- Mental Health
The Anxious Optimist: How I Dealt With The Monster Called Anxiety (or didn't)
I am The Anxious Optimist
I deal daily with the totally awesome! and totally debilitating wonder that is Anxiety. I was a very angry child for no apparent reason, and only discovered the identity of the soul-crushing pull that sometimes (or very often) ruminates in my chest (which is in fact not my fault) in my Sophomore year in college. A very astute therapist at the campus health center (an incredibly valuable resource) pointed this out to me and a whole new world has been opened. An optimistic one, believe it or not.
The Anxious Optimist... isn't that an oxymoron? Maybe it is, but it's how I get through the day!
I have always been positive, the result of two optimistic parents and a rampant fear of confrontation since my youth (Helllooooooo, Anxiety). That's not to say I never complain; on the contrary. A healthy amount of complaint keeps the brain quick and keeps you from being duped by tricksters. I just choose to find the silver lining in life!
A lot of my optimism truly stems from my faith. Ooops, I said a buzz word. FAITH. Whatever your beliefs, I won't cram mine down your throat, but I feel it's important for you to understand my angle. Suffice to say that I survived the deepest depths of the pit of despair (aka. Depression Central) by turning to my faith. Say what you will about religion or faith, it has kept me out of the doldrums. This is not a platform for mass conversion, and I don't expect you to relate. But I will share it! It's a free internet!
Now that the Optimism bit is out of the way... what is "Anxiety?" According to the handy-dandy Oxford Dictionary widgit on my Macbook, it's this thing:
a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks.
And I would agree with that, clinically. Except what it should say is this:
a soul-crushing, social life-ruining, anger-inducing, depression-triggering and debilitating nervous disorder characterized by a CONSTANT state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension about EVERYTHING, even the smallest, most insignificant things, and always accompanied by compulsive behavior AND panic attacks.
Anxiety is one of the last things people expect are wrong with you. Sometimes I am downright rude, and in 90% of those instances, it is by no fault of the person who gets the brunt of it. But they just assume that I'm a nasty person, without wondering what's behind that.
Anxiety is considered by people who like to overdiagnose mental illness as a form of mental illness. That is sarcasm, but please consider my pleasure at the knowledge that I'm considered "mentally ill" while you take all this in. Do I think Anxiety needs to be taken seriously? Of course I do. That's why I'm sharing this. Do I think it deserves to be classified as a mental illness? Debatable. It's the label that bothers me, I think.
In spite of a very recent overhaul of general psychological theory about Anxiety, it is still not a widely recognized disorder among civilians. What the general public doesn't understand is that it is extremely common in this world. Everyone in my immediate family has it. At least five members of my extended family have it. Every single one of those people are medicated for it. It's essentially a chemical imbalance in the brain, and to that end, all my neurological functions cause various things to happen in my body.
For one thing, when I'm anxious, my fingers tingle. My hands get hot and there is a lot of blood rushing through them. When I'm anxious, it feels like someone is hugging my rib cage too tight and won't let go. When I'm anxious, my hands shake. And I have no control over it. Anything can set it off. Everything is a big deal, a melodrama, and even if you're aware of the fact that you're overreacting, you can't help it.
Most of the time, I won't answer my phone unless I'm expecting a call from someone who has briefed me about the nature of the conversation, and even then sometimes I let it go to voicemail so I can listen to their message before the conversation. I will answer the phone at any time for two people: Dad, and Boyfriend. Mom I will answer immediately if I know I haven't done something wrong. Brother must text me regardless, except in cases of emergency. I will not make my own phone calls about doctor's appointments, ordering a pizza, paying bank statements, calling my land lord, nothing.
I can't handle it.
My brain does not allow me to be okay with these seemingly simple things. Instead, it ties me up to a post in the town square, strips me naked, and calls out the whole town to listen to private entries from my diary. It's the devil in a red pinstripe suit. This is what it feels like to be faced with having to simply call my pharmacist and renew my anxiety medication. Ironic.
I am also a very messy person. I am unconsciously messy, however. I have been this way since I was out of the crib. If my Mom goes into my room while I'm out or opens the door without knocking, I have a huge surge of panic because essentially, she is invading my brain. My room is the perfect diagram of my brain. In the center, we have a small bed that I have slept in as long as I can remember. The closet is stuffed full of clothes, which I do not wash unless I am going on a trip or have absolutely nothing to wear (but I have so many clothes, I don't just wear dirty ones all the time, promise) and even then I will not wash them if I am asked to by a parent.
It's not willful disobedience; I truly cannot bring myself to do so. As you can imagine, this has always driven my Mom crazy. She thinks she has to nag me 8 times before something happens. Not only do I hear her the first time, I strongly consider all the pros and cons of doing what she asks, but my brain cuts off all the pros and never lets me get to the phase of carrying out my mother's request. This is not willful disobedience, let me say again. I'd like to be an agreeable person all the time, but I am not usually afforded that luxury without a little chemical intervention.
I'm talking about medication! Huzzah! The magic happy pill of magic that cures all things!
When I was first dealing with tremendous Depression at the beginning of my sophomore year in college, I immediately spoke up to my parents as soon as I had an inkling that that was what I was dealing with. Like most college sophomores, I had no idea what Anxiety was. It was Depression, that's it.
After I talked to the on-campus therapist (which took several weeks of telephone hang-ups and persuading myself to even walk past the health center, LET ALONE GO IN) he suggested that maybe I was dealing with Depression brought on by Anxiety. So, I talked to my doctor (my Pediatrician who I still go to because he's awesome and Jewish and helped deliver me and I can until I'm 26 so hardy-har) and he prescribed Zoloft, which is supposed to treat both Anxiety and Depression.
This was NOT the answer. I felt even WORSE than before; I felt like a marionette, like someone was controlling my every molecule and orchestrating my body so I would feel as if I was getting better. I didn't.
So I took myself off meds (BAD. DON'T DO THIS.), bought a pretty journal at Target (the boutique of the Gods), and looked towards the heavens. And God as my witness, I struggled worse than I ever have in my entire life. I don't know that person that I became in my depression.
Ever the optimist, nobody really seemed to catch on that I was in serious trouble either, because on the outside, I was bubbly. I still took showers, I still did my hair and makeup every morning, I still went to parties and class and ate like a normal person. But on the inside, I was absolutely in despair.
It probably didn't help that the apartment I was living in at the time looked like Grimmauld Place from Harry Potter; dark, cramped, and far away from my friends. Looking back, I can laugh, but it was a cave. I had the world's greatest roommate who I still talk to to this day, and he was great because he did exactly what I thought I wanted: Left me alone. He had his own life and friends and wasn't home much, which left me free to be torn apart by my consciousness.
Meanwhile, I clung to a doomed friend who had his own issues and relied so heavily on his support that I drove him away. We would go from five nights in a row of hanging out to not speaking, and I never understood why, it's not like we fought. I simply lacked the insight to understand that the thing torturing me was taking a toll on my friends. To this day, I can't help but feel sad that this friend didn't live up to our friendship in the way I thought he would. I expected unconditional support and help, and that was not what I got. That does NOT mean that this person is in any way at fault, but my body refused to accept that I could have caused our falling out (the lynch pin in the optimistic outlook). I can type it, but I can't internalize it.
I began driving home from college in the middle of the week, sometimes in the middle of the night. One night I was locked out coming home from a gathering so I drove the 2.5 hours to my parents' house on a quarter tank of gas. I began sleeping through class, showering whenever I began to smell myself (which takes several days, I'm not naturally stinky), eating my feelings. I gained a ton of weight, probably twenty pounds, which doesn't hang well on my already athletic bones.
But I didn't tell anyone about what I was dealing with. The therapist knew of course, my parents knew, but I didn't talk about how I really felt. I certainly didn't tell my friends! I hate to appear vulnerable, or as if I'm a complainer, and that has always been true.
I was an acting major, something that I wasn't sure about doing initially anyway, and my advising professor had begun to notice a large change in me. I couldn't emotionally connect with any characters in acting class because I had no emotions to give. When I was Depressed, I didn't cry very often. I was afraid to let things out, some kind of inner demons that I couldn't conquer.
The last scene I did for acting class was a scene from The Children's Hour by Lillian Hellman; the weed-out scene. If the professor knew that a student was on the fence about continuing on in the program, he would pair them with a strong partner to do this scene. If you did well, he would let you go on in the program. If not, you were done.
I did not do well. In our last coaching session, the professor reduced me to violent sobs by informing me that my acting had regressed to the ability of the beginning of freshman year and that I had no business being an actor. Not only did he have the gall to say this to me, he said it in front of my scene partner, to my Depressed face. But he didn't have to kick me out of the department, I left of my own volition. Not only had I been told that I was in the wrong major, I was in the pit of despair and to add insult to injury, my Dad had just been diagnosed with a serious illness.
It was a very long road from the bottom of the barrel to where I am today. Still, two years after my diagnosis, I am grateful that I survived a difficult situation and came out alive.
After trying other drugs, I am now on the tamest form of Anxiety meds, a beta blocker, which merely slows my heart rate and lessens the bodily effects of Anxiety. I talk to my doctor, my parents and boyfriend when I'm feeling low and I always tell them when I'm having a hard time. I have become okay with the nights that I just feel like crying because sometimes it is vital to have catharsis.
I have also discovered several websites that have been helpful, including the website of a woman who has survived breast cancer. She blogs very candidly about the entire process and talks about everything, including the crappy side of her struggle. I highly recommend her website, called The Silver Pen, if you're feeling like you're alone. Plus, she replies to all comments and is a wonderful person all around.
I don't like being in this club, the club of the struggling, but it is a large club and nobody has to do it alone! It is okay to feel what you're feeling, and even more acceptable to ask for help.