Wednesday, February 26, 2014

He makes all things new. Even me.

Another vintage post, from late 2010/early 2011

I don't know how to start this post.

I want to say, right off, "I have an anxiety disorder, and that's okay." So that if you're reading this and you do too, you know that, right off.

I want to start at the beginning, except where is the beginning? When I was 9 or 10 years old and read the part of Sarah, Plain and Tall where Anna says that the thing she remembers about her mother's death is that she forgot to say goodnight to her the night she died? And how to this day I'm still afraid of going to bed without saying goodnight to the people I love, so that they don't die?

I could tell you a thousand stories like that, but I won't. I'll just say that in hindsight I realize that I had very anxious tendencies from early elementary school on, and I probably could have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at any point from 13 on, but I wasn't, and I did okay anyway.

Then I got to college, and a thousand things good and bad happened, and I started dating Scott, which was unquestionably good.

Then last spring (of 2009), I began to be less and less happy, and to need more and more reassurance that he loved me and he wasn't going anywhere and on and on and on, the same words over and over again, because no matter how many times he said it I didn't believe him.

In July he gently and compassionately suggested that I read Brain Lock. (He is the only person I know who can suggest that sort of thing without it coming across as an insult.) The first thing I did was take the University of Hamburg Obsessive-Compulsive Inventory which is conveniently located in the back of Brain Lock. I can't remember now exactly what I got, but I know I was "definitely clinically significant" on obsessions and "probably clinically significant" on compulsions.

The last question in particular, about checking addresses on letters before you mail them, gave me this "Oh, shoooot" feeling, like a kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar. I'd get that feeling many more times while reading Brain Lock, because here was this guy writing about all the weird, bizarre, to-odd-to-even-mention things that went through my head on a given day.

Yet for all that, I wasn't terribly impressed by the book at first. It wasn't until a day or two later that I was sitting in the backseat of my parents' van and suddenly thought, You mean I don't always have to feel this way? It was what Stephen Covey would call a paradigm shift--the first moment at which I realized that being anxious most of the time was not just a normal part of human life.

They say that admitting you have a problem is half the job of solving it, but...well, it's only half. I stayed moderately anxious (in the clinical sense, and more on that checklist later) well into the semester. Then the stress of midterms and term papers and such hit, and I spent October through December camping out in Severe Anxiety Land. (Also known as The Land of Not-Okay.)

By January I was sick of it, and determined to get rid of my anxiety by whatever means necessary. I realize in hindsight that my problem was that I tried to control my anxiety triggers rather than the anxiety itself. Now, getting plenty of sleep and eating decently and keeping one's schedule in line are good things, but...well, there will always be times in life when it's going to get crazy and you're going to live off sugar and caffeine for a week or two. (Unless you're me, in which case caffeine doesn't work for you and you just eat twice as much sugar to compensate.)

For me, that was midterms. Unsurprisingly. On March 1 I had two midterms back-to-back, and since it was a Monday I also had work. I swallowed my pride and explained the situation to my editor, asking her for an extension. (I believe only from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., but I don't remember clearly now and it's not relevant enough for me to go looking for the email.) She was very understanding, but no doubt the niggling feeling of failure in the back of my mind contributed to my anxiety. A better copy editor would be able to study for midterms AND get her work done by deadline...

I took my first midterm and felt like I did well. I took my second midterm and felt like I did well. (At some point I did the copy editing and finished well before my revised deadline, but I honestly don't remember when that happened.) Then I sat outside the hallway for Honors and a girl who was in both Sacraments and Honors with me mentioned the answer she'd given to one of the long essay questions (worth, if memory serves, 25 points each). It was completely different from what I'd put, and I was convinced that she was right and I was wrong.

I wrote those last several paragraphs all in a day, and then I stopped for almost a week, because it is getting to the hard part, the part where my life fragments into contradictory pieces with the splintered edges rubbing hard against each other...and I do not know how to write it.

On the one side, there was the panic attack. It was, to my knowledge, the only one I've ever had; I certainly haven't had one since and I am deeply happy for that. A day or two later I described it simply: I was nervous about the Sacraments midterm mentioned above, and I went to the chapel to pray and then started crying and shaking and feeling like I couldn't breathe, so I went up to my room and paced desperately back and forth, crying and shaking and praying, until finally it stopped.

The physical part was bad, but the part I don't even know how to describe is the part that makes me surer, in hindsight, that it was a panic attack and not just garden-variety freaking out. Because it felt so many orders of magnitude worse than I can't stop crying. It felt like the whole world was going to end. It felt like being in the middle of an ocean in a storm and you can't find even a board to hang onto to keep you from drowning.

I mark that day, March 1, as the beginning of the really bad stuff. In a way it was. Things had been bad before that, but never ever that bad.

I won't go into too many details of the next two months. This post sums things up pretty well. I said then, at least by allusion, that I was anxious in the clinical sense. I was also depressed and despairing (in the spiritual sense), but I hadn't admitted that to myself yet. I barely admitted to the anxiety, in fact. I read the DSM definitions of different disorders and I got to the last line that always says whatever problem you have has to be bad enough that it interferes with your ability to function--and I pointed to the fact that I was pulling straight A's and only occasionally weeping openly at Mass and only crying myself to sleep when I was sure nobody was listening--and there was only that one time that I went to Grace (she who has always lived up to her name and who is now my long-suffering roommate) and cried onto her shoulder for literally at least an hour without stopping, and then talked in an incoherent jumble for at least another hour until the pressure on my soul let up enough that I could go on breathing. I called that functioning. I called it functioning when I got so afraid of my own brain that I, the ultimate introvert, didn't want to be alone. I gathered up my laptop and my hot cocoa mix and went down to Grace's room and bribed her with hot chocolate so she'd let me study for finals sitting on a chair next to her bed and talking to her so I didn't have to listen to what my brain was whispering to me.

(For the record, I am not schizophrenic. I just find it easier to talk about the anxiety-thoughts as if they came from a separate person, because it is true in a sense that they are not me. They are like stray cats that come scratching at the backdoor of my mind and I used to feel bad for them and let them in but now I realize that they just claw the furniture and pee on everything. So I have been learning how to put in earplugs and ignore the scratching.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the splinters, there was unfathomable grace. I distinctly remember there being a time, somewhere in the midst of this, when I lay facedown on the rough carpet of the chapel in my dorm, probably crying, thinking about how I had absolutely nothing left. And I got at once the sense of Christ coming down off the cross and lying down next to me on that rough carpet and just holding my hand. Because he does that, comes to us when we can't come to him.

And meanwhile I was being stalked by Isaiah 43. I know, that sounds funny. The two times I've said it aloud I've gotten laughed at. But it's the only way I have to describe the way that chapter showed up everywhere in my life. In the readings at Mass. In a friends' stati on Facebook. Once, I went to Confession and a priest handed me a little slip of paper and told me to reflect on it. So I went to a back pew and looked down and saw, Behold, I am doing a new thing.

Yet I was still the girl who wrote that post, at the end of April. I had gotten sort of...numb, spiritually. I stopped asking God to help me. I stopped believing he would help me. I convinced myself that it was somehow his will for me to be in the state I was in.

I do not pretend even now to be the mouthpiece of God's will, but I will say one thing for the record and stand by it.

Despair is NEVER God's will.

I hope somebody who needed to read that got far enough into this monster of a post to read it. I hope you start believing it sooner than I did.

I won't go into this summer, because I don't have enough distance from it yet to sort out all the thoughts and feelings and everything that went on. Suffice it to say that I did not get better. If anything, I got worse. The Rage became my friend over the summer. I thought it was a good idea to be friends, because I thought that the Rage was my only weapon against Despair.

Public service announcement: Rage is a double agent, and until you shove him clawing out the backdoor and slam it shut behind him, you'll never actually get better.

So I went to counseling. It was a big huge production getting myself there, and I almost gave up. Scott is the one who really got me there--partly in the plain sense of being the one who talked me through the intake form and partly in a deeper sense--I knew I was hurting him, and I didn't know how to stop, and I knew I had to stop for us to survive this. So I did what was possibly the most selfless thing I've ever done, and went to counseling.

The first session was nice, because I got to talk about myself for an hour with the deep and abiding assurance that this nice older lady was getting paid to listen to me babble self-centeredly.

The second session was not so nice, because the counselor talked more than I did and at one point she quoted poetry or something from a stock of poetry and stuff she keeps around for angsty college students, and I thought bitterly that if I'd wanted that sort of stuff I could have sat in the waiting room and read the Guideposts for free.

But I went back for a third session anyway, because I didn't have any other ideas. And that was when I scored a 34 on the Burns Anxiety Inventory, and scored pretty high on a depression self-evaluation that isn't on the internet. When I walked out of that session I was probably the happiest a person's ever been to have official verification that she's not normal. Severe anxiety and moderate depression. Not, "She worries too much and is gloomy and needs to just get over herself already." The counselor didn't tell me to get over myself; she offered me meds instead. I declined, for various reasons I won't go into here. I'm not anti-meds, they just weren't something I'm willing to try at this point in my life.

Around the time of my first counseling appointment, I went to a FoP. At some point somebody got up and read from the Bible. The passage was, of course, Isaiah 43.

I thought something very pious like Holy shit. (I apologize for anyone who's scandalized by that, but I'm keeping it real here.) And then I prayed, God, I don't believe that yet, but I do want to believe it.

A month later I went to another FoP, and it was good, and I was expecting nothing when suddenly somebody got up and read from the Bible.

Isaiah 43 again.

And this time I laughed, because there was a tiny corner of my soul that had started to believe it.


Nora Roisin said...

Thanks for posting this, Megan, even in its ancientness.

Stories like this... hopefully they really are helpful to me. (I think they are. But you know, I'm a pessimist!)

The Sojourner said...

I hope it does help!

Sheila said...

Thanks for posting this. It's brave of you.

Lately I have been struggling with some irrational anxiety .... nothing this major ... and it does make me feel better, just knowing it's not just a me thing. My husband is the really anxious one of the two of us, and every time he eats gluten he gets severe, crippling anxiety. Kind of an odd sort of intolerance I guess, but he's doing better now that he's completely gluten-free. Still, it's nice to be able to say "I am not anxious ABOUT anything, I am just anxious" and have him nod knowingly and give me a backrub.

Who says men don't understand feelings? ;)

The Sojourner said...

I don't think I have issues specifically with gluten, but I have to eat about half the USDA recommended amount of carbohydrates in order to be a decent human being. (The three months or so after I first went on Metformin were some of the best of the past several years. Ovulated 3 times in as many months AND stopped panicking all the time.)