According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million people over the age of 18.1
I am one of those 40 million people. As far back as I can remember, anxiety has dominated my life. Being anxious is part of the human condition- it’s the nerves before a presentation or a big game, a first date, or a job interview. However, anxiety becomes an issue when it hinders decision making and holds you back from living the life you want to live. I can’t tell you the number of times my anxiety has talked me out of potential opportunities because deep down, I didn’t feel worthy of said opportunities or the imagined potential disaster. As the saying goes, “You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.”
Anxiety is a bully, taunting and mocking you constantly. If anxiety brings along his buddy, depression, then you’re in for a really bad, no good, awful day. In my experience with anxiety, I for many years did not label it as anxiety. I and others thought of me as “quiet,” or “shy,” or my personal favorite, “socially awkward.” Though great strides have been made in the medical and psychiatric fields concerning the awareness, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health issues, there is still a stigma associated with mental illness. For those with anxiety, depression, or any other illness, having to fight our inner battle with the outside perceptions of others can delay our healing process as it did with mine. Mental illness is a serious issue, it should never be joked about or dismissed. Just because someone doesn’t “look sick” doesn’t mean their issues should be swept aside with flippant comments such as “What do you have to be depressed about?” “It’s all in your head.” “You need to do more of this (pray, give it to God, etc),or “Get over it.” If a friend or family member had cancer would you tell them, “Turn that frown upside down and suck it up”? I would hope not. People with mental illness are not weak or lazy, as they are some of the strongest people out there because they fight every day to get up and try to live a “normal” and highly functional life. Compound a mental illness with any number of autoimmune diseases, and life becomes even more difficult.
Since I have done my own research into my anxiety, I can truly see how much it has controlled my life. When my anxiety was triggered, physical symptoms would follow: deep breathing, shaking hands, a racing heartbeat, the “fight or flight” response, becoming agitated, stuttering and stammering over my words, all of which made want to dig a hole and hide. These attacks would come on during social situations such as job interviews, leaving the house to go to work, or simply going to family gatherings. However, people often comment about how calm I am and never appear to be rattled, which in all honesty is my learned ability not to show the outside world what’s going on inside of my mind. The next time you watch ducks swimming on a lake or pond, just remember those calm, peaceful birds are peddling their legs in the water as fast as they can; I believe that is a fitting analogy for how I have managed to hide my anxiety.
I tried different techniques over the years to deal with my anxiety and depression. The first is that sheer will power “put your nose to the grindstone” mentality. That only wore me out and wore down my nose. I came to faith in Jesus Christ back in 1999, which I hoped my faith, studying the Bible, praying, and “Let go and let God” would free me from this darkness. After all, Jesus said not to worry (Matthew 6:25) and the Apostle Paul said, “Be anxious for nothing,”(Philippians 4:6), plus there are 365 verses in the entire Bible that tell us to “fear not,” so why be anxious? However, I began to learn that my depression and anxiety were not going to go away by saying prayers or shouting out Scripture. I came to the rational, logical, conclusion that my battle was not with demons or doubt, nor was it because a talking snake convinced two people in a garden to eat a piece of fruit,but there was something wrong with me mentally, biologically, and chemically, which could be treated.
I tried to deal first with the depression and made the decision in 2008 to talk to my family doctor and he prescribed my Prozac, which I took until 2010, when I felt good enough to try to conquer depression on my own. Things were good for a couple of years, then life began to pile up on me: my health declined, my wife had problems with her health, grief and loss, family issues, infertility, a crisis of faith, and being laid off from my middle management job and starting over at the bottom, to changing careers at mid-life. I could not cope and went back on the Prozac from 2016 until mid-2018, when the Prozac stopped being effective. My doctor then prescribed me Celexa, which is also used to treat anxiety. I do feel better mentally, though I am not completely free from depression and anxiety, I do have more good days than bad ones.
Though my faith is not what it used to be, I have found comfort in relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, listening to classical/instrumental music, and trying to implement Stoic philosophy into my life. Stoicism is a practical philosophy, which in a nutshell is managing your responses to what happens to you and determining if the event is within or without of your control. Stoicism is incidentally one of the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Though I know that my war with anxiety and depression are far from over, I have won many recent battles and that gives me hope. My hope for you is that if you are struggling with your mental health, please seek treatment and determine what is best for you. You don’t have to live life as a prisoner of your mind. The keys are within reach, grab them and work on freeing yourself. Stay encouraged, there is hope, there is healing. You can’t erase what has been written,but you can change the narrative. Be the hero of your own story.
It was the summer of 2006 and my wife’s employer at the time charted a bus for employees and their families to go to Holiday World, an amusement park in Santa Claus, Indiana (that is the name of the town). My wife, being the carefree daredevil she is, wanted to start off with the biggest roller coaster in the park (oh boy). As I looked at that wooden roller coaster, I felt a twinge of anxiety.
At this point of my life, I had not been on a roller coaster since I was twelve, as I developed a fear of them. We waited through the long line and sat down in one of the ride’s cars. The foam padded steel lap bars came down to secure us while the ride is in motion.
My thoughts and my heart began to race.
“I gotta get out of here. I gotta get out of here. I gotta get out of here,” I kept repeating out loud.
I tried pushing up that foam padded steel lap bar, which would have been a job better suited for Superman or The Incredible Hulk. My wife reassured me that it was going to be fine.
The roller coaster started to move. Too late now. Time to man up.
Clickity clack up to the top of the track.
As our part of the coaster reached the summit of the first hill,the pressure built up in my head and I screamed to release it. The ride couldn’t have been three or four minutes, but it felt like an eternity.
Finally, it was over. I was back on Terra Firma. I was shaken, but I had conquered my fear. That day I went on to ride all of the roller coasters at Holiday world. A few years ago, I rode bigger roller coasters at King’s Island.
The story I just told was a sample of an anxiety-filled life. For anyone who has ever dealt with anxiety, it doesn’t have to be a large, fast, wooden roller coaster to trigger a response, it can be something as mundane as leaving the house for work, a test, or any other seemingly harmless situation.
I’m not a mental health expert, but I know how crippling anxiety can be. I know the frustration when it seems you have tried everything you know to get rid of anxiety, but it’s still there, taunting you like a bully. Of course, some feelings of anxiety are good for survival, as we perceive threats to the safety of ourselves and loved ones. However, when anxiety clouds your judgment, freezes you, and becomes the norm of your life, it’s time to do something.
My life has been a battle with anxiety, as it my arch nemesis, like a Joker to by Batman or Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker. Very few people know of my struggle, but I am determined to take my life back. I am sharing my story on this blog (possibly with the world), to let you know it’s okay. You don’t have to be ashamed. You must be honest with yourself and admit that there’s a problem. Reach out and seek help any way you can. Today is the start of a new journey for me. I’m taking back my life. God bless.