Tonight, I went to the movies. I had a ticket for Spider Man: Into the Spiderverse. It was a perfect movie. The story was perfect, the artwork was perfect, the music was perfect, Jake Johnson was perfect, you get the gist.
I didn’t make it through to the credits.
Before I could, I had another anxiety attack.
(But wait, you might ask, then how could you conclusively say that the movie was perfect?)
(To which I would reply, is that what you’re taking away from this?)
(Unless I stuck by ya, you’re a sunflower…now I’m getting carried away.)
It was not a new phenomenon. I’ve been dealing with anxiety attacks for the last three, four months now, give or take. Went to see a doctor about it, even have a set of use-in-case-of-emergency meds I keep in bag in case I feel myself losing control, the whole nine yards.
I’d consider myself to be fairly open about things. I write a lot; writing always helps me in a therapeutic sort of fashion. I mean, a few years ago, I put out there on the internet a whole thing about how I got a surgery for torsion in my, well, y’know. I thought at the time, that would probably be the most out-there thing I would ever publish. Writing about balls was a bit of stretch, even as someone who has been paid to write about (basket)balls.
But like I said, I figure writing helps. So after driving home and puling myself at least a little bit together, I figure now is as good a time as any to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, as it were). Pardon any rambling or non-sequitur.
It first hit me all the way back in October of last year, a few weeks after I’d gotten home from San Francisco. I don’t know why, or what exactly triggered it. But I was shivering and couldn’t eat and couldn’t sleep, even though I desperately wanted nothing more than to just fucking get some sleep. Eating and sleeping are the two things which I am unequivocally great at doing, so when one or both of those things goes haywire, the alarm bells in my head start ringing. Like, imagine if you threw Michael Phelps out there in the 400 Free in the Olympics and he got in the pool and just started doggy paddling.
That whole week, I couldn’t focus on anything. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t work out. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t go out with friends. I mean, I technically did some of those things, but I was never *quite* there when I was doing it. It was always like I was of two minds, with a second consciousness gnawing on me as I sort of went through the motions. It wasn’t just a sense of fear. It was a dulled sense of dread so gradual and paralyzing that every moment I spent trying to distract myself from it, I only wanted nothing more than to escape back to my apartment, curl up in my bed, and wallow in my own misery, exacerbating my worst impulses and unable to shake loose.
Anxiety was this absurdly awful catch-22 loop with no escape or recourse. Anxious about my heart rate so I keep checking my pulse every couple minutes? Well of course my heart rate will start spiking in response. Anxious about having a fever so I keep checking my body temperature every few minutes? Boom, get dumptrucked. Of course my body starts feeling hot in response. Hyper-awareness of a certain symptom only made that symptom worse. And the worst part is that I just couldn’t bring myself to do anything other than worry. An ambitious to-do list was at a total disconnect with my emotional and mental state.
And then shit really hit the fan at the end of that week. My mind spun so thoroughly out of control that Saturday that a family friend needed to pick me up from my own house to take me back to their place. The next morning, I was on a flight home to New Orleans.
I had an EKG, went through an ultrasound, sat through several sessions with various doctors, got some bloodwork done – everything was fine as could be. I was physically in good shape. When I went in for my ultrasound, the tech asked me to remove my shirt, so I lay on the bed with just my jeans on. The tech rolled me over onto my left side and very meticulously positioned my left arm behind my head with my right arm on top of my legs, knees bent ever so slightly. And as per usual, I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind: Will you paint me like one of your French girls?
So we could be satisfactorily assured that at the very least, my dumb sense of humor was still intact, for better or worse. But if everything checked out, then what was I getting worried for?
Well, I have a fairly good guess, but it isn’t necessarily worth getting fully into here. The gist is that it’s along the lines of events related to my extended family that occurred back in my college years. Back in college though, I never so much as stopped to process those events in the way that folks may have expected me to. How could I have? I was too wrapped up in the whole being-in-college deal. However, several years later, I guess the lag finally caught up with me.
Ever since October, my anxiety has been on and off. There’s some days when I’m feeling like my old self, feeling like an absolute king again, and then some days when I have to leave work because that’s just how these things go sometimes. We have a tendency, in many instances, to reductively define good or bad things by their most extreme embodiments. But just as surely as Harvard is not the only university in the country, mental health is not just all clinical depression and a strong bottle of bourbon.
It’d have been pretty simple for those around me to just dismiss my concerns. What the hell are you worried about? Your life is great. Lots of folks are dealing with worse things in the world. But they didn’t, thankfully. Parents were intensely supportive, colleagues at work were caring to a level that I can never take for granted, and friends lent an open ear when I needed it most. Mental health is a pretty wide net, insofar as almost anything relating to your general happiness and emotional well-being can be classified as mental health.
I never figured myself to be writing something like this. But in a certain way, that’s the mistake we all make, isn’t it? It never hits us till it hits us. We’re invincible until we aren’t. And believe me, I used to consider myself absolutely impenetrable, my body a fortress shielded by a glistening layer of earned arrogance that I’d worked so many years to build up, a level of self-confidence that literally once got me rejected at a job interview. It’s hard to figure out how to piece it all back together though, once you see a crack.
I certainly don’t believe that I have the answer yet. But I think I’m learning to better control it now, to more effectively compartmentalize it. Stuff like this doesn’t have a set prescription or 3-step magic cure. It can take time, music, people, doctors, lifestyle changes, anything and everything.
For me, it’s started with understanding my own impulses. There’s never not music playing anymore when I get home from work. I talk to my parents more regularly. I’ve signed up for tennis lessons in order to get back to the first sport I ever learned. I’m watching more movies. I’m doubling down on that to-do list because I realized that the more completely immersed I am in a challenging problem, the less I’m thinking about my anxiety. Weird routines are high key. Every morning after I shower, I do five pushups to remind myself that all systems are a go.
But I doubled down on something else too: my friends and family. I routinely repeat to myself inside my head, our team can’t lose. Our team can’t lose. Our team can’t lose. I was discussing my anxiety with a friend when this all started, and there was one specific point he made that resonated heavily. We need to find what core beliefs or objects we have that we can grip onto tight, a talisman of sorts that we can fall back on.
For some people, that’s a significant memento. For others, it might be religion. But while religion was an important part of my life insofar as that it has always been a cultural and traditional totem, my personal concept of religion has always been, I think, more about general overarching faith and spirituality than any specific adherence to rigid doctrines. No, for me, it was about leaning on the only thing that never ever wavers.
Spending even more time with friends and family just became an even bigger priority, regardless of the cost. The less time I waste lounging in bed alone for a few extra hours, the better. The more time I spend doing hoodrat shit with friends, the better. But at the end of the day, it’s largely about having people that you can share a tiny sliver of your burdens with and trust in and talk to. For many, that role falls onto a therapist. For me, it’s the people I’ve grown up with and grown close with, the people who I sometimes would prioritize even above my own family when I was younger.
I clearly remember being on the opposite side of the table and being on the listening end for close friends who were dealing with their own mental health challenges, trying to help any way I could because sometimes just having a presence can alleviate the stress. So if nothing else, I still gotta be brave for those kids, right?
I never really thought too hard about mental health until Kevin Love wrote last year about his own bout with anxiety attacks last year, until the topic forced its way into my world via basketball. Everyone is going through something, he wrote. Well, shit. Kevin Love was right.
But talking helps, fam. So does writing, if rambling on a keyboard is your thing. So does keeping a notebook of thoughts (I cannot recommend the concept of a “randomness notebook” enough). Communicating in some way helps. That’s the only thing I can say for sure after all this. So even when you’re afraid, don’t be afraid to talk.
On the opening episode of Game of Thrones, Bran asked Ned Stark if a man can be brave if he is afraid. Ned responded that in fact, it is the only time a man can be brave. It’s not till we grapple with our fears that we can begin to understand our courage. And since the new year just began and it’s the cliché thing to do around this time, I’m resolving to rediscover my own invincibility. I know the guy who once almost submitted “Your Excellency Young Trill Senth Master Flex, King of Kings” as the official name for his diploma is still there.
So hold me accountable, won’t ya? I promise, I got your backs too.