“My Name is Mike; I’m An Anxiety Sufferer.”
I don’t know if there are Panic Anonymous meetings, but if there were that’s how I imagine I could introduce myself. I’ve alluded to this on the blog before; my close friends and even many of my acquaintances know about this aspect of my life…and now I’ve decided to let you, dear reader, in on a significant truth about my life: I suffer from panic. Anxiety. Phobias. Fear.
Apparently, I’m not alone. By my admittedly-sketchy statistical abilities, I estimate that a whopping 10% of the U.S. population suffers from some form of panic, phobia, PTSD, or generalized anxiety. (Crunch the numbers for yourself here) And we seem to be growing in numbers as our social, spiritual, and physical environment continues to complexify in the 21st century.
We all get scared, of course. Certain stimuli – whether interior or exterior – prompt our fight or flight response. A roller-coaster; seeing a snake in the yard; witnessing a bank robbery. Our brains and bodies are remarkably resilient; most of us confront and get over specific fears with amazing adaptability. But for some of us – for a host of reasons – this fight-or-flight (or heightened adrenal state) just stays with us, becoming aroused at increasingly non-life-threatening stimuli. For many of us, it begins to creep up at unexpected moments, or not go away for hours. For growing numbers of us, anxiety, panic, and phobia are a way of life.
This is certainly true for me.
It started years ago – innocently enough at first: I’d be driving with a buddy or a family member on a long, interstate road trip, when suddenly I’d feel overwhelmed. The open road, unpredictable hills and dips, lots of cars, hundreds of miles – it felt like the ocean was spilling into my bathtub – unstoppable. And I’d have to pull over, and let someone else drive. Gradually it became more intense, and more consistent: Soon I wasn’t driving on the Interstate beyond the perimeter of my city, then beyond the more suburban areas near my city. Whenever I tried, I’d become a liability to myself, my passengers, and other drivers; I felt like I was piloting an out-of-control roller coaster, and I couldn’t wait to hit the brakes or pull over. Finally, I wouldn’t drive on the highway at all. This has been my state for quite some time.
Rather simultaneously with this, I was becoming an increasingly troublesome passenger. First I had difficulty, occasionally, riding in the front seat with drivers; I’d writhe and squirm as though I was strapped to a rocket headed toward the moon – on the outside. It wasn’t that I was afraid of an accident per se – I’ve never been in a serious car accident. It wasn’t fear of sudden impact or death; the motion itself is its own source of dread. For awhile the backseat was my safe haven; no more, not necessarily. When this sense of sheer panic would come or go was unpredictable; I could go cross-country with no problem, or go around the corner with a friend and be crawling out of my skin. I began to avoid riding in the car with others besides my wife (who, ordinarily, does not provoke this response). I get out less nowadays.
This is your brain on fear..
For awhile, I considered all of this a simple matter of phobia. I couldn’t stand being in cars, but I was fine in airlines and in social situations. Once I got from Point A to Point B, I was perfectly normal. But then something comically absurd happened: I started trying a variety of therapies – cognitive-behavioral, hypnosis-based, and healing prayer-based – to overcome the vehicle-related phobia. Not only did therapies of various sorts not help, they made things worse: Specific phobias multiplied into new phobias as fast as I could think them up; phobia itself blossomed into full-bloomed generalized anxiety.
What happens when I’m feeling anxiety? Most often, things in my chest: A feeling of ‘heart racing,’ and ‘the willies’ – but super-strong and disorienting. Shaking and shivering. Other times, I’ll feel things in my head: Dizziness, headaches, racing thoughts, approaching ‘insanity.’ Shortness of breath. Chest and head tag-team together a good deal, squeezing me out of the game of life altogether.
This has been effecting me more and more, of late; I love to travel, and I love spending time with people. But lately, I’ve restricted both, significantly, as a panic attack can occur anywhere – at a restaurant, at church; surely on a cross-country or transatlantic flight. More significantly, anxiety (and my response to it) has cost me a move: We’re not going to Colorado Springs as originally planned. I’m still working with the awesome folks at The David Group and Presence, but we’re not able to move to that beautiful mountain country, namely because it’s high altitude made me feel even crazier than usual. Following the advice of two doctors, we’ve indefinitely postponed the move – “While most people adjust to the altitude in a few weeks to a few months, people with your condition sometimes never adjust,” they in effect told me. I just couldn’t imagine feeling as disoriented as I do in the mountains, 24/7. So I had to pass up a wonderful opportunity for myself and my family.
This is no fun at all.
So where do I go from here? I wish I could wrap this post up with a neat ending – “But I’ve finally had breakthrough – I got better!” – but alas, I can’t. I do hope to type these words some day – and some day soon, dammit! But in the meantime, I continue to learn. I’ve had some very illuminating brain scans; I’ll be following their leads on some blood tests next week; I’m trying some alternative therapies too bizarre to share with you just yet (though I certainly will if they yield results). I might have to bite the bullet and try a pharmaceutical approach, at least for a season, though I have to admit I’m biased against this. (I hear that many anxiety sufferers don’t take meds, because – get this – they’re afraid to! Ah, the vicious circle…) In all of this, I’ve become a student of the human psyche, in its cognitive, nutritional, fitness, emotional, and spiritual dimensions. I have way more empathy and camaraderie with those who suffer from mental illness of all sorts, especially anxiety and depression. We’re all in this together, y’know?
I tend to think that, in all of this, I’m a living embodiment of the zeitgeist – full of the promise and perils of this age. We’re living such intense lives now, sped up by technology, depthsof knowledge and empathy; its bound to take its psychological and physiological toll. Not all of us have adapted yet; not even (or especially not) those who are most keenly interested in, and dispositionally calibrated toward, these exciting and tumultuous changes happening in our cultural milieu. So we are God’s misfit children and evolution’s maladjusted innovators. God help us all. I only hope that my pain and eventual breakthrough can play some small part in the transfiguration of the world.
So…keep inviting me to get out of the house, and grab lunch or a drink. Tell me about your conference or retreat. But don’t be surprised if I don’t hop in a car with you. 🙂 Feel free to share your philosophies of anxiety and fear, or the crazy remedy that you hear worked for your cousin, though please understand that I’ll give far more weight to phobic people themselves weighing in and sharing stories. With open source collaboration and the discovery of Divine ubiquity amidst our mess, perhaps we’ll all learn something in the process!