Finding Levers to Remove Anxiety and Depression

When I had my first panic attack it was an extraordinary event. I choose that word carefully, because anxiety manifesting as body panic was an event outside my usual experience, thus: extra ordinary. Unfortunately it was an experience that lacked any of the positive traits that the word extraordinary usually implies. There was nothing fun or exciting about it. All I knew for sure was that my body was behaving in an alarming fashion. My heart raced and beat irregularly; my breathing constricted; I was cold; and I could not stop my hands from shaking. I knew that something was wrong, so I saw a doctor who found nothing in the physical data to explain my experiences. He suggested stress. I remember him suggesting it, but the suggestion rolled right off of me only to be remembered months later after I had already figured out that anxiety was the problem. I found ways to de-stress my life and the anxiety went away. Mostly. Until it came back and I realized that I had to address it instead of trying to ignore it out of existence.

It is easier somehow with an extraordinary event, some thing we can point at and say “That is outside of usual bounds.” But most mental illness does not manifest suddenly and dramatically. It creeps in, becomes part of the fabric of life, erodes what we consider normal. I saw this with my anxiety. After entering with a bang, I adapted to it, got so used to it that I hardly even noticed it anymore. “I’m better now.” I’d say, while adjusting my schedule to give myself extra space. If pressed, I would acknowlede that if it ever again got as bad as that original onslaught, then I’d have to do something. I wonder now why I did not take that lull as a chance to dig in and find ways to heal. Truly heal. As I’m trying to do now in the wake of the second extraordinary onslaught. I’m a year and a half into that healing process and I’ve still got terrain to cover.

Howard’s periodic depression has been part of the patterns of our lives ever since I first met him. We built our lives around it, planned for it, explained it in a dozen different ways. “Everyone has good and bad days” I assured both him and myself. Eight months ago Howard began to call out his depression for what it is. He started recognizing it as a thing to be faced and changed. The more he called it out, the more we saw it, and we had to wonder had it gotten worse or were we just noticing instead of ignoring? We spoke with our regular physician and got on the waiting list for a psychiatrist. Howard has been amazing through this process. I’ve watched him spectate and analyze as he carefully deconstructs his old coping mechanisms. We’re beginning to build new ones and I am very happy to see him healthier in both mind and body. It takes amazing courage to look at a long standing pattern and choose to change it, particularly if there is no extraordinary event to spur the change.

I think Howard’s courage is what lets me be so calm as I look at my daughter Gleek and see the patterns around her. Just as our family structure has been built around his depression, it has also bent around Gleek’s intensity. Her ADHD was diagnosed years ago and treatment helped, but more is needed. Over the last two weeks her anxiety both at home and at school has pushed out of the ordinary. Her teacher has noticed, the school psychologist has noticed, and my own observations concur. She needs something different, more than I can fix by making sure she eats well and exercises; more than me helping track her homework, buying her books on stress management, more than yoga sessions, a sand garden, and long rambling talks at bedtime where I help her sort through her thoughts. As I type this list and it gets longer, I see how very hard we’ve been working to give her good coping strategies. And it has worked. Gleek is amazing. She is able to spectate and analyze with a maturity beyond her twelve years. Her innate strength lets her keep it together and choose the least destructive coping mechanisms when the anxiety strikes. After all of that, she still needs something more, something different. I’ve scheduled a full evaluation for her. We’ll be re-visiting the ADHD diagnosis and considering possible treatments and therapy for anxiety.

One of the hardest parts about mental illness is that it all takes place inside the brain. It is tempting to believe that we can just think our way out through willpower and motivation, but this is like trying to move a rock with your bare hands. You can do it if the rock is small, but sometimes it is a boulder sunk deep into the ground. Then willpower and motivation must be applied to a lever, for example: a treatment plan formed with the advice of psychological experts. The first step to finding the right lever to remove your rock is being willing to admit that this rock is in your way, that it needs to be moved, and that you probably can’t move it by yourself. The lever you need may be a lifestyle shift, medication, therapy, service to others, restructuring relationships, or seeking healing through faith. Finding which life changes you need–and applying those changes–requires great motivation and willpower. The answers are as individual as the people seeking them.

My family has some rocks we’ve been walking around for a long time and I’d love to take a jack hammer to them, but I’ll settle for some good levers and a solid team willing to help. Now is a good time to get started.