song of a nightingale. In that quiet moment, he faced mortality, truth, beauty, fear, doubt… all things that made him human, and the resulting ode reminds us that when we, especially as creatives, stop and listen, and allow ourselves moments of quiet humanity, beautiful things can happen.