When I was a kid, I wasn’t particularly fearful. I don’t remember being afraid of the dark, or of monsters under my bed. I was too rational and logical, even at three or four years old, to get caught up in those fears.
I’m not sure exactly when that started to change. It wasn’t that I ever really got swept up in normal kid fears; it was more like I had a really heightened sense of awareness of everything that could go wrong in the world. The first pivotal moment came when my dad went to the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Storm. My mother and brother and I remained in our house on Fort Hood, in central Texas, for a while. Then after a few months, we took a Greyhound bus all the way to Thomasville, Georgia. If you’re not familiar with the Southeastern United States, let me illustrate (well, let Google Maps illustrate):
That is a long stinkin’ bus ride. Please note that the 14 hours drive time helpfully listed on this map? Does not account for bus stops. Anyway, what was I saying? Ah, yes, pivotal moments in Fear.
There was this man on one of the busses. I was turned around in my seat, kneeling and looking around the bus. It was such a new experience, you know? Everything seemed infinitely possible. Who were all these people? Where were they all going? And then this guy made eye contact with me. My memory of him is hazy; over time I’ve turned him into that guy from Con-Air. At the time, of course, I had never seen Con-Air. But that guy scared me, like down to my bones scared me. My stomach clenched and I just knew I couldn’t explain it to my mom, who was seated across the aisle. She was sharing a seat with Jason, who was feeling horribly bus-sick most of the ride.
It was all fine, you know, as most bogeyman stories are. The guy didn’t grab me or try to kidnap me. We stopped eventually and found Dramamine for Jason. I remember the bus stopping at a Popeye’s chicken. I remember watching the trees change. That’s the thing about a trip from Texas to Georgia – the trees change and when you finally start seeing the pecans, you know you’re almost home.
We got to the bus station, and my Grandmama was there to pick us up, and we went to her house and I felt warm and safe. Even though I know now it’s not true, at the time it felt like the only place I would ever be completely safe again was at her house.
Eventually, the war ended and my dad came home (safe and sound and in one piece, thank God). We went back to our house on Ft. Hood. Everything went back to normal.
So now I have to tell you what I know now, that I didn’t know then, to make the rest of this bogeyman story make any sense.
I have an anxiety disorder. My brain is long on ephinephrine and short on serotonin and dopamine. (It’s not actually that simple, and researchers don’t even agree that all anxiety disorders are due to chemical imbalances anyway. But that’s probably an argument for a scholarly blog. I’m just tellin’ my story.) And at age 34, I finally decided to address it with a medical doctor and treat it with medication. But back then, I thought I was just a really crazy kid.
When we got home from that bus trip, I was jumpier. It was like I suddenly had a Spidey-sense, and it tingled all.the.damn.time. Lots of situations started screaming “danger! danger! danger!”
There was a day – I don’t know what year, but it was while we still lived in Texas, so somewhere during 6th or 7th grade – when my parents wanted to take me and my brother to play Putt-Putt Golf. They were going to drop us off with a couple of pre-paid rounds of mini-golf and a pocket full of tokens for the arcade – then go enjoy themselves at the mall a half-mile down the road – then return to Putt-Putt where we’d all share a nice pizza for lunch. Swell plan. Super sweet. (As a parent, I look back on this day and feel terrrrrrible, because I am pretty sure I can guess how much my mother was looking forward to alone time and adult conversation with my father.)
We pulled in to the parking lot at Putt-Putt, and my brother hopped happily out of the van. I got to the doorway and just… froze. My knees locked, my hands started to shake. I felt feverish and my head was pounding. I was seized by a immediate and inescapable certainty that if I got out of that van and my parents drove off to the mall, I would never see them again. Something horrible would happen to us, or to them, while we were apart.
What I know now, that I didn’t know then, was that I was having my first panic attack.
What I know now, that I didn’t know then, is that there are a few good ways to help a person through a panic attack – but yelling at them to stop being dramatic and just get out of the darn van – isn’t one of them. (No blame to my folks here, okay? I’m sure that on the outside it looked like a stubborn preteen being dramatic and ruining the nice family day that had been so lovingly planned. They had no idea what was going on in my head because I had no idea how to explain it to them.)
Eventually, I think we just went home. I don’t really remember. My memory of the panic and standing in the doorway of the van is crystal clear, and then as the attack passed everything that followed is a blur. (I know now that that’s pretty common for me. I think it’s because all my senses are so heightened during the adrenaline rush of a panic attack; afterwards I am exhausted as if I had run a foot race. I usually zone out or even sleep pretty hard afterward.)
For the next few years, I suffered from mild agoraphobia. I had a very hard time being in crowds, no matter who was with me. I had crippling fears and anxieties about doing anything in public alone. And I knew that it wasn’t normal.
So I remember trying really hard to couch my fears in words that sounded normal. I decided it would be better to sound stubborn (“Because I just don’t want to go, all right?!”) than to sound crazy (“Because if I go, I’ll be kidnapped and tortured or possibly have a heart attack, I can just feel it coming”).
And I started researching what was wrong with me. I actually did a research paper in 8th grade on phobias; I found my notes recently and they made me cry. I knew it, even back then, even before anyone around me seemed to.
Over my high school and college years, I learned a lot of coping techniques that worked really well for me. I still had some quirks and idiosyncrasies (for example: even though I learned to be comfortable shopping alone, I never ate in public alone nor attended a movie alone; and making phone calls to strangers made me feel sick to my stomach) but I was able to function at my schools and in my groups of friends. I went to amusement parks and baseball games, and learned how to talk myself down when the crowd levels made me itchy.
Let’s skip ahead a bit.
Last year, my anxiety level started to get worse. During normal, every day activities, I would feel like there was a movie trailer playing in my mind.
IN A WORLD….
WHERE EVERYTHING SEEMED NORMAL…
ONE WOMAN IS ABOUT TO DRIVE OFF THE ROAD AND DIE A HORRIBLE DEATH!
IN A WORLD….
WHERE DINNER NEEDS TO BE SERVED SOON…
THAT POT IS GOING TO BOIL OVER, SCARRING YOU FOR LIFE!
It was a pain in the you-know-what. Now, it’s not like I was hallucinating. I knew that the horrible, scary, worst-case-scenarios weren’t actually happening. I wasn’t out of my mind – I was too much in my mind. Does that make any sense? And so, I decided to get some help.
I’ve been in therapy a few times over the years for this and that, and one of my therapists in particular had sort of stumbled upon some of my anxiety triggers (while I was seeing her about something else completely) and was very helpful.
But this time, I decided that therapy wasn’t the way to go. I’ve talked about (and researched, and read about) my anxieties for many years, and you know what? It’s not something I can just pray my way through, or logic myself out of. I saw my primary care provider, and I started a prescription anti-anxiety medication.
After about three days of the medicine, I was standing at the kitchen counter jotting down a to-do list. And suddenly, I realized, it was mighty quiet.
You know how, when the power goes out at night, there’s that dramatic zap as all the lights go off? But, if the power goes out in the daytime, you don’t notice immediately. After a few minutes, it slowly dawns on you… the air conditioner isn’t humming. The sound of the fridge that usually fades into the background is roaring in it’s absence. You think, “gosh, it’s quiet around here,” and then you notice the clock on the oven is dark, and it hits you: oh, the power went out.
That’s what it felt like… in my head.
I’ve been on my anxiety medication for about four months, and it’s been a great experience. I haven’t had any side effects, and my personality hasn’t changed. I’m not dulled or zombie-fied. I’m ME. And a lot of those quirks and things I thought were just parts of my personality? Turns out they were parts of my disorder. They were barnacles, and my medicine keeps them scraped off my hull.
Being able to tackle writing my book — is due in part to shedding my anxiety.
Having much more control over my temper — is due in large part to managing my anxiety.
Being able to come back here after a bad experience — also due to freedom from anxiety.
I’m not sharing this because I think every person on the planet should take drugs. I’m not sharing it so people will feel sorry for me. (Don’t, seriously; I’m good, I promise!) I’m sharing it because it’s been a heck of a ride, from 1990 till now. I’m sharing it because maybe you have a preteen kid who’s suddenly freaking out – so here’s just another possibility instead of assuming they are just being stubborn. I’m sharing it because maybe you have a friend with weird quirks and a list of things they just can’t bring themselves to do. Or maybe you, yourself, have some bogeymen under your bed.
It’s okay. You’re not alone. There are a lot of ways to fight your battles.