It’s not difficult for me to write about anxiety. I have spent many years burning a hole in my brain and doing my very best to self-medicate my problems away.
Note: this has not been a situation of me donning a white coat and attempting to correct my neurological condition in metered doses. No no. You may remember me from such activites as: compulsively smoking cigarettes AND using exhaustion as a tool to avoid dealing with my stress! But wait… there’s more!
And there were more. Many more tools of avoidance.
Exhaustion as a coping mechanism? Weird, right?
No, really. Try getting four hours of sleep a night for months in a row when it’s not for something constructive like a family or a business. I promise your neuroses will be so exhausted they’ll be a half-functioning mess… like the rest of you!
When I was very young anxiety wasn’t much of a thing, culturally speaking. I’m sure it was ramping up but it became a much more popular item as I swung into early adulthood.
I’m talking only of the awareness and popularity of the disorder, not its existence. Anxiety is around everywhere. If you’re alive, human or otherwise, your life will have plenty of opportunity for stress, and you’ll have plenty of opportunity to feel it in disproportionate amounts.
That’s a weakness of our highly evolved intellect in particular: we’re such powerful thinkers that we can even manufacture worries all our own. They don’t even have to exist. Ever! It’s an amazing power of imagination.
Some people get the short end of the stick in this field. As far as I understand it there are those of us that can’t turn the worry mechanism off. For whatever combination of genetics, personal history, circumstance – their emergency beacon is full on all the time. I used to think that was me.
I was so overwhelmed with problems and no real tools to explore them so I just figured I was broken. Constant noise in my brain like a room full of people talking? Sure. Occasional panic attacks? Yeah man. Traumatic social experiences during childhood? Who doesn’t?!?
But I did have one strength that I used as long as I can remember: perspective. I didn’t even know what that was, it was always just with me.
I remember recording myself talking as a child, wanting to get a record of me appreciating my voice before it changed as a course of puberty.
I got a coin-sorting bank for Christmas one year when I was five or six and a relative said “I’ll bet you can’t wait to grow up and use the real bank!” I replied that I could wait and figured kids have more fun due to a lack of responsibilities.
Though I couldn’t have phrased it anywhere near this concise, I did understand the concepts. So I always had a bit of perspective on growth and change, though it took me a long time of anxiety hell to put this inward eye to work for the better.
I did try an antidepressant about ten years ago. I took it for the recommended number of months to see if it would do me any good. The placebo effect helped out at first, but eventually I felt more or less the same but now with some of the unwanted side effects.
So I ditched that. Something inside of me always told me that there wasn’t anything actually wrong with me, just some stuff that needed sorting out. In my previous article I spoke of reading the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. My introduction to that book took me one big step in the direction of making peace with my darkness.
Though I had this compass inside of me that told me medication wasn’t the right path for me I had a long way to go before I started to get enough mechanisms together to really see any kind of result from my efforts.
And when it would get rough here and there through the years I did consider whether or not I was just scared to approach medication, or perhaps too stubborn. But it didn’t seem like a block or a resistance, more like the compass was simply pointing somewhere else.
Simply. Hah. It sounds silly to use that word here, (as any anxiety sufferer can attest,) but most problems do have a simple solution. Finding it, let alone implementing it, is usually rather difficult. But so many of the simplest things are indeed very hard work.
What worked for me, personally, was learning to listen to myself. That part was actually easier than what came next – admitting the truth to myself. I knew there were some behaviours and habits that had to go.
But when you’ve built your life upon these crutches it can be difficult to believe you can stand on your own without them. And truly, if you’ve never really stood without them, learning how to do that might break your legs. But these wounds heal so long as you have the strength to endure the process.
When I say breaking your “legs” I’m really referring to your spirit. When you take on too much too fast it’s very easy to overwhelm yourself and take two steps forward, then sprint hard backwards. And when you’re working through anxiety, a situation of overwhelm can feel like you couldn’t have messed up worse. This kind of overwhelm can trigger a morbid fear of what you’ve done – now that you’ve rattled your cage, what kind of beasts will come out to seal your doom?
The hardest part of my work with my own insight and admittance of truth has been dealing with the fear of letting go of old and broken ways of living. What’s familiar is comforting, even when it’s terrible. And fear brings with it the chaos of the unknown which is much more intimidating than the torture of the familiar, however harmful that familiar may be. I wrote about our attachment to the familiar here.
I’ve heard clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson talk about the process of helping people overcome fear: you break it down into smaller parts, small enough to handle one by one, then deal with it piecemeal. A little challenge is good and gives us something we can face and conquer. Too much challenge is too heavy and will break anyone’s back.
As I chewed my way through some of the biggest challenges within myself I found a weight lifting off. And as I made more and more progress, I found that the challenges still ahead of me seemed a little less threatening. After all, I had already conquered so many of their friends, how much of a threat could they really pose?
Enough time has gone on and enough weight has lifted that I believe now more than ever that I had chosen the right direction. I don’t seem to be plagued by constant anxiety any more. In fact, the strong majority of my life now feels pretty normal. There are still things in the works, and I know there always will be. The only real finality is death and I feel like I’m only getting started. So I’ll pass on the death option.
After all this “lone wolf” attitude towards my own growth I did learn this: I could have sped this process up had I sought help going through this and stuck with it. I saw a few counselors here and there, but I always found a reason to stop going. Or no reason, I would just stop. So if you’re curious to seek help, go check it out! I spent many years spinning my wheels, try not to waste your years doing the same.
I’ve also learned that going to talk to a professional is a lot like going to take golf lessons. If you golf on your own you will get better. Slowly. But there’s people that already know how to do it really well. And they can show you how to get to the level you desire with compassion and efficiency.
Also, there are people that can’t get through this on their own no matter what. If you’re on medication, for the life of me, please don’t use any messages like this as a reason to stop. You can’t just start and stop things that change your biochemistry casually – that has to be a calculated and planned decision with an appropriate medical professional.
What motivated me to write this is thinking about how many people have a life that is wrought with poor decision making skills and the consequences of it and they end up on medication to cope with the emotional weight of it. All this really does is make the hell they’ve built around themselves tolerable enough to live with it, and, probably intensify it. Medications for anxiety and depression are intended to be temporary – a boost to help you up off the ground and on the road to healing. But so many people take them for years and years, wondering why they’re still “sick.”
My life needed some growth and order in the right places, and I seem to have found enough to have both feet on solid ground. If nothing else, it’s a good start. And like it has been for me I believe that there must be many others out there that are that much closer to peace than they realize. We are all wired for growth and healing, don’t count yourself as defective just because the path to peace is difficult to find. It waits for you, patient and ever vigilant.
The bright side to all this?