“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times
I’d like to preface this post by calling some bullshit. It’s my opinion that our western society in general has been afflicted with a serious case of pseudo-spiritual false positivity. “Good vibes only!” “You’ve got this!” “Embrace the hustle!” Platitudes in a sea of good intentions and ignorance. I need you to know that I in no way am saying that having a positive mindset is wrong, or that being happy and having gratitude are not essential to our lives. But I really do believe that in all the effort to try to feel good, positive, and “happy” all the time, we have really done ourselves a disservice. By consciously choosing to ignore, suppress, or negate struggle, pain, discomfort, and grief, we are creating an environment in which we do not allow people to be authentic. We make it difficult for people to be able to do what we need to do to work through the hard stuff. We often make people feel shame or blame for going through hard times, instead of creating a loving, safe, supportive environment in which to feel the full gamut of human emotion and experience. And so, with that in mind, I am calling bullshit on this fluffy garbage. Anyone who knows me already knows that I am generally a happy, joyful, excited person by nature (I believe that we all are!), but I don’t subscribe to false positivity and I eschew the damage that is done by promoting it over full human experience.
I think we can all agree that life isn’t all puppies and rainbows. Last night, I suffered the most severe anxiety attack I’ve ever had in my life. In my past, I once made my mom drive me to the hospital in the night because I was convinced I was having a heart attack. I was probably only 12 or 13 at the time. I also called 911 twice in that time while I was home alone as I was panicking and feeling like I was going to pass out and didn’t know what else to do. Last night, I had been feeling light-headed and a bit off all day, but at around 5:30, it started to get hard to breathe. I was making supper, and the tunnel vision started to kick in. My fingers started to tingle and slowly go numb. My inner brain knew that this was probably anxiety, so I headed to my bedroom to try and use my strategies to manage it. But despite my attempts to convince myself that I was having a panic attack, I was unable to get my breathing under control, my blood pressure was borderline critical, and my pulse was over 120 bpm. When my wife came back in the house to eat after coaching for an hour, I was already about 15 or 20 minutes into this attack and it was getting worse, not better. I made her drive me to the hospital. I was 100% convinced I was going to lose consciousness and die in the car. A couple times I screamed “I DON’T WANT TO DIE!!! I’M NOT READY!!! IT’S NOT MY TIME YET!!!!!!” as my wife somehow safely and swiftly drove me to the emergency room. My vision was fading in and out, I couldn’t get a proper breath in, I couldn’t move or feel my hands, and the tingling was spreading to my legs, as well. I couldn’t feel my lips. When we arrived, Jaimie ran in and told them I needed help. A nurse ran out and got me from the car, he walked me in.
They got me into triage and hooked me up to an oximeter and blood pressure meter. I’m sure they probably knew by then that I was having an anxiety attack, because by the time I got in there they seemed a lot less urgent than I expected them to be for someone who was having a cardiac or neurological crisis. Fast forward a couple hours, and I’ve had blood drawn, chest x-rays, an ECG, and a complete physical workover by a lovely and caring ER doctor. Everything comes back perfectly fine. I told the doctor that I do have a history of anxiety but that this was the worst I’ve ever experienced. She asked me if I would like to try an Ativan to see if I tolerated it, and I said yes. Within an hour of taking the med, I was feeling completely exhausted but physically back to normal. But then the shame, guilt, and feelings of idiocy come creeping back in. I had literally just convinced my wife that I was dying. She had been absolutely fucking terrified. What a traumatic event to put her through, let alone to go through. I have done my share of bargaining with Creator in my life, but I have never been so sure my time was up and I was not ready to go. I was not ready to die, especially not in maximum panic and terror mode like that, holding my wife’s hand as I faded out and her speeding to get me to care.
Embarrassed, exhausted, but physically fine, we left the hospital after about 3 hours. The doctor assured me I did the right thing by going in, and that they have had a lot of people coming in in the same state as me, especially since Covid hit. It did help alleviate a little of the guilt I was feeling. But the thing about anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems is that sometimes no matter how hard you work at it, no matter how many strategies you’ve learned or how many good choices you make, they will still kick your ass once in a while. And I think it’s really important for everyone to understand that. Even for someone like me, who is privileged to have access to very supportive family and friends, who has access to an excellent health care team, who takes the opportunity to utilize my work health plan to seek regular therapy and psychiatrist support, who has tried very hard to make positive, healthy life choices, my anxiety has never left me. Sometimes it can be held at bay, sometimes it goes into “remission,” but it’s always there, ready to kick my ass if I ever let my guard down and sometimes in spite of all the things I’ve done to manage it. I sat with Jaimie in the ER, holding her hand, and tearfully apologizing for making her so afraid, feeling every bit as guilty as I did relieved that I was going to be ok.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t hate my life sometimes. I hate that I live my life every day being stalked by a shadow that I know could very well consume me at any point. I hate that I put my loved ones through all this trauma vicariously. I hate that my atypical brain betrays me day after day, and that my life is never just pleasant and calm without the knowledge that feelings of impending doom lurk around every moment. I hate that I haven’t been able to find a medication that works for me, and I’m afraid of the consequences of being on that kind of medication long-term. It’s exhausting. It’s demoralizing. It just really fucking sucks. That’s not to say that I don’t have good days, or even good weeks. I’ve even had good months and almost a year at a time. And in general, I have a happy nature and tend to be able to focus on the positive. And I also have a good grasp of gratitude, and I am daily grateful for all the good things in my life. But it doesn’t make days like yesterday any easier. And if someone today were to tell me “good vibes only,” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” I would be inclined to want to punch them in the face and tell them that they should be happy for the pain I’ve given them because it will make them stronger. It doesn’t help, and it doesn’t work like that.
The short and the long of this is to let you who are neurotypical know that anxiety and depression are diseases. They are not because of choices a person has made, or something that really will ever go away, no matter how hard a person “hustles” for it. They can be managed, mitigated, pushed into remission, and made less severe, but they are never really gone. The causes might be in the brain, in the soul, in the body, or in the trauma of our pasts and/or presents, but they are very real, extremely physical, and very difficult to live with.
And for those of my atypical guys, gals, and gender non-conforming pals I just want you to know that you are not alone. You are heard. You are seen. And I will never make you feel stupid or weak or dumb for sharing your experiences with me. Don’t sit and stew in your pain. Share it. Find safe people, and share and share and share so that the burden doesn’t feel so heavy. If you don’t have a safe person, I will be one for you.
Please take care of yourselves. Reach out for help. And know that just because you have a bad day, week, or month, doesn’t mean you will never feel better. I know that it feels like it. I know exactly what that feels like. I know what it feels like to think you’re a burden on your loved ones. I know what it’s like to feel like your life is out of control. I know what it’s like to not know if you’re ever going to feel good ever again. I know what it feels like to think you are dying, and it is intense, visceral, and insanely exhausting. And always know that it’s ok to not be ok, that even when you’re struggling and life is hard and you can barely get yourself out of bed to face the day (or even if you can’t), you are still worthy of love and all the good things life has to offer. Being anxious or depressed and not feeling “happy” all the time doesn’t mean that you deserve to feel like that. It doesn’t mean that you are manifesting negativity or that your feelings are less than or invalid. Be gentle on yourself. In those times in my life, the only thing I hang on to is that over the years and in my experience, things do tend to get better after a while. Sometimes not as good as you wish, but better to the point where life is kinda nice again. Some may call that optimism, but I call it Hope (with a capital H). And it does make me grateful that I can rely on that knowledge, even when things are unbearably shitty. May you also be able to hold onto those little lights. In the words of my Buddhist homegirl guru Pema Chodron,
“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
I’m rooting for you! We might not all be in the same boat, but we are all on the same ocean and I’m throwing out life preservers wherever I can. Thank you for everyone in my life that has tossed me a pool noodle over the years ❤