|The silent prison of anxiety disorder.|
Well, I finally know what I am after all these years: I'm a recurring major depressive with severe generalized anxiety disorder.
Not really a huge news flash. It's not like I never would have guessed I'm depressed and anxious until a doctor clued me in on the fact. But he did say something in our last session that's so obvious it never occurred to me. He was talking about generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and said, "It's when people are always worried".
That's exactly right. I'm ALWAYS worried. The levels change, and the intensity changes. Sometimes it's unsettling and semi-conscious background noise, like the staccato of distant gunfire. Other times it's like sitting on the flight line at the airport and watching the jets come in - a rumbling cacophony of screaming noise so loud it tears the world apart. But it's always there: unceasing, unchanging, and unrelenting.
And I'm one of the lucky ones. I'm lucky to be so high-functioning. I'm not on the streets, in jail, or in a mental hospital. I'm not starving. I'm not homeless. I have family and friends who love me. I have a support network and a fantastic therapist. I have wonderful lover. I have good physical health, all things considered. I even still have most of my hair.
But I still live in prison, a prison no one can see and few understand. Despite all my blessings and good fortune, anxiety disorder is still destroying my life and the lives of countless millions of other "normal" people. Based on the knowledge I've amassed over the years, and in no particular order, here are the top 10 ways anxiety disorder encases people like me in an invisible prison of silent desperation:
#10). Social Prejudice
Thank God we don't live in the 1950s anymore! We've come long way, baby, towards social equality on issues like racism, sexism, and sexual orientation. Hell, being an alcoholic is practically a badge of honor these days. But curiously, mental illness is still "in the closet" as it were. Society still has a tendency to view mental disorders as signs of moral weakness, or even a choice made by self-indulgent, lazy people who milk it for their own advantages. Even though anxiety disorders are not technically a mental illness, our culture is still pretty quick to judge the chronically anxious as crazy and to openly wonder why they can't just "snap out of it". Could YOU "snap out of" cancer or a smashed hand?
#9). Loneliness and Isolation
Buffalo Springfield's now famous 1965 anti-war statement about how paranoia "starts when you're always afraid" is also an apt description of living with anxiety disorder. Because it is like a kind of low-level paranoia where you're never quite sure what's going on or if you're about to step out of line. Like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and now Iraq, battling anxiety disorder is a war of attrition with only one rational outcome: withdrawal. Isolation becomes the anxious person's main defense against an intolerable onslaught of panic and worry that most others simply don't understand. The resulting loneliness and depression can destroy the foundations of life. People with severe anxiety disorders are up to 9 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.
#8). Inability to Concentrate
Have you ever had a telephone conversation with a new mother? Chances are good that her baby was screaming in the background during the call. If there's anything more annoying than being on the phone with a squalling infant, I don't know what it is. Unless it's the feeling of impending doom screaming in the background of my head 24/7. Both baby and anxiety have a particularly piercing shriek that could shatter delicate crystal. That's why God took pity on us and invented Xanax, Adderall, and Ritalin. Thank you, Jesus.
#7). Inability to Sleep
"Sleep is the interest we have to pay on the capital which is called in at death; and the higher the rate of interest and the more regularly it is paid, the further the date of redemption is postponed."
- Arthur Schopenhauer
Old Arthur may not have been much for laughs, but I can't think of a better aphorism on the importance of sleep. Studies indicate that upwards of 50 million Americans suffer from chronic insomnia, although the majority are not due to anxiety disorder. But everyone has lost sleep from time to time because of worrying about a job, a relationship, children, bills, etc. Most people get over worrying. Some of us never get over it. Going to bed is like laying down next to a lightly sedated, pissed off tiger for the anxiety sufferer. It often feels vulnerable, out of control, and unpredictable. Anxious people also tend to have nightmares, assuming they're actually able to sleep. Nightmares are just worry in another guise. No doubt about it, chronic sleep deprivation takes years off your life and makes anxiety and depression worse. Which makes it even harder to sleep.
Some people would consider perfectionism a good thing rather than something destructive. After all, "practice makes perfect", right? I think it's a question of degree. There's nothing wrong with wanting to do your best and produce something that's high quality. That's why I'm writing this instead of telling dick jokes (which I happen to think are hilarious, BTW). But there's a difference between wanting to do well and being so afraid of doing it wrong that you end up doing nothing.
"Laziness" is one of the cheap shots smugly normal people often take at those of us with mood disorders. But the fact is that most anxiety sufferers are actually sensitive, highly intelligent, and creative people with a lot to offer. Many grew up in homes marked by violence, sexual abuse, and/or harsh, rigid expectations. We tend to feel like failures, probably because we've been told that we ARE failures, at least in so many words. This can lead to a paralyzing fear of doing anything wrong. It makes being productive kinda tough, know what I mean?
#5). Overall Lack of Energy
Being wound up and tense all the time is paradoxically exhausting. Some days, managing anxiety feels like a full time job with very little left over for anything else. Chronic fear weakens normal functioning of the adrenal system and increases the production of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress. The adrenals are one of the body's main regulatory systems and effect everything from bone formation to immune response. Long term exposure to high cortisol levels can cause brain damage that leads to impaired learning ability. Many anxious people also compensate for lack of energy by abusing stimulants like coffee, soda and hard drugs like cocaine and speed. This whips the adrenals even harder and ultimately further decreases energy levels.
#4). Inability to Maintain Friendships
The inability to either make or maintain friendships leads to loneliness and isolation. It's one of the most heartbreaking aspects of anxiety disorder. Friendships are hard even without undue anxiety; for the chronically anxious, they can seem impossible. Humans are social animals and need emotionally intimate relationships. If you've been anxious most of your life, your avoidance of people may have caused you never to have learned HOW to form relationships. Or if, like me, your anxiety began later in life, you may know how to connect but are often unwilling to make the effort. I've had numerous friendships and potential friendships fizzle simply because I didn't put any energy into keeping their heart beating. Friendships take work. If your life force (your ch'i) is consumed by fear, the work that friendships require may demand more energy than you can muster.
#3). Inability to Have Intimate Relationships
Intimate relationships are sometimes described as "the Ph.D of personal growth". Speaking from personal experience, I'd say that's absolutely true. Engaging (and especially maintaining) intimate relationships seems to require the confidence of champion, the concentration of a samurai, and the patience of a saint. Even "normal" people regularly get their asses kicked by intimate relationships unless they've developed a great deal of interpersonal skill. Lots of chronic worriers avoid intimacy because it's just too scary. Some have never had a sexual relationship at all. People with anxiety usually need understanding partners who are willing to work with their condition and to take it slow. It seems to me that understanding partners are in short supply these days.
#2). Inability to Relax/Have Fun
One of the classic features of any anxiety disorder is always being "on alert". Alternately referred to as "hyper-vigilance", "catastrophizing", or "stinkin' thinkin' " (how quaint), severely anxious people always expect the worst and are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Where the hell does that saying come from anyway? I need to look that one up. As Murphy's Law says, "anything that can go wrong, WILL go wrong". Murphy probably had undiagnosed anxiety. Always waiting for something to go wrong (and to be blamed for it) makes relaxing and having fun very difficult. It's a shitty way to live. A life without fun and joy is no life at all.
#1). Stress-Related Physical Illness
A quick Google search on the term "emotional stress" returns approximately 3,110,000 results. That means Google has indexed a third of a BILLION web pages about this topic, and I'd say at least half of them mention the effects of stress on physical health. A lot of people are really fucking stressed out! Here's a list of the most common impacts that stress (aka anxiety) has on our bodies:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Heart attack and High Blood Pressure
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Insomnia and Chronic fatigue
- Muscle aches
Break Out of Your Silent Prison
I think anxiety sufferers like me have two basic choices: choose to be victimized by it, or choose to take action. Action is by far the better choice, even though it doesn't always seem that way. The attitude I'm trying to maintain is this: I may be in prison, but even life in prison can have value and meaning. Some of the most inspiring works of art known to man have been created during periods of incarceration. And I'm not talking about "Mein Kampf"; that book was boring as fuck.
Some of the ways anxiety sufferers can take action include:
- Get a therapist (this probably saved my life)
- Join a support group for anxiety disorders (there are several good ones on Facebook)
- Participate in online forums (lots of options here)
- Learn about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT is the best drug-free treatment for anxiety)
- Take a reputable online treatment course (for example, Panic Away is an effective self-help program for treating panic attacks)
- Take anti-anxiety medication (Meds get a bad rap from some people, but I believe they can help a lot, especially when combined with other forms of treatment)