Anxiety — my evil little friend
There was a period of time in his life when Mark could only make it partway to work before he needed to take the exit ramp, turn around, and head back home. He’d slump back to the front door hating himself, because he knew it was all for naught. The house is not in flames, he noticed, as he angrily drilled the key into the lock. The house is not in flames.
He hurried into the kitchen, inspected the offending coffee pot. The switch was locked firmly in the “off” position. He looked one more time, made a mental note. Exasperated, he spun around on his heels and headed back to the front door. Re-lock. Walk to the car. Re-start the engine. Leave for work a second time.
This became a ritual for Mark; a daily battle between him and his mind; a winner-take-all fight for control with a cheap fucking Black & Decker appliance.
On occasion, this battle brought Mark to the edge.
“I remember this one time sitting in my car, crying, tears streaming down my cheeks, because I knew I had turned that damned coffee pot off, but I also knew I was going to go back anyway. I just knew it.”
Mark is actually a pseudonym for a dear friend and mentor of mine. When he told me this story late last year – as I was fighting back a fresh wave of panic attacks and crippling anxiety of my own – I was unnerved by just how similar his experience was to my mine. Sure, the unique particularities of the coffee machine and the morning commute were not directly relatable to my own situation, but the gripping fear of uncertainty and the constant sense of complete and utter dread that something disastrous is about to happen to me or someone I love was exactly the same. The magical thinking that if I just go back and check (and check again) I can prevent the worst from happening. The obsessive thoughts I can’t even scream out of my head.
Mark’s story calmed me better than any Xanax could. I found temporary reprieve in the consort of common suffering.
And then I discovered our consort was much larger than I could have ever imagined.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 40 million American adults – almost 1 in 5 – have an anxiety disorder. The most common according to this same group are: Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Panic Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Social Anxiety Disorder. I personally battle the first two on this list, but since I first wrote a rambling Facebook note about my experiences with these disorders last year, I have encountered literally dozens of others who have dealt with precisely these same issues.
All of the anxiety disorders listed above have a general definition, outlined by NIMH. The Institute notes, “anxiety is a normal reaction to stress. It helps one deal with a tense situation in the office, study harder for an exam, keep focused on an important speech. In general, it helps one cope. But when anxiety becomes an excessive, irrational dread of everyday situations, it has become a disabling disorder.”
A lot of people think OCD and immediately think of compulsive hand washers or the television character “Monk.” In reality, the spectrum of OCD sufferers varies from severe hypochondriacs (who scour the internet obsessively attempting to “check” their symptoms — sometimes for months on end — refusing to believe the results of medical tests and doctor’s diagnoses), to those who fear they may have accidentally hurt someone and can’t find any concrete evidence to prove otherwise. (A common example of this is the OCD sufferer who constantly re-traces her drive and inspects her re-view mirror because she fears she may have inadvertently run over a pedestrian.) There are literally thousands of variants of this disorder. Eating disorders are sometimes a manifestation of this illness.
Even those who compulsively concern themselves with germs run the gamut of anxiety levels: for some the obsession is merely a nuisance; for others it is completely crippling to daily living.
I wasn’t initially going to write about this issue this week. I was going to write about Mother’s Day (hi, Mom!) or some puff piece on iPinion. But as I was fighting back a bout of insomnia earlier this week, a nurse friend of mine informed me that even my new sleep disorder could be another symptom of anxiety. She described anxiety as my “evil little friend, always at my side.”
Shit. Here we go again, I thought. Another thing, I, David Lacy, have to deal with.
And then she continued: “You should write about insomnia or anxiety in your column this week. A lot of people can relate (including yours truly, GAD since 1994).”
And then I realized, it wasn’t just me. I’m one in five.