If my life was a cartoon, my anxiety would be a jerkass monkey on my back, constantly telling me how terrible I am. I should point out that this monkey has somehow developed the ability to communicate with humans and wears some kind of evil fez and oh no wait I’m totally thinking of Abu from Aladdin.
Let’s start again.
What Lies At The Bottom Of The Ocean And Shivers A Lot?
Everybody suffers from anxiety at some point in their life. It’s an evolutionarily-based coping mechanism that allows us to imagine possible future threats, and then act to escape or resolve those threats. In small doses anxiety can be an incredibly efficient problem solver, which is why the world Rubik’s Cube championships are held over a pit of lava.
But when that anxiety never goes away, when it starts interfering with your everyday life? That’s an anxiety disorder, and that’s what I’ve been living with for most of my life. And it sucks.
I should point out that this is not going to be a how-to manual on what you should do if one of your friends has anxiety. This is a record of my personal experience, and the best I am hoping for is that it encourages other people who suffer from this disorder to come out and seek help. But I am not speaking on behalf of everyone with an anxiety disorder. There are two reasons for this: the first is that I just don’t have that right, and the second is that anxiety manifests itself in different ways for different people.
Some people experience incredibly intense, short-lived panic attacks. Symptoms of these attacks include hyperventilation, stomach cramps and intense pain in the chest. In many cases, the panic attack becomes a positive feedback loop, where the sufferer becomes more panicked because the symptoms resemble those of a heart attack.
Who Wants A Big Serving Of Negativity Stew?
For me, anxiety is a more chronic condition. My mind is a constant susurrus of worries, regrets and irrational stress: my girlfriend’s going to dump me, I’m getting uglier as I get older, my friends are more successful than me, I’m not as talented as people think I am, I’m pretty sure I’ve got cancer, my landlady’s going to kick me out tomorrow morning, I’m never going to earn enough money to support my (non-existent) kids, the end of Game of Thrones is going to be reeeally disappointing…
Now, I’m well aware that most of these concerns (and I should point out that all of the above worries are ones I have genuinely had in the past) are absolutely ridiculous, or completely outside my control (George R.R. Martin is going to have a heart attack well before he gets to the end of Game of Thrones), but that knowledge does me absolutely no good. My mind is like an elite army squad in the middle of Afghanistan, and while all the other soldiers are off fighting actual threats like insurgents or IEDs or terrorists, my squad is being led by maverick Lieutenant Johnny B. Craycray, who insists they stay on high alert for Jabberwock attacks.
And that in turn leads me further down the rabbit-hole of panic, where my brain points out that my worries are meaningless and then immediately begins to worry about wasting so much time worrying about them. Even when everything in my life is going well, my brain insists on picking away at the fabric of my happiness sweater until it can find a loose thread, a tiny, piddling grievance that can unravel everything so that it can say “aha! I told you something was going to go wrong!”
As you can imagine, this is an exhausting way to live. If you’ve ever seen me at a social gathering, you may have noticed that I tend to gravitate towards couches or chairs. This is because it is so much effort for me to maintain small talk with strangers – I am constantly analysing and reanalysing every word that I say, always worried that I may have insulted someone or inadvertently embarrassed myself by revealing I have almost no interests outside of Doctor Who – that my entire body becomes fatigued, and sometimes it’s hard to keep standing.
For this reason, I try to avoid going to parties or putting myself in situations with too many strangers. When I don’t have any other choice, I drink a lot of alcohol to keep the stupid voices in my head quiet, which leads to a whole raft of other issues (mainly my dancing, which was once described as “the death throes of a wounded kraken”).
And my literally constant worry means that, even with very close friends, I snap way, way too easily. When your brain is perpetually racing and evaluating every little thing you do, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of acting like a dick so you don’t have to actually engage with people. Think of it like a computer running too many processes at once; eventually, the CPU freezes up completely and you’re left there banging your head against the keyboard in frustration.
(This analogy only works if you’re a PC user. If you’ve got a Mac, I’m afraid I can’t help you)
Let’s Get Physical!
Another irritating feature of my anxiety is the fact that it manifests itself in a whole feel bad rainbow of physical symptoms. I experience hot and cold flushes (mainly confined to my legs and back) and heart palpitations at least two to three times a day. After a particularly bad bout of worry, it sometimes feels like someone is threading barbed wire through my chest, and deep breaths cause a horrible splintering sensation in my ribs.
As with Draculas, it gets worse when the sun goes down. I am tired nearly all the time, because I can’t even remember the last time I slept the whole night through without the assistance of sweet, sweet liquor. Most days I’ll wake up at three or four o’clock in the morning, dripping with sweat, and my anxiety will take advantage of my tired state to launch a full-on assault. This usually takes the form of a recap (“previously on hit TV show Your Repeated Failures As A Human Being…“) although occasionally there’s a thrilling teaser trailer for tomorrow’s episode of Ways You’re Going To Continue To Suck At Life.
But the worst part about suffering from anxiety is the knowledge of just how stupid and unjustified it all is. I have a remarkably priviliged life. I live with one of my closest friends, I’m in a relationship with an incredible person who constantly makes me feel wanted and loved, and I am surrounded by a group of impossibly supportive friends and family. I work at a job I love that gives me plenty of time to pursue other pursuits, and by any measure things are going pretty well for me at the moment.
Do you think any of that matters to my anxiety? Not a jot. No matter how well my life is going, all it takes is the tiniest mishap or unforeseen incident to send my happiness crumbling to pieces like an innocent building in a Marvel movie. And that means that I get to add a buttload of guilt to the horrible negativity stew my brain’s a’brewin’: what right do I have to feel like this when there are so many people in the world who have it much worse than I do?
Getting Something Done
If you suffer from anxiety (or depression), talk to someone about it. Don’t keep it bottled up inside, or let it wear down your life and relationships; with so many resources available (in Australia, you can talk to beyondblue or ReachOut, and under Medicare you’re entitled to ten free sessions with a psychologist every year) that no matter how bad you think it is, there is someone out there who can help.
For the longest time, I did nothing about my anxiety. I had learnt to rationalise it as just a part of my life, as a chemical imbalance in my brain that I had no means of controlling. But that doesn’t have to be the case, and it’s not going to be the case. I’ve decided I’m going to take active steps to deal with my anxiety, starting with this blog post. I’ve started doing meditation and next year I’ll be attending counselling in an attempt to overcome this disorder I’ve been living with since forever. I’m genuinely excited about the prospect of being happier and more productive in my life.
Fuck you, Abu from Aladdin, you’re not the boss of me.
When he’s not whinging about his dumb brain, Patrick Magee is a 1993 Canadian short film written and directed by Mike Hoolboom. More of his ramblings can be found here, you can like him on Facebook, and you can buy his novel As Baile: A Story here.