Another Brick From the Wall

I’ve been having some anxiety lately.

It’s pretty low grade and often amorphous, although I can usually pin down the source eventually. (Deadlines have a way of making anxiety about them supremely clear as they approach.) Most of the time, my thought processes get more obsessive and spiraly. The same two lines of a song will play on repeat in my brain for hours, days. Not like a song that gets casually stuck in my head for a while. More like a song that my brain is holding onto with a tight grip because it’s hoping not to think about whatever else is hovering in the wings, causing my anxiety.

Yeah, I’d rather deal with the stress than listen to the chorus of “Chelsea Dagger” for forty-eight hours, thank you. (Blackhawks fans will recognize this one. My apologies for the earworm I have now given you.)

Mostly, my anxiety manifests in relatively mild ways, although I did find myself hyperventilating and starting to cry out of the blue while walking from the bathroom to the dining room one day this past week, which was unexpected and new.

I’m about the millionth person to blog about anxiety, and far from the first Wonkomancer, but one of the things I’ve figured out in the past decade of raising my kid is that shared knowledge is a force for good. And my story not being particularly dramatic does not mean it can’t be of use.

Besides, I’ve got plenty of drama to borrow from those whose paths have crossed mine.

Aside from my own experience, I’m familiar with anxiety, and its less friendly cousin, panic, from a lifetime of experience with family members whose efforts to manage their anxiety have been more or less successful over the past forty years.

My dad was the first person I knew who suffered from anxiety, although I didn’t learn about that until I was in my senior year of high school. Before then, I’d known him as a relatively peaceful alcoholic whose drinking broke up his marriage to my mom and eventually landed him in rehab. That’s when I learned he’d been taking Xanax to manage his anxiety for going on fifteen years or so at that point. This explained why his nightly drinking generally ended in a quiet passing out, at the bar or at home, rather than the destructive fights and anger I saw playing out in other families, although we had some of that, too.

Detox from alcohol is stressful on the body. Detox from a decade plus of benzo addiction can cause convulsions that hospitalize you. The open-ended prescription given to my dad by the head of psychiatry from a major university in our city was brought to light, explaining why his years of drinking were so subdued compared to the other alcoholics I was hearing about in Alateen meetings.

(Alateen is the youth version of Al-Anon. I found the meetings more horrifying than helpful at the time, mostly due to my own defensiveness and the always present feeling that my problems couldn’t possibly be considered serious compared to those being shared by other people who had real trouble, i.e. kids who were being abused or thrown out of the house or dragged into drinking with alcoholic parents.)

My dad first went to see a psychiatrist about his anxiety at when he was twenty-six, and that began his spiral of addiction, although the alcoholism would almost certainly have existed even without the drugs. Twenty-some years later, another immediate family member started having anxiety and panic attacks at the same age as my dad had started to experience them. A different family member’s panic attacks kicked in a bit later in life, when she was closer to twenty-eight and began falling out of her chair while on phone calls at the office. It took years to figure out that she wasn’t suffering from low blood pressure or an inner ear disorder, but rather having sudden and dizzying panic attacks.

One of the lingering effects of the shitty psychiatrist who wrote my dad a never-ending script for Xanax was a real reluctance on everyone else’s part to take any kind of psychiatric medication.

We’d seen what it had done, and no one was eager to replicate the experience, despite understanding intellectually that various different drugs would almost certainly be helpful.

So although anti-anxiety medication was eventually tried with varying rates of success, most of the people in my family who experience anxiety, myself included, have tried all sorts of other angles of approach to deal with it.

When I realized my son was having crippling anxiety in certain situations when he was as young as four or five, it was, at least, easy enough to identify.

One of the most useful things we have worked on is searching out our own triggers. For my son, it is often the first day of fill-in-the-blank. School. Camp. Spelling bee. Family vacation. Any experience where he’s going to be out of his element at the beginning triggers his anxiety. Figuring this out has allowed us to apply all kinds of tactics, from pre-gaming with rehearsals (drilling for the spelling bee at home using their rules, visiting a new school to figure out where everything is in advance) to taking advantage of the fact that fresh air always makes him feel better.

“Mom, I gotta wait for you outside so I don’t puke.”

This has made the difference between starting camp by throwing up repeatedly in the car on the way there, to feeling nauseous but holding it together with some deep breathing while we walk, instead of drive to camp. (Cars and anxiety do not mix well for my kid.)

One family member has food and drink triggers. Caffeine and alcohol in particular can send him to the ER with a panic attack that he knows isn’t a heart attack, except he’s pretty sure he’s definitely dying. Another family member gets them while driving over bridges or climbing mountains, a little bit harder to avoid when you are a mountain climber who drives across country to do so. Counting and breathing exercises have helped there.

I’ve read a hundred articles about anxiety and panic. Acquiring information is one of my self-soothing tactics. One of the best things I learned was how neural pathways are formed every time you have a panic attack, leaving a record in your brain of both the physical symptoms and the mental ones. After enough incidents, that pathway is strong enough that instead of being triggered by anxiety, the panic can be set off by physical triggers alone. This explains people who can wake up out of deep sleep in the middle of full-blown panic, because their sleep apnea creates heightened CO2 levels that the body reads the same as those you get from hyperventilating.

Research, research, research. For some, knowing these details might lead to more, heretofore unconsidered anxiety, but for me, knowledge is soothing. Recognizing what is happening, whether it’s to myself or to someone I’m with, gives me a better chance at managing my reaction.

I am not always super successful at this, or so logical in my behavior, alas.

One of my bad habits is manufacturing crises in order to relieve my anxiety. I am great in a crisis. I mean, I am rock solid, the person you want at your side when shit falls apart. Have you just landed in a foreign country, only to get pickpocketed within the first two hours leaving you with no driver’s license, money, passport, visa, or work authorization documents, two weeks after terrorists from your home country bomb your adoptive country’s embassies, where you will now need to present yourself for assistance? I’m your go-to girl, cool and collected and ready to fix the problem. Unexpected injury gushing blood in dizzying fashion? Steady as a rock.

Being needed, being useful, is not stressful for me. I get very calm and competent and it’s almost a relief to be able to focus so intensely on someone else’s problem, while forgetting about whatever problems I have of my own for a blissful period of time.

My apologies, friends of mine, for having been so happy to be involved in your crises. I hope I was, at least, helpful.

On the other hand, give me a potential problem of my own, one that doesn’t exist yet, but might come to pass? I can spiral into a cycle of anxiety and self-sabotage that actually brings the problem about, rather than simply letting it pass me by. Creating crises in other areas of my life has been a less than successful coping strategy for me. But if I have one manageable, actual crisis to focus on (even if I had to force that crisis), I can leave off worrying about the rest of it, so I find myself turning to this strategy far too often.

I’m trying to learn from my family though, and to apply the same kind of sensitivity and awareness to my own problems that I bring to bear automatically on my son’s. I am also, as so many of us are these days, although not enough, yet, trying to talk about it more.

The best thing I have done for my son so far, I believe, is to educate him as thoroughly and calmly as possible on how anxiety works, as far as I understand it and as I’ve seen it in action in our family. As opposed to the seventies and eighties, when no one in our family spoke about any of this, my son and I discuss this openly. And that means both when it’s just the two of us at home, and when we are with other family members or friends or teachers or coaches. We talk about the physical signs that let us know we’re heading into trouble, our coping mechanisms, anything we can think of. We let those around us know what we need from them when we’re in trouble. We share stories out the embarrassing and the frustrating situations we’ve found ourselves in because of our anxiety. And we remind ourselves that we get through it, every time.

Because I’m a storyteller, all of this stuff works its way into a book, sooner or later. Alcoholism showed up in Nothing Like Paris, and I found myself working anxiety issues into my upcoming holiday novella, Real World. I’m sure I’ll continue to work out on the page all my own issues

I needed a Wonkomance column for today, and I wasn’t sure what to write. But this is what I’ve been thinking about lately, so this is what you get. I like to think that every time someone shares their story like this, no matter how insignificant it may seem, it’s one more brick pulled out of the wall of silence that surrounds those who most need help and understanding. I’d love to see that wall crumble into dust someday.

This entry was posted in Formative Wonk, Life & Wonk, Writing Wonkomance. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Another Brick From the Wall

  1. Anxiety is hard, yo! It is such a powerless experience. Ugh. I’ve been working on my own anxiety for most of my adult life, without much success, until recently. My go to strategies were (and still are sometimes) diversion and dissociation. Not particularly effective or healthy.

    What I’ve come to understand recently about anxiety is that I am either creating all of it from scratch, or making the underlying existence of it worse, by the thoughts I’m choosing to think. For many of us who know anxiety well, that feeling of the downward spiral–that one thought leads you down the path to a teeming hell of anxiety–is all too familiar. And it’s something we can learn, through practice, to avoid.

    Many of us are so disconnected from our thought-feeling-action chain we often don’t think we’re “choosing” to think things–we rather believe that our thinking just is, that our thoughts are a reflection of reality, rather than our reaction to reality.

    This has been hard for me to wrap my brain around, but the more I work with these concepts, which are cognitive behavioral practices, the more I see these patterns in my own life and in the lives of those around me. However, understanding these patterns and learning to practice new ways of thinking are two different things. Ultimately, I want to manage my own mind rather than let my mind manage me, so I’m working on all of this stuff.

    There are many versions of these concepts around the internet, but I have found Brooke Castillo’s work immensely helpful. She has something called the “Self Coaching Model,” which is scaffolding for identifying our thinking-feeling-action chain, for recognizing and acknowledging the thinking we are doing that is creating the feelings we are having, etc. That’s the place to start if you’re at all interested in this.

    Here is a handout she developed for a workshop that overviews the model, if you want to see it in writing.

    Here is a video in which she introduces.

    Here is her book, which goes into depth about it. Skip the intro and start on page 19 if you want more on this model.

    And, what I have found most helpful are her podcasts. #1 starts w/ this model. If you like them, I’d listen to the first few in order, then skip around to topics that interest you. She covers anxiety in a number of episodes.

    • Thank you for sharing all this! When you talk about choosing to think things, I am reminded of two books that very much changed my life in my early twenties. The first was a slim memoir written by Dorothy Gilman, A New Kind of Country. Ms. Gilman also wrote the delightfully silly Mrs. Pollifax spy novels, but her memoir is quite spare and insightful. In it, she talks about reading Viktor Frankl’s Holocaust memoir/psychotherapy work, Man’s Search for Meaning. One of her takeaways from that book, which affects me to this day, involves recognizing that emotions, while overwhelming and immersive, are not YOU. They are feelings you are having, or rather, choose to have, which makes it all sound very glib and dismissive of the force of strong emotions, but it’s really not. I’m just doing a terrible job of describing the idea. In any case, fascinating stuff, and thank you for sharing here all of the interesting resources we were DMing about. I can soothe myself with some more research reading! ;)

  2. Thank you for the wonderful post. I am vacation and for me it is one of those neural pathways that has been laid down–change in routine–low grade anxiety. I allow my self my information soother too if though I know it doesn’t mean I rule the world. I read a wonderful article in the Huffington Post about how being anxious doesn’t mean your unhappy–

    It is just a body thing. I try to think of it like having a trick knee. In certain circumstances, its gonna wobble. Talking opening about anxiety is wonderful gift to ourselves and others. Peace and joy to you and your son.