I must first clarify the title of this post: This is day 85 from when I had my panic attack in June that flipped my world upside down, but General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is something that has been with me most of my life and will be (to some extent) always a part of me. On day 1 I was a wreck and could barely leave my bed. After a few weeks I got into a routine that allowed me to find some peace in the day though I was on an emotional roller coaster. After 2 months I was in a much better place and was making little revelations that subtly freed my brain from its irrational fears. By day 79 I was a new man…or maybe I was more like myself that day before day 1…only now I was armed with an arsenal of tools when needed…and so it was that on day 80 I needed those tools.
Saturday I woke up early to tackle the day with my in-laws, wife, and son! It was Labor Day Weekend and we were going to take Max to Tanganyika Wildlife Park! We loaded up the car, I hopped in the driver’s seat, and westward ho we went! Though about 10 minutes into the drive I got a wave of adrenaline and anxiety and that tiny voice in my head (the pessimistic panicky one) said to me “Let’s just go home…I don’t think I can do this.” I debated this and almost listened to it when I remembered that I had tools I had been developing over the past few months in my Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) sessions. The louder voice in my head (the optimistic take-on-the-world one) said to me, “This is discomfort…not disaster. If you are in no immediate danger, give it 15 minutes and see how you feel then.” So I did…and I was fine.
Boy was it worth it!!! I had a blast at Tanganyika with my son, my wife, and my in-laws! Seriously, if you are anywhere in the area you need to visit this privately owned Wildlife Park and support them. We pet giraffes, fed turtles, fed bunnies, pet kangaroos, saw newborn tigers, saw an albino alligator, watched monkeys swing, and a rhino so close you could almost touch him. It is not a zoo with animals behind cages…it is an interactive experience where humans and animals mingle together. I cannot wait to go back!
On Monday, after my lovely in-laws drove home, I breathed a sigh of relief. Not because “thank God my in-laws are gone.” No, because Monday was going to be a day to just relax…and my brain needs days like that. Family is a great guest because the level of entertaining you do is low…but it is still entertaining and it is a routine different from your own. Stupidly…I had an ulterior motive in my head all weekend: BE NORMAL. The last time I had seen my father-in-law and mother-in-law was in the Chicago airport after I had broken down crying with anxiety and depression flying home from Up State NY. That was well over a month ago, and like my son who has since learned to speak in sentences, I wanted to show that I had grown as well. I wanted them to see that I was capable of being normal again…and that was successful. I had 1 moment on Saturday morning where I was clearly a little freaked out at breakfast (diner on the west side) but I recovered quietly to myself and rallied back into the day.
Mondays are usually the let down days…the low after the high. You spend all week working knowing the weekend is the reward in the end. Then the weekend comes and at some point (albeit for maybe less than an hour) you get some time to yourself to relax. Then Monday comes and knees you in the balls with 6:00 AM alarm clocks, crying toddlers, breakfast, and showers…its a low. My drive to work on Monday is always the toughest because the week is ahead of me, Kate is teaching, and Max has day care…its a scary and lonely feeling. So I take back roads, listen to happy music, and take on projects that engage my brain in a utilitarian way instead of social ways. Mondays suck. Except last Monday was Labor Day and I spent it sitting on the couch flipping between movies, reading, and playing with my son. Logically this would make Tuesday my low, however it was not. Tuesday was great, possibly because I had my CBT therapy session and acupuncture. Then came Wednesday…day 84. BOOYA! The low.
The great pendulum of anxiety began to swing and I found myself faced with my worst anxiety day in my recent memory. At 11am I was dreading a lunch meeting with a friend. A friend! The whole morning had been wonky and in the back of my head some little voice kept asking if we could go home and go back to sleep. The pessimistic panicky one (“Small”). The optimistic voice (“Large”) told Small we could go to sleep later when it was time, today there is work to be done…and off we went to downtown. On the drive, like it had on Day 1, I got slapped in the face with panic from nowhere. My primitive lizard brain was telling me there was a predator and I needed to run and hide. The familiar taste of metal filled my mouth…ugh...adrenaline. My body temperature skyrocketed, my palms spewed sweat onto the wheel, and my head briefly spun. I decided this was no state to be in on a highway so I exited, cranked the AC, and composed myself. Here I was faced with a panic and anxiety situation and I needed to use my tools. I tried…they kinda seemed to work, but I was still scared. “Let’s just make it to our destination and see how we feel when we get there.” So I did…and I felt the same. I said to myself, “Let’s just order water and see how you feel after that.” So I did…and I felt the same.” We ordered food…I debated asking for mine to go, then decided to wait 15 minutes and see how I felt. Then my friend told me he was having anxiety issues and wanted advice…
“CODE RED! CODE RED!
WARNING…ANXIETY LEVELS HAVE REACHED MAXIMUM LIMIT!
FIGHT OR FLIGHT MODE HAS BEEN INITIATED!
BRAIN RECOMMENDS FLIGHT.”
“How quickly my tools failed me” I thought…but somehow I remained. I gave myself 15 more minutes…why not…no way I could drive like this. Besides…I may be all “CODE RED” and explosions inside but on the outside I was as cool as a Popsicle on a summer day. James Dean. When those 15 minutes were up I gave myself another 15 and before I knew it, our lunch was over and I was heading back to the office. Either my adrenaline ran out or I calmed myself…either way, I had survived. Discomfort not disaster. The tools worked.
After that the pendulum swang and suddenly I was whistling on my drive back to work, taking on projects, and working late because I was enjoying my work. The high that follows the low. However when I went home to watch the first football game of the season the pendulum swang again and there I was…terrified again. Wild thoughts coursed through my head… conspiracy theories! Maybe we were all being poisoned by some neurotoxin through the water (or air) by terrorists (or our government) aimed at making us all paranoid…its an election year for heaven’s sake!!! That must be why Tony Scott killed himself and why so many people I know are suffering from anxiety!!! What do I do?! What Do I do?! What do I do?!!! …and right about there is where my tools failed me, rather, I failed myself and suddenly Small was that the wheel and Large wasn’t even in the Ryanmobile. Large was chasing after the car down the road of life watching as Small swerved back and forth wildly like a child. Small doesn’t even have a license…Small should almost never drive…he has a primitive lizard brain…he’s a blubbering idiot. When a killer meteorite attacks the Earth and Bruce Willis has to drill in space to save mankind…Small can drive as I run wildly in circles not knowing what to do. December 21, 2012 is coming up…just sayin. Where were we? Right! Small is swerving all over the road, Large is chasing but losing ground, and thankfully the Kate-Police was there to pull Small over immediately. “People are anxious because life has gotten harder and who knows why Tony Scott killed himself.” Kate said. I thought of my buddy Kurt telling me “We humans were not meant to sit at chairs all day and stare at computer screens, we have opposable thumbs for a reason, and we need to get out and do things to engage our bodies.” I breathed…how long had I been holding my breath?
Small insisted on driving and Large cautiously climbed into the passenger seat and calmly told Small exactly what to do. Bill Clinton came on the TV and I found myself thinking back to the 90’s when things were just simpler for me. Small liked this because Small is the kid in me. Small thinks about Small. Large is the adult in me and Large thinks about responsibility. “How did we go from Clinton to Bush?” I asked Kate in awe as Buba gave an amazing speech. Kate replied, “Because the pendulum swings.” So as Democrats celebrated Clinton’s speech and Republicans plotted how to swing the pendulum back their way, my own pendulum swang again as Small parked the Ryanmobile and both Large and Small decided it was time to go to bed. With my feet pointing to the sky and my rear to the floor I stared at the ceiling and earnestly asked myself, “What happened today?” My response is the easiest and toughest tool of all I have ever learned in all this. It is so simple…yet so unfulfilling. I replied to this question, “I had a bad day…that’s all…I had a bad day.”
So here we are at day 85, the day after the bad day…and things aren’t so bad. They started rocky but they calmed down. The pendulum is still swinging…its just lost the momentum it had yesterday as it swung from extremes. Soon it will be the weekend and my number 1 goal is to sleep in…as I am not getting good sleep. I will hug my wife as often as I can, I will play with my son when he wants to play, I will watch football, and I will enjoy a moment to myself…and put yesterday further in the rear-view as I have with day 1. That is living with anxiety. The tools are easy when the pendulum is lollygagging back and forth…but when life gives it a push and sends you into the fray you feel trapped, hopeless, and alone. However, when the dust settles (even if only for a respite) your hindsight shows you used the tools and did the right thing…and it was hard. It’s like learning to shoot a gun in the military I suppose. Hitting targets for practice is one thing, but when you are scrambling for cover in a firefight it is completely different.
Large is back behind the wheel and Small occasionally tries to be a backseat driver…but Small is the quieter pessimistic one. Large, like Mr. T, “ain’t got time for your jibber jabber!” Yesterday was a bad day. Today is a new day…and I have no idea what today will bring but I’ll never find out unless I seek to explore it.