Is Anxiety a Real Thing?
CONTENT WARNING: Anxiety, illness
Last night, I had dinner with a colleague/close friend of mine who was only in town for an evening. He’d brought an old friend- a stranger to me, but after some discourse our interactions felt very friendly and natural. We ordered mac ’n cheese, roasted brussel sprouts, hot wings, and a myriad of other small plates. I had a whiskey drink, my favorite, and we enjoyed our meal and conversation.
Then, I felt it. Starting in my stomach. Butterflies. A very familiar, very unwelcome sensation, that began to escalate and grow more intense. I looked down at the table and tried to identify the culprit. Was it the brussel sprouts? Probably not. The mac ’n cheese? It was pretty greasy. The whiskey. Maybe, I hadn’t had whiskey in awhile.
I looked across the table at my friend and my new acquaintance. I had felt comfortable with them. I felt the blood slowly draining from my face and my hands beginning to get clammy. My brain kicked into action. I said to myself desperately, “Not now. Let me enjoy this dinner. Let me enjoy my time with these lovely people.” My brain responded, “GET OUT. GET OUT NOW.” The butterflies intensified, and my chest tightened. I reached into my purse and pulled out my pillbox. In my haste, I spilled my pills all over my side of the table. They didn’t seem to notice, so I took one with some water and quickly collected the rest.
“What time is it?” I asked, looking at my phone. “Oh, no, it’s late. I have to get home to take care of the dogs.” I put on a mask of mild concern, while a tornado of terror was brewing inside of me. My face was burning, my stomach was upside down, and I became acutely aware of my breathing pattern. In. Out. In. Out.
“Just hang out another thirty minutes, they’ll be okay,” pleaded my friend.
“I just feel bad. They’ve been alone for a few hours,” I said. I wasn’t lying, but I wasn’t telling the truth.
“Okay.” I sat there, trying to think of another excuse. Meanwhile, the butterflies had morphed into small birds, smashing against my insides. I looked around the room, trying to focus on something, anything, to regulate the panic. The guys’ conversation continued as I sat in silence, unable to hear what they were saying. Occasionally I would smile and laugh as I looked down at the Uber app on my phone, counting how many minutes it would take me to get home, calculating whether or not I would make it.
Eventually, I realized I couldn’t hold out any longer. I insisted I had to go and called an Uber, cutting our evening short. I spent the rest of the night under a heating pad and weighted blanket.
This is one of many times in the past year a panic attack has ruined my evening.
About a month ago, I had attended a work event at a convention where I had a panic attack so extreme I ended up having to run to a trashcan outside the venue. As I stood over the bin, a group of people exited the elevator I was positioned near and witnessed my shame. I told myself while heaving up the single egg roll I’d eaten that night, “At least I’m puking in Louboutins.”
This is panic disorder. I was diagnosed with it last year, and prescribed a daily dose of Valium to “douse the fire”, in the words of my psychiatrist. I’m not sure where or why it started. Just a few years ago I was flying all over the country, working conventions, attending parties. I was eating whatever I wanted, drinking probably a little too much, not sleeping nearly enough, and having a wonderful time.
Then, several things happened at once:
- My boyfriend and I were unhappy in our relationship, and things were coming to a head. (We are very cool now.)
- I quit smoking.
- #MeToo had become a major talking point in the world, and the burden I had carried for years was becoming heavier and heavier.
I woke up during a work trip in Las Vegas to what I thought was food poisoning. I lied in bed for an hour, violently shaking, my teeth chattering. “Here it comes, I’m gonna puke,” I thought. I didn’t puke. I realized later what I had experienced was a panic attack. I had never been woken from sleep by a panic attack before.
Over the following weeks, the anxiety got worse, to the point where I was having violent panic attacks almost every night. I slept downstairs on the couch to avoid upsetting my boyfriend, crying, begging it to stop. I can still hear myself pleading with my boyfriend to “Kill me, put me out of my misery.” Sometimes the attacks would recede, I would be fine… and then a new one would start. My boyfriend at the time could not understand what was happening, and why I couldn’t just logic my way out of it. To be fair, neither could I.
I sought out the leading psychiatrist in Los Angeles that specialized in anxiety and panic disorder. Thanks to tactics he taught me and the right dose of medication, I was feeling pretty close to normal within months. I was handling flying, cons, and events with only minor setbacks. But I got cocky, and slowly weaned myself off the Valium.
This quickly lead to the event where I found myself with my head in a trash can.
If you’re reading this as someone who has severe anxiety or panic disorder, I am so, so sorry. What we have is a disease, and there are times we live in constant fear of our brains hijacking our bodies. Oftentimes we live in shame, because many people don’t understand anxiety. They think it’s just stress, or discomfort, or irritation. You might feel major frustration with yourself- you probably pride yourself on your sense of logic or your intelligence, and you don’t understand why you don’t have complete control over your own brain. When you say to your brain, “Hey, nothing bad is happening, it’s all cool,” you wish your brain could just be like, “Oh shit, you’re right. I’ll be chill.” You may find yourself afraid to leave your home (agoraphobia) or take part in dinners or social situations. Oh yeah, and parties? Maybe you worry about them days before they happen and then ultimately find yourself so defeated by your fear that you end up just staying home anyway and watching The Mummy for the sixth time.
If you’re reading this as someone who doesn’t understand anxiety or panic disorder, the best way I can describe it is this:
You know that asshole clown in It, Pennywise? The one who finds your greatest fear and tortures you with it? That’s what anxiety does. Everyone who struggles with it can experience different types and levels of anxiety. Some people have generalized anxiety or phobias and find certain tasks difficult. Some have occasional anxiety/panic attacks once or twice a year. Some have constant anxiety/panic attacks. Some can leave the house, some can’t. Some can’t fly, some can’t swim. Some can end up in the ER, thinking they’re having a heart attack. Some can end up in a second ER, after the first ER tells them there’s nothing physically wrong with them.
During anxiety/panic attacks, some get physically ill. Some pass out. Some are tortured by thoughts, “No one loves you,” or, “You’re going to die,” or “Everyone who cares about you is going to die and you’ll be alone” or even “You have norovirus or food poisoning” (the latter is mine; I have emetophobia- fear of vomit- so the idea of getting a stomach flu is pretty much on par with death). Some people have different triggers: crowds, travel, being trapped, illness, heat, eating, low blood sugar, lack of sleep, public speaking etc. Some just have attacks randomly (this is actually what typically defines a panic attack versus an anxiety attack).
I titled this piece what I did because a lot of people, including those who suffer from it, have a hard time grasping the concept of anxiety and how it works. How can it incapacitate some of the smartest people, who should be able to use their incredible brainpower to grapple with the scary thoughts?
You know who has spoken out about their struggles with anxiety? Bo Burnham, who used to regularly have panic attacks onstage. Howie Mandel, who struggles with severe OCD. John Mayer, Amanda Seyfried, Oprah Winfrey, Emma Stone, Whoopi Goldberg have all spoken out about anxiety attacks. Adele says she once projectile-vomited on someone during a show and regularly throws up backstage because of anxiety. People have speculated Mark Zuckerberg experienced a panic attack onstage. Here’s another example, Dan Harris, a respected news anchor, speaking about the time he had a panic attack on live television.
Sarah Silverman once said, “People use ‘panic attack’ very casually out here in Los Angeles, but I don’t think most of them really know what it is. Every breath is labored. You are dying. You are going to die. It’s terrifying. And when the attack is over, the depression is still there.”
There are many of us who struggle with anxiety, which can go hand in hand with depression. But depression is a topic for another day- which I do plan to address at some point as well.
I want to be clear: There should be no shame in anxiety. In the US, panic disorder affects 6 million adults. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) affects 6.8 million adults. Over 18% of adults 18 and older suffer from some form of anxiety disorder. That’s almost 1 in 5 people.
It’s easy for me to type out the words, “there should be no shame”. But in reality, I hide my anxiety. I hide it because I’m afraid I might lose jobs over it, or friends might judge me, or after my last essay, people might try to use it to discredit me. I hope that over time, more people will speak out and the stigma will begin to fade more and more. I hope that people will put aside their pride to seek help. I hope that we can reform our healthcare system so people can afford to prioritize their mental health- which is just as important as our physical health. (Some psychiatrists and therapists work on a sliding scale, so if you’re in a financial bind, don’t dismiss the idea entirely.)
In the meantime, take small steps. Reach out to friends, find communities. I’ve found /r/Anxiety and /r/Emetophobia to be extremely helpful in my journey. I’m so grateful to my friends who I can speak to about my anxiety openly, who have empathy and love for me. I’m lucky to have a psychiatrist guiding me towards a normal life again. I know there’s a light at the end of this tunnel, because there has to be. And we have to keep moving forward towards it, even if it hurts, or else we’ll just be trapped in the darkness.
BIG OL’ EDIT:
I realized there’s something I didn’t address in this essay that I should have. I wanted to make a quick guide specifically for friends/family of people suffering from anxiety disorders. As I mentioned before, everyone’s anxiety is different, but this might help.
1) During panic attacks, some people want to be touched and comforted, and some people really do not. The best thing you can do for someone suffering from a panic attack is ask what they need and how you can help. Personally, I ALWAYS need water to sip on, because my mouth gets incredibly dry and it gives me something to focus on.
2) Be patient. Don’t tell them what they need to do, or what they’re doing wrong. Reassure them that the attack will pass, that you love them, that they will be okay. Being annoyed is the worst possible reaction, and will likely make things massively worse.
3) Be understanding. If your loved one can’t make it out of the house, don’t get frustrated with them- believe me, they’re already beating themselves up. It’s nice to hear an encouraging voice, but if they make it clear they don’t feel up to it, drop it, or suggest an alternative they feel they can handle.
4) DO NOT TALK ABOUT DIET AND EXERCISE. WE KNOW. IT DIDN’T WORK.
5) Don’t diminish their anxiety or try to rationalize it as something else (“You’re just stressed” or “You’re just tired”). This can just cause confusion, frustration, and make the anxious person feel alone or misunderstood.
6) Listen. Just listen to them, and try your best to empathize with how they’re feeling. Many of us feel like a burden, and beat ourselves up. If they ever bring this up, remind them everyone struggles with their own issues (including you) and they are NOT a burden. I know it can be difficult, and our anxiety can put a strain on your lives as well. Remember: We are aware of that, and we hate it, and we wish more than anything this wasn’t the case because we love you.
7) Not all panic attacks are alike. Sometimes they involve shaking, sometimes they involve hyperventilation and dizzy spells, and sometimes you won’t even realize it’s happening- I once had a horrid panic attack onstage at UCB for 30 minutes, and my friend in the audience said he couldn’t tell. Some of us have gotten pretty good at hiding it.
8) If your friend is hermitting pretty hard (not leaving the house), maybe ask if you can pop by with some snacks and a movie they like. Let them know you’re still there, even if they can’t make it to you. This gesture will be appreciated more than you could ever know.
9) Anxiety does not make a person “crazy” or change their personality- it limits a person’s capabilities. Your friend/loved one is not a different person because of their anxiety, just as someone with a chronic illness is not a different person.
The fact you’re reading this means you’re already a kind, empathetic person. Thank you, and I’m positive your loved one is incredibly grateful you care enough to try to educate yourself on their struggles.