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My Anxiety Has a First Name, It’s Richard

Recently I was in a car with another man. (Yeah I know. This is getting good already). He was driving us to New Orleans for some nerdy “recreation” when we started doing something that is totally socially unacceptable in most states. We were talking reasonably about politics and religion. Both! I know right? WHO DOES THAT ANYMORE? But we were two men alone in a car with no witnesses. We might not have this chance ever again. I won’t fill you in on the details here because I don’t talk about politics or religion online because the internet is dark and full of trolls.

Once we started getting into the greater New Orleans area, our discussion turned to why I was a little nauseous and trying to press my foot through his floorboard. When I explained that I had “some anxiety issues”. He said he understood and it was pretty impressive that I hadn’t beaten him over the head, thrown his body into the back seat, and then taken control over the vehicle. I DO like to be in control and mentioned that, but I was working on it. He mentioned that I could probably benefit from some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, but that sounded like a LOT of work. And quackery. And potentially expensive. So when something is hard, expensive, AND made-up I am probably not going to take part in it. Probably.

I tried to explain that I had at one point thought that I was coming down with Adult Onset Attention Deficit Disorder because I was getting to the point that I couldn’t read more than a sentence at a time (especially with email) without giving up to do something else. I couldn’t focus, and on occasion I would feel like I was vibrating internally like my chest imprisoned a miniature demon that would constantly rattle its cage (my ribs) with a tin cup. There was one day that I could literally draw a line diagonally down my torso dividing the sections of my body that did and did not feel like they were vibrating. It was disconcerting.

One of the problems with my Adult Onset Attention Deficit Disorder theory was that I couldn’t find anything suggesting that ADD had an Adult Onset component. Yeah, it seems that I couldn’t find anything about Adult Onset ADD because ADD doesn’t have an Adult Onset component. Someone should put this down somewhere that can be easily accessed by people that can only read twenty words at a time. When I was in primary school as a child I could focus like mad, and if you ever have ADD, you’ll have it as a child. Many children outgrow ADD, but others do not and so Adult ADD is an actual thing, just not Adult Onset ADD.

My wife was working as an MIS Support Specialist at a local mental health facility around the time I was struggling with my search for what the Hell was going on with me. She found out through completely unrelated conversations at work that ADD and Anxiety are often misdiagnosed as the other. In fact ADD, Anxiety, OCD, and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome all have similar symptoms. The mechanism for ADD is different than the other disorders but they are all similar to a degree. Symtematically. Having had NO luck looking for information to help me with ADD (that I didn’t have) I found a book titled Anxiety, Phobias, and Panic. Whereas I never could relate to any of the books on ADD that I found, this one spoke to me before I completed the introduction. I finally figured out what was going on with me.

Now I’ve never been properly therapisted, so I can not say exactly what my deal is, but knowing what was generally wrong with me, knowing it was real, and knowing that it wasn’t something to be ashamed of helped significantly. I started to practice a lot of the relaxation techniques and while it would take six years for me to have my first real panic attack, the techniques paid immediate dividends. That said, simply knowing about my anxiety doesn’t really help attacks to not happen, but I am more prepared to deal with them when they do. And they do.

One thing we anxious have in common is we often have vivid imaginations. I’m going to try to explain how exactly this can be detrimental with an example that still sometimes shakes me, and I’m going to share how I was able to finally shake the worst of it. Basically I had accidently stumbled upon that CBT thing that probably doesn’t exist. Before I start though there are a few things you need to know. 1) I have a vivid imagination. Sometimes I can picture a thing so strongly that I truly experience it. 2) I am very empathetic, meaning I honestly sometimes do feel your pain. This is particularly true if you hurt your fingers, but my empathy is not limited to digital pain. 3) I have a little girl. Luckily I started learning about dealing with my anxiety before she was born (another story that), but I still have some tough times. Basically I love my little girl without end. I love her before she existed and until nothing remains. Parents understand this, the rest of you will just have to take my word for it. Also know that we moved to the country to be safer for her and to be closer to her grandparents.

After moving to the country, my commute is now about 30-40 minutes, but that’s OK. On my commute is a property I call Five Oaks that has (wait for it) five oak trees around a nice single story country home. I’ve dreamed of owning that property. I could raise ten families there and be content to never leave. When driving home, the property signals that only about three minutes remain on my commute home. Then one day while passing the property and looking at one of the giant oaks, I got one of those instant images in my head. This one was of my little girl laying dead in the street having been hit by a car, and I am the one to discover her. I knew this was just my imagination, but the image was so powerful that I began to mourn. Not a lot, but just a little. The problem with anxiety is that the brain starts a type of feedback loop that feeds itself and grows. So my imagination triggered my fear which triggered my imagination. Wash, rinse, repeat. Seconds later I had tears in my eyes, my heart was in my throat, I was trembling, and the fear was a living thing charging on its black stallion of shadows toward my happiness intent to utterly destroy it forever. The closer I’d get to home the more likely I was convinced that the image that flashed in my brain was going to be true. I honestly wouldn’t wish this on anyone.

Naturally I’d round the final curve in the road and see that there was nothing amiss. My relief would be palatable but I wouldn’t trust the logical side of my being until I saw my girl smiling and playing. And that is only a part of what it is like to suffer with anxiety just a little. My logical brain still functions and yet while it would scream things to bring me back to Earth, my emotional anxiety ridden side would retain control until I could prove the anxiety wrong, which doesn’t always happen quickly. And I haven’t gotten to the worse part yet. Now that I had a very strong, very emotional experience on my commute that first started purely by coincidence while looking at one of the trees on one of my favorite properties on this green earth, that tree became a trigger that would cause me to re-experience the entire scenario. I’ve mourned my child’s death more times than I can count. I’m sure none of them would come close to the real mourning I would experience if God forbid something were to actually happen to her, but it was really wearing on me. Then I stumbled into CBT.

In a vain attempt to NOT have the tree on my commute trigger the whole scenario for the umpteenth time, I tried something different. I would replace my previous ridiculous imagery with something similarly ridiculous. When approaching the property with the tree that I once so loved, instead of allowing myself to experience the completely imagined horror of my normal anxiety attack, I forced myself to imagine my wife and child greeting me as I pulled up each sporting giant insect heads.

I didn’t think it would, but it worked.

I saw, for the briefest of moments in a clarity I have yet to recreate, both of my loved ones with giant fly heads like something out of a bad 50’s horror movie. I literally laughed out loud. Now on my commute despite the fact that I remember the images that triggered my anxiety I also remember the images of my family with fly heads. Since that day I have been able to counter this specific trigger with either logic or silliness.

So despite being able to (now) deal with my somewhat mild anxiety without drugs or expensive therapisting (yet), I can still attest that anxiety is definitely a dick.

© 2012, Joe Little. All rights reserved.