anxiety

The Tangled Web of Obsession

Inasmuch as OCD utilizes a singularity, worry is multi-faceted and layered. An obsession or repetitive worry, the kind that I have, begin with my mind’s uncanny ability to hyper-focus on a single thing – whatever it is – for what seems like ages. It starts with that singularity and builds an entire universe of worry – worry about literal things, worry about potentialities and (un)likelihoods. The simplicity of the singularity is almost hilarious, once you can unravel the multitude of tangled yarns that make up the knot of anxiety.

The difficulty resides in, not necessarily stopping the trigger (this is easy with practiced, life-long avoidance skills), but changing the thinking patterns surrounding the anxiety once the machine has started. By the time I’ve reached an emotional overwhelming (sobbing uncontrollably) or an anxiety attack, I’m already surrounded by that tangled web of yarns.

But despite the complexity of the knot, I always have to start somewhere. It’s a large undertaking. Have you ever had 20 different things to do that, at the very least, felt urgent and important? You put your head between your hands and look around maniacally at all the things you have to do and the thought crosses your mind: Where the fuck do I start?

You have a tangled web of yarns to unravel and you have to start somewhere, right? So you pick a thread. Do you cut it? Do you try to untangle it? It’s hard to say, with my experience with OCD and abnormal anxiety, whether or not it’s better to untangle the yarn or cut it. Often times, as a way to cope with the mess that is an anxiety attack, I would visualize (a good method for coping, by the way) a knot of tarn on the inside of my head between my ears.

I would simply start cutting lines. And then I think from there I would begin the huge undertaking of untangling. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to just set it all on fire, but if I do that, I can’t learn from it, can I? I’ll never make progress if I don’t try to understand the silly, ridiculous connections my mind makes from one ear to the other.

So I cut the severely irrational lines. “Everyone is going to leave me.” That’s a nonsense statement. I mean, when you think about it, it is true. At some point, everyone in my life will be gone from me, whether by their death, my own, or simple expiration of relationships. But that’s a fact of life, and worrying about it is more of a waste of time than anything else.

“My boyfriend is cheating on me.” That’s also a nonsense statement. Mostly because it’s far from the truth and highly unlikely. Is there a chance that he could at some point be unfaithful? Sure, maybe there’s a small possibility; much as I’d like to, I can’t predict what he is going to do next week, next year, or 10 years from now. But given the circumstances of our relationship and his own desires about me and his own life, I know that evaluating this statement is worthless and unproductive. So I cut the line.

“I don’t deserve to be happy.” This might be worth looking at. I’ve learned to stop cutting lines look at strings of thought that my therapist might ask me questions about. This is something we might spend a lot of time talking about in a session. So instead of cutting the line, I untangle it from the knot. I start telling myself positive statements about how I do deserve to be happy. I try to speak over my Mean Voice and tell myself that I am a good person. That I work hard, in many aspects of my life, including my job, my friendships, and my relationship and I deserve to have these people in my life. That this condition is not a judgment set down by the universe. That I don’t deserve to have this condition and that it is merely a part of me that needs to be rewired.

As I write this, I realize that this method of getting through the web has changed over time. And that my capability to sever lines of thought and dismiss some of the severely irrational thoughts fairly easily is not a static ability. It has changed over the course of my work in therapy and self-awareness. A year ago, I know I spent time trying to unravel the statement “My boyfriend is cheating on me.” I had to work through that line of thought and figure out where that worry came from and nurture myself away from negative thought patterns and self-judgment. Now, I know that what my boyfriend may or may not do is not a reflection of my self worth.

At some point, very early in my recovery “Everyone is going to leave me.” is something I also had to work through. My irrational fears of abandonment drive a lot of my abnormal anxieties, to the point where, if my significant other leaves the room when I am upset, my overwhelmed emotional state will manifest into an anxiety attack. Sometimes this is a statement I do have to take head on. It’s a large part of the issues that I have, and many times even during non-spike times, I have to nurture myself through that abandonment fear.

Maybe sometime soon “I don’t deserve to be happy” will be a line that I cut instead of the small knot that I untangle. After all, evaluating these statements and working through them take a lot of time. The time I spend in the throes of a full-blown obsessive web of shit (involving crying, an anxiety attack, and self-abusive thoughts) has reduced dramatically over the course of the last year.

But that tangled web of obsessive nonsense is a Beast, regardless of my recovery. When my anxiety spikes and I lose control of myself emotionally, it looms over me as a challenge as big as it felt when I first walked into therapy. But I see myself differently than I did then. I see myself as almost wholly separate from my condition. That my condition, while it may never be eradicated or completely cured, is manageable and it does not make me who I am. That tangled web of lies that my mind tells me is not a reflection on what I think, believe, or feel. And I’m learning to trust myself and believe that it does not determine my worth.

Baggage, Jealousy, and the Shame Caused by Both

Recently, I had a breakthrough that might be categorized by most people as a completely unimportant event. I had an “impure” thought and said it out loud when it occurred. My significant other didn’t react perfectly to it, and immediately I began to feel shame for A) having the thought, B) expressing the thought, and C) potentially hurting his feelings. It was one of those moments where I had a hard time articulating what I meant, and there was a blip in our usually-very-effective communication. I got nervous as I was trying to explain, and he seemed to let it go, but my stomach tied in knots and I began to feel guilty. Instead of wallowing in the guilt and abusing myself in my head, I said to him “Now I’ve made myself upset.”

Expressing this, for me, is an extreme challenge. Because I had completely circumvented my rumination process and got right to the point: I was ashamed for what I had said even though the thought, feeling, and expression of it was completely normal. I think the standard issue with obsessives is that they think the thoughts they are having (that are upsetting) are abnormal and that other people don’t experience them.

The truth is, most people have disturbing thoughts all the time. Mostly everyone empathizes with a villain momentarily, or perhaps has an image of being violent towards a person, or has sexual thoughts about inappropriate people. But the difference is, most people are able to ignore them, or even don’t realize they have them. Because I (and other people like me) are so obsessed with perfection, purity of thought is of the upmost importance. At some point, in my mind, I made the connection that having a thought makes something true.

This aggravates a lot of standard feelings and thoughts I have, specifically in my relationship. Because of my previous experiences in relationships, I somehow have put all the responsibility on myself for this relationship to succeed and, because of my penchant for perfection, and irrational paradigms of what it means to be a good partner by people who treated me poorly in the past, I have unreasonable standards for how I am supposed to behave.

Case in point: jealousy. This is probably the most obvious issue I have in trying to exist in my relationship with obsessions. Most of my obsessions are wildly untrue and fabrications of an incredibly warped reality in my head. I can talk myself down from them easily because they are counter to behavior (by myself or my significant other). Jealousy is different because it exists almost entirely internally. My significant other does not do anything that really merits a jealous reaction (what I mean is: he doesn’t flirt with other people, doesn’t talk about other people in such a way as to raise red flags, is faithful and shows no interest in the doings of most other people). Jealousy is simply common for most people in any kind of relationship. It’s natural to feel like we cannot fulfill the people we love in every way they need to be fulfilled. It just isn’t possible.

But, because of how my previous significant others reacted to jealousy, I have categorized it as “bad girlfriend behavior” in my head and therefore punish myself for having jealous thoughts. Almost everyone I know has some minorly-serious jealousy about one of their significant other’s exes. Why not? Why shouldn’t you be jealous that your significant other, at one time, loved and slept with another person? Of course it’s upsetting.

My problem is not the jealousy itself (or the ex, for that matter); my problem is that I cannot tolerate a single thought about it. And because my mind is so efficient with making associations (thank you English degree) and has such a vivid memory, it’s hard for me to break connections or forget about things I’ve heard.

My poor boyfriend, in the midst of all this, has to deal with my coming home one day, sobbing and telling him that thoughts about his ex, who I don’t even really know anything about, have plagued me all day.

I try to contextualize it. If I think about my exes, it isn’t a fond thought. It usually isn’t even an angry or resentful thought (unless I’m considering one who was emotionally abusive). A memory of an ex is usually, for me – since I’m constantly psychoanalyzing myself – a way for me to explain my own behavior to myself. “Why do I hate myself for feeling jealous? –Well, self, because your ex-girlfriend did shit constantly on purpose to make you jealous. Or your ex-boyfriend cheated on you relentlessly and lied about it. Self, I think that’s a fair reason to chastise yourself for feeling jealous.”

I had a realization recently: I have never been the primary desire in an adult romantic relationship until now. Everyone who I have had an intimate relationship with has either A) openly desired another person or people or B) slept with other people.

If I’m being honest, I’m ashamed that this still has an effect on me. I feel stunted. I feel like a fucking thirteen year old. Everyone around me seems to have no fucking problem letting go of their baggage or getting over shit or dealing with day to day relationship things like jealousy and here I am obsessing over my boyfriend’s ex existing somewhere and relentlessly not forgiving myself for having somehow failed in the past as a mate.

As if all of the ways I was mistreated in my past are my fault. Of course they’re my fault. Because I’m unworthy of a good life or have somehow misbehaved in those relationships and caused my significant others to be driven away from me.

No wonder I’m so petrified that my anxiety will drive my boyfriend away from me. Because I’m the only one responsible for the success of this relationship.

I know what the solution is. I have to forgive myself. For what? Not being perfect? For being with shitty people in the past who certainly didn’t create my emotional problems (I had OCD long before I met them) but didn’t do anything helpful and in some cases may have made it all worse? That isn’t really their fault either. Life isn’t fair and sometimes you’re incompatible with people you end up with for a time.

But then I say to myself: how do you forgive a person who was abusive? Who has made you so fearful of having normal emotional reactions that it causes panic? And then I have this self-hatred that comes from these thoughts – I hate that someone I used to be with could have such control over who I am today, even though they may have been manipulative and abusive.

Is the expectation that I shouldn’t have baggage from an emotionally abusive and sexually coercive relationship too high of an expectation? Is this me being too hard on myself?

All of these very normal, common relationship difficulties that we all have to learn to navigate through and on top of it, I’ve got to deal with an incredibly visceral fear of abandonment AND the baggage of an emotionally abusive relationship. And I somehow expect myself to just be over all of the hardship that I’ve somehow managed to endure. Don’t get me wrong, I have grieved the death of my father, and I have gotten over the pain of the previous relationship, years and years ago. But these are the things that drive my panic, and I have to confront them.

I know my significant other. I know that he will not abandon me or mistreat me. This confidence in him is not the same blind, repressive trust that I put in that abusive and manipulative ex. I know that. My boyfriend is not the same as the people in my past who have hurt me (however they have hurt me). He is a safe place.

And I suppose that’s why I feel so much shame for all of it: the unfounded jealousy, the obsessions, the occasional anger towards people who have mistreated me in the past. It makes me feel stunted an incapable. And most importantly: it makes me feel like a bad girlfriend.

A few days ago, in a fit of PMS-induced emotional outburst, I said this to him: “I feel like a bad girlfriend.” And I couldn’t articulate why. I’m not perfect, that’s why. And the rational, reasonable side of me feels terrible for the abnormal, Mean Voice-induced Child Me. When the machine is running at full speed, I’m in a constant state of being two people at once. The Me that understands how this all functions and wants to comfort the other Me who is screaming and angry and sad and afraid. I’m trying to nurture that “lesser” side of me. I’m trying to drown out my Mean Voice and talk to it the way I would talk to my boyfriend or a close friend or any person I loved.

I have to learn to love that “inferior” side of me instead of ridiculing it. Because, after all, it IS still a part of me.

Life Without Meds and the One Thought that Ruined My Year

Last week, I stopped taking my daily low dose of klonopin. I’ve been up and down, had a couple anxiety attacks, and faced my standard non-medicated, 4 AM, wake-up worry. But, in truth, I don’t mind all that. I can deal with escalating anxiety at work or whatever it is that might cause some frantic moments. (Though, when I’m in those moments, I would say that they are a living hell and I’d do anything to not have them.) Honestly, what bugs me out more than anything is having the thoughts.

While on my medication, mostly the thoughts were only around when I was stressed out. Now, they come and go as they please. For several days, I felt great. No problems, no thoughts. Now I feel like I’m back to square one.

Though, if I’m being honest, I’m not back at square one. I’m doing better. I can live without meds right now. Six months ago, I couldn’t go a week without a panic attack. Now, I’m not letting the anxiety get out of hand. And that’s more than I could’ve said for myself even just a few weeks ago.

More than anything, it’s the shame.

Shame for having thoughts. Shame for doubting myself. Shame for letting the doubt take over. Shame that I can’t handle this better than I am. Shame that, even for a moment, I might buy into a delusional thought. Not in the sense that I actually think it’s reality. That isn’t the case. It’s that…I worry that it’s real. Which is different than believing it’s real.

The content of my thoughts generally has to do with honesty. And perfect behavior. My particular brand of obsession has mostly to do with lying to myself, lying to people I care about, and being caught up in self-worth battles that never seem to end.

Am I good enough? Will I ever be good enough? What if I hurt somebody?

Last year, I was working in a toxic environment that constantly devalued me and made me second-,third-,fourth- guess my self-worth. When I started working there, I thought I had finally found my Place outside of college. And at some point, it became apparent that I was not of value, despite all of my hard work, overtime, and dedication.

I (along with my coworkers) knew I was getting laid off for about six months before it happened. Going into work every day was like…walking into the deepest reaches of hell. Everyone around me was depressed and anxious. People were clearly not coping well. And on top of it, our management didn’t seem to give a shit about any of it.

At some point, very shortly before I was laid off, my anxiety disorder started (probably not as suddenly as I think it had). I had a singular, instantaneous thought. One. Single. Thought. I ruminated about this thought for…a day straight. I’m not comfortable with sharing what the thought was, or what the rumination was. But, essentially, it was this: I had a thought about hurting someone I care about.

I thought that I was a horrible person who was going to hurt someone I love.

It threw me into this horrible, isolated depression. I couldn’t tell anyone. How could I tell someone that I had thoughts about hurting someone? I’d become a pariah.

I felt totally alone.

I started thinking things like “what would happen if I jumped in front of that train?” And as soon as those thoughts came, I called a therapist that very day. I knew I was headed down a destructive road.

I was shaking when I walked into my therapist’s office. I thought somehow I had already done something wrong. As if having the thought itself was committing the action. But it isn’t. It isn’t the same.

My therapist told me recently: “I knew the moment you told me about the thought that you weren’t going to hurt anyone.”

People with OCD commonly have disturbing, depraved thoughts that are totally contrary to things they would actually do. Usually, these thoughts are triggered by stress or trauma. But the problem is that the person focuses so much on purity and perfection that the thought itself is like committing the action.

The person I had the thought about…I still struggle to be around them. It makes me hesitate to be near them. It makes me question my morality, who I am, what I’m capable of. I’ve avoided that person for the better part of a year and a half. And nobody close to me or that person (outside of a very, very few people) knows about it. They must think I’m being selfish, because I’m not around as much.

And I can’t tell them, or anyone around them, why. I risk alienating myself from the people close to me. Because of one thought.

Do you have any idea what that feels like? To think you are the worst kind of person? And truly believe it?

Essentially, I protect the people I love from myself.

The thought never happened again. Only that one time. But it’s the worry that it will come back that drives me away from the person it was about. Other “intrusions” (as I call them) alienate me from other people that they involve. Likely, I have so many anxiety attacks around my boyfriend because so many of my obsessions thematically involve him, my feelings for him, and his feelings for me.

But I love him more than I need avoidance. It isn’t even fucking close. And, honestly, I think working through the anxiety that is brought on by my relationship (however healthy and fantastic it is) is making me stronger. It’s making me confront my anxiety and deal with it head-on. And, honestly, I couldn’t do that if he didn’t grant me the safe space to be honest. I can tell him some of my thoughts. I can have a conversation about them. I feel as though I can trust him to never judge me for them.

This monster that lives inside me, I’ve isolated it. It used to be a fog, or a poison, inside of me. Now, I’ve pushed it into a corner. I’ve located it, I’ve named it, and I’ve got its number. I’m done with this mean voice. I’m done giving it power. And I’m done letting it ruin my life and my relationships.

For any of you who have mean voices, loud or quiet, beat them back with everything you have. I believe in you, even if you don’t.

Therapy in Action: Coping Methods for Anxiety and How They Work for Me

I’ve written a lot about processing obsessions in a theoretical and reflective way, but I haven’t illustrated what it might look like in action. First, I want to talk about the methods of processing, coping with, and overcoming obsessions and anxiety. Then, I want to show what it looks like (literally) on paper — processing in action, as it were.

Methods
I can’t say for certain that what I do to deal with obsessions and anxiety torment is purely Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), but that is the main method that my therapist and I use to combat my anxiety. Sometimes, I also utilize Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) methods. And occasionally, I use Grounding as a method to alleviate escalating anxiety. I have feelings and reactions to all of these methods of coping with anxiety and obsessions, sometimes only one works, sometimes I have to do all three. Some days I hate REBT, some days the CBT isn’t enough.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
The use of CBT for me is the one that is the most “invisible,” so to speak. This is the method I most likely use when I’m not noticing what method I’m using. I know that sounds real layered and heady, but honestly, that’s how my mind works. When I’m trying to overcome anxiety, the anxiety becomes about the anxiety, and I spend a lot of time and energy focusing on or obsessing about the method I’m using. The CBT is the most blended kind of mechanism – it sometimes sounds like REBT to me, and sometimes, it just sounds like the way I’ve coped my whole life. Maybe for me CBT works the best, and that’s why I don’t really notice it in action. Also, I believe this is the method my therapist uses in sessions, so it may just be comforting or just feel like a conversation with my therapist, which is much less informal than utilizing other skills.

Grounding
This is an interesting method. My therapist recommended it as just a piece of a toolkit for me. I have a small object that I carry with me EVERYWHERE. All the time. Every day. I keep it in my pocket. When anxiety comes on, I am to either hold it, or look at it, or try to focus only on the object and not on the world (and thus the stimuli/anxiety) around me. What I carry is a little Pokemon figurine (Wartortle, if you’re curious) that I got from my significant other. It serves both as a distraction and a focus as much as it does a comfort to me. It’s very much like the totems in the film Inception. It’s there to ground me back into reality. And it usually only works with escalation and doesn’t necessarily work for me when I’m dealing with an obsession.

Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy
I kind of hate REBT. Mostly anyone who has used REBT, in highly emotional moments, will say they hate it. It’s harsh sometimes. And when I talk to my therapist about it, she says “Nobody likes REBT, it’s just supposed to work.” And it does, often, when I can dedicate myself to the Spock-like nature of the logic it utilizes. Often, I find a lot of comfort in the standard coping statements that REBT uses (ie: I can overcome my anxiety. I am not my anxiety. It is okay for me to not handle every situation perfectly. I will feel better soon. etc) and the idea that there is a difference between ‘knowing’ something and ‘believing’ something. I practice bridging the gap between these two ideas with my self worth while I run, actually. I know that I am tenacious and strong and beautiful, but do I believe it? Often times, no, I don’t. But when I’m running, and I start telling myself these things, I can feel myself start to believe them. And the positive emotional catharsis I feel when the ‘believing’ starts to sink in is tremendous.

Coping Methods in Action
What I’ve written below was composed by hand, while in the midst of an obsession that was upsetting me for probably more than a few days. I had been stressed out for weeks over a circumstance that was pretty difficult to deal with, and the stressor re-lit some dormant obsessions that blind-sided me and haunted me for longer than I’m willing to admit to myself. I’m going to write out the obsession for the sole purpose of overcoming the shame I feel in having it (and because I think people need to see what sort of things can buckle a person like me completely). Know this: this obsession was certainly not the ONLY obsession rolling through my head. It was one of many. I didn’t really confront the obsessions I was having until this plagued me for a couple of days. Remember: this obsession is a product of stress and fear, and does not reflect the reality of who I am or what I actually think.

What if I don’t love my significant other and I am lying to myself and him? What if I want to break up with him?

How I drew it out and coped:

October 1, 2014

Obsessions and intrusions have started up again. Nonsense thoughts that haven’t bugged me in a long time. It also has to do with certainty and perfection. It’s like I set these boundaries in my mind that I:

  • must be 1000% anything at all times
  • must be certain about my emotions
  • must react perfectly to everything
  • must know exactly how I feel 100% of the time

Additionally, I check in with my emotions and search out feelings. It’s like…checking doors or opening closets to make sure all my stuff is still there.

know my wallet is in my pocket, so why do I keep checking my pocket?

Furthermore, I set metaphors for my feelings and thoughts. Based on what? The culture’s or world’s conception of my identity and how I should feel: “Oh – every Rom Com says that this means this and therefore…”

The difficult thing is – even bearing this in mind – I still struggle to know what’s real.

There’s a difference between knowing and believing and I think the way to create the bridge between them has to do with self-trust.

It’s mind-boggling to me to see and recognize that I understand how all of this works and to still be so unsure of myself. 

The doubt and self-doubt is terrifying.

Now, I did write this with the intent of sharing it. But, in this instance, the only way of dealing with the emotional turmoil over an obsession and an anxious moment that I knew was caused by the delusions of my mean voice, was to evaluate how anxiety functions in my mind and the tricks that my brain plays on itself. Because telling myself over and over again that it isn’t real doesn’t help. I have to see how the mechanism works. Otherwise, I’ll argue with myself over the finer points of evidence.

Evaluating evidence is something I can’t do inside my mind. It causes ruminations, which are dangerous for me. Sometime soon, I’ll discuss how ruminating ruined almost a year of my life, and how the process of ruminating has led me to believe over and over again that I am the most awful person that has ever lived.

In this case, anyway, if you’re wondering, once the stress was gone, the obsessions stopped again. I stopped taking my meds last weekend, and I spent four whole work days without meds. I’m so unbelievably proud of myself. I feel like myself again. I didn’t realize how much my small dosage of Klonopin was effecting my every day emotions. Both in a good way and a bad way. I may still use it yet, but for now, I’m okay without. I’m in a great headspace this week – a stark contrast to my last entry – and I’m motivated to keep the ball rolling so I don’t fall into too terrible a seasonal depression come December.

Be well, friends. And I hope you can also find a good headspace.

This is What Bad Headspace Looks Like

I’ve been in a terrible headspace lately. The last two weeks have been tough, life-wise and therefore head-wise. In my relationship, I’ve had to take on the role of supporter, as my S.O. has been going through some difficult things both having to do with circumstance, and I think, as a result emotionally. Because I’m a fixer – a loyal person who wants to take on all of people’s problems as my own – his problems become my problems. I take on a substantial load of the weight and, frankly, do too much to help.

Because of this, I get tapped out easily. And because I’m tapped out, I’m emotionally vulnerable. In the midst of this “crisis” (for lack of a better word), and possibly as a partial consequence of it, I began to have issues with one of my friends which was only escalating the stress having to do with the situation at hand.

Would you be surprised to know that I’ve been having a lot of “old,” intrusive thoughts? No, I suppose you wouldn’t. I look back on the stress level that I’ve been at lately, and I’m surprised I haven’t popped yet (read: massive anxiety attack) – and I suppose I should be a little proud of myself.

But, frankly, it just makes me sad. Sad, lonely, and tired. I feel isolated. Though I know the content of my thoughts don’t matter (it’s the obsession that’s the issue at hand – the content is irrelevant), I feel like I can’t share them with my S.O. He’s enduring a lot right now, and I don’t think he’s in the headspace where he can endure what’s on my mind. And that makes me feel alone. Because I can’t talk to the one person who seems to really understand.

I went out with a few friends who I haven’t seen in a long time and felt so far away from them. I spent most of my time with them worrying about their opinion of me, thinking that I was a bad friend for not being around enough, and convincing myself that they were all mad at me.

I can’t get myself to my therapy appointment next week because of the circumstances at hand. And that makes me feel worse.

I can’t stop obsessing about this or that, and my mean voice (normally abusive only to me) has started to project outward. Which makes me abuse myself emotionally even more.

I can sense the separation anxiety monster in me brewing a lot, and I don’t know how to make the mechanism stop anymore. I have made efforts to stop the obsessions. While out at a party last night, I started experiencing anxiety, fell into myself, began to obsess, and then said to myself “I’m not going to ruin my evening by hyper-focusing on every single fucking thing that happens and sitting here feeling like shit.”

I should be proud of myself for that, because my methodology worked. But the anxiety is still there. I still got home and cried. I still came home and hated myself for it. I still came home and felt ashamed and guilty.

I didn’t sleep all night. Kept waking up every 20-40 minutes or so. I know that getting through the day or getting through anxiety is often just a matter of changing your perspective and looking at things in a positive way. But, honestly, I just don’t have it in me today. I’m irrationally terrified that I’m pregnant. I’m convinced that I’m only going to hurt every single person who gets close to me. And I feel like I’m just waiting for the moment when everyone I love will abandon me.

I told myself that I would never dump negativity on this blog at all, because I don’t know if it’s productive. But maybe somehow this is helpful as well. To see what the really negative side of this looks like on paper. To see how much more honest it is.

It isn’t. This entry has been more reticent and distant than anything else I’ve written here. Why? Well, because I’m convinced you will all reject me.

I’m falling into myself, and when I’m wading in this deep of water, I forget how to swim.

I know I’m doing better. I am. But I am fucking tired of thinking about shit that I don’t want to think about. Thinking about the shit that upsets me more than anything. And I’m petrified that the monster that lives inside me and makes all of this up in my head is going to win for just one moment when I’m weak, and I’ll lose everything.

Panic Attacks, Pills, and Progress

Over the last 6 months or so, I’ve been having fairly regular panic attacks. Once they started, the frequency increased exponentially, starting at once a month to once every two weeks. That doesn’t count all the times I almost had panic attacks and managed to calm them down.

At some point in the middle of developing a panic disorder, I had convinced myself that I wasn’t actually having panic attacks. That they were just “anxiety attacks” – this may still be true, though. What I would call a panic attack might just be a very severe anxiety attack.

There is a difference between the two. Panic attacks generally are rooted in the fight or flight physiological reaction in the brain and are often unprovoked (a stressor is not required). Anxiety attacks are physical symptoms of anxiety that are as a result of stressors.

Often, a panic attack itself would cause anxiety. My body would freak out and then my brain would go: oh, this is like anxiety, let’s think about stuff that’s awful and scares us. And it would escalate the physical symptoms further.

One particularly bad week, a panic attack sent me home from work.

Afterwards, I generally feel depressed, which started to worry me more – I fear depression almost above all else. I’ve been down the dark road to rock bottom, and, more than anything, I don’t want to go back there. I’ll take the anxiety and relentless obsession any day over that. At least with anxiety I can be an active participant in life and other things.

Anyway, it hadn’t occurred to me until relatively recently that the depressed feeling was most likely a “come down” from all of the heightened physical symptoms. So, I told myself over and over again that lethargy was just lethargy and the “depressed” feeling was not necessarily a sign of depression.

My panic attacks have become less regular since I started on a daily low dose of an anti-seizure/anti-panic medication called Klonopin. I take it as a baseline to prevent early-early-morning anxiety that was waking me up around 4 AM daily. This has a sort of “trickle down” effect. If my anxiety is lower in the morning, it won’t escalate as quickly into an anxiety/panic attack.

For weeks at a time, sometimes without a single day off, I started obsessing before I was awake; thus, I begin my day at an already-heightened anxiety and stress level, and then it really only increased from there. I would spend my entire time in my morning shower (which is my wake up and focus time) beating back obsessions like “Do I ACTUALLY love my boyfriend?” “Does my boyfriend ACTUALLY love me?” “What if he’s lying to me about [fill in the fear]?” “What if I’m an awful person?”

Much as I hated the idea of taking medication (and I still do, every day), the daily 0.25mg of Klonopin I take really takes it down a LOT. I still have some obsessions and still have to work sometimes at it, but now I feel more ABLE. Now that a lot of the really high-level anxiety nonsense is gone – for the most part – I can focus on tackling the bigger issues, including panic attacks.

I think that because of this, I don’t have the panic attacks “often” anymore (this is a relative term). To boot, any incident or episode of anxiety has now become a minor anxiety attack (minor hyperventilating mixed with a crying spell), and they are easily diffused by me when I’m alone and even more quickly and easily when I’m with my significant other. Even with friends near, the anxiety diffuses more quickly. I have one friend in particular who sometimes rescues me from the stairwell when I trap myself there.

I had been going to therapy every week for months and months, and I recently moved to a different town, making it more difficult for me to get to my therapist’s office. Up until my most recent session (two weeks ago), I hadn’t been there in a month.

This month, I had a really severe panic attack at work. Then a few days later, I had two minor anxiety attacks. In the week following, I was down on myself for all of the piled up anxiety attacks. I felt that I had lost control of myself or “let” myself have the anxiety/panic attack(s). That I was somehow responsible for not being in control of myself enough (perfection alert, perfection alert).

When my therapist asked me how my month went, I said “Well, I had a panic attack on a Friday at work and then two minor anxiety attacks the following Sunday.”

She asked me what had been happening in my life this month and this is the list:

-I moved out of my parent’s house. (Moving is fucking stressful, yo.)
-I didn’t get to take my dog, whom I adore, with me.
-This is the first time I’ve been on my own since I was 20.
-I had been working overtime with a lot of pressure to perform daily and produce double volume while maintaining quality.
-My significant other has been undergoing some pretty major life changes in the last month and there are a lot of uncertain things in his life.
-I’ve been training for a marathon which is now into some pretty high mileage runs on the weekend.
-I get up at 4:50 AM every morning for work and I have a 3 hour round-trip commute.
-The only down time I have anymore is on the weekends.

My therapist’s reaction to all of this, including my panic attack and anxiety attacks, was a big smile and: “You only had one panic attack this month?? Even with all of that going on?”

It hadn’t occurred to me that it was JUST one panic attack, on top of everything that was going on AND no therapy for four weeks. I had pretty much endured a hellish month without really batting an eyelash. I had that moment of realization that makes me hopeful for the long-haul: I am getting better. Slowly but surely, I am getting better, and maybe sometime soon I won’t need the medication anymore.

That’s a pretty big victory, I’d say.

How to be a Good Supporter

Anxiety is isolating. I never feel more alone than when I am having a panic attack, even if someone is sitting with me. I feel far away and distant but also completely and utterly trapped inside of myself.

Captain Kirk needs Spock. Batman needs Alfred. We all need people by our side guiding and helping us. But being a supporter for someone with a mental illness or emotional struggle is not easy. It seems to me that most people, who are supporters of people with emotional struggles, feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness: What do I do? What can I do?

The truth is: you can’t do anything to fix the difficulty another person is going through, but you can take certain steps to ensure the person you care about knows you empathize with them and care about their well-being.

[Disclaimer: these are the things that help or hinder ME in my experience with anxiety. This is based on my experience alone and by cursory research I’ve done reading articles on helping people with anxiety and panic attacks. Please cross-reference this with other personal accounts and – more importantly – advice from mental health professionals.]

Let’s start with actions or statements that make me feel MORE isolated. These are the DON’Ts:

  • “Don’t think about it.” Gee. Now, why didn’t I think of that? Oh, yeah, because I already did and that’s why I can’t stop thinking about it. Honestly, avoiding hard and fast “advice” like this is probably a safe bet. Telling me what to do to cope with my anxiety is about as effective trying to cut paper with your fingers.
  • “Oh, relax!” Oh. Yeah. Good idea. Let me just calm this fight or flight chemical reaction that’s happening in my brain. A little piece of advice to the world out there: a panic attack is not controllable. It is not a matter of “relaxing.” Once I’ve reached panic attack level, I can’t hear anything that’s going on around me.
  • “Why do you take things so seriously?” Look up the word “minimizing” in the dictionary. Asking me this question will send me into a self-worth tumble. Generally, people with anxiety (and depression) have very negative self-talk. In some minor research I’ve done on the matter, this often is how escalation into anxiety attacks can occur. If you question my thought process in this way, chances are I’ll say to myself: “s/he’s right. I take things too seriously. I’m not enough in control of myself and I need to be better (more perfect/not make mistakes/etc), and therefore I don’t deserve to feel happy…” tumble tumble tumble.
  • Changing the subject. While distraction can help a person with obsession on occasion, when I’m in the throes of a whirlwind of thoughts, I need to purge them. And in order to purge them, I have to talk about them, and most likely repeat myself over and over again. Talking to a person with patience is most helpful in these moments.

Here are the things that DO help:

  • “It will be okay.” This sort of appears to be an “empty” phrase, but it isn’t. Telling someone, especially someone who is in the middle of a panic attack, that they will see the other side of the panic is a really big help. Often times, when I’m having an anxiety episode or a panic attack, the anxiety escalates because I’m terrified it will never end. Having someone remind me over and over again that I will calm down eventually is a subtle way to help bring me to center. It can act as a sort of mantra.
  • “I’m here for you.” Or “I love you.” Or “I care about you.” Just a reminder that I’m cared about helps me feel immediately calmer. It makes me kinder to myself. My self-talk might change from “you are worthless” to “this person cares about you and you are worthy of their love.” Or, at the very least: “you don’t deserve to feel this awful.”
  • Physical contact. Hugging for me is so soothing. I never feel more cared for than when I am being hugged by someone who is supporting me. Unfortunately, hugging can be touch and go as far as panic attacks are concerned. Hugging can make me feel restricted sometimes. And when I’m having a panic attack, I need individual space and room to breathe. But if I am panicking, often times some sort of touch will help to center me. Touching the shoulder, fingers through hair, rubbing the back. All of these actions can ground me when I’m in my worst place.
  • “I’m sorry. What can I do?” Often times there isn’t anything you can do, but “I’m sorry” is an expression of empathy. And just admitting to the helplessness, and giving the person with the difficulty the reins or the control over the dynamic of the friendship in that moment, can be very soothing. For me, I realize, well, there is nothing this person can do but listen. So clearly, I just need to talk and then I will feel better. Just hearing that someone is willing to listen sometimes is just enough to bring me out of a dark place.
  • Stay with me. Bouts of anxiety or panic can be long, but having someone tough it out with me helps me a lot in the long run. Being alone or isolated is a tumble trigger for me. Especially because I often feel like a burden to my loved ones.
  • Tell me you are proud. Sometimes, pulling myself out of the stairwell and going back to work is a struggle. And doing just that deserves a pat on the back. Remind the person you love that they’re doing great no matter how small the victory.

The key here is empathy. There are two things I experience that make me feel so much better about everything: 1) The way my therapist empathizes with me by nodding and saying “yes” when I explain my feelings, and 2) When my significant other or close friend says: “I love you and I hate to see you like this. You deserve so much better than this. What can I do?”

All we can really do is be OPEN and empathetic and make attempts at understanding. Sometimes, I find myself in the position where I’m talking to another person with anxiety, and I’ve used no-no phrases. And I can tell you that in those moments, I’m feeling cold and uncaring. Sometimes, we need to take a step back and ASK people what they need. Because often, just offering help is enough to make someone feel so much less isolated and ensure they feel cared for and supported.

 

Here are some links that a loved one of someone with anxiety might find useful:

Anxiety and Depression Association of America – Spouse or Partner

Huffington Post – 7 Things You Shouldn’t Say to Someone with Anxiety (They disagree with me about the reassurance tactic – “it will be okay.” I appreciate reassurance in that way. I need that kind of passive optimism.)

ADAVIC – How to cope with and help a loved one experiencing anxiety and depression

Calm Clinic – 12 Tips for Friends and Family of Those with Anxiety