“I am a lover without a lover. I am lovely and lonely and I belong deeply to myself.” – warsanshire
For years, I watched the walls of my life creep inward at an almost imperceptible speed. I didn’t notice until I noticed and now, a frustratingly somber voice whispers, “it’s too late – give up” in a tone so convincing, I struggle to silence the malaise. Some days I am able to rise up with victorious mental strength to win a battle or two over anxiety and depression. Other days I lose miserably, which may or may not result in a wicked, wicked spiral lasting days or weeks or months. Most days, I fall somewhere between the two extremes. A few months ago, during a particularly devastating bout of darkness, I didn’t get off my couch for five days. I didn’t go to work; I didn’t shower; I slept around the clock…and the 14-step journey to my bathroom may as well have a 14-day excursion up Mt. Everest.
Living with unmedicated anxiety and depression is tricky business, to say the least. It is the mother of all waiting games. You never quite know how long “up” is going to last…and “down” feels so down, you’re unable to believe “up” will come again. Throw in a few horrendous anxiety attacks and heart palpitations for good measure…and it’s not long before you find yourself exhausted, terrified, isolated, and desperate to escape.
This is a story born of an innate desire to escape my own mind.
I was placed on anti-anxiety medication for the first time in early 2010 when a couple of particularly unsettling experiences sent me flying headfirst into full-blown hypochondria. A headache was a brain tumor. A stomachache was cancer. Every day I was dying of something new…I just knew it. After witnessing what could only be described as my first near-nervous breakdown, my mother immediately drove me to our primary care physician who placed me on low dose anti-anxiety medication and, not shockingly, I returned to a more balanced state of mind. It helped tremendously for about a year.
I can’t exactly remember why I quit taking the medication the first time, but I did – without doctor supervision and certainly against better judgement. I told myself and others I believed I could keep my anxiety in check via diet and exercise. I hated the idea of relying on pharmaceuticals indefinitely. And truthfully, during that period, I found myself riding high on life. My schedule and social life kept me busy and preoccupied 24/7. I didn’t have time for anxiety and miraculously, the attacks didn’t resurface for almost two years.
With time comes perspective and I now realize preoccupied was a biggie during those two years. I was working full-time, tackling 15 or more credit hours per semester, and studying for brokerage licensing all while managing to see my boyfriend every day and go out on the weekends with our group of friends. I was on fire – running wildly in what I believed to be a forward direction with the enthusiasm of a coked-out cheerleader. Of course, it didn’t feel that way at the time. It just felt like life – albeit a hectic and sometimes stressful life.
And so, anxiety became something with which I used to struggle. I was feeling great and about to be even better. I crossed the finish line of college, feeling beyond ready to settle into the easiness I’d been craving for so long: just work and home. I salivated at the pending simplicity, reduced stress, and free time. I fantasized about the structure of my days and couldn’t wait for open evenings and weekends: rising early to workout after a long night of quality rest, arriving to work motivated, leaving the office at 5:00 to come home and cook a lovely dinner for my lovely boyfriend, maybe a few household chores, quality time together in our cozy abode, and crawling into bed to snuggle, make love, read, and sleep.
If you hadn’t guessed, things didn’t proceed as planned. In fact, it is again, with the blessing of hindsight, I am able to see this was the point in my life when I started seriously struggling with anxiety and depression and a not-so-cute drinking habit that seemed to arise out of nowhere but had actually been brewing for years, holding hands with both mental illnesses as best friends often do.
During my medication hiatus when I decided my anxiety must have been a fluke or an overstimulated phase of hormones gone awry, I started drinking more frequently and just, well, more. My tolerance was already pretty high thanks to many, many nights of college partying…but over time, it grew and grew and grew. Simultaneously, the number of socially acceptable binge-drinking occasions diminished – though I hardly noticed. I wasn’t in the mood to ‘party’ like that anymore anyways. I was an adult with my own home and who doesn’t have a glass of wine at the end of a long, stressful day? (Spoiler: It was never *A* glass of wine at the end of a long, stressful day…*A* bottle of wine, perhaps, but almost never *A* glass of wine).
I now know my anxiety never really disappeared during those years of ‘riding high.’ It wasn’t an overstimulated phase of hormones gone awry. It wasn’t a figment of my imagination. I’d merely discovered a different kind of medication, and it was during those few preoccupied years that I began developing a stronger and stronger affinity for numbness.
During my final year or two of college, I thought my drinking resembled that of everyone around me. I’d have a few drinks if I went out to dinner…I’d drink if we were gathered at a friends’ house…I’d get drunk if my boyfriend’s parents were out of town and we had his place to ourselves for a few days. But I was also 20, 21, 22 years old at the time and thought nothing of it.
Awhile back, I started analyzing the timeline of events surrounding my use of alcohol. When did things take a turn for the worse? When did it stop looking “normal” and start looking like something else? When did alcohol become the kind of emotional numbing agent I felt I needed at certain times? When did it become my way to escape? The answers to those questions are both convoluted and simple. I intend to write more extensively on the convoluted…but the short and simple answer is: when I moved into my first apartment, graduated from college, and suddenly found myself swimming in blank space.
Alcohol is a hell of a drug. It’s a fast-acting remedy – one that not only reduces my anxiety instantaneously, but allows me to leave my mind altogether. It consumes those empty hours of space at the end of a bad day; it alleviates stress, sadness, worry, introspection, insecurity, and allows me to swim comfortably in a pool of pinot-noir flavored apathy. And perhaps most importantly, it drowns my incessantly difficult and hyperactive brain with a big, fat dose of STFU. For years, I was unconsciously using alcohol to escape my own mind…to quell the anxiety and to relieve the depression. After a few glasses of wine or a few bottles of beer, I don’t have to face any of life’s realities. Poof. Just like that. Happier, calmer, and with my brain on vacation for a few hours, I simply feel better. Magic.
It got worse when I no longer had night classes to attend or papers to write or deadlines to manage. It got worse when I had fewer distractions and couldn’t dodge the unease I felt about my relationship. It got worse when we stopped spending time with groups of people. It got WORSE when it was “just work and home.” Probably because I pretty much hated both. I think on some level after graduation, it hit me: this is it. This is the life you’ve created. I hadn’t managed to find a passion or build a life for myself outside of my relationship. I had no friends to call my own and a big part of me felt like a caged lion…pacing back and forth, staring through the bars of my enclosure, desperate to run but unable to do so. In a lot of ways, I was miserable…though I doubt anyone knew because I didn’t even know.
For someone who’d already been honing my numbing skills for years, the choice didn’t seem like much of a choice at all. DEAL with the fact that I’m anxious, unhappy, overweight, addicted to cigarettes, in debt, and developing a pretty serious drinking habit? OR stop on the way home, buy two bottles of wine, and send my mind into the sweet, sweet abyss of numb for ‘just one more day.’ Like, duh. Tomorrow became the most incredibly beautiful day for promises of change…but tomorrow never came.
So that’s what I did. A few times a week. For two and a half years. It wasn’t a full-blown shitshow. There were plenty of boozeless nights, wonderful memories, and days that resembled my earlier fantasies of how I thought life should look. I was able to quit smoking a few times for several months…but always ended up smoking again. There were months I’d get super-amped about a new diet and I’d lose 10 or 15 pounds while significantly reducing my alcohol intake or avoiding it altogether…but I’d always end up drinking again. Because life is often uncomfortable and sobriety demands the ability to remain present and who the fuck wants to be present when life is uncomfortable?
We live in an addicted society. Be it alcohol or cigarettes or weed or pills or technology or Netflix or fitness or work or adrenaline or food or porn or love…everyone is addicted to something. Everyone, on some level, is desperate to escape the uncomfortable, itchy nature of life and negative emotions.
The consequences of my grade-A escapism are very real, which is something I also plan to address in a future post. I hold many, many tools in my ‘escapee toolbox’ – some are dangerous and damaging, like alcohol…others are more healthy and constructive, like reading. Both allow me to evade the realities of my life for awhile.
I started this essay with a description of the walls around my life and their slow but sure contraction, which is heartbreaking and true and devastating and lovely all at the same time. The world I know and occupy is so very, very small.
I hold my family extremely close…everyone else has faded away. I hike alone and often..it seems to be the only time my aloneness feels perfectly fitted and comfortable. I deactivated all social media accounts, which has been an undeniable blessing for my overall mental health. I spend a tremendous amount of time reading and, if I’m being honest, binging on various TV series. I rarely talk to people outside of my family or co-workers. It’s a small, small world. It’s a small world, and a sad world, and a sweet world, and a deep world, and for this season, it is a necessary world while I sort through my issues with anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
I’ve made a commitment to finally, at long last, address my mental health with a doctor. I will be working with her to find the medication and treatment necessary to stabilize my brain chemistry. And for that, I am hopeful.
This piece is written with a “me too” in mind…with the prayer that someone may read this and know that in a world where everyone seems hell-bent and determined to portray a life that is perfect and amazing and on fleek…it’s okay to say, “There are aspects of my life that kind of fucking suck right now and I’m not okay.” The human experience guarantees seasons of fruitfulness, joy, and abundance as well as seasons of struggle and grief. Turns out I never properly learned how to deal with either, but the beauty of this journey is evolution of mind, body, and spirit. And THAT is a pretty perfect reason to stop trying to escape, and to simply show up for the ride.