The first time you think your chest is going to explode, it tends to take the fight out of you. My arms have gone numb, my jaws and teeth hurt, my whole body tingles and then there’s constipation, GERD, the pulsating skin and stomach aches, head pressure and don’t forget the twitching eye that comes and goes.
Impending doom? I can sit in a perfectly quiet, amazingly calm situation with zero reason to feel threatened and within minutes, I’ll be convinced that when I drop dead from unknown cancer raging through my husk, they won’t find my corpse for days. A minor headache? Fuck, this is it, here comes that aneurysm. What about hitting the burrito joint and eating a massive burrito, loaded with all of the steak and cheese and sour cream? What if they make it San Diego style and throw some fries in there? Say sayonara, you’re going to have a grabber in your sleep. Your fat ass needs to hit the gym.
Anxiety is not a fun Internet article with someone in body-hugging jeans staring wistfully out at a lake. Instead, it’s wondering why you prefer to be alone in a small, enclosed room that doubles as a walk in security blanket. Or why you cringe at the Facebook comment of someone talking about “that movie gave me anxiety” when you have most definitely had to tough out a panic attack in the middle of The Force Awakens. What makes it worse? You love Star Wars.
At least a few times a month, I wake up thinking I’m dying in my sleep. Just as I’m about to drift off into nothingness, my whole body jerks awake, promising me that if I continue down this path, I will die once my body knocks out. It doesn’t feel like someone jabbing a knife into me, but it does feel like every cell of my body is going at warp speed, bouncing off everything inside of me, telling me that my heart will explode.
For those of us who wear the shit crown of anxiety on our heads, think of it this way: your regularly scheduled Tuesday programming is going totally normal. Lunch ruled, you had killer carne asada tacos. Work was a breeze and there were no meetings. Your significant other was extra affectionate and those extra kisses really touched your heart. You are going to cuddle them to death later.
But then, you get a phone call from a friend. Something bad happened, someone you know was assaulted. They’re in the hospital. You care. Your heart is broken for your friend who’s recovering in the ICU. On the surface, you’re all there and ready to run over with flowers and hugs. But, your subconscious, that asshole reminds you of the time when you were hurt, or when you almost died in a car wreck and were in the hospital and all of the terrible things you felt coming flooding back, even though they aren’t on your present mind.
The manifestations of the situation can either trigger emotional, mental, physical responses. it’s up to your bod, how it wants you to cycle through this stuff that makes adrenaline surge through you. It crushes you as it sees fit.
Because we’re built for fight or flight, we have a lot of DNA-based chemical responses built up inside. We don’t even know where they manifested from. Bodies are weird.
There’s this thing with Internet culture that exacts people thinking they can skate on mental illness from their tragic pier of just having a bad day and feeling down about it. It ain’t cool equating a rough patch of luck to what millions of us feel out of absolutely nowhere. For some people, they can’t leave the house, let alone understand why a minor inconvenience like the boss being mean is somehow akin to the dread they feel.
Sure, the boss being mean totally does suck. And for the record, fuck your boss for being a jerk, but I’d rather get chewed out by a mad boss about missing a deadline or forgetting an assignment ten out of ten times than feeling like you have a gremlin ready to explode out of your stomach. Folks, you don’t want this. Trust us.
I have learned to use my anxiety and channel it into my writing. Every day, all day, I write stuff. It’s my job. But my writing is also how I deal with my mental health issue. I can’t veg out, and binge watch movies. If I do, the level of self-loathing will be off the charts. Giving myself over to the latest Marvel Superhero Blockbuster feels like time wasted. Time I could have spent making myself better. If I do watch movies, they have to serve a purpose. Am I working on something and I can glean an idea from this? If I watch a documentary, is there a piece I’ll learn that I’ll carry with me? If I do get to schedule myself a break to fill the proverbial creative well, I have to justify it to myself months ahead of time, and I can’t have any looming work I owe to anyone. If I owe something within 48 hours of a deadline, they’ll have it in 24.
Deciding to binge watch an entire season of Stranger Things happens over days, never one day. Because if I watch more than two, I immediately have to race back into my office and write to make up for the time I’ve lost.
We’re lucky we have a King-Size bed. Otherwise, my wife would have caught a fist or a leg to the face. When the heart attack feeling grabs me in the middle of the night, I’ve been known to thrash. I’ve woken up sweaty, feeling like my body is an empty PBR can crushed under the weight of a fist around it. Eventually, I’ll fall back asleep, or if I know it’s going to be a rough night, I’ve taught myself how to fall asleep sitting up, cradled just so on our wraparound couch.
There’s the tingling in my hands, or inability to concentrate on anything, the forgetting of regular everyday tasks like saving a document on a computer you use for 14 hours a day, seven days a week. There’s the slurring of speech, acne breakouts, and head fog. Head fog is terrible. You can’t think straight. Getting meaningful work done is an impossibility, but you’ve gotta play through the pain and soldier on because that’s what happens when you’re a grown up.
Panic attacks are devastating. Your body feels like every ounce of adrenaline has built up at your toes and suddenly snaps up your spine. You can feel it move up every section of the spinal column. Your heart races, the world is going to go black at any moment, but when someone takes your pulse, you’re normal. You can’t talk, let alone form any coherent thoughts. Your body surges like a Christmas drunk on Mountain Dew – you need to walk a mile to get it out, or at least pace the house for a few hours till you pass out. The next day, you’ll feel like your body was in a car wreck. You’re exhausted, and you’re expected to endure life, despite everyone being sympathetic on paper.
This is anxiety. This why it’s miserable living with a mental condition no one can diagnose beyond pills and some therapy that could maybe work. Weed is illegal in most states, but they love prescribing all of the synthetic drugs with reckless abandon. Smoking weed makes me feel better, but I don’t love it. Sure, getting high is fun, but I’m terrible at working while stoned and thus the vicious cycle repeats. The pills may work for you, but I can’t take feeling like a pilled-out zombie.
This is a snapshot of my life, but I’m not alone. I’m one of many. Millions. Anxiety sucks, but we can’t treat it like it’s a dirty word or that we’re about to break at any second. The fight is internal, and it’s hell, but we’d rather you understand we’re gonna need a minute. And no dude, your bad day isn’t the same thing. You wouldn’t wish the curse of anxiety on your worst enemy, even if he is a total dick.
Robert Dean is a writer, journalist, and cynic. His most recent novel, The Red Seven was called “rich in vivid imagery, quirky characterizations, and no holds barred violence and mayhem. I never knew what the word romp really meant until now, but in case you’re wondering, this is it.” By Shotgun Logic. Robert is finishing a New Orleans-based crime thriller called A Hard Roll. He lives in Austin and likes ice cream and koalas. Stalk him on Twitter: @Robert_Dean