When I woke up, I couldn’t tell where the nightmare stopped and reality began. It was all the same.
Imagine having a radio in your head, cranked up to full blast, and the stations changing every few seconds. Wave after crashing wave of gibberish, so loud in your mind you can barely think to breathe.
Your heart pounds through your chest, oxygen seems to stop working, and it’s all you can do to stop from screaming because you can’t get enough air in to make a sound.
Even when it finally stopped, I didn’t know how to roll over and explain it to Emily, who had just gotten in to bed beside me. Any words I wanted to say felt like they first had to come down a long tunnel to get to my brain and then out of my mouth. At 35 years old, I buried my face in my wife’s shoulder and sobbed until the words finally arrived.
“I’ve never been so terrified in my life. I couldn’t make my brain stop. It felt like I was losing my mind.”
Emily reached over and held me. “You’re fine. It was an anxiety attack. I know how those feel.”
The Stereo Blows Out
Some time ago, I described living with “high-functioning anxiety” as deliberately being super-active to tire out your brain so that it “drowns out” your endless anxious thoughts. The analogy was living in an apartment with noisy neighbors, and buying a giant stereo to drown them out. It’s a coping mechanism that tends to burn people out quickly, because eventually their energy dries up. Then not only is the anxiety still there, as loud as ever, but they don’t have the energy to fight it off anymore.
After a week of changes at work, cutting down on caffeine (keeps your energy up, sure- but at a cost,) the very real scare of catching COVID, being sent home from urgent care with a shrug, and losing a week’s pay- apparently my mind couldn’t cope anymore. The stereo blew out, and my demons returned in force.
A weakened immune system from endless stress, and fatigue and anxiety from reducing my caffeine intake paved the way for me to have nightly anxiety attacks. In fact, every time I closed my eyes, I could feel my heart start to race and my breathing come hard and shallow. Even meditating- deliberately focusing on slowing down my breathing and relaxing my body- was sometimes enough to trigger another attack.
It was time to take my own advice- I am not okay and I needed help. I made appointments to be checked out by a primary care doctor, and sought out a psychiatrist to restart therapy- now with the possibility of medication very much on the table. I was not just “burning out“- I was turning to ashes.
Needing Help is Not Weakness
The problem with writing about some of these topics has always been the fact that while, yes, I have suffered from anxiety, I never thought it was That Bad. That I wasn’t a Person That Needed Medication To Function. Despite all my writings to the contrary, I was accidentally buying in to and spreading the stigma associated with taking psychiatric meds. It was something that was very easy for me to do because, quite simply, it wasn’t me.
I was, without malice and in an very well-meaning manner, talking out of my ass about “not being ashamed” of asking for help or taking medication. When the rubber met the road and it was my turn to admit I might need some chemical help to keep my mind from tearing itself apart, I was embarrassed. I was ashamed, and Emily had to remind me that I wasn’t “weak” or “failing” for needing to consider medication.
Some time ago, I saw a post from a psychiatrist that offered an analogy I’ll paraphrase here:
“I wear glasses because the way my eyes are shaped makes seeing at a distance blurry. Yes, I can see without them, but it’s difficult. I could do without glasses- I could squint, deal with the headaches, and never drive again… but why would I when I can just wear corrective lenses? No one judges me for wearing glasses.
In the same way, your brain has a chemical imbalance making it so that you have anxiety or depression. Yes, you could do without medication- you can deal with the days that leave you too lethargic to leave your bed, or the anxiety attacks and ruminating thoughts… but why would you when you can just get medication to correct the imbalance? It’s no different than wearing glasses when you are nearsighted.”
I didn’t always need glasses either- I got them when I was about 8. I’ve been living with having glasses sans stigma for 28 years… now my brain needs help to keep me functioning properly.
I’m sure I’ll be fine eventually, but for right now I’ll be happy just getting back to being okay.