Mental Health

Writing Out Of The Panic Tunnel

Sometimes I panic. The panic is triggered and it immediately begins to spiral. The spiral can be stopped cold with the right external feedback, but I have no control over that feedback, so sometimes the panic spirals until I literally can't breathe. 

"Taking a breath using my gut feels like a five mile run..."

I'm somewhat overstating things up there. I am lucky that I don't have that many full-blown panic attacks. Instead I operate with a general, nebulous, often-present sense of dread and doom. However, my anxiety levels have dropped dramatically in the last two years, I think mostly due to just gained wisdom. I've simply been alive longer and know better what causes the fear cloud and, if it arises, better how to stop it. 

One of the most effective ways for me to beat a panic attack to the punch is to write it out. Just fling the words, fingers flying, though still not fast enough to keep up with my speeding bullet train of a brain. But because my hands can't keep up I'm forced to slow my mind down.

By making me slow down, writing during an anxiety attack eases the suffering almost instantly, at least for me. The simple act of writing--even if I am too far into the tunnel of panic to be coherent, it doesn't matter--just getting words onto paper is the goal.

"What are you scared of? Talk yourself off this ledge."

Writing when under the siege of anxiety also forces me to be present. If I'm writing about now then I have to be here now. By its very nature it calms me. Writing about the now forces me to be present, which doesn't allow my brain to do that whirliwind business wherein if someone doesn't do something I've created for him or her to do only in my mind that it means very bad things. And that I'll die. Yes, it sounds irrational, because it is. But panic brain is very convincing; panic brain holds your breath hostage. 

"I feel ill right now. Nauseated. Like I'm going to puke. Breathing is shallow and my lungs hurt. They ache, but feel secured by nothing but tissue and so if I breathe too deeply they'll burst. So I'm just sipping air."

It takes no time before I'm writing about how I feel because I'm writing about the present. And then it happens in a gush. As I'm stringing together sentences, I see my fears made out of letters and spaces and periods and all those question marks and none of it makes sense. I can see with my eyes that it doesn't make sense. What I'm really scared of, once I write long enough, comes percolating to the surface and I see it for the first time in its true form. And it's old stuff, nothing new, nothing dangerous, not now.

"Do not let old wounds make your precious few hours on this Earth be filled with tension and worry and misery. Do not let that shit win."

My diary is for me, and I can be as mean and petty and spiteful (or as or insecure or boring or batshit crazy) as I want to be. My diary is a secret glass cabinet where I can store some of the bizarre and unsavory and otherwise unfit-for-human-consumption garbage that accumulates inside my person. The clear drawers allow me to look at what I've unpacked from my brain and see it for what it is.

I own what is in there.

(image credit: “Q Train” Nigel Van Wieck)

How I'm Doing Today

LightsBeen feeling a little off-center today. Been feeling a little ho hum.

No real reason, really. Nothing I can pin down under a thumb. Probably something to do with a face someone made or a reponse taken wrongly or any number of things I've ascribed in my head that do not exist in real life.

I'm traipsing on the border of full-fledged anxiety. Keeping it in line by remembering how much of a prisoner it once made me. An angry, vengeful, frightened captive. Today I walk the razor-wire fence of fear, but only peer in for impulsive glances.

That I can find myself on the outside looking in rather than tossed about and sucked under by the current of worry and dread is an evolution I have clawed to achieve.  I have not won, but I am no longer helpless.

I think back on those who suffered due to my struggle, and it breaks my heart. They cannot know the me now without remembering the me then, the me that turned my neuroses into weapons. Casualities of an inside war.

Today has been just okay. But it' s long from over. Later I'll have dinner with seven wonderful people at a fancy restaurant that has been featured on TV for its fine cuisine, and with this food I will drink fine wine and laugh and share and give and take. I do not fear this event in the ways that once would cause me to flake out an hour in advance. In fact, I arranged it. Made all the plans myself.

Letting go of embedded fears has left room inside me for others. Not just one other on whom I am fully dependent. A whole host of others who enrich my life and keep me bouyant and happy. Others who will not only fit in the space left vacant by the nervousness, but actively keep it at bay. People who will not only take me out for shots of hard liquor when I am in tears, but buy them for me, too.

Anyway, today has been just okay, wherein just okay is a damn sight better than so many of the days that came before. 

One Really Good Reason Everyone Could Use a Therapist

I'm a big advocate of psychotherapy. Most people, I think, could benefit from at least one short stint sitting across from a professional listener and talking about how they feel. There are lots of reasons why I believe this. The biggest reason, apart from my own positive experience*, is this: your shrink is on your side.

It is helpful, sometimes extremely, to talk to your best friend about what is bothering you. It is fundamental that you talk to your spouse about such things. And only your mother or father can bring that certain perspective in times of distress. But each of these people, no matter how well meaning, has a history with you. They, whether they even know it or not, have ulterior motives. That is not to say those motives are harmful or unproductive or necessarily negative, but because you have a relationship with these people that is based on all sorts of factors and emotions and months or years of experiences, how they react may not always be what you need.

Sucessful Psychotherapy

One really, really good reason to talk to a therapist is because he has no agenda except to see to it that you are well. He is on your team, and your team alone. He has fresh perspective and no ties to you outside that 50 minute window, and he'll tell you exactly how it is, unshaded by anything peripheral.

He is your number one cheerleader. He will call you on your excuses. He will validate you when you rightly feel fucked over, and he will kindly inform you that what you are feeling isn't crazy, it's incredibly normal. Or maybe he will tell you you're crazy, but he won't use those words, and even better, he'll let you know that your crazy is fixable.

If you are thinking of seeing a therapist, I can't recommend enough that you do. Every damn body can use unbiased support uncolored by bullshit.

*I do not exaggerate when I say a DJ therapist saved my life.

How I Kicked Anxiety's Ass

Going back as far as I can remember, I was always a slave to ever-present anxiety. I lost friends, never made them, avoided events, stayed in bed, flaked, backed out and wasted more time that I can really wrap my mind around on worry. Incessant, gut-grinding, sometimes vomit-inducing anxiety.

It ruled my life. I self-medicated with this and that. Spent three years in therapy. Did two stints on SSRIs, the last prescription of which I genuinely believe saved my life. But, still, most of the time it kicked my ass. The anxiety almost always won. Sometimes I would get a glimpse of the way things were with clarity, without the cloak of worry, and I would see for a second what it could be like. Those fleeting moments pushed me onward. That and a survivor's will.

Sometimes the worry would be about nothing at all. A gnawing nervousness in my belly, my throat closed, my heart beating so quickly I swore it would skip beats sometimes. Other times it would be about something very specific, very real in my life and something I was deathly afraid of. Then there were the times I was scared to leave my house. Or answer the door. Or take a phone call.

I write this in the past tense not because I have completely erased my anxiety, but because I now own it. It doesn't direct the moves of my life anymore. It still rears its nasty, powerful head, but I understand it for the facade it really is, nothing but a creation of a mind that has the power to reverse its very existence.

I just moved in with a good egg named Beth. She allowed me and my two cats to move in to her beuatiful home, and I want very much to cultivate a respectful roommate relationship. This involves making sure that the cats don't shit or piss on anything, claw at precious items or get too much cat hair on anything.

Just a couple of days after I plopped down my things and set out a litter box, my new roomie flew to New York for a trip. It was just a couple of days after that when I noticed a rip in the lovely, fragile curtains that shade the living room. "Oh God," I thought. "One of the cats leapt for a bird on the other side of the pane, got a claw caught in the curtain and tore it. Obviously, this is an heirloom curtain that her great-grandmother sewed just before the birth of her beloved grandfather."

I began down a familiar road. I locked the cats out of the living room, sat down and began to freak out. Two days in and I'd already let the cats ruin something precious. I was such a shit head. What was I going to do? I would buy her new curtains, obviously, but how could I replace the sentimentality now lost to my bad cat parenting?

Then I remembered something that keeps me sane. The thing essential to battling anxiety and worry and fear: Don't be a part of that story.

Our minds are wired for storytelling. We create story lines to make sense of so much scattered and random sensory input that we would go mad without the beginnings, middles and ends that we create. And at any time we can change the story.

true story

What is done is done, there is nothing about the past you can change. I considered how I would rectify the situation and any other narrative like "Those were irreplaceable," or "She's going to hate me and want me to move out," popped up, for sure, but I realized I was the author of those narratives.

I wasn't going to bother Beth with this on her vacation and that I would just have to wait until she came back to handle it. Years ago, this would have eaten me alive. I would have worried, stressed and belly-ached for days on end, perhaps even becoming so tortured that I would have called Beth on her trip to let her know about the rip against my better judgement, knowing that it was unnecessary, but wanting relief from my overwhelming anxiety.

This time, I just kept my mind on the present: folding napkins, washing my hair, reading a book, rather than let my mind become consumed with dread and fear.

There was no grand epiphany or magic drug or breakthrough psychology session that allowed me to own my axiety, but a slow, steady, constant drip of effort to find relief. Over time, with lots of help and a tremendous amount of patience of the part of people I hold dear, I just got better. I believe the SSRIs helped me get where I am today, in control, but they are no longer in my system. My utter owning of my reality, and therefore my anxiety, is something born of years of intense amounts of trying. Eventually, for me, thankfully (and I am so, so thankful), I kicked anxiety's ass.

For the record, Beth got back last night when I broke it to her about the curtains.

"There has always been a rip there," she said, still casually flipping through a week's worth of mail.

There has always been a rip there.

All along there was nothing to worry about.

It feels amazing to know I didn't waste valuable time on something I need not be. It feels amazing to have kicked anxiety's ass. It feels like nothing I've ever felt before to be the author of my own existence. 

[photo credit]