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Friday, 24 July 2015

Why Should I Worry?

I used to have serious anxiety problems.

Don't get me wrong. I still do. I just deal with them differently now. Anxiety isn't the kind of thing that just goes away, no matter how many mantras you repeat, no matter how logical your thought process, no matter how much money you pour into the wallets of therapists and counsellors.

Anxiety just has a very different way of interacting with me, now. Or more precisely, I interact with it differently - it still rattles the saber, but I get to pick the battleground.

For a long time I didn't leave my house.

I still lived at home with my parents at the time. I was 19 going on 20 and if I were to use a word to describe my mental state, I would say it had been Coventrated. (Look the word up. It's a very cool word.) I wasn't having a good time of it.

The outside world became my enemy. I hated it because I was so afraid of it, and the people in it, and the very real chance that I might have to exchange words with another human being that wasn't in the "safe" box in my mind. There weren't many of those, either. With the removal of any outside timetable (I was signed off work due to this anxiety amongst other things) I tended to wake up at 4-5pm and fall asleep at 6-7am, catching the evening news with my breakfast, and drift off after the educational cartoons and reruns of Countdown on Channel 4.

Slowly defeating this mindset and getting out of that lifestyle was an uphill struggle but one I eventually kind of won sort of. I didn't know what an Introvert was, back then - but I knew that not being able to go outside was Not Normal and Counter To Having A Good Life and I needed to Pull Myself Together etc etc etc. I could vomit with how much of that particular brand of bullshit I had to chug down with my daily ration of awake.

To go against that was terrifying. I'm no stranger to panic attacks, and the thought of forcing myself outside for no good reason would trigger them. I'd have them just inside the front door. I'd have them on the way to the shops. I'd have them AT the shops, and all the way home, and they wouldn't stop until I got inside...

...and it has taken me a long time to realise that what I'd done was a victory anyway, because even if it scared the bejeezus out of me, I did it. It's an old cliche that a true hero feels fear and strives on regardless, but one I never applied to myself. Yes, I freaked the fuck out when the self-service tills weren't working and I had to smile and say hello to a stranger and give them money and manage to say goodbye properly and oh god oh god oh god go leave don't look anyone in the eye get home home safe home safe home safe HOME LOOK THERE HOME SAFE...

...but I still came home with a 2ltr of Dr Pepper and two loaves of bread.

The only way I found to beat anxiety wasn't to beat it at all. It was a cocktail of treatments and attitudes, but it was more tae kwon do than muay thai. Avoidance and rebalance. It was difficult mental work but it worked, for me, eventually. The recipe for my Curative Cocktail:

  • 1 part INTERNALISATION. Panic attacks are less scary if you know you can swallow them down and keep them inside you, like a storm in a bottle - and when panic attacks are less scary you have less of them, and those you have are less awful, and naturally (though slowly) the storm starts to lose its fury.
  • 1 part STUBBORNNESS. Fuck you, anxiety. Fuck off. Fuck you. Sick of you running my life you bastard. Just sit in the back of the skull there and make me sweat profusely whenever I see someone I am socially obliged to have a conversation with, and let me go and buy a ruddy Pot Noodle in peace.
  • 1 part ACCEPTANCE. Seriously. This is so fucking important. You need to admit to yourself that you are anxious, because until you do that, you can't take logical steps to undermine the irrational parts of your brain and defeat them with the Rube Goldberg logic machines you construct consciously.
  • 1 part KINDNESS. To yourself. Don't push it too hard. If you do, you'll fall your ass back down. Push until you are past the line of discomfort, but not so far that you can't look back and see it. Then walk back at a leisurely pace and retake your place on the couch.
  • 1 part TRICKERY. You learn by doing, and you learn tricks. Social tricks. To me in particular, a person who isn't actually very good at being social, the learning of social tricks was crucial. The things you are meant to say when other people say things - this you learn through exposure and through going over that line of discomfort. Unfortunately that means...
  • 1 dash BEING AROUND PEOPLE. Preferably people that care about you or are cool with you or who just won't be shit at you if you do things wrong. It's often hard to, when you are in the pits of panic, ascertain if your best friend forever is going to ditch you like a bad smell if you say "hello" the wrong way - but those moments of lucidity, when they come along, are wondrous.
  • 3 parts FINDING AN ANCHOR. Everyone I have met that has anxiety has a method by which they can somewhat chill themselves out. Not instantly and not totally, but there's something somewhere in this big wide world that will dial back the feeling of gnawing panic in your cranium. I found a few things actually. Music is a big one - writing, gaming, all sorts. They pretty much saved me.

...and now I can pass for a kind of functional human being who has healthy relationships with people and can hold down a job and all that other bollocks. This leads to the chaser for the Curative Cocktail, which is called the Dismissal On The Rocks.

At some point, you learn that you don't necessarily need to give a fuck. You start to run out of energy to care, which can be dangerous, but hopefully it is because you are applying that energy to other things, like Being Around People or interacting with your Anchor. It's a case of riding that wave, and applying that lack of fucks to give to things that you know, logically, you are anxious about with no conscious reasoning. So what if the person in the shop thinks I was wearing this shirt yesterday?

(Note: This is an actual cause for a panic attack I had once. I had walked from my house into town and to the supermarket, and was about to step through the door when I nearly choked because I realised the shirt I had put on, on the way out the door, was the same design as the one I wore yesterday. Not the same shirt. The same design. That alone was enough to cause me to hyperventilate and avoid going into the shop for a full ten minutes.)

After a while - you start to work out what you can and can't afford to give a fuck about. You weigh things. You assess things. Anyone who suffers anxiety is very good at overthinking, but harnessing that overthinking into actual thinking can be very beneficial to one's life.

It's unfortunate that, in the process to conquering the beast, one develops an aversion to it. Anxiety recognises its own. When people near you get fearful, so do you - it's human instinct. The anxious folks are just that much more in touch with the notion of fear than everyone else.

This makes it hard for an anxious person to aid another who suffers; people getting antsy about stuff makes us antsy and we kind of hate that, which makes us feel bad because we want to help but we end up getting angry and twitchy and sometimes our eyelids go all crazy.

So yes. I still have anxiety problems; but at least I'm the one holding the reins.

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