Thursday, June 28, 2018

Hello, My name is Ruth and I have a fear of yellow paint.

Every morning when Juliana went to school or when Kevin took the girls somewhere, I would wave goodbyes and wonder if they would die before I saw them again. I didn’t obsess about it or feel paralyzed with fear; it was just a daily, automatic thought. “Goodbye, hope you don’t die before you come back!”

My sister and I recently had a conversation about worrying that people will die. That was when I realized I had stopped wondering if my family would die every time they left home. It had been a daily thought for such a long time, I had failed to recognize that perhaps it wasn’t entirely “normal.” When I told Kevin about it he looked at me very strangely and said, “Really? That’s terrible!”

Depression is my primary nemesis, but depression and anxiety often like to tag-team. I don’t talk about anxiety as much because I find it harder to figure out. I recently read Wil Wheaton describing his chronic anxiety and depression. Even though I have years of experience with these illnesses, it was reassuring to realize someone else understands what is going on inside your head. I have also realized that I can say, “I struggle with depression and anxiety,” but those words might not mean a lot to people who haven’t experienced it before.

So I will attempt to give a picture of what anxiety has meant for me, knowing that each person’s experience is different. Anxiety is a normal part of life, but generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) makes you feel anxious about things that don’t even make sense. As I thought back on some of the things that have caused me anxiety over the years, here are some examples:

- Pale yellow paint: The doors in my first apartment in Yangzhou were covered with peeling yellow paint that reminded me of a 1960’s mental institution. It was very disturbing.

- Marshes: All that innocent looking grass covering up sinister water.

- Certain patterns: It’s hard to explain, but some repeating patterns look like disease or tiny eyes or are just trying to make your eyes go crazy.
Why would they do this??

- 80’s décor: I’m serious. That gold rim around the shower door. I can’t begin to explain this, but it’s something about the feeling of stepping back in time.
Creepy, right?
- Furniture pretending to be decapitated humans: My sister says this would be anxiety producing for most people, so maybe I’m totally normal for feeling like legs should stay attached to humans.

This lovely piece of work was in the neurologist waiting room.  Do you think they are trying to mess with people's minds?
You can see why it is hard to explain anxiety. When you say, “Yellow paint is upsetting to me,” people who struggle with anxiety understand. But other people look at you like they wonder if you were ever abducted by aliens.

The problem with anxiety and other mental illness is that the illness itself skews your perception of life. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around anxiety because it is just not rational. Depression feels almost logical. Your mind says life hopeless and everything is only getting worse, so naturally you feel depressed. But anxiety makes you feel crazy, like you are literally losing your mind. Because honestly, who is afraid of 80’s décor??

Of course there is something behind the crazy, even when you can’t explain it. These irrelevant things bother you because something about them is not right. You get that creepy feeling like when you are in a dark parking garage (I also hate parking garages) all alone and someone is following you. For some reason 80’s décor looks like the scene from a horror movie. A part of your mind cannot get over the fact that human legs should be attached to bodies not furniture. So your mind screams, “Danger! Something is off here! Pay attention to this sinister feeling!” Because your brain refuses to believe that tissue boxes are not threatening.

During my first year in China at 22, I went through periods of unintentionally waking up at 4am. I would head out on solitary bike rides at 5am, when only the street cleaners were out. I did not have a cell phone and nobody knew where I was, but I wasn’t worried about that; I was more afraid of being in my apartment alone. I was confident enough to travel all the way to China, but I suffered an unshakable dread of making copies in the little copy shop. I was living on my own in a foreign country, but I was terrified of the dark. I knew there were no monsters under the bed; what I feared was much more sinister and oppressive.

Sometimes the subject of anxiety is logical, it is just obsessive. Every day I carried Nadia down the stairs from our 5th floor apartment, I pictured myself tripping and dropping her on those hard, concrete steps. I continually calculated how likely my children were to die in a particular situation. When Juliana sat on her bunkbed, I pictured her falling off head first. When I took Adalyn outside, I pictured her running out in the road and getting hit by a car. I lay awake at night thinking how I would save my children in a fire. These were somewhat reasonable worries, but I could not get them out of my head.

My worst period of anxiety was the year Kevin and I returned to the US for a year to get married. I decided that the middle of a bunch of life-altering transitions would be a good time to stop taking my antidepressants. In hindsight, it was clearly a bad decision. My depression had improved, but I didn’t realize that the medicine was also helping my anxiety. I didn’t even realize I had anxiety.

I nearly had a nervous breakdown the summer before the wedding, but I thought it was just all the adjustment. After we were married, I was upset whenever Kevin had to leave me. Sweet newlywed stuff, right? Except I also dreaded going to work each day. I dreaded hanging out with friends. I was exhausted all the time. I hated driving on the freeway at night because all the lights and movement made me feel out of control. I wanted to stay safely inside our little apartment, until the walls started closing in and I couldn’t breathe.

I curled up in bed, a crushing weight on my chest keeping me from getting enough air. My heart pounded and the world spun out of control. I was completely alone. Even when Kevin was with me, we may as well have been in two parallel universes: Kevin sitting on the bed in our apartment, me being sucked into a formless black hole, all noise and darkness and chaos. It was my first experience with panic attacks.

The panic attacks became more regular and I realized this anxiety was becoming crippling. I finally saw a doctor and started back on medication. The anxiety and panic attacks decreased, and eventually a solitary session of EMDR therapy stopped them completely.

My anxiety has ebbed and flowed over the years. Lately it has been a lot better, but the triggers are unpredictable. Anyone who struggles with anxiety can tell you it is tough. It is exhausting. It is confusing. But it can get better. One day, hopefully, you will be surprised to find you no longer wonder every day if your children are going to die. You are not losing your mind. Or maybe you are, but at least you are not alone.

And in case you are wondering, it’s not your mental illness: decapitated human legs pretending to be furniture is not normal.