Written by: Aaron Ketterman
When I was seven or eight, my next door neighbor told me about aliens. I don't know why it came up. That's how childhood goes. I can't remember now if his story was about someone he supposedly knew or something he'd seen on TV, but the gist of it was, aliens visited a boy in the middle of the night and "did something to his stomach."
My imagination ran with this image and I spent the rest of that evening (and the better part of a year after that) worrying about it: Could that happen to me? What could I do? I remember taking my bath and feeling sick about the coming night and the horrible possibilities of an obviously alien-infested earth.
To this day, I can't fall asleep on my back for fear that something will happen to my exposed abdomen.
It's hard to remember exactly when my anxiety disorder started, but I remember the first time I had a panic attack. I was 12-years-old. For the most part I had never worried about sleeping (only my sleep position) but for whatever reason, I couldn't sleep that night, and when I did it was fitful and full of dreams that weren't nightmares but left me terrified and breathless all the same. As the hours ticked by, my panic increased as my body tried and failed to process what was going on.
Of course this sounds irrational. A panic attack over missed sleep? Isn't there more to the story? But that's the nature of anxiety and panic disorders. Sometimes your brain is just looking for something to grab hold of and obsess over, like a grain of sand being converted into some rotten pearl. For me it usually boils down to something that I can't control. In this case it was my sleep schedule. Of course as my panic increased it made it harder to sleep and that, in turn, fueled further panic.
The next day brought the now familiar aftermath of a panic attack. My body felt weak and vulnerable, and suddenly everything was a new trigger. Children's cartoons that were normally fun and care-free were now a minefield of hidden horrors. I walked the dogs with my mom that day and tried to explain what I was feeling, with limited success. This was long before we had a computer and Google was unimaginable in 1994.
Somehow my mom figured out that I was suffering from generalized anxiety disorder, either through research or from talking to a doctor, and finally there was a name for what was terrorizing me. It sounds so innocuous: who doesn't have some general anxiety in life? But when you wake up and you can feel your mind searching for something to worry about and obsess over, your nerves already on edge, it's easy to be overwhelmed.
At first my fears focused on irrational events. What if zombies attack the school? What if the blob is waiting in the toilet? But then as I grew older they turned to more routine fears. I started on Buspar, and then, after a disastrous trial of Paxil, to Celexa, which I still take.
Now my anxiety is almost exclusively linked to adulthood: bills, kids, politics. My biggest trigger, which I still have to bury unless I want to stay awake all night, is my own eventual death. The thought of non-existence is so unthinkable and unknowable that it sends my brain into a tailspin. It's the ultimate example of "something outside my control"--if I'm dead I have no say in what happens to me. I want to know what happens to the universe over the next few billion years, but I can't do that if I'm not around.
Last week my anxiety was brought forward again as the presidential election reached its hideous conclusion. I sat, shellshocked and dumbfounded, as Donald Trump was declared the victor. I feared for the future. For my wife and children. For everyone who isn't a white male with a decent job. The familiar panic attack symptoms crept in and I tried to distract myself with video games, but it wasn't enough. I broke down and called my mom.
Just as I had finally calmed down and prepared to try to get some sleep, my wife woke up and read the text I'd sent her about the results. I ended up staying with her for a couple hours to help with her panic attack. Wednesday we were both shaken and useless. I called in to work because I couldn't bear to be away from my family. But time passed, and I got--not exactly better, but better enough. I can go to work and do my job but I feel like a raw nerve, always looking over my shoulder to see what might be lurking there.
And then this weekend, in a profoundly stupid accident, I managed to flush my keys down a toilet. They're gone forever. My weekend was turned upside down as I was stuck without a car for a day. Now every time I go to the bathroom I'm reminded of that moment, watching the keys disappear into the plumbing, and my anxiety comes back.
Now I'm triggered by toilets. Just another thing to worry about.
I know that anxiety will always be a part of my life, even with medication. I can only hope to subdue it with video games and my wife's presence or by counting backwards by sevens (it really works!). I see the signs of it in my son and it breaks my heart, knowing that he'll have to deal with it throughout his life. But at least I'll be there to guide him through it and distract him when he's at his most fearful, or at least give it a name. I can let him know that it will be ok when his mind tries to tell him that nothing will ever be ok.