Every superhero has an origin story. Troubled beginnings such as the loss of a home planet (Superman), the death of parents (Batman), or the death of an entire family (Punisher – seriously, WTF?) are par for the course with our favorite caped crusaders. Super Anxiety Man is no different. While I have never watched my family get gunned down, nor have I lost an entire civilization of kinfolk (thank goodness), I have certainly been to some deep, dark depths.
In the following posts, I’ll share about my origin story, just to provide some context of how I gained my super anxiety abilities.
It came from out of nowhere.
One Fall evening in Isla Vista, California, a few months before my 20th birthday, I sat in my apartment immersed in an organic chemistry textbook. That’s when it hit me with the force of a thousand Chevy Cavaliers.
I had AIDS.
The level of conviction I had in in that moment was greater than any belief I had ever had. It was such a certainty that I had no room in my mind to even question the validity of the idea. This, despite all the evidence to the contrary. I hadn’t been given a diagnosis by a doctor, I didn’t use intravenous drugs, never had a blood transfusion, and I was always safe in my… um… “romantic” escapades.
Still I fell to the floor, paralyzed by fear. I’d never been paralyzed before, so this was a first. Each movement was met with extreme agony, as if I was strapped to an electric chair which would zap me anytime I tried to get up. The fear only intensified when I attempted to move. So there I laid, sobbing in terror, for what seemed like an eternity waiting for an end of some kind.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t have AIDS. What I did have was a panic attack brought about by an anxiety disorder which, until that time, had remained dormant, only to manifest itself in teenage worry, anger, and grumpiness. Now it was rearing it’s ugly head in a new and terrifying new way that I didn’t understand; irrational fear, magnified, and seeming very, very real.
Once I got tested for HIV and the doctor gave me the “all clear”, my anxiety was immediately lifted and I thought the incident was behind me. It was a sense of elation that I felt, as if I had scratched a torturous itch. Everything was coming up Adam! Time to tackle that organic chemistry textbook again. I put the incident behind me as some random one-off.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t my last rodeo with an anxiety attack. It was only the beginning of more than a decade long battle with anxiety that would not be limited to panic attacks. It included fear of taking risks, fear of social situations, obsessive worry, and many sleepless nights. All of this was irrational, but it seemed very real to me.
At that time, I had no idea that I had an anxiety disorder. Nobody had told me that it was a thing. I thought I was alone and weird, or that everyone else was just able to handle their own fears. Why was I any different? I just couldn’t maintain. I was weak.
Of course I didn’t tell anyone about my problems, believing that they just wouldn’t understand. In hindsight, I understand that this as a tremendous disservice to my friends and family, all of whom would have been amazingly supportive. I should have given them more credit, but in my present state of mind I thought, wrongly, that nobody would understand. Part of my fear of what others thought of me. By telling them that I was weak and suffering, they would think much less of me, and that would destroy me. I instead turned to drinking, no longer just a social lubricant, but a coping mechanism. A way to live as the person that I wanted to be; outgoing, free spirited, and fun.
Alcohol as a solution to anxiety didn’t work for very long. Gradually it became problematic, yet necessary to quiet the demons in my head. Over time, alcohol became a way to make myself feel “normal”, as sobriety became less and less tolerable. Ironically, the very thing that I used as a solution to my anxiety became an amplifier. My anxiety during times of sobriety was so intense at this point that I could not function as a student, as an employee, as a boyfriend (later husband), or as a person in general. My only relief was hitting the bottle during the evening and drinking until I passed out. Fun stuff.
The rampant hypochondria persisted as well. I was convinced on many occasions that I had various types of cancer, and at one time landed in the ER because of a pain in my side (gas) that I was certain was appendicitis. Oddly enough, my fear of disease did not stop me from continuing my slow march toward death through excessive drinking, smoking, and junk food eating. Truly all my actions made for a downward spiral.
Multiple times I did consult doctors about my anxiety issue (not therapists, because I certainly wasn’t crazy!). The first time I did, I was diagnosed with a “General Anxiety Disorder”, the first time I had ever heard of such a thing. Having a name to go along with my issues was certainly a relief of sorts, but it didn’t serve to remove my anxiety. Especially since most doctors just threw Paxil at me and sent me on my way. I was already numbing the pain with alcohol? What the hell did I need medicine for? In true obsessive form, I took the medicine anyway.
What becomes extremely clear in hindsight is the snowball effect and downward spiral that was taking place as I attempted to cope with my anxiety using short term solutions, including alcohol, medication, lashing out in anger, smoking, comfort food, etc. All these things made me feel immediate relief, but always amplified the anxiety episodes. This is one of the most valuable lessons I learned as I began to transform myself was to never use the short term solutions. I’ve learned to ask these questions when assessing possible solutions to my anxiety:
- Is this a sustainable solution, or will it only help me in the short term?
- Often the “destructive” solutions offer an immediate high or relief with little or no effort. They don’t attack the root of the problem. Effective solutions take time and effort to quell the symptoms. Just like lifting weights at the gym, in order to become stronger you have to put in the work to get sustainable results.
- If/when this solution wears off, will my anxiety be worse or better?
- If the anxiety is worse, then it’s not a sustainable, healthy solution, and it is doing nothing to ease your anxiety. It is simply a mask that is covering the despair below..
- Is this solution healthy to my long term health and wellbeing?
- If your coping mechanism isn’t healthy, then you’re only making the problem worse. By using “unhealthy” solutions, not only are you doing your body, mind, and soul a disservice, you’re also adding fuel to your anxiety. Anxiety feeds on unhealthy habits. In order to eliminate it, you have to build healthy habits.
In future posts, I will talk in more detail about the topics of healthy, sustainable solutions to anxiety, which will help develop your anxiety superpowers. If you are able to relate to my story, I hope it offers some relief in the form of knowing that you’re not alone, and that there is hope. If you are struggling with anxiety and/or depression, and you are using destructive solutions, please know that help is out there and seek it out.
Stay tuned for the next episode, as Super Anxiety Man hits rock bottom, and discovers a glorious new life!