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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

On anxiety.


Imagine with me.

You're in your car, and you're going down a hill. It's a familiar hill, and you know you need to hit the brakes, so you do. But the brakes don't work. You keep hitting them. Nothing. You know they should work, you know that's what you're meant to do on this hill, and yet you end up crashing at the bottom.

Later, you tell someone what happened.

'Why didn't you use your brakes?'

'I did,' you tell them. 'I hit my brakes and they didn't work.'

'Well, when I'm going down that hill, I just take a deep breath and hit the brakes.'

'I did use my brakes. I know I'm meant to. They didn't work.'

Your friend smiles. 'Well, next time, just try using the brakes and that won't happen.'

I never ever understood, for all my life, what people meant when I'd start to fret or panic about something and they'd tell me to just not think about it. Or to just take a deep breath and let the feeling pass. How do you let the feeling pass when it's just there? How do people do that with their brains? That's not how brains work, is it?

And yet whenever something got to be Too Much, that's the advice I was offered. Accept the feeling. Let it pass. Choose not to think about it. Everyone else around me seemed to think it was perfectly sound advice, but to me it sounded as good as being told to just ignore that a limb's been cut off and it'll grow back.

Many people told me that it's something you learned to do when you became an adult. Well, here I was, 35 years old and unable to do it. So clearly it was a problem with me. It was something I'd never learned to do, and I only had myself to blame when a worry I couldn't shut off made me crash at the bottom of a hill. Right?

For a variety of reasons, I bit the bullet and eventually went to see a therapist. (My past with therapists means I'm not keen on them -- they've either told me I'm incurable, medicated me unthinkingly, or told me I'll be fine if I just go out and get laid.) Inevitably, I found myself in a similar conversation to before.

'You just need to let those feelings go.'

'I can't.'

'Well, I don't mean ignore them, but I mean acknowledge them and let them pass.'

'I can't.'

'It takes practice.'

I finally lost what little cool I had. 'I'm not being defeatist or contrary. I literally can't. You're asking me to hit the brakes on a car with no brakes. I'm not even sure brains work the way you're saying they do. It makes no sense to me whatsoever and I say I can't do what you're asking because, in my experience, it is literally not possible for a human being to do that with their own brain.'

'Oh. I'll bet you have low serotonin.'

What?

The therapist explained that my brain was not producing enough of a chemical, and that of course I couldn't do what people were asking of me. And then she sent me along to a doctor who could prescribe something.

Okay, before I sound too daft -- yes, I know what serotonin is and what it's for and how it works. It just... never really occurred to me that my problem was anything but my problem. It also never occurred to me, after being put on badly-thought-out meds that laid me out flat in college, that there could be any that weren't horrendous for me personally.

Two weeks so far on escitalopram (it takes three for it to start working its best, apparently), and I do notice a difference. A week in, I shocked myself. I had been confronted with some potentially unpleasant news, the upshot of which I couldn't be sure of for a while. I started to panic. But then I went 'Not now, I have work to do.' And it went away.

It went away.

I'm still baffled by this. I feel like I've suddenly started seeing octarine or hearing in an extra range, and meanwhile people are saying 'Yep, that's a thing that people can do.' The world's been hiding from me for 35 years that the human brain is capable of not bluescreening itself every time something worrisome happens.

Looking back, I realise that a lot of the mess I've suffered through in life is largely because something someone said somewhere led me to believe it was my own shortcomings. Which is not to say there aren't people out there who don't mess themselves up. Which is also not to say there aren't plenty of mishaps I've gotten into for which I only have myself to blame. But there's something very freeing about being told that not only is the thing that pains you not your fault, it's relatively easy to fix.

And I guess it's also pretty impressive that I've lived for as long as I can remember with undiagnosed, untreated severe anxiety and somehow managed to last long enough to do something about it. Not too shabby, I suppose.

The weird bit now -- time for another Kara metaphor -- is my body feels a bit like an old house that's just had repairs done. The front door doesn't stick anymore. The shower doesn't flood. Whatever. So all these things I've done instinctively to cope, to the point that I didn't even think about them, no longer apply. Not only that, I have to readjust absolutely everything. I don't wake up every morning dreading the day ahead and I have more energy both physically and mentally. Which means I have to exercise or I get jumpy. Which means I get more work done and have to actually go to my video games and DVDs to fill my time in the evenings.

I suppose it's a good problem to have, all things considered. Better than the old one, anyway.

I said it before when dealing with endo, and I say it again here -- even if everyone else says nothing's wrong, if you get the sense that something is, see a doctor. It might be something fixable. And it could change your life.