anxiety · mental health · personal · psychology · trauma

It is what it is ’til it ain’t

When the city sleeps, I’m awake caught up in the dreams I can create.
When the city sleeps, I’m awake, locked up in my mind. I can’t escape.
There’s nothing I can do but wait. I call you crying, saying it’s too much pain.
I can tell you don’t get it ’cause you tell me that everything will be okay.

All I wanna do is cry. It’s all I wanna do.
All I want to do is cry and bang my head til I start to fly.
Bang, bang, I start to fly. Bang, bang, I start to fly.

Maybe I’ll just dye my hair to make me feel like I don’t care.
It’ll be my war paint cause Lord knows I need the strength.
Mondays might be alright and Sundays will probably hurt
’cause when your mouth starts moving with the noise, I don’t hear a single word.

TW: self-harm, mention of sexual assault, abuse.

Over the course of the past ten or so years, I’ve gotten very well acquainted with anxiety and panic. As a teenager, I didn’t realize how much anxiety I had. I kept myself perpetually busy so I never had a moment to really observe how I was feeling. After I dropped out of college, my schedule was suddenly vacant. I self-medicated with drugs and alcohol, something I’ve mentioned a few times here. The moment that pulled the trigger on my panic disorder was an intense trip on 2C-B (a research chemical similar to LSD). Life hack: if you have to snort the psychedelic, don’t.

I had a conversation recently with some close friends about this experience and how for a long time, I regretted doing this but now I no longer carry that remorse. As I approach 30, I realize it was only a matter of time until something awoke this previously latent disorder in me. It worked out in the end. The road to get to where I am today has been a long, scary, stressful and expensive one. The amount of medical debt I’m in for trips to the ER thanks to panic attacks so intense I couldn’t feel my body is nauseating. I’ve touched on these stories several times on here as well and it is likely that I will soon do a bit of a retrospective journey through my blog posts for my upcoming birthday in the near future. Today, however, I want to take a moment to appreciate where I am right now.

Maybe an hour ago, I was laying in bed reading a pretty boring book. This is my new bedtime routine – nonfiction to put me to sleep. Usually the nonfiction isn’t bad but this particular read has begun to deteriorate as the book progresses. The sensations aren’t immediately noticeable; like a frog in a boiling pot, all of the sudden I realize I’m cooking. I can’t breathe, my body feels wrong, my chest is tight. If this was 2011, I’d be losing my shit. But it’s 2021 and I know exactly what to do.

I grab my phone, my Kindle, and my self massager and go to the bathroom. I have realized – in only the past few years actually – that cold is a trigger for me and my partner puts the AC down to 64 every night. I don’t know how familiar you are with hotel air conditioning units but they only really have two settings: Off or Blizzard.

Real talk: if you have anxiety, get a fuckin Theracane. This is the most helpful thing I’ve ever encountered for my panic attacks. Shout out to Caitlyn for getting this technically for Nicholas so that I could claim it as my own.

The bathroom door is always closed to keep the bathroom warm. I use my antihistamine nasal spray because I know my allergies have been struggling and the congestion is not lending me any comfort. I pluck a few eyebrow hairs because the spurt of endorphins is reminiscent of cutting and calms my body almost instantly. I sit down on the floor and use the blue cane to rub my perpetually knotted shoulder blade muscles, drink some water and have a ginger candy (knowing that eating and drinking pretty much flips the switch off adrenaline production since your body goes, “wait, I’m eating? if it’s safe enough to eat then I don’t need to keep doing this,” and puts you back on the parasympathetic nervous system track), and commit to my favorite distraction tool: super short videos. For all of my resistance of TikTok, now that I’ve curated a For You page that consists of vibey music, metal covers, gays & theys, witchtok, and truly absurd comedy sketches, the space is very cozy to me. After maybe five or ten minutes of scrolling, I look at myself in the mirror and realize I’m fine.

People still ask me, “well, what triggered it?” And it’s true that I’ve identified a few triggers (like being uncomfortably cold; a majority of my personal triggers are physical sensations but they do eventually escalate and cause thoughts that reset the feedback loop of feeling anxious). However, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: not all panic attacks have an identifiable trigger. And when I say the word trigger specifically, I mean some kind of sensation or perception that causes a panic attack. This word has been unfortunately found its way into popularity and is used facetiously when it is truly the most succinct way to describe the link between sensation/perception -> undesirable mental reaction. Triggers are most often discussed in relation to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Being triggered doesn’t just cause discomfort. It make you feel as if you are experiencing your trauma all over again. The way triggers look for different mental health disorders may not look quite the same but the core concept remains unchanged. And the way this manifests for different people varies but in relation specifically to my panic disorder, a certain sensation like being extremely cold has somehow become associated with my panic and therefore has the capacity to suddenly cause an attack. Cognitive associations are very hard to rewire. I am trying my best to iron that particular wrinkle but it will likely be several years before I realize, oh hey, I haven’t had a panic reaction to being cold in a long time.

It’s important to note the distinction between triggers and chemical causes. For example, Xyzal caused me to have nocturnal panic attacks – it did not trigger them. There was nothing about the experience of taking xyzal that somehow found itself tied to me perceiving it as worth being anxious about. It just straight up went to my brain and said, “Hey! Wake the fuck up! Time to shiver uncontrollably for half an hour while your heart races! Good thing you’re in the desert, bitch, go sit outside and look at some lizards!” This is the kind of shit that makes me grateful the internet exists because both of the doctors I told about this reaction looked at me like I was fucking nuts while hundreds of people online reported the same sensations. Well, minus the lizard part. But the whole, being-woken-up-out-of-a-dead-sleep-from-innocuous-dreams-and-suddenly-feeling-like-you’re-dying part was the same.

These things that I’ve learned: how to identify a panic attack, how to breathe through them and return my body to a state of homeostasis and tolerate the discomfort in the meantime, what my triggers are, and the fact that there’s a difference between uncued (or spontaneous) and cued (or situationally bound) panic attacks – these are all things that have taken me basically a decade to get a grasp on. And re-emerging from the bathroom after only ten minutes may seem like a very minor thing to some people but tonight I recognized my triumph. It was two years ago that I was in this very state on the east coast, riding in the back of an ambulance, wondering if this was the time the doctors would finally figure out what was wrong with me.

Wow, almost exactly two years, actually.

I’ve gone through ups and downs with my panic disorder. In 2012, after the night the 2C-B tore apart my brain and fried my synapses, I had a panic attack every day, sometimes more than one, for six months straight. I was forced to face the things I had ran from for so long. My abusive childhood, my relationship with my father, being raped, my at the time incredibly turbulent borderline personality disorder, and utter lack of coping mechanisms outside of getting mind-numbingly high were all there, front and center, screaming at me that I could no longer ignore them. One by one I started to scream back at them and with the support of my incredible partner and the Bible as far as I’m concerned, I reached some semblance of mental stability.

The summer of 2019, I re-entered therapy once I realized my panic disorder was starting to take over my life again. Although my previous treatment had helped, marijuana and alcohol were still crutches I used when things were too hard. My therapist that summer suggested that part of the reason I was having such a hard time was because I had quit smoking weed not too long before starting to have frequent panic attacks again. I hadn’t had that realization before she mentioned it but suddenly I connected the dots and saw how all these things related to each other. I restarted a low dosage of an SSRI I knew worked for me in the past and after a few months with her, I quit drinking. After nine months of sobriety, I decided to experiment with how I felt about alcohol and have since found that I enjoy a glass of wine maybe once a month or so but largely it feels unnecessary. I don’t crave it like I used to because I’ve found other ways to work though my negative emotions. What a wonderful, liberating feeling it was to realize this!

I’d rather write out a long-winded blog post detailing how I overcame a panic attack with relative ease at one in the morning than drink about it c;

What compelled me to share this is the fact that when I was deep in the midst of my panic disorder, I used to crawl on Reddit and read posts from the sages of /r/anxiety who had somehow mysteriously overcame this crippling disorder I couldn’t fathom living without. I wanted to whisper into the darkness that whatever you’re going through right now, it’s not permanent. You will get through it. Everything really will be okay. Maybe not ten minutes from now but someday, you will look back at this time in your life and you will want to hug your past self so hard because the memory of that struggle and pain still lingers in your mind. But it will feel soft around the edges and not as oppressive as now. And you’ll be so proud of yourself for how strong you were for enduring it and how much you’ve learned since then.

Until then, please know that I am rooting for you. It is what it is til it ain’t. The only permanent thing in this world is that everything is impermanent and that’s what makes life so beautiful. So try the best you can to be gentle with present you. You’re doing the best you can. Love you.

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