Know when to call in the cavalry, whatever that looks like to you. For me, it meant a Saturday night trip to the emergency room and getting on anti-anxiety and sleeping meds. That was a very dark day for me, and in some ways I felt like I was admitting defeat, but I don’t doubt it saved my life that day. I don’t think the specific triggers of what prompted me to go to the hospital matter; it was my recognition that crying in a restaurant during a family dinner indicated I had lost all control over my emotions.
Despite my intentions, and the bravado of my last post about how I wanted to handle things if my ex didn’t pay me, when he actually failed to deposit money into my bank account my anxiety re-appeared with a vengeance. I did what I could to manage my emotions and behaviour, and cobbled together a few weeks of existing in a not great place. I cried, I was angry, and I acted out towards those I care about, but I was borderline coping with my fears about the future and life in general.
And then he chose not to pay me for a second time. One month with no income, little to no support or communication from my lawyers, and notification from my ex, via my lawyer, that he was getting a lawyer himself. I lost my shit metaphorically speaking. It seemed that he wanted to fight, and my fight or flight instinct engaged on cue. The rage that bubbled up inside me was hot lava with no outlet. I am a pretty pro-social person, so any radical ideas I had to let my rage loose wasn’t going to cut it. Instead, the anxiety that had been simmering for weeks took over my mind and sent haywire messages to my body.
Not only was my brain flooding my body with adrenalin which has all sorts of unpleasant side effects when not appropriately dispersed out of the body, but the 24 hour loop of negative self-talk was vicious. Other than the collective sadness felt around the world at the loss of a source of great joy, what was hardest for me about Robin Williams suicide was the fear it struck into me. The fear that one day it will be too much. The fear that I will continue to struggle and battle against myself and it will be for naught. The fear that one day, the love of my son won’t be enough of a grounder. There has been so much written about this great actors suicide that I won’t rehash it here, but I will say I read many, many articles about how others felt impacted by his early exit, and others who struggle with depression gave words to my feelings. Fear that this man, who seemingly had unlimited resources and a family, still could not hang on. My addled brain harped on me constantly that my efforts to get better and move on with my life were pointless. That is how anxiety affects my thinking processes.
A few days later, and very specifically sparked by Robin Williams suicide, I realized that my brain is public enemy number one and cannot be trusted. In The Wisdom Of Compassion by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan, the Dalai Lama comments “although he is in his seventies and has accumulated countless hours of spiritual practise, he is constantly alert to the danger of not focusing his intentions in an appropriate direction. He is determined that he will hold only good thoughts in his mind and that he will be vigilant…”. That is essentially the opposite of my brain when anxiety strikes. The Canadian author Chan also acknowledges that mindfulness kept his “monkey mind at bay”. I am not alone in living with an entity in my mind that creates havoc and throws feces.
I understand that anxiety presents in a physically different manner for each individual. I have heard of the ice pick in the chest, dizziness, heart racing, clamminess of the skin, and shortness of breath. My anxiety is a ball of butterflies or snakes just below my sternum and above my stomach. Ironically, my anxiety is centred, essentially, where my adrenal gland is in my body; the very organ that releases hormones is reaction to stress, which includes adrenaline. From an eastern viewpoint, the chakra that is located at the area of my snake pit is governed by Manipura, and its key issues are personal power, fear, anxiety, opinion-formation, introversion, and transition from simple or base emotions to complex. Physically, Manipura governs digestion, mentally it governs personal power, emotionally it governs expansiveness, and spiritually, all matters of growth. The feeling there is like the nervousness you or I would get before we had to write an important test, or attend a panel job interview that we are highly invested in succeeding at. Multiplied by ten on a bad day. If not dealt with at this stage, the anxiety progresses to chest pain, general jumpiness and fear of loud noises, heart palpitations, shaking hands, and eventually panic attacks.
This is my third dance with anxiety in the last couple of years, and I am learning its go-to moves. It doesn’t much vary its rhythm for me. Which gives me the advantage of warding it off before it escalates too far. The first time anxiety hit, when I was struggling in my job two years ago, I didn’t know I was anxious. I thought, and then obsessed, with health issues. It truly never occurred to me pre-diagnosis, that I had anxiety. I recognized the depression I was struggling with at the time, but I actually thought the physical troubles were symptomatic of a heart condition or blood pressure problem. And when the first of many panic attacks struck, I thought I had a brain tumour, or I was having seizures.
Over the course of the few months it took to rule out these possibilities through medical testing, the panic attacks increased in frequency, as the depression deepened and my coping mechanisms fell apart. It wasn’t until I was off work and had seen my psychologist a few times that she diagnosed me with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, with anxiety and depression hanging out under that umbrella.
It is different this time. I believe, without consulting with my psychologist but after having a chat with my medical Doctor, that the anxiety rules all, and the symptoms of depression are a direct result from the damaging messages my brain sends me when I am struggling with anxiety. This time around I am not depressed; of this I am sure. I have suicidal thoughts, and very tearful down days, but I don’t want to die and I am very clear on that even on bad days. I just want to escape where I am. I don’t want to be in my life, or in my own skin, on certain days. Other days I am perfectly capable of getting out of bed and making plans and being active. Depressed persons simply cannot accomplish those tasks most days.
The second bout of anxiety hit when my husband disclosed that he was in love with someone else and the marriage, as I knew it, was over. That again was a slightly different animal than either the first boxing match or this rematch of my sympathetic nervous system. Ice ran through my veins for weeks. That I recognized as one of the four stages my body rapidly undergoes during a panic attack. Again, I believe that everyones version of a panic attack will look different.
My panic attacks probably take less than 10 seconds total and are always the same: I am overcome by a severe sensation of being nauseated, then a hot flush goes through my entire body head to toe, followed by ice running through my veins head to toe, followed by the urge to bawl my eyes out. The first panic attack I had I did cry heartily; it happened, as they almost always did, while I was driving, and I had to pull over. In subsequent attacks I could control whether or not I would cry. The resulting let down after such a pronounced rush of adrenalin in my system was complete exhaustion and nausea that lasted for hours. On the unfortunate days where I had more than one panic attack, I would be bed-ridden sleeping it off.
There were several curious aspects of the panic attacks. One was the aura I got a split second before I had one; I knew it was about to happen. Not only that, I could almost willing trigger one. I knew that if I focused in on the sirens I heard from an ambulance or police car, or if I watched their lights flashing red and blue, I would induce a panic attack. The other very odd thing about them was the internal conflict about the physical sensations they produced. The hot flush that happened second was akin to the sensation just before an orgasm and therefore, very pleasant. It unfortunately didn’t last long and was bookended by terrible feelings, but for a split second, in mid-crisis, there was a gloriously sexual sensation.
If you are in therapy for such a problem, know this please: although my psychologist and I never figured out why a car, driving, and/or normal aspects of everyday driving triggered my panic attacks almost exclusively, my psychologist was able to teach me the skills to manage my anxiety and I haven’t had an actual panic attack in almost two years. Even after my ex left me.
And therein lies the struggle with this bout of anxiety; none of the coping mechanism I have in place through therapy are working. I have been mediating daily for years now, exercising daily, reducing my caffeine and sugar intake (any stimulants), deep breathing, using thought stopping and positive self-talk techniques, sniffing a vial of lavender oil, having a bath, and talking about my feelings. In my case, I don’t know how it is for you, talking about what is upsetting me actually increases my anxiety more times than not. It is not in my best interest as a ruminator, to be encouraged to vent and focus on what has upset me. As the days have worn on, my brains loop of obsession with my anxiety has tuckered me out, while keying me up, and I have slept less and less, which I should know by the age of 42 spells disaster for me.
The night before I took myself to the hospital, I didn’t really sleep at all. I dozed in and out fitfully, tossing and turning, looking at the clock every 45 minutes. I was exhausted and sore, and pitifully out of tune with what my body was trying to tell me. I was quite unaware of the intense workout my brain had given my body. Live and learn I hope.
I rate my anxiety. I don’t know if others do this too, but I have a sneaking suspicion they do; it is a management technique, or the by-product of the minds obsession with anxiety. Which I have read recently is “normal” when one is suffering from a bout of anxiety. I use a scale of 0-10, zero being a normal state of existence, and 10 being a full blown crisis. I can manage on my own up until about a five, and by seven I am in acute physical discomfort and need medication. I was an unmedicated ten when I went to the hospital a week ago. The med’s, on a bad day, only get the anxiety down to around a five; I can mange, but the pit of snakes writing around in my guts is still there and I have chest pains.
Today there is almost zero anxiety. I have no idea why, and that is one of the frustrations of my current state of mind. It is an element of the torture within my anxiety. It is not completely predictable. My guess is that I am not bottling up my emotions today; today is a crying sort of day. The tears woke me from sleep at 6:30, and have carried on, on and off, for the last seven hours until I started writing. I have yet to learn why on some days the physical symptoms are either absent or so slight that they are easily ignored, usually until the evening when they make their presence known like a marching band would, and on other days it is a full-time job managing myself. The other difference this bout of anxiety features, more so than the other two which were couched within depression, is the god-awful hyper restless energy I have. I have woken up with restless legs more nights than not in the last six weeks. In the daytime, I don’t want to do anything because I can’t settle down. All I really want to do is run away.
It seems so unfair to me that when anxiety strikes I can only choose between a really down day where I cry a lot, or being so amped up on anxiety that I feel physically nauseous and have the restless energy that demands I run a marathon even though I am a completely out of shape, overweight, smoker.
And unfairness is a trigger for me, this I know. My other primary trigger for a bout of mental unwellness is my perception that I am out of control. I’ve got both going on in spades right now.
So, back to the psychologist I go, for I do not want to be medicated forever. I actually really dislike taking pills, and don’t have a whole lot of faith in western medicine, but I am learning my personal limitations. I see medication as a booster seat until I am big enough to sit safely in a car on my own.
In the meantime, I am reading Monkey Mind, by Daniel Smith, “a memoir of anxiety”. I am finding it helpful in several ways: not that one should compare themselves to others, but what I recognize of myself in his story illustrates that my anxiety is mild compared to the ongoing hell others live in, and also that my anxiety is not life-long as the authors is, mine is reactive to the stressors in my life over the last few years. I am reminded of what my psychologist has drummed into my head: your thoughts dictate your emotions, and your emotions drive your behaviour. While this is cyclical, there is clearly a beginning, and thus, an ending point to the loop of anxiety. Controlling my minds dialogue. Seems simple enough doesn’t it?
Other books I have on my shelf that I have yet to read include: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky, and A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook by Doctors Bob Stahl and Elisha Goldstein.