Adapted To Anxiety

Alice Glass, Crystal Castles Come on in, grab a drink, sit down. Let me tell you a story. It’s about anxiety.

***

Six. At least.

That’s how many panic attacks I was having per day, minimum, when I started seeing a therapist. But that wasn’t what I went in for. I thought everyone had them.

It was during the divorce. The pain had gotten so bad I had to make it stop. Sometimes I think that’s the only reason people get better, because they reach a point where it’s just, fuck it, can’t stand it anymore, it’s less painful to change than it is to live like this. I just didn’t know what else to do, so I auditioned four or five different therapists and settled on the one who seemed the most accepting, the one whose office was arranged so the client had a clear shot to the door no matter where she sat.

I found it amazing how many therapists didn’t realize that was even a consideration. But that’s neither here nor there.

I’d grown used to the panic attacks. Narrowed vision, overwhelming fear, heart pounding, falling down a black hole. I’d grown so adept at covering them that even those who lived with me couldn’t tell. I would simply be sitting, or standing at the kitchen sink, or in the loo for a little longer than usual. I arranged every errand during the times of day the attacks seemed to leave me alone. I’d also grown used to the insomnia, the constant dread, my raw nerves twitching at every sound. I lived in a foxhole, under constant fire, my body and brain having long ago lost any setting other than “crisis.”

I’m sure it made me awful fun to treat. It took a while before Calm Therapist could get me to talk about some of the underlying causes. I thought everyone had panic attacks. I thought being crippled with anxiety was normal, that other people were just better at hiding it, stronger than me. The first time my therapist said “No, actually, your anxiety’s pretty high, and we can start finding ways to ameliorate it,” I outright wept with relief. Then I was pummeled by fresh fear–did this mean I was crazy? Broken? Weak?

No, she assured me. There were reasons why I was the way I was. She listed them off: a family history of disorders, depression, and trauma; childhood abuse; multiple stressors in my adult life. The wonder was, she noted quietly, that I was functioning as well as I had been. She said it showed great reserves of strength and determination.

I wasn’t so sure. But I was willing to chance it when she said I could find a way out. That was the first time she broached the idea of medication, and my reaction was…not very calm. I wasn’t rude, but I said flat-out that meds weren’t on the table.

“Okay,” she said. “Here are other options.”

Cognitive therapy. Twice-weekly check-ins and sessions. Visualization sessions. Book work–I took the books she recommended home, did my homework, brought it back and went over it in session. Exercise–I was already in the habit of running by then, and I’m sure it helped. Self-care homework–practicing setting boundaries, finding that the world didn’t end when I said “no.” Imagine that–over thirty, and I’d been trained that I couldn’t say that one simple word.

Days of just getting through the next five minutes, sometimes just the next sixty seconds. Sometimes I look back at the books (and the SquirrelTerror posts) I wrote during that time and wonder how the fuck I made deadlines. At least when I was writing I could push away some of the agony.

Slowly, very slowly, things got better. Finding out there were whole books written about some of the issues and childhood traumas was a comfort–I still felt like a freak, but at least I had company in freakdom if someone had gotten books published about what I’d gone through and was still suffering. Finding out you’re not alone can do wonders to fight the demons.

And it was a fight. “Give me something to do,” I told Calm Therapist. “Give me something I can grab, and I’ll beat it on the head until it stops moving.”

She winced. “Apt description. But sometimes that might not work.”

“It had better,” I replied, grimly. “What’s next?”

I suspect I was a trial to her.

The biggest breakthrough came with EMDR. It doesn’t work for everyone, but CT explained it, pointed me at the research for it, and told me why she thought it might help me. I decided to go for it. I don’t know if I’d willingly repeat those sessions, but it worked. I stopped having the intense, scream-inducing, paralyzing nightmares when I could exhaust myself enough to sleep. The flashbacks stopped, and the panic attacks became three or four a day instead of a half-dozen-plus.

It felt great.

And then…I hit a plateau. Progress seemed to stop. Days and weeks of circling the same thing, over and over again. Sessions had dropped down to weekly, or every two weeks, based on how long it would take me to finish the homework. Finally, I told CT that I was just going to have to live with panic attacks for the rest of my life, and the insomnia as well. I was resigned to it, what the hell, at least it wasn’t as bad as it had been.

“Plateaus are normal. But maybe we should talk about other options again,” she said, carefully.

I remember knotting my hands together so tightly my knuckles turned white. I always thought that was a figure of speech. “Like what?”

“More EMDR.” She suggested a couple other things. Paused. “Medication. A low dose of something to help your body and brain rest. You’ve been in this state for so long, your body has probably adapted to it and thinks it’s normal.”

What I thought was seventeen different flavors of oh HELL NO. Still, I’d grown to trust her a little. She’d been right about pretty much everything so far, and I was paying for her advice. (God, it was a relief to have someone I could just pay and not have to worry about taking care of, but that’s–say it with me–another blog post.) I’d be an idiot not to consider it.

So I took a deep breath, my fingers creaking as I squeezed a little harder.

And what I said was, “I’ll think about it.”

Next: Medication.

photo by: chriszak
  • BJ

    Thank you. Thank you for writing about this. I have two perspectives on this. The first goes back to my education… psychology. It’s amazing how much we come to accept that our normal IS THE NORM.
    The second goes back to my OWN perspective. I was sexually assaulted in ’99 and subsequently developed PTSD. As I was reading, I was nodding, “Yes!” I totally get the selection criteria for your therapist – namely, the orientation to the door. One day, I’ll be able to walk down a crowded grocery aisle without feeling my heart doing its best to escape my chest cavity.
    However, where I was at emotionally in 2005 (when I finally started seeing a therapist) could be compared to being in another galaxy to where I am today. I’m getting closer to Earth. I hope you are, too.

  • Thank you for this post. You can add me to your list consisting of those who suffer anxiety attacks daily. It helps to know they’re out there. But I’m not sure just knowing is enough to alleviate the exhaustion of actually having the attacks. The hardest part, for me, isn’t the attacks themselves, but the effect they have on those around me. I can’t go camping, I shy away from eating out, and don’t even get me started on going new places. It’s a fight that I wonder if I will ever win. Yet each morning I wake up and fight anew. We can’t let anxiety win, as one of my “auditioned” therapists said to me. To do so would be like falling on my own sword before the battle even began.

    If you ever wrote a book about a girl fighting her panic attacks with tooth and claw, like a trip inside the mind due to some strange magic or science experiment, I would read it and buy copies for each member of my family. If only so they could understand, for once, the intensity of what I go through.

  • I don’t get anxiety attacks, I get angry. Which is exhausting. When my youngest sister was dying from a brain tumor, I was so angry. Finally, I just said to myself, I can’t do this any longer. I am tired of being angry. I can relate.

  • kelly timpson

    Thankyou for writing this. I have suffered with anxiety and panic attacks for nine years, I finally got the courage to speak to my doctor and then a therapist. I wouldn’t say I am completely cured but I’m getting there, taking each day as it comes. My anxiety stems from having a special needs son and running a business in a recession, I find taking myself off to a quiet room and reading a book, reading your books helps and many others just gives me time to unwind. In time I will get better, but it takes time.

  • Amazed again are your bravery and admire you for your strength.

  • martian moon crab

    you are much stronger than you give yourself credit for. *air hug*

  • I operate (or pretend to function) on a steady stream of anxiety.It’s always there, so I relate to your “normal”.

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  • Thank you for talking about this. I’ve almost always suffered from anxiety (my parents wrote it off as an “overactive imagination” but I have been afraid/anxious for most of my life), but over the last few years, it’s increased dramatically. Kinda hard to explain to someone without anxiety/panic attacks why I spent the evening huddled in the corner, unable to get up or move until the Boyfriend got home from work.

  • Absolutely terrific post. It’s also incredibly brave to write about your situation.

    I don’t know how you could possibly think 6+ panic attacks per day were “normal”, but then I used to think I was the only person who couldn’t wake up from a bad dream without going into a panic attack. So, in a sense I’ve “been there, done that.”

    Please check out my post http://jewelammons.wordpress.com/2013/07/31/battling-the-monsters/ which is the beginning of a book I’m trying to write. Please tell me what you think.

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