A life on the edge: My journey with anxiety
I’ve been thinking about writing this for a while, but have been debating for months if I should, and how much I want to share. And thinking, of course, of what’s the point, what is the message I want to convey and why am I writing it. As of this first paragraph, I’m still not set in the what and the why. Hopefully by the closing lines I’ll have decided.
I have been dealing with anxiety for almost twenty years. The official diagnosis I have is Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Essentially this involves having a disproportionate level of anxiety and worry about just about everything. Work, social situations, relationships, health. This definition fits for me. I’ve worried, disproportionately, about all these things. Over and over again.
A diagnosis is helpful for understanding what is happening to you, and figuring out a treatment plan, but it doesn’t illustrate the impact anxiety can have on someone. In terms of daily life, anxiety is something that has been with me constantly, and consumes a lot of my energy. As much as I don’t like to think about it in these terms, it is something that has shaped my behaviour, my outlook, my choices and even my health.
Anxiety causes me to think and over think, everyday, about almost everything. A lot of times, this turns into worry, which often is unfounded. I worry about all sorts of things, most of which have no basis in reality. The worry gets out of control. It comes in waves, sometimes when I’m in a period of acute stress it gets really bad, other times it’s way more manageable. The worry is excessive, and it is absolutely crippling. I’m currently on medication which helps turn the volume way down on this, and I’m thankful it’s been effective.
Despite the medication, one of my most frequent rituals to deal with these thoughts and worries still pops up. It involves trying to break down the issue I’m experiencing anxiety about into a logical, rational and linear thought process. I think about the situation and its potential outcomes (starting with the worst case usually). I do this over and over and over again. It’s embarrassing how much I have to repeat this. I think it’s my way of trying to make the anxiety make sense to my logical mind. The problem is anxiety is emotional, and often doesn’t make a whole lot of logical sense.
This ritual has spread over the years from just me in my head or out loud when I’m alone, to involving my partner. I make him talk over these things with me. I ask for his reassurance. Repeatedly. I know his answer and response won’t change, but I make him go over it with me again and again. I feel so bad about this, I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for him. I know he just wants to help and make me feel better, and I’m so thankful for him being there to support me, but I have a lot of guilt about my anxiety affecting him and our relationship. Thankfully medication has turned the volume down on this a lot too, but it does still happen when things do get a bit too much for me to deal with on my own.
In the past, I’ve made decisions to accommodate my anxiety. I’ve declined social situations because I didn’t want to risk having an ‘episode’ of anxiety with friends, and end up embarrassed. I used to pick elective courses in school that I thought wouldn’t have presentations, which used to cause me so much stress. I have had constant worry about being late, which has made me very punctual, even to this day. And I can only imagine how less than confident my anxiety has made me appear in the past to others. These things have improved over the years, thanks to medication, therapy, self-reflection and just growing up.
Then there’s the panic attacks.
Panic at the disco. And campfire.
Panic attacks are fucking terrible. They’ve been the absolute worst experiences of my life. Generally, for me, they start with a feeling of being on edge. I feel like this a lot, so it’s not necessarily unusual, but it quickly escalates. Like in seconds. All of a sudden I feel heavy. My attention is drawn to my breathing, and how it’s getting harder and harder to catch a breath. I just can’t get enough air into my lungs. This creates even more panic making everything worse, quickly. I’ll start to sweat, and feel overheated. Blood rushes away from my head, making me dizzy. My sense of space alters, and I feel like the walls are caving in on me. I think everyone is looking at me and that I, and my panic, have become the centre of attention. I have an overwhelming feeling that I need to get out of where I am. I need to go outside, and get away from other people. There’s an impending sense of doom. It’s awful.
I don’t even know how long they last, because my sense of time is so skewed. The worst is probably a matter of minutes, but it feels like an eternity. Even after the initial panic dies down, the residual effects last for hours. I usually don’t fully recover until the next day. I have actually thought I was dying. Not metaphorically, but actually in the last couple minutes of my life.
I don’t remember the first panic attack. It happened around 2002. There are two that stick out from this time. One was when I was away at college. The night started out fine, at a friends place for drinks. Then we went to a local dive bar. By dive bar I mean a place a group of queer college kids probably weren’t welcome, especially back in 2002. As soon as I walked in I felt off. I couldn’t even go to the bar to get a drink, I just had a rush of fear. The symptoms started, and I had to literally run out. I don’t remember the run home, but I do remember crashing onto my bed and crying. I don’t even know what set it off, perhaps the environment, or maybe there wasn’t a reason. Anxiety isn’t a rational or logical thing.
The second instance from that time was in my hometown. I was at a local hippie music camping event on the outskirts of town. For those of you who know me, hippie’s aren’t my thing, but when in Rome, or in this case, Muskoka. It was probably 2 in the morning, there were guitars and campfires, and joints. I smoked a bit of pot, but not what I thought was an excessive amount. Within a few minutes I got that on edge feeling. I thought I was just a bit too high, but it got worse. I felt my heart pounding. I remember mentioning it to someone and they were just telling me to ‘chill’, that it will pass. But it didn’t. I had to get out of there. I left the camp, to walk down the road along the river in absolute pitch black darkness. It was crazy, but I had to not be there. It was probably about a 10km walk, maybe a bit less, but it felt like it took hours. I made it back to my parents house, and crawled into my bed. I was exhausted, and embarrassed. I also started to realize pot probably isn’t the best thing to be doing when you have anxiety.
The next few years I don’t remember any specific panic attacks. I had started medication (more on that later) so I think my anxiety was controlled enough to minimize the panic. But eventually they started happening again.
In 2008, I had what was my worst panic attack. Looking back, I had been dealing with a lot at the time. I was in constant fear of losing my job due to continuous restructuring that was happening. I was emotionally not in a great place, and probably a bit depressed. On top of that my cat had been really sick. I was sitting with her in the bedroom trying to get her to eat, which she hadn’t in days. Finally she ate a few kibbles, which made me feel so relieved. It was a small thing, but it made me so happy in the moment. A few minutes later I started to have trouble breathing. I actually didn’t think it was a panic attack in the moment, I really didn’t know what was happening, but I started to hyperventilate. I called my partner who was on his way home, and told him to hurry. When he got there I made him take me to the hospital. I was terrified.
I still hadn’t realized this was a panic attack, I just couldn’t breathe. I was trying to communicate to the triage nurse how I was moments from passing out, but she just told me to wait in the waiting room. I thought, how do people not die waiting to be seen? It seemed crazy, I needed to be seen right away, I couldn’t catch a breath. In fairness, I was actually seen pretty quickly, but when you think you are only a few minutes away from death it’s excruciating. They took blood, x-rayed my lungs, did an ECG on my heart. The doctor concluded I was one of his healthiest patients that day. It was likely a panic attack.
Holy shit. I’d had a panic attack that was so bad that I didn’t even recognize it as a panic attack because it was so much worse than any I’d had previously. After this, I went back on medication, which I had been on and off of at that point, at a stronger dosage than before. I never wanted to experience that again.
The final bad year
My last big bout of continuous and totally uncontrolled anxiety happened in 2011. I had been off of medication for about a year, and had been relatively stable. Things were going well. I was getting married, my dream Scandinavian wedding in fact. I was at a new job that I really liked, I seemed to be having a busier than usual social life, making new friends and we were excited about moving into a new home (although still a few years off). An incident happened in the spring of that year that I started to worry about. I am actually not going to share what what it was, but I will say my worry grew, and it was irrational. The worry actually began to control my life. I had to use my repeating ritual several times a day, for months.
It was to the point I just felt nauseous when I was out, almost all the time. I would feel like I was going to puke whenever I ate in a social setting, so I started to just meet friends after dinner instead of joining them. I remember being at bars having a few drinks, feeling ok, then all of a sudden I need to leave, go outside to calm down. Not full scale panic attacks, but enough anxiety-driven discomfort to affect my daily activities.
The wedding happened, and it was perfect. I was so happy. But this anxiety was following me the whole trip. I tried my hardest to dial down this with my partner, so he wouldn’t get upset on such a happy occasion. But of course, I needed his reassurance and he knew I was still going through this. I remember the tail end of our trip we went to Denmark and Iceland. This was effectively our honeymoon. On the flight from Stockholm to Copenhagen, which thankfully was only an hour long, I was so panicked I had to keep getting up to the bathroom. I thought I was going to puke, and every time I thought I was ok and went back to my seat I started to panic again. When we landed we must have waited for over an hour before I felt like I could make it in the cab ride to the hotel. My partner just patiently waited for me to say I was ready.
In Reykjavik, we went for nice pasta dinner, but of course I started to get anxiety before the meal came that I wouldn’t be able to eat it. And it happened. After a few minutes, I needed to leave. Grabbing the food to go, we walked around a bit and settled on a bench on a hill. Probably a very romantic spot, but I felt awful, like I was ruining the trip. He was so supportive, but I knew it must have been so hard for him, and I feel bad about that to this day. It was on that bench that I decided once we returned to Canada I’d go to the doctor and get back on meds.
So where does my anxiety come from? I’ve of course spent lots of time reflecting on the roots of my anxiety in an effort to not only understand it, but to try to figure out how I can best deal with it.
Let’s start with my parents. They both have, to varying levels, anxiety. Mental health issues are common in my family history. They each came from abusive childhoods, one physically and one filled with mental abuse and alcoholism, and this created what I can see now was lifelong fear. They lived like there was always something wrong, the unexpected bad thing was just around the corner, something bad was just a moment away. I get that their experiences growing up must have been terrible, and they did everything they knew how to try to deal with it, and create a safe environment for me to grow up in. But when both your parents are constantly on edge, it’s hard not to have it rub off on you.
Then there was the fact that I was different growing up. I was a bit of an introvert, I didn’t play sports, I didn’t really fit in and had trouble feeling comfortable around other students. This got more intense when I was a gay teenager. I remember being on the main street of my town with a friend and this guy from my school, Mike, pushed me hard into a phone booth telling me what a “fucking faggot” I was. I was constantly called similar names by another winner named Rick. That went on for years, and there were others.
A couple things about that. Obviously I was terrified in the moment being shoved into the phone booth. I didn’t know what else he was going to do, and I was pretty shaken after it. But I think the worst part was that it happened in front of a friend. I was so embarrassed. I wasn’t “out”, and of course everyone would have known or suspected, but I didn’t want attention called to being gay. Incidence like these created a sense of fear around social settings, and being around certain types of people. I remember feeling what I now know as anxiety when being in situations where these people would be, and even on a daily basis at school. This carried through for many years, until I was done college.
Through therapy that I’ve attended in recent years, I also have identified another factor, which may be a bit of a stretch but it does feel like it fits. Because of my childhood and my parents constantly waiting for the next disaster, I think I developed a discomfort when everything was going ok. It’s like my anxiety starts to act up when there’s nothing for it to legitimately worry about. It creates worry round an irrational fear or situation that doesn’t exist. Who knows if that’s true, but it does feel right.
My parents maintain there is a genetic factor. That this is the way we’re ‘wired’. Maybe. It’s probably a combination of all of the above, and additional factors I haven’t even thought of yet.
Effective pill popping
So how have I managed it? As I mentioned I’ve been on and off medication to treat my anxiety for years. The most common medication involves daily use of an anti-depressant from the Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI) class of drugs. From what I understand they don’t fully know how this addresses anxiety, other than anxiety has something to do with serotonin levels in the brain.
The drugs work. I have friends that frown on use of pharmaceutical drugs, others think its all placebo and part of a big pharma conspiracy. But the drugs work. Within a week I feel better. After a few months, I stop having panic attacks, things seem calmer. There is no placebo effect. The drugs are altering serotonin levels in my brain, and it’s reducing my anxiety. And I am so thankful that they exist as a powerful tool to help me manage my anxiety.
Drugs are not without their faults. I’ve been on 4 different SSRIs over the past 13 years, 3 of which ultimately had unacceptable side effects for me. This is part of the reason why I went off them for long periods. I would get to the point of feeling better, and decide I didn’t want to deal with the side effects anymore so I’d stop taking them. Like clockwork, a few months later my anxiety would start to creep back. First slowly, and then eventually get back to affecting my daily activities again. The most recent drug I’ve been on since my 2011 experience. It’s actually fairly side effect free, and I’ve found a dosage that seems to be effective. It’s honestly such a relief to have had my anxiety controlled for the past four years.
I also started therapy in 2011, which helped me unpack some of the causes of my anxiety, work out some of my irrational fears, and develop non-pharmacological techniques to deal with and reduce anxiety. It helped. I went for therapy for about two years, on a weekly basis, most of which was focused around my anxiety.
I am in a much better place lately than I have been since I can remember. The medication works, I have started to understand some of the root causes, and I am able, for the most part, to live a normal daily life. I still have periods of anxiety, especially when stress builds up in my life. I still have my repeating routine, but even my partner has said I’m doing this so much less than a few years ago.
The thing I need to remember is that while things are good now, that can change. Anxiety is something I’m always going to have, and I’m going to always have to work to keep it under control. It can come back at any point, and I’ve learned that it can spiral out of control really really fast.
The What and the why
Back to what’s the point of all this? I want to say that I’m helping combat stigma by sharing my story, and I guess there’s some of that in why I wanted to write this. But as I have spent my entire Saturday composing this, I actually think this has been more therapeutic for me than any other reason. Reflecting on my own experiences, reminding me of what things used to be like and being so appreciative for where I’m at now is actually a powerful exercise. And of course reminding myself that things can go back to how they used to be at anytime, and that I haven’t finished dealing with anxiety by any measure.
I guess this piece of writing really was more for me than for you. So thank you for helping me, and if you got something out of this too then that’s all gravy.