On June 10th this year I suffered a panic attack…I’ve had plenty in my life, but this one rattled me a bit. The following day I had a 6 hour anxiety attack that rattled me to the bone and took me out of commission for a while. I used up every vacation and sick day I had to take a leave of absence and work on getting myself back to good. I was diagnosed as having GAD (General Anxiety Disorder) which I was finding to be quite common, though scary. I began cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), started taking Clonazepam and Beta Blockers (Metoprolol). I had ups…I had down. Sometimes the distance between these ups and downs were far…sometimes rapid. Anxiety (for me) is fear of such random crap that it is frustrating…mostly I’m anxious about the possibility of having anxiety, and thus I get anxious.
CBT is all about educating yourself about what is going on so you can develop tools to calm yourself down and stop an attack from happening. Some of it works…some of it doesn’t. Once you’ve done some CBT you get to start talking about the “why” of the problem which helped me separate out anxiety from panic as well as depression and guilt. Then I started seeing the smaller variations of those pieces and was able to start breaking down my issues into micro issues…making them much easier to tackle. I thought this was my first breakthrough in recovery and was so excited to share it with my therapist a few weeks ago. After telling him this he asked me about “calm.” This confused me. He continued, “You’ve defined the nuances of your panic, anxiety, depressions, nervousness, guilt, and so on…what about your calm? What about when you are okay?” I know it sounds simple but it was like a bomb went off in my head! I was so focused on attacking the problem I was forgetting to reward myself for times of being okay and to enjoy them.
Since then I have been much better and when I have had anxiety it has been “easier” to deal with. The tables have turned. I used feel 70% anxious all the time and 30% okay the rest of the time…or some variation of okay. Now I feel 80% okay and only 20% anxious…and my 20% seems much more manageable…though I have purposefully arranged my schedule to avoid anxiety inducing situations. However, I have to continue to take baby steps back into the world. Yesterday I took a leap.
At my weekly session I put into words for both Kate and my therapist how I related to my anxiety. I refer to June 10-11 as “The Incident.” That was the turning point when everything changed. I explained how I felt like I was in a terrible car accident…near crippling. My brain was in a body cast, I wasn’t sure if I would ever walk again, and I was lucky to be alive. Now I felt like I was doing physical therapy for the brain…learning to walk again, hold a spoon, pronounce words…everything. I was in a near-death car wreck!!! However, unlike people who have actually been in a real life car wreck I have no body cast, no gruesome visible scars, no evidence that anything is wrong at all. No…just my charming personality and ability to hide behind my natural disposition of being socially outgoing…most likely my mask. So how was my physical therapy (of the brain) going? Very well, and in my opinion it was because I was prefacing situations with this idea upon the other people in the situation with me. i.e. I was starting conversations by saying “I’m going through a serious patch of anxiety recovery right now so please forgive me if I need to excuse myself from the room or act a little nervous.” I thought this was a pretty strong way to overcome my GAD (or live with it), by owning up to it and announcing it. “I have GAD!” Like when Wilford Brimley comes on your TV and says “I have diabetes.” Except he pronounces it Die-A-Beet-Iz.
My therapist then asked me if I had ever heard of omphaloskepsis. “It is the study of your own belly button.” He told me. “What?” My therapist continued, “It’s the idea of thinking about your own navel, and what is interesting is that people hardly ever think about somebody else’s navel.” I replied, “I get it…I’m egotistical.” “No…” he continued, “but it’s highly unlikely that as you are sitting in a meeting thinking about how anxious you are – other people are thinking about how anxious you are, let alone noticing any difference in your behavior at all.” This is true. In a corporate meeting, the person who is listening the most when someone is talking…is the person talking. We love to hear ourselves talk. The rest of us are bobble heads nodding yes and thinking about what we’ll order for lunch. Then my therapist set off another bomb in my head!
“When you start a meeting by saying ‘Hello, my name is Ryan and I am suffering from anxiety…‘ you are identifying yourself with the disorder. You are essentially saying, ‘Hello, I am an anxiety disorder.'”
My brain immediately disagreed with this and fought the idea. It clung to my plan! My brain was entangled by thick vines of GAD that were poisoning my every thought and response. Then came the bomb, “You can absolutely think of yourself as going through physical therapy but is it possible you weren’t in a terrible car crash? Is it possible that you simply had a bad day?”
Woooooosh! Cruise Missile to my brain! Only it didn’t explode on contact…it sat there waiting for the right time to go off. It was embedded in the seed my brain had planted on June 11th, the seed that grew this terrible GAD vine choking my brain and how I identify myself. That seed was simple, “Things will never be the same.” Since then I had been hacking at the vines every day, clearing out areas of thought, and taking steps forward…but the seed was still there…continuing to grow more vines every time I shed light on my thoughts. The missile waited…ticking…counting down to zero.
Two hours later I went to a meeting I was scared to death of. Two of the people were not aware of my current anxiety condition and one of them was a new person I had never met. My brain thought out multiple exit strategies and foresaw every possible outcome and how it would play out. I debated telling the people I was having anxiety…and not telling. Going…and not going. Going and stepping out…going and breathing though my anxiety. …And so on. At the last second (heart pounding) I chose to just do the meeting and act normal…for as long as I could. So I did, and I was fine, and I wasn’t staring at my navel…I was listening, speaking, engaging…I was me.
After that I decided it was time to swing by my restaurant and see how things were going.
I had a great conversation and decided to drive home with the windows open, AC off, and the radio blasting!
…7, 6, 5, 4…
Then Kate, Max and I went to an art opening where I didn’t feel anxious at all. When we left I said, “Let’s get takeout!” So we did. Kate, Max and I sat down as a family at our dining room table and had one of those nights that you dream about as a first time father when your wife is pregnant. Glasses clinking, Max feeding himself, kissing my wife, devouring delicious food, making Max laugh, telling stories, me laughing…me laughing…I’m having fun. Its me…its ME! ITS ME!!!
…3, 2, 1…
It was one of the happiest days of my life. In all its banal whateverness…it was great. It wasn’t a wedding, a birth, a special occasion…or was it? It was the day the seed planted in my brain took a hit from a Cruise Missile and I felt as happy as I could feel. Am I better? Have I overcome GAD? No. Its a process, but there is a new seed planted in my head and it is going to grow into something strong and gorgeous:
“I had a bad day. June 11th was a bad day. That day is over, that day can never happen again, and today is today. Today is not a bad day.”