column: Living with an anxiety disorder: The signs were there all along
A history of mental illness is like a tornado warning at the bottom of the TV screen. It doesn’t guarantee a tornado, or that if there is one, it will do serious damage. Most of the time, it doesn’t even distract you from normal daily programming.
But it’s there. And while you don’t have to spend your life cowering in the basement, it’s a good idea to have one.
I probably should have seen it coming. Both parents and at least two of my siblings had suffered some form of mental eccentricity. I never had depression or bipolar disorder or an overwhelming fear of death, so I assumed I was normal. I thought it had passed me over, like jaundice or the need for braces.
Where I saw signs, I took pains to overcome them. In spite of my father’s obsessive-compulsive disorder, I purposely left things out of place, pulling tables so their edges did not line up and forcing myself to walk away. If the gloomy weather was making me depressed, I’d sit under a sun lamp until I felt better. I was one of the normal ones.
While mental illness may be genetic, normal is relative.
My not-normal behavior manifested itself differently — cunningly differently. For instance, there were lists. A daily to-do list, weekly to-do lists, several calendars and email-checking on an hourly basis. I would spend the last hour of every day reorganizing my lists for optimum time performance.
When I got up, I would start with the next list, become irritable if things didn’t go according to plan, but unable to say why.
I assumed these things were normal because I had always done them. After all, doesn’t everyone put off sleep to wonder which color filing cabinet would look best in the office? Doesn’t everyone lie awake wondering if they should buy a Victorian or Colonial house 15 years in the future?
I thought that people who didn’t micromanage their days to the second were just shiftless hippies taking life as it comes. In short, I thought the problem was with everyone else.
Some days, I had to check the doors, window locks, and eventually closets before going to bed. Some days I had to check them multiple times. I had trouble sleeping in unfamiliar places; in college I developed night terrors. My roommates never wanted to wake me up because I would scream, which I would not remember in the morning.
Eventually, I had a breakdown. It was a November night, and I woke up in a cold sweat with fear. No reason, no explanation — I had actually gone to bed happy. I couldn’t go back to sleep.
I wandered around work the next few weeks, afraid to speak to people. I was afraid of leaving the house, but I was scared to go home again.
One night, I asked my sister if she would do the dishes. She asked why, and I said I couldn’t. We stood there in silence, and she looked at me. My sister, a good friend, and a sufferer of bipolar disorder. She turned on the faucet, and I made an appointment at the mental health clinic.
I was diagnosed within 15 minutes, embarrassingly quickly: I had a textbook case of anxiety disorder.
It turns out, normal people sleep at night. Normal people worry about things like money or elections or their kids’ health. Normal people do not worry what order to put their clothes on in the morning. Their brains have the ability to slow down, even shut off, rather than spinning like a coked-out hamster in a wheel until morning.
The method was cognitive behavioral therapy: you break an old pattern by establishing a new one. I could identify “trigger” situations, acknowledge my bad reaction and slowly come to terms with it, making it into something else.
It’s a lot like making custard, stirring in small batches so as not to ruin the batter. If I could take what I was, add normal to it, and mix continuously, I would eventually be cake.
I added Zoloft. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t stand feeling crazy. That tiny sliver of a dose saved my life. I could go outside, have a full train of thought and not care what order I did my errands in. I didn’t feel sluggish, doped, or speedy; I felt like myself, minus crazy. I slept.
And if someone tells me they’re depressed, I see my sister rinsing dishes, telling me that everyone needs help from time to time... and I shut up, and I listen.
Sarah Smallwood is a freelance writer living and working in Ann Arbor. She is currently rewriting her first novel and hosts a podcast at Stuff with Things. She can be reached at heybeedoo at gmail dot com.