Talking about anxiety.

I have an anxiety disorder. You might already know that. This isn’t the first post I’ve written on the subject. For a bit of background, check out this earlier thing about depression I wrote. I’m a bit older and have learned a bit more, so I’m back to share my thoughts.

I want to make it very clear that while I am far from having a clean bill of mental health, I do not consider myself a danger to anyone. Including me. So regardless of what you may read here, know that I am working on things and intend to stick around for a good, long while.

One of the biggest problems with the state of mental health in our modern world is that not enough people talk openly about it. I was out the other day and overheard a couple of old ladies talking. “I’ve got the COPD,” one said. Not many bodily infirmities will go undiscussed among friends. It’s not the same with mental illness, is it? No, having a mental illness is apparently something to be ashamed of, and that sucks.

Along with the shame, there’s also a lack of understanding about mental health, and we’re not doing enough to educate ourselves. I personally didn’t know mental illness was a thing until I was in my early twenties, in spite of living with it (my own and my father’s) for decades. There were many times growing up that I should’ve been taken aside and assessed. I needed help. But no one seemed to notice the warning signs. Back then, a bit of assistance would’ve have made a huge difference.

There’s also lack of compassion around these issues. It’s easy for people to dismiss mental health problems because they themselves have never felt imperiled by their own mind. It’s a bit like not believing in heart attacks because you’ve never had one yourself. To them, mental illness is an excuse, a weakness, a character flaw.

We need to change that.

You ever get a bee sting? Everyone around you is ready offer their opinion on how to treat it. “Put some mud on it” or “put toothpaste on it.” How about a cold? Everyone’s got a remedy. Much of the advice you hear may be wrong, but no one’s afraid to talk about it. You’d never hide a bee sting or a cold. And no one would ever withhold their advice.

We should be as open about mental health as we are about anything, any injury, any illness. Not so we can hear people’s advice, but so that, when we need to, we’re not afraid to ask for help. If talking about mental health were as easy as talking about the common cold, no one would be ashamed to ask for help. Lives would be improved. Lives would be saved.

So that’s what I’m doing here. I’m talking about anxiety.

I was originally diagnosed with depression. This seemed an apt description of how I felt. It wasn’t the whole picture, but it was a start. With treatment, I was able to further drill down my symptoms. A new diagnosis was made: Generalized Anxiety Disorder. It was thought that I had both depression and anxiety, since the two are often seen together.

Anxiety usually hits me when I try to do something most people would consider mundane. The best way I can describe it is this: everything feels like a bad idea. Imagine you’re out with a friend and he’s been drinking. You walk out to his car, and he says “come on, let’s go really fast down the wrong way on the highway,” and then he gets behind the wheel. You might have this sudden, intense feeling of dread. “This is a bad idea,” your brain says, and rightly so.

This is how I feel when I go to the grocery store, or get on a bus, or do anything most people seem to have no problem doing. “It’s a bad idea,” my brain says. “Stay home, it’s safe here, no one will mess with you.” When I was younger, I would freeze in place, unable to move. My parents would yell at me and berate me, because of course they didn’t understand. It would get me moving, but I’d feel pretty terrible about myself.

As I got older, and the anxiety got worse, I’d give in to the anxious thoughts and stay home. I’d listen to loud music and shut out the world, my head deep in the sand. My home (more specifically, my bedroom) was my sanctuary, my fortress.

Sometimes I felt my sanctuary being threatened. It never was, mind you, but that’s when the anxiety would hit its peak. My neighbors might’ve been having a gathering that made a lot of noise. This made it hard to ignore them, to forget they were out there. My sanctuary got smaller and the walls got thinner. A vast majority of the panic attacks I’ve had were due to these sort of imagined attacks.

Later in life, I’d learned enough to power through the anxiety so I could function, but I’d still be dragging it along. I’d be walking to catch a bus and imagine the bus driver not letting me on for some reason, so I’d be late for work and my boss would yell at me. A whole day’s worth of indignities would play out in my head during the ten-minute walk to the bus stop. My heart would pound, I’d feel a cold sweat on my forehead. Usually, the more rational part of my mind would keep me moving forward, but I was goddamn miserable.

These things still happen, in some form or another. Stepping out of my house every day is an adventure in stress. What bad things will I imagine happening to me today? Sort of like having anxiety about anxiety. Those thoughts don’t last as long and don’t take quite as much of a toll on me as they used to. I’m better than I was, and that’s pretty sweet.

And how did I get here? I got help.

Pills helped. It took a while to figure out what works, so I ended up trying a whole bunch of different drugs. It helps to have a doctor who is willing to write lots of prescriptions, but you gotta give each drug a chance. That means time. It took a long, long time to find something that worked, and even then it didn’t work for very long, so we had to start over.

Keep in mind that doctors will gladly feed you pills, but they may be reluctant to suggest anything else. And you may need something else, like therapy. I’ve seen a few. Most were Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs). One was a psychologist. The first couple I saw didn’t really work out. Our personalities clashed. It happens. You get into some real personal stuff in those sessions. You need a therapist you can click with. And when you find one, it really makes the whole search worthwhile.

Therapy sucks at first. We dragged up the past, we studied it and dissected it. I opened up more than I though was possible, and for months I felt like a open wound. Eventually, we started putting things back together and I started getting stronger. It’s hard work. It took a long time to get as messed up as I was, so it took a long time to get things working again.

Currently, I’m operating without medication after being on Zoloft for more than four years, and I’m not in therapy. I’m taking what I learned and applying it to my natural, unmedicated mind. I’m doing okay with it so far.

Doing okay. After decades of doing poorly, “okay” is pretty good. And I’m improving.

Being open and honest about these issues feels a heck of a lot better than the isolation of keeping it all in. But I know that not everyone has the option of being open. Maybe there’s no one around to talk to, or no one you trust. Help is out there, and they’ve made it pretty easy to get in touch (see below). I’ve learned that you’ve gotta be your own advocate. You family and friends might not notice you’re having trouble. Your doctor may be too overworked to give you their full attention. You’ll probably have to fight to get the help you need. But trust me. It’s worth it.


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