I’m setting this into the Health & Fitness category, because this isn’t an emotional issue – it’s a physical one. Okay… to be fair, it’s certainly in-part a psychological/physiological issue, but this is hardly an entry about me trying to understand myself or dramatically talk about my destiny. I’ve spent plenty of time on my own self-reflection posts before, but this isn’t one of them. This, instead, is an explanation of what I’ve discovered about myself lately, and what it’s like to live with some of these issues.
As I’ve talked about before, I grew up with asthma. I went for allergy shots once a week and had an inhaler, but my condition was never so severe that I’d worry about it. When I was in junior high, after returning from a school retreat at a local ranch, I suddenly had to worry about it. On the bus ride home, I started to feel a little funky, and back at my house I started having an asthma attack that just wasn’t letting up. I wasn’t code-blue dying, but it was definitely worse than usual; it wasn’t going away, and I could barely catch my breath. Of course, when one can’t breath, panicking only makes it worse, so I had that going for me, too ;). From that point on, I stopped participating in P.E. and my lungs/heart fell into horrible shape. A couple of doctors said that my asthma was mostly in my head (while others said it wasn’t), but I wasn’t pretending to have a hard time breathing… so how could that be true? I regularly had these little episodes where I just couldn’t catch my breath, and the only real solution was time + relaxation. I actually developed a nail-biting habit because of it, and when I was having an especially bad time, you’d find me sitting on the floor of my room watching TV… hunched into horrible posture to let my chest muscles relax, rocking back and forth a little bit, and biting my nails. Haha, I make myself sound like a mental patient, and that’s probably how I looked, but it was just the only way I had that alleviated my breathing problems.
Of course, what if I really was a mental patient and nobody ever realized it?
Some time ago, I began to have heart palpitations and had an extra hard time breathing because of it. The out-of-breath/asthma days had diminished since my teenage years, but this new physical issue was even scarier. It was scary enough to get me to a doctor, but he checked me out and ran some minor tests, and my heart was seemingly fine and healthy. So, again… was a doctor telling me that the physical issues I was experiencing were lies, lies, LIES?? Not quite. He suggested that it was merely due to stress, which he noted by pointing to my shaking foot as I sat on the examining table. I’ve developed an increasing array of tics over the years, which have been attributed to allergies, extra nervous energy, or even dehydration, but none of these possibilities seemed to allow for a fix. My body was a freaking mystery, until I finally struck upon the one idea that led to so many others…
I was searching online one night, and the idea came to me – what if this is anxiety? I’m not talking about the emotional reaction one might feel before a big event, or something… I’m talking about the ongoing physical condition of random anxiety. Everything I read about rang true: it explained my heart and breathing issues all at once. By now, my lifetime stress level has damaged my internal wiring, but when I look back to the history of my issues, I could easily see how they were often the result of physical stress. The one night I actually felt bad enough about my breathing to go to the hospital (age 24) was the night before I had my wisdom teeth removed. One afternoon at Blockbuster, while talking to a friend about a pretty weighty issue she was dealing with, I walked around a corner and BAM the world started to spin, and I had a hard time breathing. The list goes on and on and on, and while there were certainly multiple factors in play, the fact that I can look back at most of these experiences and call them general anxiety issues or panic attacks leaves it all making so much more sense. Why were my issues worse during my teenage years? Well, my life was a lot more stressful than, with school and its social issues and at home with my dad. Ah yes, my dad. I remember one particular night, I was having a hard time breathing and was doing my mental patient nail-biting routine (~age 13), and my parents ended up kind of hovering in the hallway checking on me and talking. My dad, being the impatient and short-tempered man that he is, ended up taking his frustrations out by yelling and getting upset. He couldn’t help me, so his reaction was to yell at me to stop, and when my mom tried to say that it helps, his reaction was then to get mad at the doctors or whoever else he could yell about. If my issue had been purely asthmatic, would this have had an effect on me? Perhaps, but by looking at it through the lens of it being an anxiety issue, then it suddenly makes that much more sense when all of his ranting and raving stressed me out even more and made things worse. Asthma is stressing on the body, for sure, but what if my issue was rarely ever asthma at all – but stress, itself?
This anxiety can also leave me very sensitive to external influences, as well. Cold, noise, light… all of these elements, at normal levels, can have a much stronger effect on me the more stressed my body is. Again, this makes complete sense: if my body is already under excessive stress, the result of hormonal imbalances and over-worked nerves, any extra bit of sensory information feels that much worse. Imagine when you’re hungry and tired and you become irritable and quicker to anger – that’s kind of how it is with my stress levels. You may think I’m a lovely guy, but this anxiety can make me short-tempered and even quite curmudgeonly. Heck, I can get downright Hulk-smash. Hmm, I wonder who else in my life that sounds like… perhaps a certain parental figure? Hmm ;).
I mentioned this above, but if I’ve actually been dealing with anxiety since I was ~12 then it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve had recognizable panic attacks. Certainly my first big “asthma attack” in junior high could have been labeled a panic attack, as well could other situations peppered throughout the years, but only recently have I developed the heart/nerve issues that come along with panic attacks. My chest tightens up, breathing becomes labored, vision becomes a little blurry, and if I hadn’t gotten an okay from the doc’ or died already, I’d think I was having a heart attack. My heart’s healthy and I’ve survived a lot of these, so I’m banking on the non-heart-attack explanation ;). These things are usually pretty short in duration, but the effects last awhile. The most fun part is that they usually appear out of nowhere – I lean on the counter at work or sit in class and BAM, my chest is tightening up. When I hear someone suddenly yell in anger, or there’s a tenseness in the room with someone who’s obviously upset (again, first thing I think of for reference is my dad), it all starts to hit my chest like a ton of bricks. It’s not fear, but genuine anxiety.
This was truly one of the most confounding issues until I landed upon an answer. Since, again, around junior high, I’ve had various tics. They’ve changed and shifted over the years, but at any given point I’ve had at least a couple of tics in my repertoire: excessive blinking, throat clearing, a low-pitch growl (if you know me, you know what it’s like), finger tapping, a bizarre noise that I can only describe as a forceful breath (with noise), head bobbing, and spastic hand/arm/shoulder movements. When they first started, my pediatrician labeled the throat clearing and blinking (my first two tics) as allergy-related. It made sense, to a degree, except when nothing seemed to help. Instead, I soon realized that these tics are closely related to my other anxiety/breathing issues. There are a few times when I’ve woken up feeling so completely relaxed that I have no tics. It’s absolutely wonderful, I tell ya… I just stay there, not wanting to move or wake up too much, because i know that once I do, the calmness will subside. It never fails, though, and this calm is eventually put to an end by my first tic. I know that my noises and motions are annoying; I’ve been dealing with the glances, and even dirty looks, since junior high. I can’t blame people, though; these tics annoy me too, so I do my very best to contain them when I become aware that they’re being noticed. I try to sit in the back of classrooms or the movie theater for reasons of personal preference, but there’s also a benefit in the fact that I can use that semi-seclusion to hide my noisiness from folks a little. The singular aspect that led me to the confirmation that my issue being Tourrette Syndrome was how the tics are described as “unvoluntary.” I can stop them whenever I want, I have that control, but I can’t stop them forever. No matter how hard I try, the tics build up and eventually explode out. On a good day, I can only refrain for about 10-15 seconds, so it’s hardly any time at all, but the fact that I CAN stop them almost makes it more frustrating – as if it’s a big tease that I have control, when really my control is just a drop in the bucket of twitches and noise.
Speaking of noise, if we’ve ever spent a decent amount of time together in person, there’s a really good chance that I’ve wanted to bash your head in with a rock at some point. You have very likely filled me with such rage that I can barely contain myself, taking all of my strength to withhold the screams and physical retaliation that you have built up inside of me. What sort of horrible things have you done to create such an enraged reaction? Oh, you know… chewing, breathing, humming.
When my anxiety worsens, even at sometimes seemingly random times, I will suddenly become really sensitive to these sounds, and they’ll drive me up a wall. Case in point: as I type this, in the library at school, there is a fella sitting at the computer opposite me, and he keeps resting he hands up on the divider and occasionally tapping his hand on it. It’s eye-level with me, and when he first started doing it, I actually had to sink down and cover my ears – that way it was out of my peripheral vision AND I had a harder time hearing it. This isn’t a new reaction of mine, though it was this particular incident that inspired me to look this sort of thing up online. My search term for “anxiety sensitivity to noise movement angry” actually landed me in a realm of information on this condition known as misophonia – the hatred of sound. This particular instance is more related to the hypersensitivity mentioned above, because on a normal day I probably wouldn’t have even given this poor fella’s innocent tapping any notice, but there are definitely sounds that drive me insane.
Here is where the psychological issues come into play once again, because the first sound that inspired such a reaction was my dad’s chewing. I can recall, as far back as junior high, sitting at the kitchen table in the morning and eating breakfast opposite my dad. I’d be eating cereal, itself no quiet activity, but the sound his jaw and cheeks made as he chewed was like nails on a chalkboard. Obviously, to know me even in the slightest is to know that I have issues with my dad (as he has been a common thread in this entry), so was it just that I was an angry young teen who hated his stupid existence or was it something else? Was I already predestined to develop this type of audible anxiety issue and it merely adapted itself to whatever sounds I grew up with, or was it dysfunctional relationships and unintended emotional abuse that actually caused the anxiety? I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to say, for certain, which inspired which, but then again… after years of trying to figure out where my tics and breathing issues came from, I didn’t think I’d stumble upon answers for those either.
I’ve talked about these issues before, in more personally reflective entries, but today I want to focus on the manic end of the spectrum. I’ve actually been writing this post over a long period of time… because I just haven’t had time between school and work, and I’ve been ignoring my site on whole, but also because I can only take writing about these things for so long at a time. This is a long entry, but spending this much time thinking about my own tics leaves me extra tic-ish.. and that’s annoying :). There’s been benefits to this long process, though, because I’ve remembered other anxiety-related issues as they’ve cropped up. One of these is a manic response. Sometimes, I can get downright bored.. and I have thoughts of taking some sort of extreme action to alleviate that feeling. I’ve been “normal” bored, but this isn’t that. I may have plenty of things to do, but it’s an internal feeling. For example, the other week I just felt the overwhelming urge to take an electric razor to my head because my hair had been bugging me. This next one sounds a little scary, but sometimes I’ll be driving along on the freeway and imagine turning my steering wheel really sharply and flipping my car. I wouldn’t do that, of course, but the thought flitters through my mind when I hit these strange lulls of manic anxiety. It’s an urge to just DO something.. it’s not about self harm or response to a lackluster lifestyle (as I’ve had these reactions even when I’ve been really content in life), but just a desire to do something extreme. Unlike my tics, however, this is something I’m in complete control of. I wouldn’t flip my car, but I might buzz my head, because I’m fully aware that one is a deadly and dangerous action… and the other just might make me look silly for a little while. My manic response is really minor compared to some, but having experienced it myself over the years, I can understand why some people take such extreme out of the blue actions. There are certainly different reasons for these type of reactions, but for myself… I can definitely point to it as a complication of anxiety.
This is a long post, but hopefully it can be of interest to someone – even if you don’t know me, personally. As I mentioned above, thinking about these issues usually makes them worse; they’re mental problems, and I’m also quite susceptible to suggestion, so that makes for a pretty horrible conversation whenever I broach this topic. Heck, one of my classes this semester is run by a teacher with facial tics and has a student with vocal tics, so that class can be brutal for me sometimes. I’m happy to talk about it… but let’s maybe only talk about it if you have to, eh? 😉
Every single one of these subjects I’ve listed above have been self-diagnosed, which is disappointing with how many doctors I’ve seen over the years. Certainly, I have had visits that cleared me of asthma or heart issues, but these diagnoses usually left me with more questions than answers. I’m no medical professional, so I welcome further conversation, but my recent discoveries have done so much to clarify how my body works, that I really wanted to share that with an audience. It all started with my understanding of anxiety, though, and from there it was a snowball of information and realizations. I don’t have solutions for any of these problems, but I can tell you this – knowing what my problems actually are is a wonderfully comforting and calming thing… and when dealing with anxiety, that can go a long way :).