My mom and I have been talking a lot about my GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) lately, and I kind of love it. I love that she wants to know. It shows me that she doesn’t see me as weak or broken or fucked up; she’s approaching this the same way she learned how a car engine worked or how to help my grandma after her stroke. It makes me feel normal, and like my GAD is just like a wound or an illness: it’s a thing that happens, and you learn to treat it, and then you learn how to get back to normal or how to cope with your new normal. It’s kind of really awesome, and I love it.
As I was writing her today (we email a lot), I was thinking about how broad GAD is. It runs the gamut between mild most days with some spikes every now and then to completely debilitating every day. And for each person, each day is different. Sure there are a lot of things that each instance has in common with each other, or that people have in common, but even then, there’s a lot of variation.
I’ve worked hard to figure out how to manage it, and most days are good days. For me, bad days fall into three categories. There’s what I’ve written about before, where I have a full out panic attack and I’m scared and angry and vomiting and wondering who I am and hyperventilating and I’m completely incapacitated. Those are the Really Bad Days. Thankfully, I haven’t had one of those since January. For a year there they happened about once a month, and I can’t explain what a relief it is to have a reprieve from that.
There are Fragile Days, like I had before we went to California, where I’m not scared, but where my sensitivity is turned up to eleven.On Fragile Days, I walk around feeling like I want to cry all day, and often very small things will set me off. I’m extra sensitive to jokes and teasing, I really don’t want to be around people or light or sound, and I just want to curl up in a ball and be sad until it’s time to go to bed. These are like medium bad, and they happen every now and then.
And then there are days like I had this week. Days where the anxiety and the adrenaline and focus it provides were really helpful as I was decorating my classroom. I came up with a ton of creative ideas (I’m doing a Hunger Games theme because I’m awesome), and I executed them quickly and (mostly) well. The anxiety allowed me to go from sitting on my couch for two months to working for 7 hours straight two days in a row. The downside is that, especially on Thursday night, I had a lot of trouble turning off. I came home, ate dinner, and kept making posters and decorations until bedtime. I didn’t let myself unwind the way I normally do, because the anxiety made me feel like I couldn’t afford to or I’d forget all of my great ideas, and because it had me feeling like I could keep going forever. As a result, I lay awake for nearly two hours because my thoughts were racing and I worried I would forget the things I thought of while I was lying there. Then, though I did finally get to sleep, I woke up like a shot at like 5:30am and knew that getting back to dreamland was never gonna happen.
I lay there for a while, but eventually I gave up the ghost and got up to make coffee and watch the sunrise. It was gorgeous, and the anxiety kept me working all day on Friday, but DAMN I was tired when I got home. I’m still tired.
These days are the most confusing type, because there’s not really a clear driving emotion. I know that anxiety about something (having a lot to do, getting it done in time, etc) is making my thoughts race, which is releasing adrenaline and making me feel on edge and aware(Aware Days?). But I also feel really productive, and I don’t have a feeling like sad or scared that I can pin stuff on. These days are more complicated because explaining them is like trying to explain GAD: sometimes it’s like everything and nothing at the same time. Sometimes you know it’s really nothing but it feels like everything. Sometimes it’s everything but it feels like nothing.
Fragile Days are a good example of nothing feeling like everything. The tiniest provocation sends me to tears and I couldn’t for the life of me tell you why I feel so sad and so breakable. Aware Days are a good example of everything feeling like nothing: there are so many thoughts and so many things I feel responsible for that my brain kind of goes on autopilot until everything is done, but then it can’t stop when it needs to. (Part of me feels like maybe I should have seen it coming this time because we’ve been watching Stranger Things and while I love it, I’m on edge from the beginning of the episode to the end because that show is no joke.)
Aware days are hard because, for a long time, they were just how I lived. Until I started having panic attacks, I didn’t realize that they were a manifestation of anxiety; hell, I didn’t even know I had anxiety. But they’re hardest to deal with because they’re hardest to explain and because they do have some positive effects a way that Fragile Days or Really Bad Days don’t. I have trouble recovering from them because 1)my body is still kind of heightened, and 2)I don’t really know what will be most helpful. Like today: I had planned to do yoga, but I was more tired than usual(remember, lost a lot of sleep), so I took a nap. But my nap was short because my brain was like MORE IDEAS!!! so then I felt like I should have done yoga instead, only I missed my window and have to wait until tomorrow(I don’t do it after dinner because it weirdly makes it harder to get to sleep). I just didn’t know which was the better option, and that’s frustrating, because it makes me feel like I’m not capable of helping myself. I know that I will sleep better tonight, and tomorrow I will absolutely do some yoga, and I will feel better, but the whole thing just made me kind of grumpy.
My sister laid a truth bomb on me last night that I’m trying to practice literally right this second: the dog was anxious because she just was, and she was vomiting and shaking and pacing and clearly distressed. The dude was out playing volleyball, so I was on Mom duty, and I just felt so much empathy for her. She looked so miserable, and I wanted to take it away so that she didn’t feel it anymore. I texted my sister because she gets what it’s like to feel like that, and she goes, take all the compassion you have for her and remember it for when you’re anxious next time. I was like: That right there is the best Protip I’ve ever heard. So I’m trying that right now, and to be honest, it’s difficult AF. (Though that might be because I’m super hungry.) The realities of physical symptoms make it hard to remember to do things like drink water, let alone be nice to myself. But you can bet your ass I took a screenshot and it’s saved in my anxiety album (which also has some choice words from Chris Evans, my anxiety check list, and videos/pictures of baby animals. Specifically dogs and elephants, because this little guy).
I guess what I’m saying is that my brain looks like this:
There are like 7 dials and they all go to eleven and there are infinite combinations because each dial could be anywhere. There are dials for symptoms like fear, sadness, racing thoughts, ruminating, altertness, depersonalization, and rapid heart rate/breathing. On Really Bad Days, everything, especially fear, is at eleven (fear is at like 1,000, actually). On Fragile days, the dials for sadness and and sensitivity are at eleven. On Aware days, sadness, sensitivity, and fear are at 0 but alertness and racing thoughts are both at eleven and that combo causes a weird feedback loop. It weird but helpful to think about it this way, because – especially on Fragile Days – this helps me to separate the anxiety from myself and remember that it’s not who I am, it’s just a thing that happens. And I will take every reminder of that I can get.