Comic strip

Why I'm Telling My Anxiety Story Through a Comic Book

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Mike and Addey, in “The War for Kaleb,” are every friend I’ve never talked to about my anxiety disorder. For those who do not know, “The War for Kaleb” is a comic book, I write, draw and self-publish about a young man named Kaleb who has a severe anxiety disorder in which he is medicated for. In the story Mike and Addey are his best friend and girlfriend respectively, and supporting characters. They aren’t front and center, but they are extremely important to the overall plot. Mike and Addey represent the people in our lives who are close, but who are left out of what is troubling people who have mental illness.

Personally, my anxiety and trichotillomania (I pull hair from my face and eyebrows) are not something I usually discuss with others. For a long time, particularly the hair pulling, I believed I was the only one in the world who had these disorders. Over the years it became something I never really talked about, because of the usual reasons: people will think I’m a freak, or they won’t be interested or even care. Today I don’t talk about it, I guess out of force of habit. One thing I’ve learned through research is it is helpful, and can be beneficial in the healing process, if one talks about it to others.

I found my own way.

I received my first comic book, “Wolverine #6,” when I was 11 years old. I flipped through the pages, and I was in a world that I fully believe to this day can only be achieved through the art of sequential storytelling, or comic books. Of course, spending my more formative years in junior high through high school, reading comics wasn’t one of the most popular things in the world. It was the 90’s, and most people were more interested in parties, popularity and sports. I was interested in the worlds I was reading about. I wanted to make my own, and I wanted them to be comics, too.

Flash forward to college. I was going to The School of Visual Arts in NYC, with a major in sequential art. I was in a big city alone. I mostly buried myself in the work of creating comics. At the time, I was going through some hardships in my personal life. I had lost a special person in my life, and one of my best friends, my Aunt Barbara, who had died in a car accident.

Barbara also had severe anxiety. The world outside shut her down, and scared her. It’s almost as if her being became part of me after she died. Before her death, she would be the person I talked to every day over the phone. She would tell me that she was so proud of me for stepping out into a world that she was so afraid of, and pursuing the goal I set out to achieve, creating comics. The only problem was I was afraid of the world too. I had basically jumped into the deep end without knowing how to swim. I would not leave the apartment, it was extremely difficult to make friends and being in large groups of people made me horribly anxious. This became my stigmata which follows me to this very day.

Years later, I began really feeling the strain of my anxiety. I was having my first panic attacks, my temper got the best of me and worst of all I began taking it out on my wife Desiree’. At the time I was living in Long Island, NY working at a warehouse job picking and packing orders to ship. It was a brainless job without any critical or analytical thinking. This allowed me time to spend in my head for eight to 10 hours a day yelling and arguing with myself about the things that were making me miserable about my life. Eventually the anger about my situation turned into focus, and I started seeing scenes in a comic book. These scenes turned into “The War for Kaleb.”

A comic strip

At the time there were a handful of people who knew there was something upsetting me, but I would never talk to them about it. It was and is still not something I like to talk about with people. I talk about anxiety, sure, but only in a general sense of the disorder itself, but not usually the details of what is happening with me. When I thought up “The War for Kaleb,” it gave me the freedom to tell “my” story, without telling my story. After all, “Star Wars” arguably came to fruition partly because George Lucas didn’t want to work for his father in the family owned office supply store. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote “The Lord of The Rings” based on the atrocities he experienced serving a tour of duty in World War I for the British Army. Those stories became the proxies of their experiences without having to make themselves front and center.

Art in my mind, has always been an outlet for truth. Art is the closest any living person will get to seeing the word through someone else’s eyes. Kaleb’s story is a semi-fantastical world that is seen through mine. Just like Kaleb, with anxiety, episodes can turn into visions of what we feel, rather than what it is. As far as Kaleb goes he has a hard time separating the two. What’s worse is he has an even harder time telling the people he cares about what is going on. Mike and Addey are left in the wake of confusion with what they don’t know or possibly understand. Through my story, I can give the “Mikes” and “Addeys” in my life eyes to help understand. And for those who also struggle with anxiety, I can give them a space, and world to enter, where they can hopefully put into perspective what it is they are going through.

In “The War for Kaleb” I use the tool of two superheroes to express this world of anxiety. There is a light hero and a dark hero. They are a purely visual, metaphorical representation of what people don’t see, when one is having an episode, brought on by anxiety.

I chose the superhero motif because superheroes are what created my desire to create stories with comics. I’ve also always been fascinated by the doppelganger superhero; a dark version of the hero that represents light and good. It symbolizes the push and pull of anxiety, and was just one way to show how an episode of anxiety can play out.

comic strip

Creating “The War for Kaleb” was important in the sense that through art and storytelling, I could show people not only what it is, but more importantly what it feels like to struggle with anxiety. Kaleb in the story is my proxy. The superheroes that follow him are his proxy. And probably most importantly of all, Mike and Addey are the proxies of all the people I have a difficult time talking to about my disorder. The story also acts as a vehicle for others to see that no, they are not alone in the world dealing with their own disorders. There are plenty of people, myself included, who are here to connect with, and let them know, “We see things just like you.” Sitting down to write and draw these stories are the letters to the people I care about, and the world I want so desperately to connect with.

comic strip

To read “The War for Kaleb, Part One,” visit Jason’s site. Click here to shop at his store.

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Image via Jason Pittman

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20 Tweets That Nail What Anxiety Feels Like

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When Sarah Fader, CEO of Stigma Fighters, first used #thisiswhatanxietyfeelslike on Twitter, she used it to talk about her own experience living with chronic anxiety and panic disorder. Soon, the hashtag took off, and now people are using it to offer honest accounts and start important conversations about what living with anxiety means to them.

Here are some of our favorites. Perhaps, you’ll be able to relate. 

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When Everything Feels Like It's Just Too Much

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Mental illness is an interesting thing to live with. It affects everyone differently, but there are also a lot of similarities in the way that various illnesses affect individuals. One thing I’ve really been dealing with lately, that I’m sure some people can relate to, is feeling chronically overwhelmed.

In fairness to myself, I have a lot going on right now. I fell a few weeks behind in school work because of my mental health, so I have a lot due. Some of my friendships are in transitional periods. I recently decided that my plans for after college need more consideration (aka, I have no idea what I want to do with my life). And my mental health, on the whole, has been tumultuous.

But even before some of these stressors were so pronounced, I often found myself feeling overstimulated and overwhelmed on a regular basis. When I’m with a group of people and there are multiple conversations going on, I can’t follow the course of events, and I often recoil into myself. When I’m in a group chat on messenger and people won’t stop sending messages, it often overwhelms me to the point of becoming anxious. When I allow myself to think about upcoming due dates on assignments, it becomes too much to bear at times.

Sometimes, oftentimes, everything feels like it’s just too much.

So what do I do in these overwhelming times?

Change My Focus —  I’ve been practicing the art lately of mentally separating myself from my stressors. If I’m overthinking, I work on the practice of changing my mental focus. It takes time to build up this practice, but the more I do it, the more I’m able to effectively shift my focus. It helps to have a pre-determined topic of thought to turn to when I become overwhelmed, such as thinking about fun conversations I’ve had with friends. When I shift my thoughts from due dates to friends, it helps to lessen the anxiety I’m feeling.

Disconnecting — Because my phone is often a place of overstimulation, I’ve been trying to have a set time every day (usually an hour, sometimes more), where I put all of my electronics away. I like to use this time to focus on spending time with close friends and family, but it could also be a good time to pick up a book you’ve been wanting to read, playing an instrument or otherwise engaging in a positive activity that lowers the amount of stimulation you’re receiving. Not only does this lower anxiety, but it’s a really good model for self-care. Start with just 15 minutes a day, and build up to having more time unplugged from the world and plugged into your own needs.

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Grounding —  When these overwhelming feelings  turn into anxiety, grounding techniques become invaluable in bringing myself back to reality. Deep breathing, mindfulness and being aware of the five senses are all great ways to pull my mind away from whatever anxious thoughts are running through my head. I do one thing where I play with my hair. If I can focus in on only the way that I fiddle with my hair, then I’m not focusing on all the things that feel like too much. It’s a great, but subtle, way to calm the mind.

These are just a few ways that I try to cope with overwhelming and/or anxious feelings. Have you ever felt this way? What are some things that you have found helpful in calming yourself down after feeling overstimulated?

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Thinkstock photo via Ingram Publishing

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When You Feel 'Too Broken' to Be in a Helping Profession

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After weeks like this one, I cannot help but question whether I am in the right field or not. Despite the fact I have never once actually regretted my decision to pursue social work and cannot even slightly imagine doing anything else for a career, I have left the office most days this week wondering to myself, Am I too broken to do this work?

There are tough weeks like this one where it seems like I am just a little too fragile and vulnerable to interact with patients who are incredibly fragile themselves and I sometimes wonder what makes me any more competent and capable to be sitting on the practitioner’s side of the couch or my end of the telephone than the patient. Weeks like this one are ones in which I seem to be triggered by anything and everything and my past comes flooding back to me with a vengeance.

I wonder how I am supposed to reassure a kid that everything wrong in this world is not his fault when there are days when I feel that exact same way. I wonder how I am supposed to tell a young woman that eventually she will be able to think about things beyond her trauma when it is hard for me at times to stop ruminating on painful memories of my own. I wonder how I am supposed to offer hope to patients when there are moments when I cannot even find any within myself. How can I ever be a good social worker if I still have so many personal issues I haven’t quite managed to rid myself of yet?

It is weeks like this one when I need extra reassurance from my supervisor and peers what I am doing is right because my anxiety is off the charts. Most of the time when I voice this need for reassurance, my colleagues and supervisor have not even noticed I am having an extra rough week. They have no idea I’m internally questioning every little choice I make, from the simplest things of how I greet a patient, to the way I type up progress notes.

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My inner self-critic is absolutely out of control. It is times like these when I need a little extra space from people too. I need to be able to go into my metaphorical hole, do my work, get through my day and leave. I do not have the energy to engage in small talk or even meaningful conversations because it is at any point I feel vulnerable of breaking down and crying for no reason. It is hard to be around others in general when I am in this funk because the things that are important to you are not as important to me – I am simply trying to survive my day without a flashback or panic attack. Because I care about my job as much as I do, I need to put all energy I have left into working with my patients.

Ideally, I would have enough mental energy to go around, to be able to engage in playful banter with my colleagues and meaningful work with my patients. But during these weeks, I just can’t. We preach in social work that we need to meet our patients where they are and I need the same.

One day, I hope not to have weeks when I am in this funk, but for now, that is where I am. None of this is easy for me to admit. I am a perfectionist and people-pleaser, but I am slowly learning I need to listen to my own needs and this is OK. For it is when I listen to my own needs I can survive. It is when I listen to my needs that I am able to be triggered but still be able to cope in one way or another, so that I don’t have to leave work in the middle of the day.

I have been able to hear stories incredibly similar to mine and not only listen without breaking down in front of the patient, but also professionally and appropriately empathize in a genuine way. When I really stop to think about this, it is amazing progress for me. I’ve realized although the time and energy I put into treatment certainly did pay off in helping me to learn coping skills, I cannot put my life on hold forever to deal with my issues. Eventually I needed to jump back in and work through it all.

My past is always going to be with me and there are unforeseen things that may trigger me for the rest of my life. The closer I can get to accepting this and listening to my needs, the easier it will be for me to live my life with increasing self-compassion and decreasing self-judgment. No doubt there will be more weeks ahead like this one when I feel completely incompetent due to various triggers, but I am slowly understanding what I need to get through these weeks. I am slowly becoming ever so slightly more comfortable in asking for what I need.

So going back to the question of trying to decide whether I am too broken to do this work. Yes, I am broken, but I have decided this doesn’t mean I can’t go after my dream of making a difference in the lives of kids and being an incredible social worker.

Admittedly, I do not feel completely whole right now but I have moved beyond the days of feeling completely unrepairable. I know there will be more days when I have a hard time holding any and all belief in myself and my abilities, but it is in these times I must remember how far I have come and that next week will be better.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via berdsigns.

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What a Tidal Wave of Anxiety Looks Like

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I kiss my daughter goodnight and pad out of her room to finish switching the laundry over. I bend over to pull the wet clothes out of the dryer, stand up… and a tidal wave of anxiety washes over me. Instant sweating, my heart goes up in my throat, everything tenses up, my stomach churns. “Hello anxiety,” I think. “How nice of you to want to come out and play, but I’m busy.”

But my anxiety is busier.

My hands start to move faster, switching piles of clothes from the washer to the dryer. My head starts spinning, itching for something to occupy the space that the anxiety is currently occupying. Both of my kids are asleep, and my husband is upstairs watching the game. I start moving in fast-forward. The house is quiet but the noise in my head is loud, making my body want to run in circles to try to beat it. I have an unstoppable drive to contact one of my best friends just to tell her, “Hi, I’m anxious right now,” because for some reason telling someone else — someone who understands it — makes it “better.” But, it doesn’t. I itch to call one of my other best friends who has the most soothing voice my ears have ever heard and have her read the dictionary or a cookbook — just something so that she keeps talking — and keep listening to her voice and just maybe that will be enough to quiet the noise, to slow the breathing, to slow the brain. But I don’t; instead I move on, I make lunches for the next day, I literally walk in circles in my kitchen; my brain won’t stop spinning, it’s loud, it’s dizzying, it’s short tempered, it’s everything I wish it wasn’t.

I think about my meds; I think about how this has been going on for an hour. I think about how my therapist assured me that it was OK to take them when I need them. I weigh the pros and cons, I think about how I can barely stand feeling like this for another second. The spinning won’t stop. I go for the meds, and bless those pharmaceutical folks because whatever is in them makes my brain stop firing over and over again. Relief washes over me a mere 15 minutes later.

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Anxiety has a way of taking over your brain when you least expect it. In a perfect world I could handle it by myself. I could be with the feelings, soothe them and that would be enough to make the physical symptoms dissipate. But, I’m a work in progress and I have a lot of tools under my belt, some sharper than others. But, let’s be honest — in the moment, I sometimes I forget everything I have learned. In other moments, I remember one thing, and then another, but it’s too slow and the spinning is too fast. I grasp on to what I know. I know that there will be a next time. I will keep my notebook handy, I will reread the steps, I will try with all my might to not resist it — to be with it — no matter how uncomfortable it makes me, because it will pass. It has to.

I am learning — we all are — and with practice comes patience and calmness, steady breathing, living and overcoming. Even if it’s just for one time, keep practicing. We all just keep practicing.

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10 Things You Can Do (or Not Do) to Remind Your Friend With Anxiety You Care

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Speaking frankly, being friends with someone who has anxiety can be hard on both parties. I’m self-aware enough to realize that being my friend can come with extra challenges; there is a constant fear boiling in the pit of my stomach that my friends don’t actually like me. This can be fueled by overhearing them make plans without me, or sometimes literally nothing. Anxiety doesn’t need an impetus.

Regardless of the reason, here is a list of things you can do (or not do) to remind your friend with anxiety that you care.

1. Let them know you think of them.

If you read a story in your English course that you think they’d like, forward the story to them. Even if it’s something small like seeing someone with a nice jacket, text your friend something like, “Saw someone with a really great jacket! Reminded me of your awesome fashion sense.” If they miss a day of school or work, tell them that you miss them. You don’t need a reason to send these messages. Just let them know you’re thinking of them. Telling your friend you think of them only takes a few seconds; it can quiet the voices in your friend’s head that say you don’t care.

2. When you say you’re busy, tell them why.

If possible, even update them. For example, if you couldn’t meet up because you had to take your dog to the vet, send them a picture of your dog in the waiting room. If you can’t text during whatever your plans are, send them a quick message afterward — update them about your life. Not only does it calm the fear that you’re just avoiding your friend, they actually care about your life. Sending random updates isn’t a burden — that’s what friends are for, and it is nice to know that you care about finding time for them.

3. Initiate conversations.

You know that thing about always being the person to text first? Take that out of the sitcom situation and magnify the fear, and that’s what anxiety can be like. It’s a double-edged sword; on one hand, your friend with anxiety doesn’t want to bother you. On the other, they don’t want you to think that they’ve forgotten you.

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4. Don’t talk about their anxiety with other people.

While you aren’t bound by doctor-patient confidentiality, you should never talk about it unless you know that they are OK with it. No matter how open they may be with you, anxiety is hard to talk about. The second it is mentioned, it feels like a chasm is growing between one person and everybody else in the room. Unless you are afraid they will hurt themselves or others, don’t bring it up until they do.

5. Give them a heads-up.

If there’s a movie they’ve mentioned or a video circulating that has a jump-scare or something that triggers them, let them know. A quick heads-up can save your friend from a horrible panic attack and lets them know that you care.

6. Don’t let their anxiety define your relationship.

Sometimes anxiety feels like drowning; your friend can feel like that’s the only thing in the world, but they are still a person. Don’t make everything about their anxiety. It is a looming aspect of life, but sometimes they need a distraction. Don’t minimize them to their mental illness; they are stronger than that, even if it doesn’t feel like that. When they are having a good day, you can be proud of them — that’s hard. But don’t make everything about their anxiety. There’s a reason you became friends. Don’t forget what brought you two together in the first place.

7. Invite them to things.

One of the worst things you could say is some variant of, “Oh, I just assumed you wouldn’t want to come.” It reminds your friend that they don’t function as well as other people. It makes them feel guilty that they can’t take part in your life. Invite them to things. It will remind them that you care about them. It reassures that this friendship is fun for you, not an obligation, even if they can’t go.

8. Tell them about what’s wrong.

Their troubles do not negate yours. Friendship is a two-way street. Don’t be afraid to tell them about how your boss made you cry yesterday, or what you think about your aunt’s new boyfriend. Believe it or not, this helps your friend. There is a constant fear that the burden of anxiety is getting transferred over to you; it’s OK to lean on their shoulder. You do the same thing for them; listening can be the best thing either of you can do for each other.

9. Validate what they’re going through.

People with anxiety are constantly bombarded with the idea that their anxiety isn’t real and that they should just get over it. When your friend is jittery for no reason, or when they’re too afraid to leave the house, or when they tell you about a worry that seems ridiculous to you, don’t laugh it away. That doesn’t help. It’s an avalanche of guilt and frustration — “Why won’t my brain let me get over it like anybody else?” Even if you don’t understand what it’s like, support them in their struggles.

10. Make sure they know you are there to help.

These are not commandments; anxiety varies from person to person. The best thing you can do for your friend is to let them know that you’re there. Don’t just tell, show. It’s hard to talk about anxiety with friends; the fear of becoming a burden is debilitating. Send them an occasional article about tips for dealing with anxiety. If they seem uncomfortable, offer to talk. Be open to suggestions on how to help, even if that suggestion is to not talk about anxiety unless prompted.

I know that it’s hard, but we are willing to return the favor — that’s what friendship is. Sometimes it’s just more complex when you have anxiety.

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Thinkstock photo via oneinchpunch

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