I Am Anxious... José Olivarez
The award-winning writer and poet talks about growing up anxious, fight or flight responses, and shares an incredible piece of advice.
José Olivarez is a writer from Calumet City, IL. He is the author of Promises of Gold and Citizen Illegal. Citizen Illegal was a finalist for the PEN/ Jean Stein Award and a winner of the 2018 Chicago Review of Books Poetry Prize. It was named a top book of 2018 by The Adroit Journal, NPR, and the New York Public Library. Along with Felicia Chavez and Willie Perdomo, he co-edited the poetry anthology, The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT. His poems are featured alongside photographs by Antonio Salazar in the multi-disciplinary poetic work, Por Siempre.
His latest book of poems, Promises of Gold, is a masterwork of the genre that not only features the poems in English, but also includes a Spanish translation by poet David Ruano.
“It started as an attempt to write love poems for my friends and family and was warped by the pandemic. It's my attempt to reach towards love & community during anxious times.”
How long have you been an anxious person?
I've been anxious since I was a child. Friends would say I was quiet, but in truth, I was anxious. I didn't want to make a fool of myself.
What is your earliest memory of being anxious?
Spanish is my first language, so when I started going to school in all-English settings I was anxious about messing up a word in English and getting in trouble or having classmates laugh at me. Besides, I didn't want to let my parents down. I knew, even as a kid, how much they sacrificed for me.
Have you ever experienced a panic attack?
Only once. It was after a break up. I went into Manhattan to complete some work and distract me from everything. After finishing my work, I remember feeling like it would be impossible to make it back home by myself. I eventually called a friend and they rode the train uptown with me & made sure I made it home safely.
What are some of your anxiety triggers? What makes you most anxious?
Anything that requires me to set an alarm immediately makes me anxious. I have to double check and triple check to make sure I'm not late. Money makes me anxious--talking about it, filling out forms to receive it, spending it, all of it makes me anxious. Emails make me anxious.
How do you feel physically and emotionally when you’re anxious?
My feet start to shake. I can't sit still. There's a tightness in my core that makes it hard to concentrate. Emotionally, I feel exhausted. It's so tiring to be anxious.
What do you do when you feel anxious? How do you take care of yourself in those situations? Do you have any anxiety management tips or tricks?
I count my steps from 1-30. Odd numbers on the left. Even numbers on the right foot. Over and over until I feel a little less anxious. I try deep breathing exercises. A friend once told me he memorized sports stats to recite to himself when he was feeling anxious, so I've tried that too.
How do you feel your anxiety affects your family, friends, and overall social life?
I know there are moments where because I'm feeling anxious I withdraw from friends and family. It is one of those fight or flight responses that I am always trying to overcome. I know in those moments my friends and family can be scared for me and worried for me. This makes me feel even worse and makes me even more likely to withdraw. I am trying my best to learn other ways to cope. Going to therapy also helps make me more resilient. But I fear in those instances that I am putting a strain on my relationships with people I love.
When you're not feeling anxious (simply in your day-to-day life), what do you do for self care?
I go for runs. I'm not a great runner by any means, but going for runs helps me for sure. I play video games. I listen to podcasts. Sometimes it helps to have another voice speaking to me unconcerned about whatever is causing me anxiety.
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What are some of your favorite examples of Pop Culture that gets anxiety and mental health right?
I really appreciated season 2 of Ted Lasso. From Coach Lasso's panic attacks to the scenes of players reciting affirmations to themselves to Jamie's development as a person. I thought the show portrayed anxiety and mental health struggles in a bunch of different ways that all felt close to my own experiences.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
In college I studied abroad in Fortaleza in Brazil. During my studies I interned at a non profit on the outskirts of town. This non profit was the glue of the community. It helped provide caskets for families that needed to bury loved ones, activities for young people, money for people with business ideas, and so on. There was a lot of violence in the neighborhood, and violence was on my mind because I was young and there was a lot of violence in the news in Chicago.
I didn't yet have the language to name the racism at play in the reporting. I asked one of the people at the non profit why they thought there was so much violence, and they told me that if I was looking for violence or for reasons to fear the neighborhood, I would surely find it. However, they told me a story about a young man that opened up successful fruit stands. They told me that there are many stories of love and success that never draw cameras. They told me that whatever I look for, I will find, so instead of looking for violence, maybe I should turn my attention towards the love people show each other while trying to take care of one another. That's the best advice I ever received.
Editor’s Note: This interview was edited slightly for length and clarity.
Huge thanks to José for sharing so much of himself. It’s truly appreciated and I can guarantee it will help someone else who is feeling the same way.
Even if you’re not someone who usually reads poetry (why not? you totally should 😁), José’s work will move you in ways you didn’t realize were possible. His work is so raw and real and groundbreaking in many ways. Truly one of my favorite poets and writers, I urge you to check out his work.
Thanks again, José!
If you are interested in being a part of the newsletter in the coming weeks and taking the I Am Anxious… questionnaire, please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll get you on the list! I’d love to have you. I truly want folks from all walks of life talking about all forms of mental health, so please don’t hesitate to reach out!
Be well and keep talking.
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DISCLAIMER: I am, by no means, a medical profession. If you need help, please seek qualified medical attention. This newsletter, while informative and fun, is no substitute for the real thing.