and the FREEDOM from ANXIETY
October 16, 2017
Forgive me, forgive me
And I’ll forgive you, forgive you
You can’t win and you may lose`
But if you forgive me, I’ll forgive you
— Stephen Kellogg, Forgive Me, Forgive You
I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about forgiveness…
— Don Henley, The Heart of the Matter
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
I read an interview this week with novelist John Green about his new book, Turtles All the Way Down.
I identified so strongly with Green’s personal revelations vis-à-vis anxiety, it ignited some self-exploration of my own challenges with similar mental adversaries I’ve been battling for longer than I can remember.
There are as many manifestations of anxiety, depression and panic disorders as there are victims of their capricious and debilitating dynamics.
Green’s portrayal of “managing” his illness while doing his best to lead a productive personal and professional life reminded me of the parallel path to relative wellness in my own journey.
His revelation that he lives in a world where he knows “what it’s like to live in constant fear of your own mind” sent a swift arrow to my head and heart.
John Green and I are anything but alone. The specter of this branch of mental illness is a global pandemic of devastating proportions.
My anxiety was omnipresent but at such a low level as to be imperceptible to me for most of my youth and the majority of my adulthood.
That changed dramatically following an auto accident in 1986 in the heart of Beverly Hills on a perfect sunny California day.
When I stumbled out of my rear-ended car, I could barely tell the sky from the street.
I was having a severe anxiety attack with no idea where it came from or when it might end, if ever.
For several excruciating months after that afternoon, I wandered in a fearful daze from doctor to healer to acupuncturist to shaman trying to find a way out of a Dante’s Inferno I had no idea how to escape.
I finally found a rising-star psychopharmacologist, the head of the UCLA Anxiety Disorder Center, who listened with obvious compassion as I launched into my oft-repeated and woeful disquisition of symptoms.
He gently interrupted me after several minutes to say, “I know what it is and I can help you.”
I recall that moment vividly.
I would have cried out loud but I was far too “stuck” to release any emotions but fear and dread.
The sense of relief I had was instant and overwhelming.
His diagnosis was “generalized anxiety disorder” and “panic attack syndrome.”
And there it was. I finally had a name for my demonic state of mind and a description that verified that what I was experiencing was a medically-recognized reality.
The treatment options then were nowhere near what is available today.
The combination of medications he prescribed was centered around taking one milligram of Xanax four times a day with some other gnarly concoctions from Big Pharma’s Hurt Lockers.
The only thing I knew about Xanax back then was it was physically addicting and downright frightening to me.
I “knew” that because when I first agreed to manage pop phenom Andy Gibb toward the twilight of his days, his mother told me he was taking 90 milligrams a day along with several joints the size of small cigars all chased with a bottle of Vodka she tried to water down behind his back. She wasn’t sure, but figured he would also return to his cocaine habit if he found a supply.
“Welcome to the Dark Side,” I recall telling myself.
Needless to say, I didn’t exactly relish the concept of a pharmacological regimen.
I wouldn’t even take aspirin for a headache.
But, I was beyond desperate to find a way to ameliorate the “sneak attacks” on my nervous system.
I took the pills, side-effects and all, and very gradually found something like my balance.
I learned from my drug regimen that Xanax, at least for me, was an effective solution. I can’t say if it saved my life, but it helped restore my sanity. I now regard it as something of a wonder-drug for my condition.
For years, I was constantly armed with what I called my “knockout kit.”
“It was a packet of meds (my now trusty Xanax, along with Adderall and Ativan and maybe something else I don’t remember) specifically prescribed to bring the attacks to their biological knees.
An ad slogan at the time, “Don’t leave home without it” had a secret meaning for me.
I was very grateful that I could counter-attack the wolf at the door and deal it a lethal blow when I needed to.
I assumed a manageable mindscape and returned, for the most part, to my former high-energy, productive, creative and optimistic self.
Over time, now on SSRIs, I ditched the knockout pills but kept a couple Xanax handy “just in case.”
It took a long time but I finally put the panic attacks in my rearview mirror.
I had occasional periods of depression (and still do), but panic no longer ruled my days and sleepless nights.
When I did have a mild breakthrough, I knew it was temporary and was able to meditate and let it pass.
There was, of course, a grand education in all of this for the student in me.
I studied everything I could find; a daunting task when there was so little available research to study.
I learned the molecular structures that made Prozac different from Zoloft, Lexapro, Paxil and their biological relatives.
I voluntarily submitted to regular therapy and then, to the archaic ritual of psychoanalysis.
I drove to a pleasant room four times a week for nearly four and a half years to listen to myself say anything I thought might be helpful to my healing process.
The more I studied myself, my malady and my life history, the more I realized that the voice of uncertainty and fear, along with a subconscious sense of foreboding, had been lurking in my DNA as far back as I could recall.
That capricious, pervasive feeling of dread manifested itself so subtly that no one, including myself, could even perceive it, let alone explore its effects on my well-being.
I now have an awareness that what the fictitious serial-killer Dexter Morgan called “my dark passenger” is a companion I didn’t choose but must acknowledge.
I worked with an uncommon passion to revive and restore the elusive New Age holy grail; “peace of mind.”
Regular exercise, daily meditation, nutrition and a busy life enabled me to carry on.
I’ve arrived at a stage in life where one naturally looks back on moments big and small; memories that constitute what passes for one’s “life story.”
Upon reflection, the chapters of that story mostly contain an undercurrent of the depression that inexorably transformed my mother from an exceptional and gifted young woman into a frightened shadow of herself.
There was no awareness of GAD then.
The term “panic attack” had yet to be coined.
There was no shelter from the panic she suffered in silence; no psychopharmacologist in the thin Yellow Pages in our little village and nothing like the panoply of prescription “remedies” available nearly everywhere today.
She self-medicated with the only relief available.
She became an addict to the drug of her day.
Alcoholism swept her into the abyss day by painful day, year by year with no remorse or respite.
Ravaged by the demons, with neither explanation nor intervention anywhere in sight, the shadows turned perceptibly darker until there was nothing but a mere fraction of her goodness left when she closed her tired eyes for the last time.
My Dad succumbed to the same disease, more as a product of the times than a desire for escape.
Luckily for me, the depression genotype was all-but absent in my paternal DNA.
I don’t know if my father was “fearless” but he was as dextrous mentally as he was physically.
I don’t recall him ever showing fear of anything.
He was a “man’s man;” a proud representative of The Greatest Generation that came back from the horrors of WWII ready, willing and able to put their fighting spirits to work building homes, families and businesses.
My paternal genes likely saved me from an even worse psychological fate than I’ve suffered.
The paternal chromosomes coursing through me effectively masked the maternal “weakness” and dominated my outlook and outcomes until the car accident opened the floodgates of neurological Hell.
The undercurrent of depression manifested itself in myriad ways I see clearly in retrospect.
By any standard, I was an elite athlete, always the fastest runner, power hitter, basket-maker and tireless pursuer of victory on the playing fields.
Yet, it’s clear now that the voice of panic was a devil in the details the entire way.
I ran with a fury but with so much tension that my shoulders nearly touched my ears.
I gradually morphed from a fearless hitter in the batter’s box to a cowardly lion whenever a pitcher “brushed me back.”
However fast I ran, however high I jumped or how hard I hit a fastball, I would have been much more efficient and elegant physically if I I could have recognized and vanquished that unwelcome and nagging fear mentality.
I was literally born to run; inefficiently or not.
That was never truer than in my relationships with the mostly wonderful women who have graced my days.
I reveled in the early admiration, the heady infatuation, the powerful chemistry.
I dived deeply into the inviting well of romance and projection.
I learned to shamelessly share the love I grew up with in ways I thought were selfless and unconditional.
I see now that, as a moth drawn to that irresistible flame, the closer I got the more my inner voices turned up the volume to “Run.” “Run like Hell!”
So, sometimes reluctantly and many times with a melancholy sense of relief, I ran. I ran like Hell.
Running, sadly, became my mental modus operandus.
My brother-in-law occasionally enumerates the list of beautiful, warm-hearted women I couldn’t seem to commit my whole self to which resulted in an adulthood of “close calls,” all called off by me and my incapacitating fear of something amorphous but controlling.
It’s true enough that I probably wasn’t mature enough to bring the gifts of unconditional love my upbringing offered me to my interpersonal relationships until I was well into my forties or so; especially since my silent accomplice was an eager enabler.
It has become a shopworn cliché to label men like I as “Peter Pans” or something similar but less flattering.
We are, the self-appointed experts and authors of countless examinations fervently state, hopeless if unwitting victims of our narcissistic personality disorders.
We should, they aver, just “snap out of it” and “grow the F up.”
But, as Mr. Green observes based on his hard-earned insight, it is not that simple.
“It’s not a mountain that you climb or a hurdle that you jump, it’s something that you live with in an ongoing way,” he said. “People want that narrative of illness being in the past tense. But a lot of the time, it isn’t.”
So true. So painfully true.
I am reminded of one of my favorite song lyrics, written by Graeme Edge and Ray Thomas, from the Moody Blues soundtrack of my twenties.
“Upon this he saw that when he was of anger or knew hurt or felt fear, It was because he was not understanding. And he learned, compassion.”
Those of us, those millions of us, who bravely show up every day to face our fears and do our best to contribute something meaningful to our chosen (and chosen-for-us) microcosms, form a community dedicated to surviving our unseen demons, conquering our free-floating fears and making something sunny of even our cloudiest days.
I have learned, as has Green, not to refer to my disease in the past tense.
It is ongoing and ever-present.
Even on the clearest days, there are hints of symptoms.
While composing these words, I have been in a mild to medium state of panic awash in a murky cocktail of adrenaline and other molecules run amok.
I hope it is not visible to the reader.
I know from extended experience it is invisible to any other observer but myself.
There is no cure for what ails us all.
At best, we can seek forgiveness and compassion.
That starts with the formidable task of forgiving and fostering compassion for ourselves.
That process requires us to be what others might label narcissistic.
I will never see it their way.
I know that the way out of the shadows demands that we forgive ourselves first, put ourselves first, if you will.
It mandates compassion for our own selves, our own souls.
If we are to heal, we must love, forgive and nurture ourselves.
That’s not being conceited, it is being what the modern therapists aptly term being “self-aware.”
As Joni Mitchell wisely opined, “I don’t know who I am, but life is for learning.”
I don’t know who I am either, but I hope to continue the quest armed to the teeth with forgiveness, compassion and unconditional love for myself.
With some luck, my small successes will reverberate with a fellow traveler now and again and we’ll both find an oasis of recognition and relief.
Mental health and personal well-being require a regimen of good habits, awareness and intention.
I hope that those of us suffering will find ways to forgive ourselves and heal.
I hope we can forgive those who do not possess the compassion to forgive us for our shortcomings or themselves for judging us in their ignorance.
I intend to follow the practice of believing, of remaining hopeful and of observing the downside of our mutual “pursuit of happiness” then choosing to passionately embrace the parallax view; fear, panic and depression be damned.
Like Fitzgerald observed, I shall “beat on,” with all my heart and soul.
One tiny lifeboat “against the current.”
I will believe in the “green light” and the “orgastic future;” the promised land that forgiving myself will lead me to.
I trust forgiveness will light the way for me, for John Green and for all of us for whom the end of anxiety will shine as a brilliant beacon of an orgastic future.