I sit straight up, startling myself out of a deep sleep as if someone has just shaken me to my core. I am sweating and wailing, a primal sound I am unable to make on my own, only my body taken over by something else could create this painful cry out. Saline streaming from my eyes as the hyperventilation portion of this late-night party sets in. I crawl to the bathroom and lay on the cool tile floor in the fetal position.
Most people would be terrified. Surprisingly, I am not. Though I have never experienced anything like this before, somehow I know exactly what this is: an anxiety attack.
I am 22 years old and have just moved from my parents home in the idyllic small town of Roswell, Georgia, to my own apartment in Los Angeles, California. I know no one. I am scared but I am determined. For me this overrides not trying. One thing that is certain about me; I am brave.
But bravery comes at a cost, thus begins my decade long journey living with anxiety. It is a beast to be reckoned with: a saber-toothed tiger staring me directly in the face, snarling and ready to pounce.
I have three kinds of attacks: The Sizzler, The Brain Tornado and The Freight Train.
The Sizzler is a slow burning build. I can feel this one coming on for a long time, sometimes days. It it isn’t created by thoughts. An emotion surfaces- irritation, sadness, or anger – that is my indicator. Then a small physical change happens. I become antsy and unsettled, slight tingles in my arms or mild shortness of breath. I know what is happening so I just go about my business until eventually it either passes or turns into a low-grade attack. I learn that if I am in public I need to flee (flight) to avoid further stimulation.
The Brain Tornado is just that. It is a barrage of thoughts that circle around in my brain. They start small then pick up momentum and pull in big thoughts like debris until I am left with a violent storm in my head.
– I forgot to get my laundry out of the washer.
– I need to call maintenance to fix the garbage disposal.
– I should have worked harder on that scene before I went into that audition.
– Did I embarrass myself?
– Am I a huge failure?
– Does God believe in me?
– Will I ever be loved the way I need?
This happens at night when I lay down for sleep. I cannot quiet this once it starts. I lie still and deal with it (fight) to realize that it’s now 3 in the morning and I haven’t yet gotten a wink of sleep. Only a sleep aid is my chance to actually rest when The Brain Tornado starts to destruct.
The Freight Train hits me like a ton of bricks. Here I am just relaxing on the tracks. They’ve been abandoned and there is not a train in sight and hasn’t been for a long time. I move to pick a flower and when I turn back, the train is rushing toward me. Before I can even get out of the way, it has hit me. I am grasping on to the front for dear life wondering when it will stop, if ever. This attack is usually accompanied by what I call Lobster Claws. My hands start to cramp as they go numb and fold into themselves toward my wrists like a lobster claw. They are stuck like this. There is uncontrollable wailing, hyperventilation, crying, and trembling. I am rendered useless until the train slows down. Once I’m able to jump down and walk it off, I pass out from pure exhaustion.
I try to be a soldier, deal with my attacks and be strong when they come on. Let it take over, do it’s thing, run it’s course. Then I experience the calm after the storm and take care of myself however I need to. Until I go to see a doctor and he tells me that putting my body through that much stress is not good and I am doing myself much more harm than I realize. He does not give me a medal of honor; he gives me a prescription for Xanax.
I hate pills but I know he is right. I am putting my body through a massive amount of physical, emotional, and mental stress by just letting this happen to me. I would learn how to help myself, but in the meantime, I will let Xanax give me some relief.
I swallow ¼ of a 0.5-milligram pill to take the edge off when I feel The Sizzler set in. When The Brain Tornado visits at night, I take a half pill to settle my mind and get some sleep. And when The Freight Train hits, I get to my bottle as fast as I can to stop the physical warping as soon as I can. Some months are better than others, but I never need to take Xanax everyday like I am instructed. I use it as needed and it is very helpful. Yet I know that I am only treating my symptoms and that is not good enough for me. I need to get to the root of my problem. I don’t believe in long term Band-Aids.
I am in therapy and actively reading and learning about my anxiety. Therapy proves to be the most helpful. Sorting through past shit takes a load off my shoulders. I am doing the hardest work of my life. It is terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. I learn that my anxiety had sunken it’s teeth into at me at a much younger age; it just hadn’t bit down quite as hard.
It takes a while, but before I know it I am lighter, faster, and stronger. I realize that my Brain Tornados start passing. The thoughts come around but they stop collecting things and kicking up dust. Now it is more like a Brain News Ticker dedicated to minor headlines. The Sizzlers fizzle and The Freight Trains get derailed.
In my extensive personal research I read a comparison of anxiety to the threat of a saber-toothed tiger and it really strikes a cord in me. It’s the fight or flight response. It is imagined as walking through a jungle and running into a saber-toothed tiger. When the threat of a tiger arises, our bodies prepare to either fight the tiger of flee. The tiger is our anxiety. I take this reference literally.
Since I never really face a saber-toothed tiger, these threats I perceive are constructs of my own design, made up in my head completely. I decide that until I actually come face to face with a saber-toothed tiger, there is no need for my mind or body to respond like this.
I am on the tail end of learning how to control my attacks when this light bulb goes off for me. I feel like I am almost out of the woods. I still experience low-grade attacks that are manageable in public, but still tiring. This tiger revelation helps me push through the very end of my anxiety.
Whenever I feel some anxiety arise, I ask myself, “Is there a saber-toothed tiger in front of you?” I always respond with a “No.” Somehow the literalness of this question and answer quells whatever disquieted remnants are left that threatens to change the course of my day or take over a situation.
This was my battle and at the end I am bloody, bruised and broken, but he is dead. The blood washes away, my bruises disappear and my bones heal. At some point I realize I’ve gone almost a year without any Xanax. Then two.
I know everything about anxiety and it knows everything about me. He was a formidable opponent but I slayed that saber-toothed tiger with everything I had.
Because I Slay,
Miss Sarah B.
Read here for more in depth comparison of anxiety to that damn tiger.
Sarah Blackman © 2016