A close friend of mine endured a health scare a few years ago. It was scary and difficult to pin down. She was convinced it was a heart thing. Turns out, it was anxiety. My friend started meditating and engaging in mindfulness practices. Exercising more regularly. Trying to eat better. The symptoms receded. She's doing much better now.
I'm glad I had her story in my head during my own recent health scare.
I've been experiencing twitches and glitches. Shakes and shimmies. Brain zaps and zips, too. Often, it feels like my brain is cramped; like it has a Charley Horse. It's been going on for a few months now, but it has shown itself at various points in the past, too. This time around it seems like the issue has had more staying power. Seemingly more committed to fucking my shit up.
I was losing my grip. Literally – I began to lose strength and dexterity in my left hand and wrist. I avoided playing certain songs and had to adjust setlists just to make sure I could get through my gigs without fucking up or embarrassing myself. It was getting really, really scary.
There were a couple of emergency room visits. A couple of visits to see my primary doctor. A visit to a neurologist. A CT scan. An MRI. Another visit to the neurologist. People starting describing my symptoms using terms like "Parkinsonian." There was talk of MS. Then I read about Kim Shattuck's death after a two-year battle with ALS (perhaps better known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease").
Shattuck, a punk-rock lifer who was best known as the leader of The Muffs, was only 56 when she left her body. Reportedly, one of the first symptoms she noticed was the loss of her ability to grip the neck of her bass with her left hand. So, of course, I began to entertain the idea that I had ALS and that I might only have two years left in my body.
Would I lose my ability to play the guitar and perform? Would I have to rush to get all my songs recorded before I became unable to play them anymore? What about engaging in exercise and just regular-life stuff?
Well, the neurologist says there is nothing wrong with me, neurologically speaking. My brain scan is clean. I don't have Parkinson's. I don't have MS. I don't have some strange, previously undiscovered mystery condition. But I do have anxiety. And, as it did for my friend, the anxiety has manifested in some interesting, confusing and deceptive ways.
That Goddamned Klaxon
For most of my existence, I tried to convince myself and others that I was a normal, regular person with normal, regular sensitivity levels and a normal, regular ability to handle everyday life. The problem is that I am not, in fact, normal or regular, despite what outward appearances and my own mighty efforts at deception would suggest.
I am a very anxious and sensitive person. That's not a problem. The problems happen when I try to live life like I'm not a very anxious, sensitive person. When I don't account for my sensitivity and anxiety, shit gets fucked up.
I remember when I had a job working for an answering service. I would answer phones for various businesses in south-central Wisconsin. It was a crappy job with crappy pay and crappy management. But the thing I remember most is the fucking klaxon.
When calls were coming in too quickly for staff members to answer them, or when callers were placed on hold for more than one minute, the loudest alarm you have ever heard in your whole life would start shrieking out its awful song right there in the middle of the call center. I guess it was effective?
I shouldn't have worked that job. The klaxon was a good motivator for most of the operators there. But for me, it was a nightmare engine. I still think of that goddamn thing quite frequently, especially when I am feeling anxious.
But I was supposed to be a good, hardworking midwestern boy who did not complain. Where I come from, advocating for oneself is seen as extremely unseemly. I have only recently learned that advocating for oneself is, in fact, essential. But back then I convinced myself that I was a very bad person for feeling anything other than gratitude for a job that caused panic attacks and freakouts. So I stayed at the job and continued to say "yes" to all the things that made the anxiety worse. Which led to depression, which led to increased anxiety, which led to deeper depression and so on and so forth.
Eventually, I retreated into a strategy that seemed logical, but only shoveled more coal into my hungry anxiety furnace. I built a fortress around the goddamned klaxon in my mind; its shrieks persisted, louder than ever.
The Avoidance Strategy
The obvious strategy for dealing with anxiety is to avoid things that cause anxiety, right?
Recently I stumbled upon a Reddit thread where people were discussing this topic. It being Reddit, the issue was framed as a question with a countdown clock and desired objective attached: "You have 90 days to reduce your baseline anxiety level by as much as possible. What do you do?"
Some users describe all the ways they would organize life to avoid the things that cause them anxiety (escape to the mountains!). Others have offered ideas related to improving the manner with which anxiety is handled and endured (build mental and emotional resilience!). I realized that I had traveled from the former camp to the latter in the last decade.
Back in the Time of the Klaxon, I started avoiding life altogether for a while. I was using the avoidance strategy without even really knowing what or whom I was avoiding. I just knew that it felt better to avoid people and situations than it did to deal with them. At least temporarily. Avoidance always induced anxiety, often to levels surpassing what I felt in the first place. So I doubled down and avoided people and situations even more. It led to unemployment, eviction and repossession of my vehicle, among many other difficulties and shenanigans.
In a way, I had gotten everything I wanted: People were leaving me alone. I had dropped the burden of responsibility. No one needed anything from me, really.
And I was miserable.
The thing is, avoidance is not the ideal strategy for dealing with anxiety. Yes, it is appropriate to defend one's boundaries and all that. But avoiding anxiety does not prevent anxiety.
Here's What Works for Me
These days I make a point to expose myself to situations that I know will cause anxiety. Within reason. Why would I do this?
Well, it's because my life is best when I'm living it in accordance with my values. I recognize that the best life I can envision is one in which I will have to deal with situations and people who might make me feel some anxiety. Avoiding people and situations that make me feel anxious might seem like an effective strategy. But all that's doing is keeping me from living life according to my values, which tends to increase my anxiety. Can you see why this is so tricky?
I am trying to be a successful musician. I don't see how that's possible without having to wrestle with anxiety regularly. So if I avoid it, I also avoid reaching my goals and living the life I want for myself. Which contributes to even greater levels of anxiety.
So I try for a nice balance. I honor myself and my boundaries. I take time to not do stuff. I use a calendar to organize the events of my life, and I make sure to have plenty of white space between those events. Crucially, I am also very forgiving when I don't adhere strictly to the calendar. It should be a soft, comfortable slipper; not a rigid steel-toe lace-up boot.
I exercise. Sometimes I go out and run six or seven miles. I do it because it makes the rest of my life easier. I recognize that dealing with anxiety is a little like exercise, too. When I can live with it, accept it and endure situations where it is present, I feel like I'm building my muscles. I have learned that the anxiety is always worse than the things I am anxious about. When I'm feeling the anxiety, that's as bad as it's going to get, so I try to live with it and feel the feelings. More often than not, I recognize that I am alive, healthy and in a situation absent of anything that will threaten my life, in spite of what the anxiety is telling me. This is helpful.
I think about engineering my life. I am tempted to create an architectural model of my existence that is sealed off from anxiety hermetically. But then I extrapolate and notice that the life I have designed contains very little fulfillment. Very little richness or awe. A lot of missing out. Extrapolating even further, I recognize that anxiety has been baked into my design as a result of my deliberately avoiding it. Far out, man. Far out.
So I engineer my life to be balanced. I make sure I get to experience anxiety in ways that help me understand my ability to cope with it. This builds confidence. My engineering also accounts for space, which is critical to the success of my design.
There Are All these Interruptions
I need space and time in my life to function effectively. It's not just alone time; it's time to retreat inside myself knowing that I will not be disturbed. It doesn't work if I keep one foot in the mystical mindscape and the other in Regular World. I need to go inside completely and stay there for a while, only emerging after sufficient time has been spent in the wavy world of illogic that exists somewhere a few inches back behind my eyes. That's the place where I go to get refreshed. There, I barter with entities that accept my anxiety as currency to pay for ineffable insights and wisdom that I bring back to Regular World. There are no klaxons in this place.
I was trying to figure all this out and put it into words when someone on Facebook shared a link to this article from The Examined Life, entitled, "The Fear of Being Interrupted." I can't stress just how much of a synchronicity this is!
Have you ever had one of those times when you try to put words to an idea, but you can't? And then someone says something or you read something that brings it all into focus? Yeah, that's what happened here with me and this article. You should read it.
I see now that I've been living a life full of interruptions. And I am a person who requires significant uninterrupted time. You see, the goddamned klaxon found a way back into my life. It turned itself into a million little, seemingly harmless and insignificant interruptions. They accumulated like snowfall. Then when I wanted to leave the house, I realized they had blocked my garage door, disappeared my driveway and made all area roads impassable. Fucking klaxon.
It's Like If a Button Had the Word "Reset" Written on It, Like a Reset Button, If You Will
So what am I going to do now?
I'm going to take time and space to let the snow melt. I don't have anywhere to be or anything to do. I am going to hit the reset button. I am going to work on things that give me fulfillment, like continuing to express myself in this blog. I will continue to exercise and work on music. I will pay better attention to the feelings in my body. I will meditate and practice breathing in ways that keep me balanced and energized. I will say "no" to some things and "yes" to others, always keeping in mind the healing that needs to happen between my ears so my left arm can chill the fuck out and locate the strength it seems to have misplaced.
I will also embark on a cosmic journey soon, which will boost the healing mechanism and reveal subsequent steps.
I will also lie on the couch and get into The Mandalorian. I will take it easy.
A few years ago an acupuncture practitioner told me that I am highly attuned to the rhythms of agriculture. If that's the case, then this is the time of the year when I should be resting, enjoying the fruits of my harvest and keeping warm with the wood I spent the last several months chopping. So I'm going to try to do that for a while.
I Have Taken All the Chill Pills
I should mention medication. Anxiety affects a lot of people, especially in this country. This country is also the setting for a highly profitable pharmaceutical industry. So you put those things together and all of a sudden people think they need benzos just to get through the day, which leads to even more anxiety, which leads to greater dependence on the benzos, which leads to greater profits for the pharmaceutical companies, who use their unprecedented corporate wealth for things like (checks notes) "research," which doesn't seem to involve any research into anxiety relief not involving physical dependence upon a pill.
I have taken those benzos. They don't work for me. Honestly, I don't think they actually work for anyone. They attack the symptoms of anxiety without regard to the underlying causes. So how could they work?
Both my primary doctor and my neurologist suggested that I could take an antihistamine anxiety remedy. So I got a prescription for hydroxyzine. It is non-habit forming and non-addictive. It's basically like souped-up Benadryl and boy, does it knock me out. So not really much different from the benzos in terms of their ability to provide genuine anxiety relief. Sometimes it's good to be knocked out, though. Sometimes it's good to intervene pharmaceutically in order to get some sleep. But I really don't like the stuff. If I take one 50mg pill at night, I will feel groggy and somewhat useless until the next night. That's not conducive to living my life according my values. Not right now, anyway.
Do you know what does work? Cannabis and psilocybin. Unfortunately, those substances exist in a realm of legality that makes me reluctant to write about them further here. I'll be getting my New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program card in the mail any day now, though, so I'll write more then.
A Note on My Tremendous Privilege
My major issue in life right now is anxiety.
For some people, the major issues in their lives are things like malnutrition, poverty, the presence of physical and-or psychological abuse, terminal illness, severe social injustice, war trauma or any number of serious existential concerns. So I recognize that I'm actually quite privileged to be able to look at my life and identify anxiety as the biggest problem. I am grateful to be living a life that is not defined by being oppressed by others. It doesn't make my anxiety go away, but it provides an important perspective. And as I move forward, I think it's important to keep that perspective. I can't be doing what I'm doing just for myself. It has to somehow benefit everybody, especially those who are not as privileged as me. I'm figuring it out.
What's Your Klaxon?
My klaxon started as a literal klaxon. Then it turned into something resembling a serious neurological disorder. It'll probably morph into a dozen or more other things in the coming years. That's the way it is, and that's okay. I can deal if I can have the time and space.
I'm curious about you – are you a person who struggles with anxiety? If your life led you here to my website, I'd be surprised if you aren't. What does it look like for you? How do you deal with it? Leave a comment and let me know.
See you next time, friends!