On Living with Anxiety

This post was a very difficult one for me to write. I sat at my brother’s kitchen table, my dad trying to make small talk even though he could see me trying to write. He means well, and I love him. But it was distracting.

It took me about five drafts, some of which were erased completely and saw me completely restarting the whole thing.

But I think the most ironic thing, and I’m sure he and I will laugh about this in the future, is when I emailed this to the friend mentioned in the post, I was so overcome by my anxiety about his response, I totally missed his very supportive text. I was having an anxiety attack waiting for a response about my post about anxiety. This, dear readers, is how my life goes.

One of the things I struggle with most as someone living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder is the misconception that we can control it. People who do not live with this disorder have troubles understanding just how debilitating it can be. So I’m going to start this post with an exercise.

Those of you without GAD, think back to the single scariest moment of your life. Whether it be a loved one suddenly getting violently ill, being in a major car accident, or perhaps watching your house burn down, one thing is likely the same – you in all likelihood felt a moment, if not minutes, of panic where you did not know what to do. Then the rush of adrenaline hit, and you were spurred into action, dealing with the situation.

For those of us unlucky enough to live with GAD, this is a regular occurrence. The way my doctor explained it to me, in moments of high stress, the brain sends out chemicals to spur the flight or fight reflexes. That’s that moment of panic. When you have GAD, the trigger for this delivery of chemicals is dysfunctional, and even the littlest things will set it off. And the worst part, is the adrenaline that clears the system and helps you focus and deal with the problem? Doesn’t come. Just the panic.

A quick Wikipedia search gives a great description of the problem.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by excessive, uncontrollable and often irrational worry. … This excessive worry often interferes with daily functioning, as individuals suffering GAD typically anticipate disaster, and are overly concerned about everyday matters such as health issues, money, death, family problems, friendship problems, interpersonal relationship problems, or work difficulties.

So what does this actually mean?

For me, and I am lucky enough to have a relatively mild case, it means that the more common, everyday worries that are piled onto me, the worse my disorder gets. Things that most people would just deal with cause me to start worrying, unable to decide how best to deal with the situation. Often I will procrastinate, avoiding the thing that I am worrying about to the point that the situation becomes an actual true emergency, like that time that I put off going to the doctor about my difficulties breathing and ended up in the ICU due to Congestive Heart Failure.

Yeah, not my finest moment I admit. On a side note, it’s a damned good thing I lived at home at that time, as my mother made me go to the doctor. If I had been on my own, I am completely convinced that I likely would have been found dead in whatever apartment I’d been living in. So thanks Mom, you’re the best ever.

While that is an extreme case, it’s things like it that define my daily life. At work, I worry that I’m not performing to my best. And yet I get almost daily feedback from my coworkers and boss on the great job I am doing. It’s never enough to calm the beast called anxiety.

In personal relationships, I find it really hard to confront my partner with anything serious. Even if it’s a good thing, like admitting my true feelings. The beast called anxiety whispers to me all the horrible things that could happen, like him dumping my ass because I said “I think I love you.” In fact, I am no longer even able to tell WHAT my feelings truly are, due to the combination of my history with relationships and anxiety. This makes relationships very difficult.

I spend so much time lying awake at night worrying about all the things in my life that could go wrong, that I am often exhausted and unable to think straight. This is not a constant – I have gone years without anxiety causing these issues – but when it does happen, I become irritable, and the anxiety is given more and more control over my life. I try to control it without medications, but as my doctor told me when first diagnosed, there will always be points in my life that medications will be required.

It is a very hard thing for me to admit to. I don’t want to be That Chick Who Worries. I want to be a normal, healthy, well-balanced individual. But this is not who I am. I am currently in the midst of an upswing in my anxiety attacks. It’s not been fun, and I am at a point where I can no longer control this without help. I know my doctor will ask that question he always does: “Have you dealt with the issue that caused this bout?” and I will tell him yes. Usually I have. To be honest though, I haven’t at this point. I know what the underlying issues that brought this on are. I have dealt with most of them. But there is one that is so terrifying to me that I just cannot confront it.

All the things that could go wrong if I confront this issue are currently running through my head like a checklist of the apocalypse. That is how serious my anxiety is telling me this situation is. The worst part, the part EVERYONE with GAD has to deal with, is knowing that it’s the anxiety lying to you. Knowing that if you just dealt with it, the anxiety would dissipate and you could go back to your regular life. But the anxiety is just too strong, and I am having troubles overcoming it. And the scary part is that my logic center, the voice that for most people helps to control the worry, is telling me that if I let anxiety win, the worst case scenario WILL come true.

It’s a horrible circle. It feeds itself and without help, I cannot escape it.

And the strangest things can cause an attack. For instance, I recently was in Fort Worth, Texas. The trip was a lot of fun and I am so glad I overcame all the anxiety and forced myself to go. However, because I DID make myself go, there were a few more attacks than I would have liked. (I would have liked exactly zero anxiety attacks. That’s my ideal number). The worst was in a used bookstore. The friend I was visiting made a correct guess as to how much I would love being in a used bookstore. So we went.

We got to the store and went our separate ways. The thing I should mention at this point is that the single best way to help me through an attack is physical touch. Hold my hand, kiss my cheek, give me a hug. Even so much as a pat on the shoulder will help me focus and realize that it is an attack and to calm down.

Of course, I didn’t think I’d have an attack there in the store. So I didn’t stick close to the one person I knew that was closer than a six hour drive away. Seriously, how can you anticipate these things?

Oh, and to that friend, if he is reading this? So not your fault. You couldn’t have known that this is what I was struggling with until I admitted it to you. Thanks for being so awesome with me and my anxiety-riddled ways.

So I work my way through the store. I find used DVDs. I’m browsing them when I come across an old beat-up copy of the Dukes of Hazard. The Dukes of Hazard, while an absolutely horrible show, has a lot of memories of my oldest brother attached to it. That’s one of his favourite shows. So I started to think about him. The bad thing about being fairly good at math is that your brain can do things in the background. Like say “If Diavik (the mine my brother works at) is 2300 km from Saskatoon, and Fort Worth is 2700 km from Saskatoon, that means Diavik is 5000 km from Fort Worth. Brad is at work right now, which means I’M 5000 KM FROM MY BROTHER.”

That, by the way, is a good trigger for a panic attack. Apparently.

Then I walked by the records. And I thought of my other brother. By this point my anxiety is at a slow boil. I’m darting my eyes everywhere searching for my friend. I cannot see him. The boil grows.

I work my way over to a section of the store I know will help distract me. Sometimes that will stop the attacks. I start browsing books. It works for a while, but I’m still searching for my friend. I finally see him, looking for me where I was when we parted ways, so I text him, and he comes over. He gives me a quick hug and the anxiety goes down a little more. We move into the graphic novel area. I’m calming more and more.

When he decides he’s going to go look elsewhere, I follow. He gives me a funny look, and I make excuses. I’m not ready to admit I’m an anxiety-ridden mess at that moment. He takes me to the sci-fi and fantasy section. My anxiety dissipates a bit more. He wanders off without me noticing.

This is fine. I’m in my Happy Place.

Right up until I walk around a corner right into a cardboard display with a nearly life-sized Gandalf on it. Thanks Gandalf. I needed my anxiety levels to go from just barely boiling to OMG LIFE IS GOING TO END! GANDALF STORMCROW IS HERE!!!!

Yeah. That actually happened. God help me.

I’m laughing right now. Because now that I’m not in the middle of an attack, it’s the Funniest Thing Ever.

Luckily for me, my friend chose that exact moment to laugh. I made a beeline for him, obviously upset. When I told him what was wrong, he did exactly the right thing. He held me, and told me he would attack the anxiety for me. He even made kicking motions. I THINK he actually either kicked himself or kicked something he wasn’t intending to. It made me laugh. And the anxiety went away.

I am so lucky to have friends like him. I cannot tell him just how much that meant to me. I was able to enjoy the rest of our time at the bookstore, and then he took me for ice cream. Ice cream. On a warm day. (Well, hot to my Canadian brain, but not really from the point of view of those actually from Texas). In January.

Best Ever.

The point I’m making with this story is that anxiety cannot be anticipated nor truly explained. We know what causes it. We know the symptoms. But knowing what will trigger an attack? Nearly impossible. The next day we had gone out for supper. I had been extremely hungry when we left. And I finished my meal. But it was like ash in my mouth, and when he offered me more, the thought of food made me sick. I told him I had nervous stomach. He asked why. I explained that the flight home the next day was scaring me. “But you did that flight on Thursday and everything was fine. You’ll be just fine.”

Yeah. I know that dear. But anxiety doesn’t care. Anxiety goes through all the things that could possibly go wrong and runs them over and over like a B-rated horror flick.

And that’s what it’s like living with anxiety. To never know when the stupidest thing will make you freak out. Never knowing what is a legitimate threat and what is something easily dealt with.

This is my life.

I try not to use it as an excuse. I manage most days to face what is causing the attacks and deal with it. When it’s boiling over all the time, this is very difficult. But I manage.

For those of you without GAD, there are several ways you can help those you know and care about who are affected by this disorder. The most important way is to understand that they really have no control over this. Their brain chemicals are causing them to worry more than you do. They often know that they are overreacting, and telling them that, or belittling what they are going through only makes it harder for them to find their way out of an attack. If someone you know is diagnosed, research what is going on and understand that sometimes medications and time are the only thing that will help.

For minor attacks, I find that distraction can be a great method of dissipating the anxiety. I try to think of something else until the worst passes, and then deal with what triggered the attack. I want to stress that this doesn’t help everyone. Each person with anxiety has a different level of the disease. Some have such severe cases that distraction simply won’t work. Ask the person if it will help, when they are not in an attack. They’ll let you know if it will help or make things worse.

As I said earlier, one of the biggest things I find to help is physical contact. A hug can go a long way to helping me feel better. I do not know why this is, but my theory is that it gives me something to focus on that is not the trigger, or on those occasions I have no idea why I’m freaking out, on the fact that I’m crazy.

Simply being supportive, and saying things like “it will be alright” works wonders for me. Knowing that I am not being judged helps to make it easier to deal with what is happening. Because one of the things that I worry about is being normal. Not in that I like the same things as everyone else, but in that I have a disorder. I just want to be like everyone else. And I worry that I’m not. It bothers me. Knowing that the people who know me and that I care about understand that there are times that I am not in control of this thing helps.

The most important thing to remember is that this person that you know who worries about “nothing,” very possibly cannot help it. If they know they are diagnosed, all they really want is acceptance from others, and their support. If they don’t know, it’s a good thing to get them to find help. Because help is out there and they are not the only ones who go through this.

If you have GAD, remember: you are NOT alone. Millions of people struggle with this every day. It is also not uncommon for people with GAD to have Depression as well. They are closely related and can go hand-in-hand. Get help. It’s out there. Find a support network. Eventually you will find the thing that makes it seem controllable, and trust me, life can be so much better once you’re there.