When I was a little boy, I used to see my Mom getting upset at small events in life. She would get all quiet, vague and contemplative as she thought through it all. She wasn’t an educated woman, but had the sensitivities and empathy of a medium and a fierce love of my sister and I. When these events would happen, I would see her go through this process and think “mom you’re weird” and go about my business.
As a teenager, I saw this behavior get worse and as she retreated into the twin vices of smoking and alcohol, I saw her become this confused figure, like a passenger on the giant steamship of life, unable to affect how and where it is going. She often complained of “her nerves playing up” (it helps if you read that in a strong Lincolnshire dialect) and went to the doctor a lot for it. Of course, this being the 80’s , diagnosis and treatment of anxiety related disorder basically evolved around doctor ordered rest and Valium, which she took religiously. Added to the mix of alcohol and nicotine, this often rendered her a lifeless husk of a person, asleep most of the time and with a terrible, palid appearance. I was very much alive though, rampant with hormones and the excitements of life. Determined to live as fully as I could. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about Mom and how she felt. It was that I really had no frame of reference about what she was going through. I thought she didn’t have a clue about me, or what I was growing into. Boy was I wrong.
Fast forward twenty years, and with one failed marriage with a bitter, jaded, psychopathic and morally bankrupt woman producing two great daughters who I had to see systematically molded into their mothers image, an emigration and second marriage to a woman I thought was way closer to what I wanted in a partner and I too started to feel “my nerves playing up” regularly. Being a skater since 14 years old, I didn’t really know what to do with these involuntary reactions to difficulties. My skating career had taught me that if you tried hard enough and practiced long enough at something you could succeed, no matter what the perceived difficulties. I had achieved great success on the competitive skateboard scene in the 80’s, then lived through the forced decline of that component of my life as I devoted energies to the first marriage train wreck, education, emigration and career path. It was with a shock that one day I realized I had something going on inside of me that I could not easily control. Something psychosomatic which debilitated me as easily as breathing. I felt – anxious. Not the “oh – I’m a bit worried about that” kind, but the “holy crap – I’m going to have a heart attack right now” kind.
Fast forward even further to the fall of 2007 and I’m in front of a group of hospital employees in a southern Vermont hospital training them in some Toyota production system techniques. I start feeling this (by now) familiar build up of anxiety in my chest. Normal coping mechanisms won’t control it, and it starts to spiral. I make it out of there with just enough composure to pack up my kit and start the long drive home, get on the interstate and find myself hyperventilating, with the window open and severe chest pains. Convinced I’m going to die right then, I pulled over and called my wife. I got out and breathed deep, jumped about a bit, got some blood flowing. That helped a little, and I managed to get back in and drive a little more. This happened about a half dozen times on the way back. Finally getting home, I got a good slug of vodka into me and managed to finally find fitful sleep.
The next morning, I went to Bristol to see my wonderful doctor to sort this out. She went into containment mode, ordering me off work for two weeks and prescribing a powerful anxiety control medication of the SSRI group in a dosage which did in fact control the difficulties I was experiencing at that point, but had terrible side effects such as a completely suppressed sexual function. I knew I was in trouble.
Over time the dosage was reduced to something more liveable, but it took about three months to get these debilitating attacks under control to the point I could function relatively normally in the world. For someone with my skating background this was an incredible wake up call and announcement of my own deficiencies and potential mortality. It was a life changing event. Something I clearly couldn’t ignore and had to actively manage in order to exist. This was new territory.
It was a shock to learn that these events could spring up almost unannounced if I allowed the right combination of factors to happen in the right sequence. I succumbed to several more bouts over the next few years, with the doctor helping me discover acupuncture, self hypnosis and other medical treatments. Perhaps the biggest change though was how it forced me to confront the stresses in my life and how they contributed to this condition. I remember one day sitting alone trying to make sense of this and having the bombshell realization that this was exactly what Mom had suffered from. I cried a lot that day – not for me, but knowing what she must have been going through in that decade she retreated into her chemical world.
I learnt that stresses are cumulative, and that it doesn’t matter which area of your life you’re getting them in, it’s how they add up that counts. A highly stressful home life, coupled with a stressful job and stressful relationships combine to push me over a threshold value above which I am not in control of my responses anymore. Knowing this led to some very stark decisions to be made in 2012 when I split from my wife of 17 years and went into an unfortunate series of employment and self employment cycles which destabilized life significantly. Through all this my doctor helped me understand so much about the condition, and my own susceptibility to it. She led me through, enabling me to see clearly what I needed to do and helping give me the strength to make the changes that needed to be made.
So now I live alone, with my 8 year old daughter 50% of the time. I have a new partner who is wonderful and understands the depths of these difficulties, and my working life has been transformed to something that although highly unstable is exactly what I want to be doing. All of these things have reduced the stress level to the point where I could wean off the SSRI based drugs (a painful, two week long process where your head seems to be having electro convulsive therapy all on its own all the time) to one without the unfortunate side effects. I’ve made the changes and am living.
Which brings me to the present moment, at 4:30am writing this. See, even with all of this self discovery, medical and alternative treatment, stress reduction and lifestyle transformation, the condition is still there. It most often manifests in the night, when I’ll wake around 3 or 4 and can’t get back to sleep. A cup of herbal tea helps, as does deep breathing and some self hypnosis sometimes. Others though, the mind races out of control once more and nothing stops the chest tightening, panic driven “omg is this it?” experience. I’ve found that writing helps me work through it, which is why you’ll often find me posting blog and Facebook entries in the Dark Hours. It’s my curse, but if I can do something productive with it I will. If you suffer from the same issue just know that it can be controlled, but it’s not going to lie down quietly.