When Anxiety Returns After a Decade of Hiding
Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.
One morning a few weeks back, I got out of bed to use the bathroom as the sun was coming up. My wife was just getting out of bed as well to see the kids off to school. My brain was a little fuzzy on the short walk across the bedroom, but I chalked it up to the small fan I keep on the window sill every night. The white noise and the gentle breeze help me sleep but the sometimes colder air can leave me feeling groggy in the morning if the window is open too much. Maybe it was that. Or it may have been the drink I had about an hour before bed. Or the late-night snack that seemed like such a good idea at the time.
I walked back to bed with every intention of dozing off for another hour or so, but the fogginess of my brain started to transform and really take hold. I felt like I was being pulled from reality, like I was slowly walking backward in a dream. Of course, I knew I was awake, but I felt disconnected and distant. It was as if an invisible barrier stood between me and everything else that was real. Anything other than the growing chaos in my head was little more than background noise. I nervously told my wife I was feeling quite anxious.
Anxiety is nothing new for me. It’s something I’ve dealt with throughout most of my 51 year of life. It’s a genetic gift from my father to me and — with much fatherly guilt — from me to my own kids. Sometimes the damned condition seems to be contagious — even my adopted daughter struggles with anxiety. I can vividly recall panic attacks and generalized anxiety as far back as my memory allows, though back in the early 70s it was simply called “being shy” or “introverted.” I quickly learned complaints of a stomach ache to the school nurse were a prompt ticket home for the day.
In my adolescence and early adulthood, anxiety was often coupled with the dark and dreadful partner, depression. The combination was often debilitating. The trial and error process of finding effective medication can be extremely frustrating. But with therapy, medication, spirituality and an insatiable appetite for knowledge on the subject, I learned many of the effective coping skills that can sometimes help us tame the beast just enough so it becomes a somewhat bearable nuisance. And I’ve been lucky. It’s been this way for the better part of the last 13 or so years. I wear my anxiety on my sleeve like a badge of honor. I talk freely about it with others so people might realize it doesn’t have to be a dark secret.
Something happened one morning a few weeks ago that was very unexpected. The beast was back in my head and I’d forgotten how to cope with it. By trying to control it, I’d given it power and control. I took half of a low dose of medication and paced around the bedroom for a few minutes. With sweaty, shaking hands, I diligently made the bed. I carefully folded laundry. Still bordering on panic, I took a full dose of medication. I was confused by this unwelcome return but I kept myself distracted with physical activity for a while and my mind eventually began to slow down. I was shaken, but I was able to ease into action and I made it through the day without too much further difficulty.
Now, a big concern for anxious people lies in the area of self-control. For me, control over my emotions and my physical wellness often ranks higher than my basic need for food and water and even sexual desire. Sadly, I’m not exaggerating even a little. And I don’t simply let small failures fade away because for me, no failure is ever small. I can turn the mole hill into a mountain just as aptly as I can convince myself a simple tension headache is most certainly a rare and advanced brain tumor. And so it began. The seed in my mind had been replanted.
On the following morning, I woke up feeling mostly OK. But within a few minutes, doubt snuck into the back of my mind. It started with cold, clammy hands and cold feet, followed by tension in my belly and a heart beating in my chest with a little too much beat. And then came the forgotten but familiar scary thoughts, progressively getting louder and faster and more invasive in my brain. The morning turned out to be a beastly repeat of the day before.
Each day since has pretty much been marked by a similar routine. I struggle through the early morning hours trying to keep my mind occupied in activity and the anxiety typically fades into background noise by sometime around noon. I wish a mindful tranquility would come more easily but my wife certainly appreciates the folded laundry, the made beds and the clean bathrooms. Although it’s not pleasant, the morning episodes truly only rate four or five on a scale of one to 10, even though it seems like eights and nines in the moment. I am truly thankful the feelings do eventually pass.
Three or four weeks into it now, I try to take a pill only when I absolutely need to and I try not to feel too guilty when I do. I’m giving myself permission to be human and flawed. More importantly, I try to reflect on anxiety’s return without too much fear. It’s been over a decade since my last encounter with it and I am admittedly a bit rusty. Knowing what it is and accepting it as such are two very different concepts. I read and I pray and I try to exercise daily. I remind myself to stay in the present moment without empowering the feelings of fear with a fight. Instead I simply try to let them come along with me for the ride. I realize I am not alone. I’m frustrated. I’d forgotten how all-consuming the grips of fear can be. And I still have questions. Lots of them. I try to be patient and hopeful while I wait for the answers to emerge. It’s not easy. But I am learning to cope with anxiety. Again.
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