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The devastation of anxious minds

The first time I watched Stephen Fry’s documentary “The life of a manic depressive”, one question stood out in my mind above all else:

“If you had a button that you could press that would erase your bipolar disorder forever, would you press it?”

The answer was an indefinite no. There’s a lot you can tell about a person and their state of suffering from their answer – but what was mine?

If I had the choice to press the button to rid my chronic anxiety and panic attacks, I would do so in a heartbeat. I preface this by saying that I do not and probably will never know what it is like to suffer under the endless effects of manic depression. But any amount of unnecessary suffering is, well, unnecessary. Maybe when you have lived with something for so long, it becomes your world, your friend in the darkness. I might be too naïve to come to that revelation right now – maybe in 5 years, 10 years, even 20 – this will become my reality, or these feeling will come to pass. It is difficult to tell. Thoughts of fear and panic became parasites – they were not me, they got under my skin and changed me. Anxiety was not a battle, it was an infection, an infiltration – and at the worst times – a devastation of the mind. This is what my story taught me.

The first time you experience panic, fear, an overwhelming sense of doom is by far the worst – for one very practical reason: You will never know if it will end. There is no evidence for that – yet. The irony is that these feelings are perpetuated by the line of questioning: “why can’t I go back to how I felt before?” Well the truth is you can, and I’ve done it more times than I would care to admit, but your positive reinforced answers mean nothing here. If they meant anything, I would never have to write this in the first place. Conversely if anxious, fear-driven thoughts meant nothing, therapy wouldn’t even need to exist. Then why did I feel like the only thing that carried importance – now or ever – were the thoughts in my head? It’s the emotions – the danger, the doubt, the utter despair – whose power outweigh anything your mind can counter-produce.

It makes sense than that for a significant number of sufferers the act of producing a ‘positive’ thought once you have identified the ‘negative’ ones seem to be a difficult challenge. Unfortunately, it was not long before I realized that this was impossible altogether. The constant emotional trauma endowed on an already agitated mind and body made it a worthless endeavor anyway. You cannot use your mind to overcome itself – only externalities can have any influence on a mind that has dug itself in the trenches of distress so far. But the worst times came for me when my mind transcended this oh so ever well-known emotional battle. Times that made you wish you could only be back in the comforting arms of harmful reality. Because these were the times at which unreality began to endure.

In a body constantly stimulated with adrenaline, coupled with a mind inundated with uncomfortable thoughts – inevitably the present nature of reality becomes almost unknown. At the present time, I don’t even remember what it feels like to be there without actually being there in that very moment. Like in Matthew Perry’s 2007 movie ‘Numb’ – “you could stick a fork through my eye and I wouldn’t even notice”. And that is the awful truth – all notion of sensation, empathy and passion become empty. You could be standing there watching a loved one in pain and yet only selfishly involved within your own thoughts. Anxiety reveals its evil presence here. When this endures long enough, it only makes sense for the feelings of guilt and hopelessness to set in. The next phase of my suffering – depression – is what got me to the doctor in the first place. And that was where the feelings of reality came rushing back again. But this time, compounded with the memory of endless suffering.

I believe in the notion that however long one has suffered, whether it be weeks, years or decades – there is always a way out. It was probably renowned GP Australian Dr. Claire Weekes who first gave me that optimism to look forward through the thick fog of a cloudy mind. The only problem she said, was that the longer you suffer, the more time you have to collect painful memories. These were the moments that lead to utter despair. And that was the problem for me – I never despair. Well, sure I do just like everybody else – but a perfectly normal level of despair, not sinking to the depths of desolation. Even in my darkest hours I told myself that I am not a depressed person – this still made sense. But for some force to have that much power and devastation – I was no match. These were the times in my life I declared defeat and just sat back patiently waiting for the drugs to work.

There were some silver linings. Night times were a ceasefire. I still don’t understand why – maybe some kind of physiological effect, or maybe once it had happened enough times I was hopeful for the night. But I wasn’t there to be living the day as a sleepwalker. At its worst, life throws you an emotional lifeline rather than physiological – the simplest love and care. But the kind of love that means something. When anxiety and feelings of extreme pain are all you know, the only other emotions that can show themselves are the ones that only ever mattered. They were the people that only ever mattered.

I write this now in a time of reprieve, removed from my suffering simply by time, and time alone. It will come back, I know it will. The emotional turmoil is on the other side of peace, waiting for me to bring it out and take a new look at it again. But with pain comes the full richness of life – the ultimate experience. Well at least we tell ourselves that – while we wait in hope for the pain to go away.


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