Anxietyversary

I meant to write this post a couple of days back, but my body had some other ideas (sneezy, wheezy feverish ones) as to how I should spend my weekend. Resting, Kleenex, and Netflix pretty much sums up the experience as my sinuses tried to bridge the ocular socket gap to achieve a unified homeland on my face. I’m still recovering today, but I finally feel well enough to sit at the computer to type this out.

It was a year ago yesterday that I had the largest continuous anxiety attack of my life. The proximate cause of the attack was the idea of flying to meet The Girlfriend in Aruba for a couple of rest and relaxation days. I had been looking forward to it for weeks since it was also where I wanted to propose to her. Tropical sunsets, sandy beaches, and the two of us together for a couple of days of doing not much of anything. That’s not the part that scared me.

I was nervous about the flight leading up to it, but my thoughts were decidedly mixed. While I was not the best flyer over the years, I did manage to Australia and back which entails fourteen hour flight times. The statistics are on the side of safety, despite what popular culture and media outlets like to tell us about flying. Surely, I could have a four and a half hour one.

I was decidedly wrong.

My previous experience with anxiety had been handled well by Xanax. Not so this time as each dose I took was steadily consumed by the terror that now wracked my thoughts and body. Literally, I could not stop shaking from the fear. Rational thoughts bounced off the irrational feelings like paper balls thrown at a fire door. Even with the intervention of The Girlfriend and my parents, I could not stop it. I got a few hours of sleep before waking up for my airport departure time. I couldn’t stop shaking or heart racing or the impending terror that was building from all the “what ifs” parading through my head, intensified by what limited options I would have once I was up in the air.

I simply couldn’t do it. And it killed me to finally admit.

It killed me because that day and the few days afterward I could not imagine my future at all. I felt detached from my life entirely, that it was over in the sense of I didn’t know what would happen next or what I should do. (I would note that feeling my life was over did not cross paths with suicidal thoughts. I just couldn’t imagine what I was supposed to do.) I felt like I was standing before a great blank wall, unyielding and impassable. So deep, so primal, so complete was this failure that I just completely shut down. I felt like I had disappointed everyone around me, that I was no longer reliable, and that I had nothing left to offer the world. It reminds me of an expression that Hell is not a place where we do when we die, but a place in our minds that amplifies all of our negative emotions. In that sense, I was in Hell.

Life goes on, as they say, and this simply notion is the first step towards emerging back into the light. As the cataclysm of that wicked day started to recede, I felt my feet return back to ground. That awful fog lifted and I started to see what I needed to do to recapture my life. I made the call to an employee mental health line and found a really awesome therapist. I found a good anxiety medication that works without side effects that I had experience before on other medications. I am very lucky in that I had a very good support system with The Girlfriend, my parents, my brother and SIL, friends, and coworkers. I’ve gotten back to almost normal not simply because I got treatment, but also had the support network to help me get there.

The importance thing to share is that my story doesn’t end there. While I didn’t get to propose in Aruba, but I did propose on Valentine’s Day in our hotel room in Lambertville, NJ. As she is now The Wife, you can tell what the answer was. I still do feel the anxiety especially when I’m traveling, but the more I go places the easier it has gotten for me. I feel that I am still moving forward, even though I have no plans for stepping on an airplane in the near future.

I do have somewhat selfish reasons for writing this since making it back this far over the course of a year is something to crow about; I’m proud of having brought my anxiety under control and resumed my life. But I also know that these kinds of posts can help others by encouraging them to seek out treatment and help, to step out and say that they have anxiety, and to bring visibility to the issue. My career has not yet peaked and my life is not yet done for all the things I want to do. Anxiety is my personal struggle, but not something that I will suffer in silence or let contain me.

Happy anxietyversary to me.

The Eternal Clouds of the Anxious Mind

I have anxiety.

It may seem strange to some, but I labored over the wording of that first sentence. Other phrases like “live with”, “suffer from”, and “have been diagnosed with” didn’t seem to quite capture the nuance I was seeking. It’s not an unwanted roommate on equal footing with the rest of my mind and all I have to do is find a way to evict it. While there are times when I suffer from the symptoms that relate to anxiety, I don’t feel it warrants a term that is more aptly used to describe people in pain, torture, or other greater forms of physical or psychological duress. The diagnosis angle seems too impersonal and clinical for my preferences in approaching this topic as a blog post. While I won’t deny other people the right to use these terms for their own anxiety, I’m not a fan.

In combating the symptoms, I’ve been taking a low dose of anti-anxiety medication for the last few months. Prior to that, I had not been a big fan of the SSRI drug family. My first experience with these kinds of drugs was not the product of anxiety or depression, but as a migraine preventative. Where previous migraine bouts were limited to a couple of headaches over a couple of months then years apart, the migraines I experienced in my late 20’s decided to go full time. I was getting them every day or every other day which, combined with a visual aura followed by extreme light and noise sensitivity, puts a giant crimp on daily life. The SSRI I took then stopped them cold within a day and brought a scary health episode to a close. The downside while I was taking them was a lack of moods and insomnia, a combination that lead to lying awake in bed to think about why I didn’t have much emotional range. These aren’t exactly the best thoughts for lulling yourself to sleep each night. In later years, I took another drug from the SSRI group on a short term basis to deal with depression associated with my divorce. I had to switch medications because of the side effects which included those really bad thoughts they warn you about. While I would prefer not to be on medication, I can’t argue with the positive results with another drug from the same group this time. 

The mental health history of my family tree reads like the lineage of European nobility, for it is long and illustrious and apparently a tradition that is handed down from one generation to the next. I have three family members with paranoid schizophrenia diagnoses (a great uncle and two second cousins once removed). Beyond that, I’d have to take off my shoes to count the number of family members who have dealt with anxiety, depression, addiction, OCD, and other mental conditions over the course of their lives. Needless to say, family reunions are never dull.

There are times when I wonder how much (if at all) these mental illnesses influence my own mind. Do I have those occasional disturbing, haunting thoughts because I have an overactive imagination or it is the product of a dissociative condition? The realistic answer is former but the anxious mind doesn’t completely agree which is enough to put the splinter of doubt at the periphery. It shouldn’t be that way since I had an MRI of my brain done a couple years back when I was experiencing visual distortions every now and again. My neurologist went over the results and told me that my brain was structurally normal which also rules out other conditions. (Me, after finding out the results: “Good, I can now tell me I have a normal brain.” Neurologist, without missing a beat: “The structure is normal. This doesn’t cover function.”) 

I’ve wanted to write about anxiety for awhile because talking about it has always been helpful to me. The reality of acknowledgment always edges out any horrible possibilities that my mind can conjure while some obstacles just evaporate or become clearer by simply articulating them. The mental isolation, that all too often feeling that I am the only one in the world who can understand what it is like, melts away as others open up about their experiences. Sunshine, as they say, is the ultimate disinfectant and it has held true for me when it comes to anxiety. It’s not a silver bullet but it curtails the influence that anxiety can exert over me.

During his lifetime, Winston Chruchill referred to bouts of his depression as visits from his “black dog”. I wouldn’t call my anxiety that (mainly because I like dogs), but I can appreciate the frame of reference: something that comes and goes without much indication as to duration or frequency. Since my massive panic attack back in February, I’ve been on the march back towards the (relatively) normal life that I had before that time period. I’m much better than I was and continue to improve as time slowly marches that event further into my past and, yes, I still have a ways to go.

When and how it will make itself known in the future, I can’t possibly guess. But I will try to stick to that little phrase I picked up during my semester abroad in Australia so many years ago:

“No worries.”

Something about Anxiety and Depression

I’ve been wanting to write something on anxiety and depression but I couldn’t think of a good opening. Having a good hook at the start of the post is important to me since it was important to all my English teachers over the years who taught me how to write. Sometimes I’ll find myself stymied because I know what I want to say as the major point I want to make, but I’m not always certain how to get to that point in order to say it. It’s frustrating to have a middle and an end but no opening.

So, yes, in writing about how I couldn’t think of a good way to open, I have given myself one. I think the major issue was that this topic is so personal and so hard to talk about sometimes. Yes, I am someone who lives with anxiety and depression. I was going to say “suffers from”, but I don’t think that puts the right spin on it. It’s something that inhabits me, not the other way around. To be fair, it’s more like a main entrée of anxiety with a side order of depression. And, like many of my fellow Americans, I am having difficulty with portion control.

I’ve had bouts of anxiety for a long time over the course of my life. It’s only within the last few years that it has intensified to the point where it has become (for lack of a better phrase) life interfering. Specifically, it has made travelling anywhere very hard at times. At its worst, it could turn a short car trip (think 15-20 minutes) into a white knuckle experience. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say that the kind of imagination and creativity that was used some of the projects I’ve done over the years doesn’t always work for the good side of my brain. No, it has staked its claim on darker territory.

I remember a previous counselor remarking that I live a lot in my own head. It’s not that I’m unaware of what is going on around me or unable to empathize with others, but that there are thought processes go on without an outside check. That, despite best evidence otherwise, I don’t always articulate the thoughts and feelings I’m having very well so that I get some sort of feedback from others. This has lead to many a conversation in which I feel very silly or stupid once I say what the issue is because (oddly enough) it’s not that big a deal otherwise. I will build things up in my head that aren’t always as big as they purport to be.

The other half of this equation are the physical symptoms I’ve experienced. Dizziness, shaking, chills, and the ever popular chest pains have made appearances over the years and especially recently. They are the perpetual motion machines of symptoms since they can expand and fuel an ever increasing anxiety reaction. What starts out as a “I’m feeling a bit off” can become a “DEAR GOD I WANT TO GO HOME AND CRAWL UNDER THE COVERS AND NOT COME OUT EVER AGAIN” with just enough lingering thoughts over the interpretation of symptoms. It’s been my experience that there is nothing too small that the mind can’t blow out of proportion.

Writing this blog post has not been the easiest. As I said before, it is something personal. But even if no one was to read this, just the act of typing the words has been liberating. It’s as if I was transferring it from my brain to the screen thus freeing the former from the latter. It’s certainly not a cure-all, but it takes away the power that comes from suffering in silence. As someone who lets those thoughts rattle around his head, this can be the change that is needed to come out ahead.

This latest bout of anxiety comes and goes. Last week I was feeling pretty great; this weekend and last night hit me sideways. Right now I’m on an ‘up’ so I’m taking advantage of it. I got some exercise this evening, ate a nutritious meal, had a non-nutritious snack, and have been on-and-off dancing around in my apartment. I just have to remember I’m not alone and that anxiety doesn’t define me even though it gets the controls every now and again. To everyone who has it or been touched by it in their lives, it’s a good reminder of all the benefits that come from facing something as part of a crowd.