“It’s Dangerous to Go Alone” is an hour of information and sharing about mental health issues, moderated by our own Dr. Mark with guest speakers from the Take This membership.
Join us at 2pm ET on Friday, March 22 in the Wyvern theater for a good talk, some fun and a little advice.
From the PAX panel description: “Our internet culture encourages participation but can discourage meaningful interaction. If you are suffering from depression or anxiety, the internet and gaming culture can make your frustrating symptoms of alienation feel worse. You may be surrounded by “friends” but yet unable to find one who will listen or understand. What you need is to know that you are not alone. Many others have gone through what you are experiencing, and we are here to share our stories with you. Join the members of the Take This Project for an hour of inspirational stories of depression and healing and advice for when it is time to seek help and how to do so. It’s dangerous to go alone.”
Full details: http://east.paxsite.com/schedule/panel/its-dangerous-to-go-alone-the-take-this-panel
by: Russ Pitts
You think you’re having a heart attack. That’s the first thing you notice. The second thing you notice is that you’re dying.
Anxiety attacks come in a variety of shapes in sizes, but that’s how mine usually work: I think I’m dying. And then it gets worse, because becoming aware of what’s happening to me makes what’s happening worse.
An anxiety attack is a physical response to a mental illusion. Your mind either conjures up something to be afraid of, or else perceives a relatively normal thing as something terrible and then your body responds the way a million years of evolution has trained it to respond to something terrible: the fight or flight response.
Adrenaline floods your system, your heart speeds up, you begin to sweat, blood flows to the center of your body, away from your limbs and brain and your perception and cognition narrow. You become one with your lizard brain.
If something truly dangerous were happening, you’d be in great shape to deal with it. You’d be stronger, faster and more alert to signs of danger than normal. You’d be able to fight harder or run faster than normal, and you’d be prepared for physical danger; the dilation of your blood vessels would cause any wounds to bleed less than normal, and the perspiration on your body would cause it to become slick, and difficult to grab on to. In a life or death situation, you would be “in the zone.”
When this happens to you in a normal, everyday situation like sitting on a plane, or standing in a hallway, you become the opposite of “in the zone.” You become way, way out of the zone. So far out of the zone that you are, in essence, a caveman among modern humans. A vibrating note of pure panic in the midst of a symphony of normalcy. You are the sweaty, trembling, nervous-looking one attempting to curl yourself into as small as possible a space, while your squinted eyes shift side to side. You breathe in rapid, shallow breaths. Your hands shake. You cannot think clearly and you feel as if you’re going to die. On a really bad day, you might also black out
If you’ve never experienced this, I’m glad for you. And I know it sounds silly. It feels silly, afterwards. But during, it feels like dying. Every. Single. Time.
My anxiety is mostly social anxiety. I’ve been characterized as “shy” in the past, and it’s possible I might be - about some things - but I genuinely like people and enjoy being open and social. I just have social anxiety. Being around people makes me nervous. Being around a lot of people makes me feel terrorized.
No reason. They could be nice, friendly, totally non-threatening people, but anxiety is not logical. It translates normalcy into terror and the body responds as if someone were coming at you with a knife.
The first time I had a panic attack that I knew was a panic attack, I was in a van with several other people. It was a warm night in Los Angeles. I’d just moved and changed jobs, had flown on an airplane across the entire North American Continent, was sharing a hotel room with someone I’d just met, working a public event in one of the largest, most crowded convention centers in America and had just come from a night club that was so crowded you could literally not move more than an inch without bumping into someone. Then I was in a small vehicle with several other people and I was not driving.
Any one of these factors alone could have triggered my anxiety, and I probably wouldn’t have noticed. I’d have just chalked it up to being stressed or shy. The combination of all of those stress factors, however, triggered an anxiety attack that could not be explained away by anything else. What I - and everyone around me - experienced, was nothing short of a panic eruption.
What I remember about being in the van is the feeling that something bad was going to happen. I’m used to this. I get this feeling a lot. It starts with a simple, reasonable concern (did I forget to lock the front door?) and swells into an uncontrollable obsession. (I’m going to get home and my house will have burned to the ground because someone broke in and accidentally turned on the oven and forgot to turn it off and the cat got out and now I have to find someone to call to check on these things or I won’t be able to think about anything else for three days.)
I had my head leaned against the window. I was watching the lines in the road scroll by in orange wash of the street lamps. I was in the very back row. Everything was perfectly normal except for the fact that I felt like something and was going to happen and couldn’t explain what if I’d tried.
I felt trapped. My fight or flight response triggered and my brain filled with one thought: Get out! But I couldn’t, because I was in the back row of a moving van. My heart sped up, my throat constricted, my vision blurred, I couldn’t breathe and then I blacked out. The next thing I remember is laying on the ground, in a hotel parking lot.
What I’ve been told is that I started screaming. Then I started banging and clawing at the window until the van stopped and I was let out. Then I paced around a gas station for a while, breathing hard and clenching my fists. Then I got back into the van and was let out again, at my hotel, where I immediately collapsed in the parking lot.
I have the memory of the above events, but I don’t recall being present for them. I suspect my memory is based on what I was told, but it’s possible I was perceiving things without being conscious of them. Either way, freaking out in a van and having a blackout are not normal things. These are not things that can be explained away by being “shy.” These are things that happen when something is wrong with you.
I wish I could say that’s when things started to get better, but they didn’t. Because it took me many more years to be able to actually acknowledge that I had a problem. Part of having anxiety is not knowing you have anxiety. You’re just shy or high strung or half a dozen other things. How the hell are you supposed to know you have anxiety when you don’t even understand that anxiety is a thing?
At first I tried to keep rationalizing my anxiety. Then I began “managing it” by avoiding triggers and self-medicating when I couldn’t avoid triggers.
Anxiety is not like an actual disease; you are not sneezing or bleeding or obviously, physically dying. You can hide it, and most of us do. We pass it off in our minds as stress or tiredness, and cope through relatively normal means. In the age of the internet, staying home and rarely seeing others isn’t as big of a deal as it used to be. And if you’re a writer who works alone, via the internet, you can get by for decades without anyone suspecting you have something more serious than a mildly crippling shyness. You can even convince yourself, if you try.
I also wish I could say that finally acknowledging I have anxiety immediately made life more livable, but it didn’t. Since anxiety is an illusion, being aware that an anxiety attack is just an anxiety attack doesn’t make it go away. Sometimes it makes it worse because, instead of panicking about whatever it was your mind conjured up for you, you begin panicking about panicking and the whole cycle spirals radically out of control.
What I can say is that it does get better.
What has helped me the most has been recognizing that I can turn the mechanism of anxiety against itself; if knowing I’m having an anxiety attack makes my anxiety more powerful, then not having anxiety can make not being anxious more powerful as well. When I feel my anxiety coming on, I try to remember that’s it’s just anxiety, and that I will feel better and then, more often than not, I do feel better. Just like that.
This doesn’t always work, but knowing I have a tool makes me feel a lot more powerful and capable of existing in the world. And that, accordingly, makes my anxiety less frequent. And my calm, whether or not it’s an illusion, feels real.
- Russ Pitts
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This is my experience of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, many, many years after the damage was done. It’s like living in a beautiful garden, green, diverse, cared for only by me. There’s soft grass, flowering plants, young trees, ornate, homemade furniture and creepers that have climbed high rock walls, over the years. There’s no door to the garden, no windows, just some metal pieces lying around, that I’m going to make into a staircase, when I get to it.
There’s also a box down one end, kind of by itself. It’s nebulous, hard to look at. It’s about a foot high, grey and utterly clean and smooth, like nothing else in this place, aesthetically. It’s the only thing here that I didn’t make, with my hands, or help to grow, with water and care.
Years can pass and the box is little more than something to step over, in passing. Occasionally, I might fantasize that something wonderful could be waiting inside, like a creation spirit or great serpent I could welcome into the garden. It could inspire me, perhaps, or just become a beautiful, kinetic sculpture.
Mostly, though, when I’m actually engaging the box, I’m incoherent and I’m yelling, “Get the fuck out of my garden,” or “I’m going to forget that staircase and smash you to bits with these pieces instead, fuck you.” The box does exactly nothing, in response, always. Those times can last long enough for the whole garden to fade, from lack of care. Then, it takes all the longer to get it looking nice again.
Sometimes I’m not sure why I bother to keep the garden looking nice at all. No-one else is here, not even animal life. When I think about building the staircase, it’s not so I can escape, it’s so I might invite people in for a visit, one day.
The problem is, visitors couldn’t fail to notice the box and how weird it is. They might ask after it, or touch it, or try to open it. They might try to politely pretend it’s not there and I’d hate them for that. I might lose myself and yell at it, while they are visiting. Or, they might try to take it away, which is the scariest of all possibilities, somehow. Still, my garden really should be a nice place to visit, in theory.
Recently, my hands were injured and I had to sit still for a while. I sat near to some seedlings, imagining how I could shape them, soon, not soon enough. I stayed my hands, because I knew I’d just ruin them. Time passed, and I gave in and did work a little on the seedlings, smothering them, clumsy, hurting my hands.
Then there was pacing. I stomped on some flowers, I yelled at the box. My hands are back to their tending, now, but I’m more aware of how tired I am. One day I’m going to have to rest, especially as I get older, but the presence of the box ensures this garden will never be a restful place. Beautiful, by my hand, maybe. Maybe even a place for visitors, if I ever get that staircase done, but never restful.
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by: Patrick Scott Patterson
I’ve been there. That feeling of being alone, feeling like the world wouldn’t care if you were around or not. Oh, yes … I have been there, and it is a big reason why I got into gaming in the first place. I could dive into a game for a while and only have the pressures of that world to worry about until I was out of continues. Then it would creep back. While I loved my games, they were never a fully suitable substitute for a person who you felt might understand, or even if they didn’t understand would at least try to listen.
Those who know me now might see a sometimes-cocky gaming personality behind a pair of blue shades and designer jeans power walking across the floor of a gaming event. Underneath it all, however, are backstories where that persona simply didn’t exist.
I was badly bullied in middle school, often walking home from school each day feeling defeated and alone. My parents fought almost every moment they were together. They were so busy finding reasons to yell at each other they didn’t have time to even try to understand my problems. I was an only child to boot, so I didn’t have anyone at home to turn to. To my parents, my down days were simply part of a “phase I was going through” or whatnot. Inside, I sometimes hoped I wouldn’t wake up in the morning and didn’t even feel like anyone would care.
I had another bout of this as an adult. I was at a crossroads in my life. I was walking away from something that I’d put my heart and soul into for years, not certain what I would end up doing next. A lot of the people I thought were my friends during this period of time turned away from me, I suppose because I was no longer of use to them. Just how the entertainment field goes sometimes I guess. The few friends that didn’t turn away were super busy or just not the type that were good at being there when things weren’t going well. I don’t blame them, even though I sure as hell needed them. Instead, I turned to the bottom of a bottle and a line of shot glasses almost every night, again not caring much when or if I woke up the next day.
What got me out of those situations each time, you ask? Despite the fact that I felt so low and alone I somehow found people who offered to be there when others weren’t … when I needed an ear or even a shoulder. That would actually listen rather than just give me a “snap out of it” attitude or walk away only to judge me from afar. In both instances, these people got me through the tough times, staying the course with me until I was through the tunnel and into another chapter in my life where things were different and better. Both times, too, it got better. It always does.
No matter how much it feels sometimes like nobody gives a damn, there is always someone out there who does. Maybe they’ve been through the same dark and empty feelings and can guide you through. The only trick is reaching back out when they extend that hand and opening up. You can’t keep it within you. The body is strong but not that strong. Let it out, and let people be there for you when they offer.
I’ve actually never shared any of this with the gaming world. I’m neither afraid of it nor ashamed of it. If anything I’m proud to be able to be that guy with the blue shades and the power walk today. A good friend of mine calls it “stoking” through a gaming event. Believe it or not, it was these down times where I felt my weakest that taught me the lessons on how to be at my strongest. Sure as heck didn’t feel like it at the time, but it sure enough holds true.
I instantly related to this project. It’s as if it was written for me in 1989 or 2005. If I had read such a thing then I would have reached out, eventually, to it. Since I’m where I’m at today instead, I want to be the guy who is reached out to if needed.
I’ve been there. Now I’m here. Talk to me.
I used to work 40 hours a week in an office surrounded by something like 35 people. I wouldn’t call more than a handful of the middle-aged women in the sea of cubicles around mine genuine friends. And we weren’t exactly the Beatles. We didn’t hang out after hours. I ate lunch in my car every day because I enjoyed stealing time for myself. I had a j-o-b, not a career.
When I dreamed of working from home, I dreamed of relief. No more indifferent bosses! Goodbye, office politics! Silence for the interminable yammering of office gossips! But I had absolutely no concept of how just being among a flock of people satisfied social requirements I didn’t know I had. When I left the j-o-b, I realized something I never expected: I missed parts of it.
I didn’t expect I’d feel so alone.
I’m single, shy and quiet. I’m used to being something of a loner. It’s where I’m most comfortable — or, more accurately, least uncomfortable — and I was fully unprepared for how my new lack of face-to-face interaction would grate on me.
Yes, I’m in constant communication with my coworkers, but I learned rather quickly that e-contact is a poor substitute for genuine social interaction. Being able to read someone’s tone or interpret body language is always preferable to guessing emotions from instant messages. At my most timid, my mind shamefully interpreted every bit of text in the worst possible light.
As I struggled to navigate the currents of my new position, I started to feel more than alone. I started to feel isolated, and that fed an anxiety I’d been fighting my entire adult life. In one of my classic behavioral paradoxes, I wanted people to understand me even as I failed to charitably understand them. And with every foolish interpretation, I increased the distance between me and everyone else around me.
None of this is easy to acknowledge or admit. I feel something like nuts when I finally suss out myself and my motivations, and airing this shame publicly feels like a mix between catharsis and vulnerability. If I feel nuts, what is everybody else going to think about me?
Here’s the thing, though: I didn’t get to where I am — working my dream job from the comfort of my pajamas if and when I please — by hiding who I was. I spent a decade at a professionally meaningless job, unable to muster the strength or self-confidence to be honest about who I was and where I wanted to be.
Call it fear paralysis, and use it as the explanation for my lost decade among the cubicles. It was only after I confronted that that my life’s trajectory changed. The day I got passed over for a promotion I’d talked myself into believing I wanted was the day I began fighting my worst self. Less than two years later: dream job.
And yet there I was at my dream job acting like the guy who was paralyzed at the bank.
That’s why I’m here, doing what I’m afraid to do: because even though my fear rages against it, that’s the zone that produces the best results. I had suspected that truth for years, now I have proof to back it up. (See: *Dream job*, *Pajamas*.)
A rising tide lifts all boats, as President Kennedy said. My peers — the hardest working people I’ve ever met — inspire me to do more, work harder, be better. That’s a blessing and a recipe for achievement. But you don’t need to to be a baker to understand that the recipe also makes heightened anxiety. If you don’t have a mechanism in place to deal with those challenges, you’re going to ache. God knows I did.
By admitting that, we’re not complaining. We’re just being honest about the challenges we face. Pretending otherwise is little more than an excuse to silently suffer and perpetuate pain.
I knew that I needed a balance between work and quite literally anything else. Left to my own devices, I hustled so much that and weeks slid by before I took account of the emerging patterns, both good and bad.
I had to be deliberate about living. Getting out of the damn house, for starters. If I’m not deliberate, weeks will slip away without meaningful human interaction, and I’ll inevitably feel the weight of isolation pulling me down like an invisible anchor.
I soon learned it was a necessary but insufficient component. It’s good to be out, to be within a group. But it’s better to be honest in a caring group. As with this writing, it wouldn’t do anyone any good to be less than honest.
So I’ve also opened up. I decided to be honest despite the fear. After far too many hours in silent seclusion, I sought out people in my life who are willing to try to understand and listen when I talk. And I’ve talked, no matter how difficult or dumb that makes me feel.
I’ve also fought the urge to shut up when things don’t go my way. As I’ve come to understand myself better, I’ve realized that I don’t have to believe everything I think. And I assure you I think the worst things.
None of these coping mechanisms solves a problem immediately, but each allows me to scratch a psychic itch that, unchecked, can become my invisible anchors. Used properly and exercised regularly, they have the potential to work toward a more comprehensive mechanism to deal with my loneliness and its accompanying anxiety.
I struggle. I am not alone. I need outlets. I’ve found some.
I’ve got my dream job, and I’m immensely thankful for it. But I now know that my dream job isn’t easy and that it alone isn’t enough. Life would be worse if I were to pretend otherwise.
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I have a friend - a kind, reasonable man - who doesn’t understand anxiety. He’d like to, because he knows I suffer from it and would really like to be supportive, but he just doesn’t get it. Sadness, he could relate to, or anger, but the thing that leaves me huddled in a corner on my bathroom floor, shrieking and crying … that, he can’t quite get. And it’s not his fault, really, because people don’t talk about mental ailments the way they do about other illnesses. They’ll tell you everything you’d like to know about their broken bone, kidney stone or asthma, but nobody really likes to talk about what an anxiety attack feels like, because nobody wants to be looked at like they’re crazy.
So here’s how it goes, for me anyway.
The tiniest, most insignificant thing can set it off. Last time for me, it was stuffing. You know, the bread and whatnot you serve with a turkey at Thanksgiving. I was making a new recipe, and I was concerned that it wasn’t going to turn out just right because even though I’d followed the recipe, it seemed like I had way more broth in there than there probably should’ve been. And that’s all it took, just that one little worry that maybe the stuffing wouldn’t be outstanding.
Yes, I know how absurd that sounds. Who cares if the stuffing is a little mushy? Is life somehow going to be diminished in some large capacity because I misjudged the bread-to-chicken-stock ratio? Nope. Does it matter? Nope. Anxiety isn’t reasonable. It doesn’t consider your logical counterargument and say “Oh, my goodness, silly me. I’ll be going now. So sorry!” It does what it wants, when it wants. I know some things that will trigger it for sure, but every once in a while, it just happens.
It starts with a pounding heart. You know that surge of adrenaline you get when you’re startled by something and you suddenly become aware of your heart? Like, ‘HO, HEY, there’s a whopping great something going baboombaboom in the middle of my chest, how about that?’ And then you get over your fright and you go back to happily ignoring your heartbeat. Well, the thudding just keeps going for me and my hands go cold. Then my neck starts to ache as the muscles around my throat constrict, making it hard for me to breathe. When I’m lucky, that’s as far as it gets, and I just feel physically awful for the rest of the day. When I’m not so lucky, I wind up in a mental feedback loop where the fact that I’m upset - and the knowledge that everything is really just fine, soggy stuffing notwithstanding - makes me even more upset, which just makes the symptoms worse, which ratchets things up another notch until it’s just about all I can do to not run away screaming. And so I start crying and can’t stop, and I hide because I don’t want anyone to see me. Which brings us back to that bathroom floor.
Bathrooms are great for hiding because by definition you can have privacy there. It’s a bit dicey at work, where anyone from the building can walk in at any moment, but so long as you’re in a stall and cover your mouth well enough, people have to really pay attention to notice you’re crying so badly that you’re verging on hyperventilation. Last time I had an anxiety attack at home, I curled up on my bathroom floor, terrified of being a bother, of interrupting someone else’s good day, of being asked questions I didn’t know the answers to, like “What’s wrong?”
Somehow, “The stuffing isn’t perfect” didn’t really feel like an adequate answer for why I was howling as quietly as possible on the floor of my bathroom.
I felt so foolish and ashamed, which just made me cry even harder, because seriously, what the hell was wrong with me? A fierce battle was raging in my brain: The reasonable part calmly told me that I should get up and get some help while the unreasonable part shouted NO DON’T LET ANYONE SEE YOU. This went on for the better part of an hour until eventually, I did something really shocking.
I took a chance that maybe when people say “People want to help you, so let them,” it might not be complete bullshit, and I told someone. And that was a big part of me starting to get help for my anxiety.
It’s a hard thing to understand something so baffling, even when you’re going through it. I don’t know what confluence of events led to me being like this, but this is how I am and I have to deal with it. It’s hard to open up and tell someone what’s going on, and even when you do, they might have no clue how to respond. Try not to hold that against them, or use that as a reason not to open up - this is some really tricky stuff.
Just do the best you can. Even soggy stuffing can be delicious if it’s made with love.
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by: John Peter Grant
The most useful advice I’ve ever encountered comes from a book set thousands of years in the future on the desert planet of Arrakis.
In the opening pages of his masterpiece Dune, Frank Herbert introduces us to the Litany Against Fear:
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
I haven’t been big on prayer for a long while. But I’ve recited the Litany thousands of times since I first read Dune as a teenager — in moments of profound sadness, and of crippling anxiety, and of full-blown panic. The rhythm of the poem’s language has always has a soothing effect. But only now, as an adult, am I finally starting to understand its lessons.
The first is the irony in the opening line: I must not fear. The temptation to ignore fear, to deny its power or even its existence, is very strong. Our instinct, at the first hint of fear, is often to push it down, to swallow it until it is subsumed. Only weak people experience fear, we think.
Because we know what fear does: It is the mind-killer. When fear takes hold it shatters our sense of competence, of confidence, of self. We die a little-death each time we give in to fear; and if unchecked, eventually the fear will bring about our total obliteration. Here Herbert echoes Shakespeare’s famous couplet from Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths, / the valiant never taste of death but once.”
But in the fourth line the Litany begins to shift our perspective. I will face my fear. In the space of four lines we have gone from denying fear, understanding the horrible toll it can exact on us, to acknowledging it and even claiming it — my fear. Fear is inevitable for everyone, cowards and heroes alike. We must confront it — and to confront it, we must own it.
The next line is my favorite: I will permit it to pass over me and through me. Notice the use of the word permit: you are allowing the fear to pass. With one word the power dynamic has been reversed. You are the dominant one in the relationship, not the fear.
Yet the Litany is not about wrestling your fear into submission. Consider what are you allowing it to do — pass over you and through you, like a wave or gust of wind. The implied imagery is intentional here. Picture the physical sensations fear creates in the body: the tensing of the muscles, the rushes of nausea, the tingling of nerves urging you to fight or flee. When gripped by fear, we feel these sensations so intensely it’s hard to imagine them ever subsiding. Yet like a wave, the fear will pass: It will permeate you and it will shake you, but it is temporary. You will not absorb it and bloat with it; you will bend with it and permit it to go by. It will not weigh you down forever.
And like a wave, fear is a force of nature. It makes no sense to blame yourself for it. Like rain or wind, it appears and eventually, inevitably, ceases.
And when the fear has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. There’s no question: the fear will go past. Notice the five uses of the word will in these last five lines. It’s a foregone conclusion — the fear will pass. And you will retain the self-awareness and presence of mind to engage your inner eye and observe, calmly and dispassionately, the fear leaving your being.
I love the image of turning around to see the empty path the fear has left. This is intentional as well, this act of turning; you let the fear go past you, and turn to see that it’s so far behind you that it’s invisible. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
But that last line! Only I will remain. Look what Herbert accomplishes in four tiny words. First he affirms that yes, you will survive your encounter with fear. But he doesn’t say “survive”; instead you will remain. You are still you, even when fear has shaken you to your core and made you question your very worth.
In the act of remaining you cast out that self-doubt, that shame, that guilt. You are worth it. You have inherent value that no amount of fear can destroy.
And being you — remaining — that is enough.
- John Peter Grant
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by: Mikey Neumann
In the end, your heart is the thing that takes you.
I’m about to put myself out there — like Star Trek out there — because right now I need the one escape that always seems to bring me back. When everything becomes overwhelming and blindingly consequential, you lose track of the ground, and everyone needs his or her own gravity.
Writing is gravity in my world. Family is hope, friends are direction, but finding truth in words is what keeps me on the ground.
So here goes. I hope when you’ve finished reading this, whether friend, family or otherwise, you find some value in my sharing what I cannot overstress my hesitancy in doing so.
After my last trip to an MS specialist, we went over some things that don’t fit neatly into our testing. It’s always important at a doctor that you explain what you are experiencing and how you are dealing with it. This started us down a path on depression.
(If you need background information on my condition and how we got to this point, I would suggest starting at the beginning.)
Depression is the least logical thing I can imagine. It takes over the physical by existing only in the mental. As of the typing of this, in an effort to find the ground again, I am crawling out of my skin. I sent an email to a coworker that said I wanted to kill myself. I’m matter of fact about this, though, in honesty, at the present time it’s true.
Like I said, depression isn’t logical. It’s also not entirely sadness, which is where I think a lot of people can get confused and misdiagnose the severity of depression in different ways. If I were merely sad, even crying for no reason sad (which already happened tonight), I could throw on some magically emotional music like Cinematic Orchestra and get a shitload of writing done. Sadness is useful, even productive.
This is different.
This is drowning.
Actually, let’s run with that metaphor for a moment. Imagine that you’ve been knocked overboard into the deep and vast ocean. You sink for minutes, thrashing against the current, but it keeps pulling you further and further toward the bottom. Given the most basic physical and mental response, at some point any human being will have a moment where they give up and allow the water to take them.
That can be what severe depression feels like. It’s awful. By all logical measures, I should be the happiest person on Earth. I have a great job, working with people I love. I have the most loving family that is probably crashing into every motor vehicle on the highway in an effort to drive over to my house upon reading this. I have great friends, I travel a lot; my life for all intents and purposes is what you could call “privileged.”
Now, the last year hasn’t been the easiest. I’ve been told there is something I am probably also going through that is called “symptom fatigue” where the mental toll can begin to add up on top of whatever mental fabrications you’re already dealing with.
It’s all adding up, and unlike a normal panic attack, it can just keep compounding until there is just nowhere else for it to go. I say all of this, full knowing how cogent and reasonable I sound right now. I thank science above for giving me the faculties to call shenanigans on this Kaiser Soze bullshit my brain is trying to pull on me right now. But there it is, my heart thumping at a thousand miles an hour, weighing on me in the purely physical to try and take me down.
Depression, that’s some next level shit.
So, my gravity for tonight will be to share this. I know in the morning, all will be well, because ALL. IS. TRULY. WELL.
But right now, my body doesn’t believe it.
A lot of people don’t ask for help when things get like this. I almost didn’t. If I hadn’t reached out to a friend tonight (bearing in mind that I still don’t have a phone, so for those of you frantically dialing, you’re going to get a confused thief of a cabbie in Los Angeles), I think we could be having a different conversation.
But logic prevailed and even though I didn’t want him to. I called Chris Faylor (community manager at Gearbox) to come over and just sit with me until I calmed down.
This has helped. Writing this down. How you will react when I share this on the internet, remains to be seen. I hope we can just look at it as another piece of scientific evidence on the elusive mysteries of the human brain — a brain that has seen its share of stresses in between writing pretty words and making silly accents about the catching of various rides.
I hope to see you all back on the ground.
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(Originally published on December 13, 2012 at It’s Complexicated (http://diagnosismia.blogspot.com/2012/12/what-depression-is.html). Republished with the author’s permission.)
by: Trent Polack
Hi, I’m Trent. I was originally a programmer, then a programming book author, did a stint working on a program to monitor satellite data, went to the University of Michigan to teach High School English, then ended up making games for the last six-ish years (for the record, teaching is still my goal, but, you know… student loans).
Fun side note: I’m also a high-strung, neurotic, workaholic with obsessive-compulsive disorder and sleeping issues.
People in games, whether they be programmers, designers, artists, journalists, writers, producers, or gamers tend to be a very unique group of people. We run the gamut from completely asocial to vigorously personable. We’re a passionate, opinionated bunch, but we’re also a bunch of pretty smart folks.
And, you know what? Being smart is sometimes miserable. There’s a lot of introspection and analysis, but there’s also this fundamental drive to solve problems.
I don’t know when I really became the way I am today; before college, I had a lot of the same traits I have now and sometimes it would take hours to fall asleep at night just because that’s when I chose to think about everything that could be thought upon. And that was annoying, but I don’t think I became truly aware of my anxiety until other people started becoming important to me. There was always my family, and they’ve always been supportive and amazing, but they’re family. To some extent, you know they just kind of have to deal with you and accept you the way you are. But then you get out of that high school bubble and you realize that no one else in the world has to accept you, deal with you, or even be nice to you.
But you meet people who do accept you, deal with you, and are often exceptionally kind beyond what you think you even deserve. And that’s, by far, the most terrifying feeling that I think I’ve ever experienced. It made me acutely aware that I was a person on this Earth who could fail, have my trust betrayed, or actively disappoint someone I care about.
It wasn’t until I moved across the country for a new job, got settled a little bit, and started meeting people and actually getting out that I really started to change. Some of those changes were that I got more anxious about everything, more concerned about what I had to lose if I lost my job (remember: loans. and maybe other debt from stupid spending), where I’d have to move, what I’d have to leave behind, and that was usually just the first hour of my day. I worry about what random people think of me, how my colleagues deal with my incompetence, what would happen if today is finally the day everyone realizes I’m a total impostor, or that a lady I like will finally realize I’m a horrible nerd unworthy of her time. These concerns became a governing aspect of my life that would inform so many of my decisions as to what to do or what to say from moment-to-moment that it got a little bit unbelievable up in my head.
And then I learned two of the most amazing things:
I always used to laugh whenever said something like that to me. I was always “I’m too smart for that” or “That’s silly, I can learn things! That’s better than people” or “People scare me.”
And then a couple of strange things happened.
All of my friends got laid off from the company I work at. Suddenly, I went from seeing people that were like family to me every day to having to accept that they may not even stay in the same state as me for very long. But, on top of that, what remains of our studio is a handful of the most passionate, intelligent, kind, talented people I have ever met. Suddenly, every day was back to being this intimidating mass of things I didn’t think I could ever do or expectations I could never live up to. But these people accept me and trust me. And that, alone, is one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve ever had in my life.
In the wake of all of that, I decided that I owed it to my friends who were moving on as well as my colleagues who put this extraordinary amount of trust in me to just work. Work all the time. I ended things with a lady I had been seeing, worked for a few weeks straight, tried to see my friends when they could, and that’s just how I thought things were going to be. And then, as tends to happen, I met a lady one night while out with friends. Well, “met” is not the right word. We had met before, but situations were different then. And things progressed from there. Not even for a particularly long time, but it constantly amazes me that someone like this lady — who has a good job, a radiant personality, a great heart — finds something likable in me, even when I try to be as upfront as possible about my plethora of personal issues.
And all of that is terrifying. That colleagues choose to work with me or a beautiful lady chooses to spend her time with me… It’s a lot of additional pressure and worry than I often think myself incapable of dealing with. But, I’m open with it, I talk freely about my thoughts, and there hasn’t been a single conversation with a person in ages who has shown anything but kindness, respect, and acceptance towards me.
So, yeah. It’s dangerous to go alone.
- Trent Polack
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by: Sean Sands
I was angry all the time. Anger was my constant companion, this indiscriminate, stomach-grinding, head-pounding fury that bubbled like lava under tectonic shifts in my mood and disposition. Worst of all, I didn’t know what the anger was, why it was there or even if it would ever go away, so I lived with it. I lived with it for years.
It turns out, depression isn’t a thing you can just point at and say, “There, that’s what depression always looks like.” But, if you were to have asked me about the illness, I would have conjured images of sadness, lethargy, detachment. I’d have drawn you a word picture of someone curled in bed, unable to drag themselves out into the world, waiting hopelessly for another day to just pass on by and leave them be. I’d have drawn this picture for you, because that’s how I had seen my own family, my parents, manifest the illness.
This wasn’t that at all. Every morning I would rise, get ready for work, do my job, come home, eat dinner, read to the kids, maybe play a game if my responsibilities permitted me the time, and then climb into bed again to do it all again the next day. The difference for me, though, was that I was doing all those things with a simmering rage inexplicably clamping my chest, knotting my intestines and demanding my attention so that I kept it under control. And, because I kept such a reservoir of attention on controlling this shifting, furious monster version of myself internalized, I didn’t have any attention left over to enjoy the rest of my life.
Looking back, I still struggle with reconciling what it must have been like for my wife and children to live with me. Don’t misunderstand, I never raised a hand against them or even threatened otherwise, but living with someone who always seems on the edge of outrage, who is clearly holding on white-knuckled at the limits of their control, can’t exactly have been a day at the park.
It was around the time when my oldest son, now nine, asked my wife, “Why is Dad always angry with me?” that I decided to address the fact that this person inhabiting my skin was not me. Something had changed, something real and measurable.
I prize my sense of self-control, believe unrealistically that anything occurring within my brain should be a thing that I have complete and unimpeachable dominion over. I had known for some time that I was probably struggling with some kind of depression, but had rejected it as a reality, because like so many people I believed it was something you could or should just “get over.” That’s such a dangerous thing to think. It’s bad enough, I know, for someone to see you struggling and tell you to just get over it, but I think it’s possibly even more dangerous to tell yourself that, and I had been doing it for a year. Maybe even longer.
It was hard to talk with my doctor about it, because I had a misplaced and unnecessary shame about dealing with an illness that is all about chemistry and not at all about willpower. Feeling like I had somehow failed by finally conceding that I needed a doctor’s help in dealing with this was like feeling bad that I had to resort to moving objects with my hands because my efforts at telekinesis had failed. What I hadn’t expected was how talking with a doctor, finding out that what I was experiencing was the same thing that other people were dealing with as well, was unexpectedly empowering. I had lived for so long with fingernails dug into the cliff just to keep myself from falling into the dark, rocky shoals below, that I almost didn’t know how to deal with someone finally offering me a ladder.
That was a year ago. And, don’t get me wrong, my life isn’t perfect now with Disney birds flitting through my window every morning to perch upon my shoulder and gaily sing me the songs of their people. But that knot, that constant companion of tightness and quaking fury is if not always gone, at least contained and sleepy back in the deep dark of my mind from whence it came. The medication I take doesn’t make me irrationally happy or dull my personality – a ridiculous assumption I still think some people make about anti-depressants.
What my medication has done is allow me to look in the mirror in the morning and see a face I recognize again.
For me, depression was a prison. A prison where I was trapped in my cell, holding the key the entire but determined to get out by squeezing painfully and hopelessly in between the bars themselves. Now that I’m on the other side, looking back into that cell with its open door and considering the time spent, I wonder why I didn’t allow myself out sooner. The answer is probably locked into the unfortunate fact that the part of me that needed treatment and attention was the part I would have to rely on to make good decisions about how to beat depression. It was a tragic and debilitating Catch-22, and it’s one millions of people live with and unfortunately struggle with every day.
Everyone’s prison is a little different, just different enough to fool you into thinking you’re alone, you’re different, you’re isolated or you’re lost. It’s not true, of course. You’re not, and like everyone else on this site, writing these posts, I am here to tell you one thing: There is a way out. There is a key in your hand. There is a whole other kind of world, the one you may remember, on the other side of your cell. And, we are here to help you get out.
- Sean Sands
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