– By Aecium
Crap. It’s my turn. Am I ready? My mind goes blank. Shit, I had made a decision. What was it?
She turns and stares right at me. Tap tap, tap taaaap tap goes the pen on her pad as if she is sending me a secret message. I can only assume the message reads “Hurry up! I’m waiting! Others are waiting!”
My heart races, ringing in my ears like machine gun fire. I frantically search the page again. Are these even words? I can’t focus with everyone staring at me. What do they want from me? This should not be this hard. No one else seemed to have a problem.
Just pick something already! I search for what I think will have the least amount of questions.
“Ummm….” My voice wavers “I, um, I’ll have the…” lost it. I look down again and pick the first thing my eyes land on. I blurt out “The Southwest bacon burger.”
“Ok” she says “And how would you like that done?”
Shit! “Ah… medium.”
“And for your side?”
Damn it. I wanted medium rare. The pounding of my heart mixes with the sounds of the restaurant in my ears making it hard to hear myself think. Focus, just focus! Sides – what are the sides? Where were they listed? There they are. “Um… Fries.”
“Do you want wedges, seasoned, waffle cut, or regular?”
Too many choices. Why so many? Crap what were they? I think there were 3 or was it 4 choices? They’re all potato, just pick one. “Umm.. the 2nd one.”
“The seasoned fries?”
“Yes, those.” Please let that be all!
As she moves on to the next person at our table I slouch down a bit and relax. Well, as much as I can anyway.
That used to be the norm for me. Beyond the discomfort in the moment the anxiety would leave me drained and the stress could linger well after. It’s been a long journey to better mental health and the hardest part for me was taking the first step.
Anxiety is a natural emotion that is part of our fight or flight response. When working normally, anxiety helps you realize that something’s not quite right and that you might be in danger, so it starts to prep you to run or hold your ground. However, for some people, like myself, it fires too often or for things that are not life threatening, and it goes well above the level that is needed. It comes in all shapes and sizes and can be custom fit, at no extra charge, to each person’s fears and vulnerabilities. For me, that meant things like an overwhelming fear of failure (which prevented me from finishing or even starting projects), fears of conflict (I would not speak up or disagree) and an intense discomfort when interacting with people that I didn’t know well (first days at school or interviewing for jobs were never good days).
I’m not completely certain when my anxiety crossed over from helpful alarm system to an overactive panic and dread machine. The best I can pinpoint it, would be in middle school, which for me was 7th and 8th grade. It was a culture shock with a shift from having one teacher and classroom for all your classes, to having a different teacher and room for every subject.
I had to remember where all the classrooms were, where my locker was, the combination for my lock, and which books and folders I needed for the next class. All of that in the time allotted for passing between classes. Also, kids are mean and they seemed to be at their worst in middle school. I know all of my peers were also adjusting to the same stuff. However, during those two years I had extra difficulties. I was once again being teased for my lisp, even though it was far less noticeable than when I was younger, and for being “learning disabled” (I’m dyslexic, which added its own fun issues). It was a lot to deal with and trying to find appropriate ways to cope with it all was hard. And to be honest, I missed the mark. While I did find ways to cope and survive, they were not always the most effective.
To the credit of my parents, I did not become a member of the “wrong crowd,” which seemed to be a common response for kids in the learning disabled category. My parents always encouraged me to do my best, made sure that I received the help I needed both at school and at home, and provided me with what I needed to pursue and excel at the things I was passionate about. Thanks to all of their support I was able to accomplish more than I would have otherwise thought possible.
However, my anxiety problems were not something my parents could help me with. That’s because one of the first things I figured out was how to hide it. The last thing I wanted was to draw attention to myself in any way.
I want to make something completely clear at this point. The decision I made to hide and not talk about my anxiety is one of the worst things I could have done. But, I didn’t know any better at the time. Even if I had thought about asking for help, this was the 90’s and there was not much talk about mental health issues. The little talk there was, was heavily stigmatized . I had already been branded learning disabled, I didn’t want to be labeled as crazy, too.
So I kept quiet about the sheer panic I dealt with on a regular basis. I learned to avoid putting myself in situations that would involve making a lot of decisions, interacting with new people or worse, a combination of the two. Something as simple as shopping by myself could cause paralyzing anxiety. So whenever possible I would go with a friend, someone who was willing to ask a store employee for help if we could not find what I needed. Even then, there were plenty of times that I would leave a store without buying what I had gone there for.
I would rather leave than interact with people I didn’t know. I was afraid of being judged as inadequate or incapable. Something as simple as asking for assistance (from someone, who mind you, was being payed to help customers) was too risky. In my mind, if I needed to ask for help it was proof that I was somehow not up to the task, whatever that task happened to be. If I could not find the thing I needed, or worse, did not know exactly what I needed, how could I even consider that I might succeed? I was also positive the employee helping me had better, more important things to do. I was certain that I would be the focus of their next rant in the break room about the idiot customers they had to deal with.
Some of the worst times were when I had to travel for work to install equipment at hospitals and most of that was travel by myself. Those trips were terrifying for me in so many ways. Everything about them caused me anxiety! Getting to the airport on time, getting checked in, going through security and finding my gate were all things that, in my head, could go so wrong in so many ways.
Once I landed at my destination I had to get my rental car and find my hotel. This was before the time of everyone having a smartphone with GPS so getting lost in a strange town was a very real possibility. Then I still needed to find the hospital that I was going to be working at during that trip. I typically saw only three places when I had to travel for work – the airport, my hotel and the hospital. Luckily for me, by that time you could order pizza on the internet, which saved me at least one interaction. The only reason I was able to travel and survive was the mere fact that it was required for my job, and I was more afraid of being fired and unemployed. That was enough motivation to force myself through everything I needed to get done.
Dealing with constant anxiety throughout the trip was not without consequence. Afterward, I was absolutely wore out physically (due to a nearly constant racing heart and what I can best explain as a full body buzzing or the butterflies in your stomach on steroids), mentally (because of the sheer amount of will power exerted to push through it and the extra difficulty of having to problem solve through the “anxiety fog”) and emotionally (fighting fears of failure, self doubt, and why no one else seemed to have this problem). I would seclude myself and have as little interaction with the outside world as possible so I could recover and recharge from it all. If you can imagine how you might feel after a multi-day mountain hiking trip during which you were also studying for and then taking final exams, you will start to have an idea of how it felt.
For me, anxiety was not reserved just for during and after the triggering event. The days, weeks and sometime months leading up to an event could be just as bad and draining.
I would obsess about all the things that could go wrong from the simple to the outrageous. Sometimes the scenarios I came up with were like a Rube Goldberg machine of circumstances.
The things that would have to happen for the end scenario to play out were so remote, so unlikely to happen that to even give them a second thought would seem ill advised. But I would not only give them a second thought but a third, a fourth, a fifth, ad infinitum, so much so that any idle time was spent coming up with and going over such scenarios in my mind. Trying to go to sleep was one of the worst times. Nothing but idle time to think and worry and plan for things that would very likely never come to pass, and honestly, to my recollection, never did.
Here is a very real example of the kind of thinking that plagued me. Say I were to tell my coworkers about a personal project I was working on at home, such as a computer program. This would open me up for criticism. My coworkers might think the project was stupid and, by extension, that I was also. If I wasn’t able to complete the project, which was inevitable, that would be proof for everyone to see.
I was a stupid failure. My manager would find out and, learning that I was a stupid failure, realize that hiring me had been a mistake, one which they would promptly remedy. I would be unemployed which would mean Dealing with interviews, where I would have to explain why I was unemployed. Even if the interviews somehow went well, which I could not see happening, it would all come crashing down when they called my last job for a reference. I wouldn’t be unable to get another job and I would default on my car loan, then my house. In the end, I’d be unemployed, with no car, and homeless, all because I talked to some coworkers about a project I was working on in my spare time that had nothing to do with my job. It was exhausting.
Patterns of thinking like this are a form of distorted thinking, that is, when the thoughts you’re having are not in line with reality or within reason. Having irrational thoughts is not abnormal but it becomes a problem when they take hold and grow into something that prevents you from enjoying, or even doing, activities you normally would have. That is a major point! Take note. When anxiety (or other thoughts and feelings) gets to the point where they prevent you from enjoying or doing activities you normally would, that’s a problem and a sign to get help.
In the second part of this article, I’ll talk about the steps I took to get help for my anxiety and how it helped me tame the fears that fueled it.
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