How Growing Up With Anxiety Inspired Me to Become a Therapist
I used to curse the almighty when it came to my mental illness. Why? I would ask. Why me?
A former therapist tried to explain it, “Well John, it’s a nexus of heredity and the external conditions of your life.” Then she said, “You see, your genetics loads the gun and the environment pulls the trigger.” (She pantomimed the shape of a pistol with her hand and aimed it towards the wall).
Oh, great, I thought, nothing like a violent firearm metaphor from a shrink to calm me down and soothe my anxiety. Thanks for that.
As early as 8 years old, I knew I was a different kind of child. I wanted to fit in like everyone else. But no matter how hard I tried, I felt estranged from others as the result of my debilitating anxiety. Everyone looked so relaxed and happy all the time. The worst part of it was no one could understand it — least of all my parents.
I experienced my first panic attack one night after my parents went to bed. Out of nowhere a terrifying current of fear surged through my body. My heart thumped out of control. I gasped for air. I began to sweat and my mind raced uncontrollably. In a frantic state, I ran into my parent’s bedroom and woke up my mother, not knowing what was happening to me. She lifted her head from the pillow and in a drowsy tone whispered I should be careful not to wake up my father. We both knew that was a really bad idea. Then she murmured, “Go back to bed, you have nothing to be afraid of.”
My mother was kind and she did the best she could. I went back to bed as she instructed and hoped she was right. For a moment I believed her without question, but the panic continued. It was the first of many dark and lonely nights to come.
For the next four years my panic attacks continued. I understood something was amiss. If there was nothing to be afraid of as my mother insisted, yet I continued to be afraid, then something must be seriously wrong with me. I remember thinking I must be “stupid” and “weak” if I was scared of nothing. There was no identifiable source of fear I could verbalize to my parents — no monsters under the bed, no boogeyman in the closet. There was simply no reason to be frightened and yet… my fear persisted.
So, the die was cast. It was written in stone. I wasn’t just a boy growing up as an equal member of the human race. No. I felt like a freak — a pathetic, terrified little coward who was slowly losing his mind. This belief set up a template of shame and self-loathing that lasted for years.
I later learned a lot of what my therapist told me was true. There was no chicken and no egg. My genetics had loaded the “gun” with the bullets that predisposed me to anxiety. My inborn, susceptibility for angst had wired me for a childhood of fear and emotional reactivity. Apparently when I was being created at the assembly line, God forgot to install the shock absorbers.
I also learned that growing up with my critical father may have pulled the trigger of that very same gun.
My father was a Greek immigrant who came to the United States in the early 1950s. He fought in WWII, almost died from pneumonia, struggled through hard economic times and yet, still managed to raise a family and create a successful business in New York City with no formal education. He was a cold pillar of unflinching strength and sheer doggedness.
There was nothing soft about my father. Nothing. He was old school strict and brutally harsh. As a little boy, if I displayed any sign of my chronic fear or anxiety, he battered me with shame. My poor father didn’t know any better. Where he came from there was no such thing as depression or anxiety.
He was particularly incensed with my intermittent panic attacks, which he could never understand. “Get a hold of yourself!” He would bark at me. He loathed the fact that a reflection of him, his own son, could succumb to such “weakness.”
Within inches of my face, he would shout, “When I was your age I had to work three jobs to support my family. I had no time to be afraid.”
But all stories of struggle have a silver lining. Even this one. The reality is if it wasn’t for my pre-wiring and genetic inclination for anxiety and if not for my father’s abusive treatment, I would never have landed my ass in therapy. I am pretty sure if not for my anxiety and my father’s reaction to it, I would never have sought higher education and have become a psychotherapist. Today, and for the last 23 years, I have treated hundreds of patients struggling with a range of mental health conditions, especially extreme cases of phobias, OCD and panic attacks. I have also written and published two books on the same subject.
If you take anything from my story today, please remember these four things:
1. The only “normal” people in the world are people you don’t know very well.
2. Even dentists get cavities, auto mechanics’ cars breakdown and bankers go bankrupt.
3. If you are currently struggling with a mental health condition and you are getting help, remember this too shall pass — it may pass like a kidney stone — but it shall pass.
4. And most importantly, don’t forget that no matter what happens to you in this life — regardless of your diagnosis — “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”
I decided not to let my affliction rule my life.
Today, I don’t ask, “Why me?” anymore. Instead, I confidently say, “Why not me?”
And wherever you are Dad, the many people I have helped and even I say thank you for pulling the trigger.
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Thinkstock photo via Highwaystarz-Photography.