There have been times in my life that I have considered myself to be dead inside. I have been to funerals of loved ones that elicited the same emotional reaction as classes I attended in college—it wasn’t bad or good…just was.
There have also been times when the slightest emotional stimulus ripped me open wide. I could be watching a tender moment in a sitcom and suddenly find my face soaked with tears.
Results of my Mania?
I assume these two opposites to be results of my mania. The strange thing is that when I look back at these examples, and my state of mind at the time, I recall being happy overall in both instances. When I look back at times that my emotional reactions were ‘appropriate’ those moments all seem to be framed in times of great sadness. Does that mean that my emotional baseline—the conditions under which I react the most socially ‘appropriate’—is sadness? That’s a sad thought.
I had a heart-rending nightmare one evening that left me broken in the dark for hours after it occurred. This terrible piece of #flashfiction is what it spawned.
Brianne stood silently by the table and watched the flame flicker on the wax embodiment of the number fifteen atop the cake. She’d been there well on ten minutes now — vacantly transfixed by the ebb and flow of the tiny light in the middle of the room. She watched, standing straight, arms limp at her sides, head lolled to the right, and completely emotionless.
The cake is beautiful she thought, white icing and all — a very nice gesture from the mother who could not make it home for her birthday. The thought brought a single tear to her eye that left a black mascara tinged trail as it gently streamed down her face. It clung, momentarily, at the bottom of her cheek before dropping to her breast below — In the end, one tear was all it took.
Brianne took the knife from the table and pulled it gently across her throat. The intent was fragile and focused on attention. The effect was resolute and final. She underestimated the sharp bite of the blade and it pulled itself deeper into her flesh than she had ever intended. White icing now red, Brianne slipped into the black.
That is the end of Brianne’s story and nothing that came before this moment or happens after, matters. Her entire existence begins and ends, with one single moment of despair and miscalculation.
My social anxiety is at its most vicious when it is working to build my assumptions of what others think of me. It sees an event on the horizon and immediately takes stock of all the people that might be in attendance. Then it methodically mines the recesses of my memories for any little instance that could be used against me. It could be a text from my brother last week that seemed short or a conversation with my sister from five years ago that did not go the way I wanted it to. Whatever it finds gets blown up and connected in some twisted way, then woven together into a film played on a loop until the day of the event.
I don’t speak about it to the people I should (or anyone, for that matter) because I am not entirely sure I read the situation correctly, to begin with. Social anxiety twists both the moment and the memory of the moment. If I speak about it and have it wrong the situation only worsens.
It is a terrible place to dwell — inside the dark of one’s mind — with no guide and a malevolent force lurking in the shadows.
Faith To Overcome
My faith has made me stronger over the last few years. The darkness isn’t quite as dark. The time I’m in it isn’t quite as long. Still, every once in a while, the anxiety weaves its web and ensnares me.
I struggle with social anxiety daily. Some days are better than others, but it always there—right below the surface of my forced smile—struggling to strangle me.
It has been there my entire life. It has cost me friendships, stopped me from meeting nice girls, caused me to leave (or avoid) family functions, and played a major role in every social interaction I have ever had.
I took it all in stride and never talked about it with anyone. When I was younger it didn’t have a name and as I got older the sheer embarrassment kept me from speaking about it.
Now it is a problem though. Now I have a fifteen-year-old daughter (who has issues of her own) that I am desperately trying to connect with. That situation is hard in the best of circumstances but the anxiety interferes with how close I can be to her. She always thinks I am angry but I am not. She thinks I don’t find her funny because she tells a joke or acts playful and the fucking anxiety has me focused on a million things other than the moment I am sharing with her. I try to think of ways to spend time with her and the fear of being out in the world always forces me to the old standby—”want to watch a movie sweetie?”
It is not right. It is not okay. It is crippling and I need to find a way to fix it—for her.
Panic attacks are like the first blustery wind of an unexpected storm. They come from nowhere, with no warning, and no indication of how long they will last, or how severe they will be. It can happen anywhere, or anytime. You can be in the worst of moods, or the best—it does not matter.
When it happens it is like somebody flicked the lights off and then used the cover of darkness to punch you in the gut. I understand that’s an odd analogy, but it is exactly how it feels.
Wrong Without Warning
Imagine you are moving along through your day and (without warning) everything is suddenly wrong. You can’t move forward. You can’t move backward. All you can do is stand there and wonder what happened. You feel nauseous because you cannot put your finger on it, and you know the people around you can see something is wrong. You know that someone will ask you if you are okay—and you will say “yes”. You are not, but it does not matter because you couldn’t explain what was wrong if you wanted to.
The feeling of helplessness is vicious and feeds upon itself. Your heart rate increases, palms start to sweat, your chest tightens up, and a little voice in the back of your head tells you that you’re having a heart attack. The rational side of you says you’re not, but the truth is there’s no way to be sure. The lack of certainty sends your thoughts spinning. Should you go to the hospital? If it is a heart attack would you make it in time? If it’s not will the doctor’s laugh at you? Does your daughter know how much you love her? Will she be okay when you’re gone?
Each thought cripples you a little more. It’s a cascade of irrationality fueled by the reality that all of the things you are thinking—while maybe not true in this exact moment—are completely plausible possibilities. People die of sudden, massive, heart attacks every day. Why not you? Why not today?
My Panic, Not Yours
This is what a panic attack usually feels like to me. If you see me standing stuck in a moment this is what’s going on in my head. I do not know if it is the same for everyone. For me the attacks vary by degrees—sometimes they are small and last seconds, other times they are massive and consume my day. They were less severe when I was younger, and have grown exponentially over the past couple of years.
Oddly enough, the heart attack scenario represents the best case for me. Arguing with myself whether or not I am having a heart attack is at least tangible. Sometimes, the attacks do not present a reason for attacking. Sometimes they are just a sudden onset of terror and an inexplicable surety that everything is not okay. There is no discernible cause—just a hopelessly empty feeling and sudden desire to be anywhere other than where I am. I have left family events, work, even dates when one of these empty moments struck. I have had times when even the company of the person I love most in this world—my daughter—was not enough to make me feel anything other than lost.
Bubble, Bubble, Toil, and Trouble
I do not exist in a bubble. I deal with these panic attacks much like you might deal with a sinus infection or a broken arm. I adjust and power through it. If you know me then you have most definitely spoken to me while I was in the midst of one of them. Ninety percent of the time you will never know. The other ten percent? Those are the times when I inexplicably disappear. Maybe I told you the truth. Maybe I made up an excuse. Either way, it was necessary to remove myself from whatever situation I was in and deal with the darkness that had descended upon me.
I am grateful that I understand what is happening now. Like so many others I suffered for years in silence. Now that I know it is real I can deal with it. One of the ways I deal with it is by writing. If you are dealing with the panic attacks please share how you deal with them below if you are so inclined. If you need someone to talk to but do not want to do it publicly you can reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I cannot give you answers, but I can listen—and sometimes that helps.