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First, tackle the anxiety

Posted May 27 2010 12:00am

Over the course of my life, one constant companion has been all but invisible to me… until this past year. That companion is anxiety. A persistent, low-level sense of impending disaster, which has never actually been far from me, in all the years of my life that I can remember. It’s been so constant, and so thoroughly woven into the fabric of my life, that it’s largely undetectable. I am so familiar with it, that not being anxious feels odd and unusual (and a little anxiety-provoking).

I’m not sure when it started perhaps the experience, when I was brand new to this world, of being handed off to daycare workers almost from the first month of my life set me off. Perhaps growing up in a family that was fraught with financial issues put me on edge. Maybe it was the violent social problems of the world around me when I was in the public school system (I was bussed in the early years of integration, and the city where my family lived was a bit of a war zone in places).

Who can say? I could lay it at the feet of countless experiences I had as a kid. And I could also lay it at the feet of my TBI’s, which started when I was seven years old, and continued to occur every year (or few years) or so, till my most recent one in 2004. I can’t say for certain that I’ll never have another. But I’ve had enough to last me for one lifetime trust me.

Anyway, all the cause-finding and determinism aside, the fact of the matter is, anxiety is a significant issue for me. In the past year, especially, I’ve gotten a really good look at how it has colored my life and derailed me and my plans countless times. I can also track how it has contributed to a number of my TBI’s, like some weird-ass self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s fueled lots of my activities that were born of “nervous energy” the books I’ve written, the software programs I’ve coded, the jobs I’ve jumped into (and then jumped out of). It’s driven me like a steel-tipped bullwhip through days and weeks and years of “productivity” which was tightly coupled (and dependent upon) my exhaustive list-making/project-management system. It’s propelled me out of bed, as soon as my eyes opened, and sent me hurtling through my days with an intensity that intimidated people around me.

People I know have told me I’m “the most driven person they know” and I’m sure it’s true. Not a lot of people walk around with this level of anxiety and live to tell the tale.

It’s interesting how I’ve harnessed this franticness. It’s like I’ve been riding a rocket through the sky. Some people some of them very close to me, in fact have panic-anxiety disorders and it keeps them from doing anything with their lives. They’re literally trapped in a cocoon of safety-seeking behavior. Of course, life being what it is, building your existence around making sure you’re safe in every conceivable way doesn’t leave you much room to, well, live, so they end up spending a lot of time hiding from the myriad dangers they anticipate just around the corner.

I, too, am wracked with anxiety about what-might-be. But my anxiety propels me head-first into life, and it drives me to achieve-achieve-achieve. The only problem is, it’s not sustainable energy, it’s based on an emotion and a state of mind that is not strong and solid, and the successes I’ve achieved with this nervous energy have been short-lived and somewhat hollow. They have also been prone to collapse under pressure. Because no matter how well and how productively I appear to perform, to the outside world, the fact of the matter is, it’s not self-confidence and surety that serves as the foundation for many of my successes; it’s a constantly shifting, constantly worrying sense of impending doom that I need to avert. And I often get to a point in my work where the sense of doom is too great, and I just have to “dump out” of the undertaking… leaving my backers and supporters angry and perplexed about why it didn’t work out… but leaving me feeling immensely relieved that “I don’t have to do that anymore.”

I really started to get my head around this, over the past couple of years, as I paid close attention (and I mean really close attention) to what I was doing with myself each day… what was going on behind the scenes… what was underlying all my activities. At first, I was incredibly impressed with how much I was undertaking, all my ambitious plans and whatnot.

But over time, as I started to see that thing were not coming to fruition the way I expected and hoped them to, I had to look deeper. And I started to get in touch with the fact that the things I was doing weren’t really for their own sake. They were for the sake of assuaging a deep-seated restlessness and anxiety that was constantly in the background of my mind and spirit.

At the same time, I was working with Belleruth Naparstek’s Stress Hardiness Optimization CD, trying to get my sleeping in order. I wasn’t on a good schedule, I was constantly tired, and I was having a hell of a time keeping viable. I was literally careening from one crisis to the next, and that’s no way to live (even though tons of people do it). In the process of working on my stress hardiness, I learned about techniques for relaxing. I had known about these techniques and used them some 20 years ago, but in the course of my very-busy life, and the subsequent injuries, the whole idea of relaxing just kind of fell off the edge of my attention.

…For, like, 20 years.

I guess I got hooked on the whole crisis business, and I found the nervous energy, the steady throb of anxiety, a valuable source of fuel for my overtaxed life. It got me through, I’ll say that. But the life it produced was one of being constantly wired, in a lot of pain from being so tense, and being so depleted and compromised that I ended up with more head injuries as a result of not being rested enough and not paying close enough attention to what was going on around me.

Granted, the car accidents I was in weren’t my fault entirely, but I wonder how they might have turned out, if my reaction time had been better if I’d been more rested and more present. Each of the times I was in car accidents, I was “under the gun” rushing to get somewhere, feeling that ever-so-familiar sense of pressure to accomplish something, anxious about not being able to do it, paying the best attention I could, but consumed by all sorts of worries and not really at the top of my game. I was either distracted or fatigued or both. And my life, at all those times, was a pressure-cooker of serious worries. The same thing holds true of my fall in 2004 I was over-tired, distracted, rushing around, tremendously anxious about the state of my life at that time, and not paying full attention to where I was and what I was doing at the instant I slipped and fell. And so I ended up at the bottom of a flight of stairs, without a clear sense of the trouble I had just gotten myself into.

Anyway, that’s all water under the bridge. The bottom line is, anxiety has driven me and depleted me for as long as I can remember. I’ve lived my life in one unpleasant situation after another, which was extremely concerning and needed to be dealt with. Unavoidable. And fraught with worry. And I have to admit, I’ve kind of liked it. It’s energizing. It’s thrilling. It keeps me pumped up and go-go-going.

But it’s no way to live.

Which I have discovered almost by accident over the past year or so.

See, as I listened to the stress hardiness CD, something amazing started to happen. I found myself learning to relax. I found myself learning to chill and let go of the constant agita that propelled me through life. I found myself able to breathe deeply perhaps for the first time in my life. And the more I did it, the more I enjoyed it. The more I did it, the more I realized I had an alternative to the standard-issue anxiety and stress that typified my life. And the more relaxed I became, the more I realized that there was another source of energy I could tap into rest and relaxation and a revitalized parasympathetic nervous system that could support my fight-flight way of life. And I realized that I could take the edge off my intensity, and still perform extremely well. Better, in fact, that if I was constantly taxed by all that nervous energy.

Furthermore, I started exercising regularly each morning before I did anything else. I started riding my exercise bike… then stretching… then lifting. And the boos I got from it was a whole lot better (and more lasting) than any amount of nervous energy my anxiety could stir up.

I guess you could call me a Type A personality. People have. And some of them have said it in a derogatory way. But I am what I am, and there it is. In the course of my relaxation quest, it’s become plain to me that it’s not so much about turning myself into someone other than a Type A person it’s about making me into a better Type A person. It’s not about making myself all soft and cuddly and mellow. It’s about giving that edge a rest, taking the sword out of battle, and giving it time to get its edge back. It’s about taking care of my vehicle, my body, so it can keep up with my Type A character. Ironically, the better I support my Type A person, the more healthy I become, and the more effective a Type A person I can be.

And that’s been an important discovery for me. Because it frees me up to build my system back up. And it gives me permission to rest, without feeling like I’m giving in to the pressure to give up. It lets me take care of myself without feeling like I’m “quitting.” It lets me be who and what I am without guilt and shame and feeling like I’m less-than.

In the process of taking a break from the pressure, I’ve been able to break the cycle of being mindlessly driven by the anxiety… constantly goaded on by the impending sense of doom… and I’ve been able to separate out the things in my life that are truly mine, and the things that are born of dread and an impending sense of disaster. I’ve realized that much of what I’ve done in my life has been about just relieving the pressure of my nerves. All those books I’ve written, all the pictures I’ve drawn, all the pages and pages and pages of journals I’ve kept over the years (many of them saying exactly the same thing, day after day, week after week,  month after month, year after every livelong year), all the software projects I’ve undertaken… a huge proportion of all of them has been about creating some sort of pressure release… giving my nervous energy somewhere to go… keeping myself from flying off the rails with panic.

I have to say, this is a very strange place to be in for the past 40-some years, it’s like I’ve been living another person’s life, all this time. It hasn’t even been another person’s life it’s been a gut-response to a biochemical process that has driven me like a goat across the deserts of my nervous life. Granted, in the process, I’ve acquired a lot of skills and a lot of experience, which I can use for my own benefit. And I’ve made some good money in the process (if only I hadn’t fallen in 2004, and lost almost all of it afterwards). It’s not like it’s been a total waste. I can reclaim a ton of good things from it. But I realize my motivation has been askew. My rationale and raison d’etre has been, well, off. And that needs to change.

I need my life back. MY life back.

Of course, change is hard. When I’m feeling really anxious, I still find myself dusting off old projects that used to consume me, and I have to check myself before I launch into them all over again. And the idea of getting away from the kinds of work I’ve done in the past the heavy-duty technical work because I’m not driven by the same level of panic that I used to be, is a hard one. I’m working on that one, steadily but surely, and it’s a real challenge to shift away from that way of working, which was closely coupled with my sense of self and well-being. My 40-some years of habit-forming use of that old anxiety isn’t going to change overnight, but it’s got to change. Because now I see it for what it is, and now I realize that if I’m going to truly live up to my potential, I need to find a better way to motivate myself than sheer nerve-fraying fear.

The first step in all of this is to tackle the anxiety. Learn to see it when it comes up, talk myself through it, and find ways to address it that are healthy and make sense. I have been doing better about noticing the warning flags I’m starting to make lists again, or I’m starting to dig through all my old files again to see what old projects I can resume (note: I say projects, because I can never stop at just one, when I’m anxious). I notice it more, now, when I’m getting tense, and I’m doing better about just breathing. And when I can’t take a deep breath in, because I’m so tense, I just exhale as completely as possible so my body naturally takes in a deep breath in response.

It really is amazing, what dealing physically with anxiety makes possible. Once I started doing conscious relaxation, conscious breathing, and deliberate exercise on a regular basis, I was able to actually get my head around the mental/cognitive/behavioral parts of this puzzle that is my life. Before I did that, I was constantly going-going-going, rushing from one exploration to another, taking on one mammoth project after another, just diving headlong into everything, everywhere I could find it.

And I thought I was doing good things. But I wasn’t. I was just doing for the sake of doing. Just going for the sake of going. I didn’t actually care what was to come of all of it. I just wanted to go and do… till I dropped from exhaustion.

Once I took the edge off my anxiety, though, all that began to change. I started to see what was really going on, and I was able to start seriously considering the nature of my life. Most importantly, I started to find places where I need to make changes, and I was able to look at them without the intense level of anxious judgment I used to. It has helped tremendously, to have a neuropsych to work with, who has been a voice of stable reason throughout this process. (Ironically, they aren’t as avid a fan of exercise and physical rehab as I am, but that’s another discussion for another post.) But truly, I have to say that even without a neuropsych to work with, the benefits of exercise would still be the same, and I would probably still be making  the same kinds of changes I am, reading the same things, discovering the same old truths about myself which have been hidden for many years behind the curtain of crisis-driven biochemical freak-out.

And I have to say, too, that until I started to exercise and work on my relaxation and resting and breathing, a lot of what my neuropsych was telling me didn’t make a lot of sense. Freeing up my energy to NOT deal with constant drama and anxiety and franticness makes it possible for me to process real, genuine aspects of my life, not just stuff that I pick up along the way to distract me from my anxiety. The more I address my anxiety, the better I am able to just life my life. Make new choices. Make better choices. Take pro-active steps, not just be in a state of constant reaction.

Well, it’s all an adventuresome journey. And the more I know, the more I learn, the better it gets. I’m profoundly grateful that I’ve had the chance to learn all this, and I’m also grateful for the happy coincidences that have led me down this road.

It’s all good.

And it keeps getting better.

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