Living With Mental Illness: Anxiety and Related Disorders

social-anxiety“A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety.” – Aesop

OK, I am going to round up this series on mental illness with General Anxiety Disorder, and a couple connected hobgoblins. A lot of people misunderstand anxiety with being overly worried. Yes, we all have worries. Many of us have genuine concerns about our health, finances or problems with family. Anxiety goes way beyond worry. Sometimes it even results in behavior that is dangerous to one’s self. Sometimes it’s difficult just getting through the day. Sometimes it interferes with completing things. Often, it is responsible for reactions by our bodies that can mimic other conditions. However, this doesn’t keep the rest of the world from telling us,

Don’t Worry…

First, you should know that anxiety should also not be confused with fear. I know a few people who suffer from anxiety that are involved in things like motorcycle racing, extreme skiing, bungee jumping for fun, etc. The thing about anxiety is that it causes extreme conditions when there is little or no reason to be even overly concerned.
General Anxiety Disorder doesn’t just “happen.” It takes years to develop. The onset is different for everyone. It is reasoned that most people who suffer from anxiety have started exhibiting symptoms as early as their teenage years.

For me, I would guess it started when people I loved began dying off. Best guess is about seventeen years old or so. My dad stroked out. Didn’t kill him right away, but it rendered him with almost complete aphasia, severe paralysis and resulted in him having to be shipped off to a nursing home so far away that I knew I’d likely never see him again. I did, however, get to see him twice before he died.

It was at that time when my behavior started to change, and progressed throughout my adulthood until I was into my thirties. I’ve always been a nail-biter. However, it was in my late teens when I began engaging in something called Dermatophagia. This is a pretty nasty and largely uncontrollable biting of the skin around my nails. Here’s a picture of a few of my fingers, as they are now:

ChewyEwyThis is actually pretty good for me. There’s usually a lot more scabbing. This is generally increased when I am stressed out. I’ve gotten an infection or two, over the years. Incidentally, this is accompanied by something called dermatillomania, which is a sciency way of saying I tend to pick on myself – literally. Usually around my fingers, but there was this one time I ripped a mole off. The results were predictable.

Don’t Panic…

Ah, panic attacks. Those are fun. No, not really, actually. A couple of times they’ve resulted in trips to the hospital to check on what felt like a genuine heart attack. As some of you know, I’ve recently had to visit a cardiologist where I ended up having to wear this really uncomfortable harness of wires for a week to make sure I didn’t have a heart condition.

Turns out I was in a state of high anxiety about three weeks into a six-week absence of my wife – who is also my functional caregiver and reminder of all things forgotten. Thing is, I know this is not the last time this will happen to me. Panic attacks are no laughing matter, although I tend to joke about them, often. Cue the psychiatrists…

For the Wikifans out there, here’s a pretty good description of panic attacks:

A panic attack is a response of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The most common symptoms may include trembling, dyspnea (shortness of breath), heart palpitations, chest pain (or chest tightness), hot flashes, cold flashes, burning sensations (particularly in the facial or neck area), sweating, nausea, dizziness (or slight vertigo), light-headedness, hyperventilation, paresthesias (tingling sensations), sensations of choking or smothering, difficulty moving and derealization. These physical symptoms are interpreted with alarm in people prone to panic attacks. This results in increased anxiety, and forms a positive feedback loop

Oh, My God..!

I had thought I found a cure for my anxiety and related conditions when I “found god” in 1992. But after thirteen years – ten of it spent as a Pastor – the symptoms never stopped. So, apparently I was lying to myself about the healing powers of god. Imagine that.

My first major breakthrough came when I put aside religion and adopted reason. Why? Because I stopped praying about it, and relying on scriptures that tout the worries of tomorrow, etc., and embraced medical science, psychiatry and the wonderful world of medications.

My anxiety, as well as my depression and my OCD are somewhat managed by medication. Somewhat. If you’ve read the past couple of pieces on mental health, or suffer from mental illness, you know that there are very few ways to completely manage these diseases without relegating yourself to a catatonic state.

Since this is not an option, I choose the drugs. They allow me to function somewhat in society, even if I get strange looks from folks who are utterly horrified at my finger-chewing, or amused that when I eat pistachio nuts I have to put the two empty shell halves back together before discarding them. Oh, the comedy in tragedy is truly hilarious.

All In The Family…

Back to my youth and young adulthood. After my dad stroked out, it was a mess of stress and my family dove head on into the dysfunctional category with a vengeance. A few years later, my mother (at that time a cancer survivor), succumbed to Lymphoma. Some years later, I buried my dad and my grandmother (she lived with us for the first sixteen years of my life). In between those deaths there was a failed marriage and a lost daughter (not dead, but I was unable to have contact with her from when she was about five until she reached adulthood).

It’s difficult to look back on these years. They were very painful, and I am envious of those who are around my age who still have their parents and even grandparents around to seek advice, to lean on or to be around to see grandchildren. That ended for me a very, very long time ago. Needless to say, if you are fighting with your parents….
Anyhow, as I said, medication helps with some of the symptoms of anxiety, such as headaches (the ones not related to my Trigeminal Neuralgia), insomnia . However, I still worry about every day things, and sometimes have a hard time controlling them. It’s still hard to relax, or concentrate.

Final Thoughts…

It is thought that anxiety may be hereditary, but research is always ongoing, and while I do not have faith in a deity, I have put my trust in science and rely on the camaraderie of those with shared experiences. Oh, and the drugs, too…

Do you live in my world? Comments are open and unmoderated…

  21 comments for “Living With Mental Illness: Anxiety and Related Disorders

  1. melody
    September 24, 2012 at 11:14 am

    Yes, I live in your world minus the OCD. I feel a lot of guilt about my husband being my “functional caregiver and reminder of all things forgotten”. I give everything I have to my job and my marriage and I don’t have much left over for anything else. Everyday tasks that are easy for most people are horribly difficult for me to perform.

    • satanaugustine
      September 25, 2012 at 12:32 am

      Everyday tasks that are easy for most people are horribly difficult for me to perform.

      I can relate to this comment 100%.

      • James777
        September 28, 2012 at 6:02 pm

        You know, if all the disabled and other losers who couldn’t take care of themselves would just die off, the rest of us would be better off.

        And, as Darwin noted, the race would be strengthened.

        There is nothing inconsistent with the position I have stated and being an atheist, so face up to it.

        I can’t stand disabled people…the whining, the whimpering, the begging…

        • September 28, 2012 at 6:29 pm

          Actually, there is plenty that is inconsistant with being an atheist. Atheist simply means lack of faith in god(s). It does not state anything beyond that. It does not state any specific moral code, belief in other supernatural phenomena.

          Most contemporary atheists are philosophical (or metaphysical) naturalists, i.e. they deny the existence of any supernatural reality. Technically, however, you can be an atheist without having such a strong position.

          It is dishonest to say that being an atheist means that you support or condone the death or killing of the disabled or those unable to care for themselves.

          Perhaps, if someone believed in Social Darwinism, they might believe in that, but that would be a very odd view to believe in and I know of no atheists who espouse that philosophy.

          Many atheists are Humanists – “Humanism is a bold, resolute response to the fact that being a human being is lonely and frightening. We Humanists take one look at a world in which the lives of thousands of innocent children are ripped away every year by hurricanes, earthquakes, and other “acts of God,” not to mention the thousand other fundamental injustices of life, and we conclude that if the universe we live in does not have competent moral management, then so be it: we must become the superintendents of our own lives. Humanism means taking charge of the often lousy world around us and working to shape it into a better place, though we know we cannot ever finish the task.” – Good Without God, by Greg Epstein.

          Humanists would be absolutely against such acts – all without a need for god(s). There is no need for god(s) in order for a person to be moral. That is a logical fallicy.

        • September 28, 2012 at 9:06 pm

          Those unfortunates whose sense of empathy is nonfunctional or absent are disabled in a very real sense, even if they are (presently, because the future is always uncertain) in top condition physically. To be pitied; to go through life without ever really connecting, never understanding what’s going on around them, what other people are talking about. Sad.

  2. Darren Lyle
    September 24, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    I have terrible anxiety. My chest feels tight all the time. It’s killing me. It’s led to substance abuse and a very low quality of life.

    • satanaugustine
      September 25, 2012 at 12:30 am

      Are you able to seek treatment (counseling, medication), Darren? Even if you can just see a M.D., they can provide medication and possibly a referral to a counselor and/or psychiatrist. Hope things get better for you.

  3. September 24, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    I was referred here by a friend on an Atheist group that I am on. Thank you for this.

    I am permanently disabled due to Bipolar Disorder, Panic Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, PTSD, Social Phobia and mild OCD Traits.

    Your description of anxiety disorders is very good. My wife is my “functional caregiver”, even though she has some mild anxiety problems as well as bipolar disorder. She is like my walking, talking anti-anxiety medication. When she is around, I feel safer, more able to deal with life.

    It is frustrating for me as I used to LOVE to debate people, about politics, religion, etc. I enjoyed saying “Hi.” to strangers on the street. I enjoyed so many other things that I can no longer participate in (except somewhat online). I am doing what I can to reclaim my life, but the struggle is certainly not an easy one.

  4. UnknownEric
    September 24, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    My anxiety, as well as my depression and my OCD are somewhat managed by medication. Somewhat. If you’ve read the past couple of pieces on mental health, or suffer from mental illness, you know that there are very few ways to completely manage these diseases without relegating yourself to a catatonic state.

    Extremely true. I find myself having to explain to loved ones that yes, I am on medication but, no, it doesn’t just make everything “all better.” It just makes me more functional.

  5. quintus
    September 24, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    I’m glad you’re stopping now, the more you write, the more the more of myself I recognise. Excellent series Al.

  6. anotherbayesian
    September 25, 2012 at 5:24 am

    I suffer from anxiety and your description is excellent. To be honest I don’t know how you manage to blog and put yourself out there on contentious issues. Just one negative comment would give me the “anxiety butterflies” and ruin my day. It’s inspirational.

    Though I’ve had problems with anxiety generally (I was afraid of dreams as a teenager), the main problem for me was health anxiety. Seeing close family members diagnosed with cancer too late and passing away left me over-vigilant and terrified of not catching things early. That first time you are rushed into A&E with chest pains and they hook you up to the heart monitors is not easily forgotten. Nor is the embarrassment 2-4 hours later after all of the tests and they sit you down and say “have you ever had a panic attack before”.

    I attended some counselling and CBT and it has really helped. I managed to see that I was afraid of uncertainty and developed some tools for dealing with it. I havn’t had a panic attack in a year and, aside from avoiding all medical programs and articles on serious diseases, am pretty normal again.

    It won’t work for everyone, nothing does. But, if anyone is struggling and hasn’t tried counselling, I really recommend giving it a go.

  7. September 25, 2012 at 9:53 am

    I’m pretty sure this is a problem I have, though it hasn’t been diagnosed.

    What I think of as a panic attack is an experience of sudden utter dread and desire to immediately leave and go somewhere safe, combined with heart palpitations (which, yes, inspire thoughts of a heart attack) and nausea. Very minor things can cause this reaction, or at least things that would seem minor to other people (but are not to me, because of that feedback loop mentioned in the description). It’s particularly fun when you can’t leave, either because you’re blocked in somehow physically or chronologically or because there’s nowhere to go. You’re just lying in bed, panicking for no good reason.

    Sometimes it’s obvious what will cause one (a job interview), other times they sneak up on me (going to see a movie). It wasn’t always like this, but I don’t really want to go into detail about why I think it is now. I’d try to get treated but for the moment lack of health insurance makes that difficult.

  8. Jeff Alexander
    September 25, 2012 at 10:20 am

    Do you have suggestions for the friends and family of someone who is suffering from OCD or GAD as to how they can be more helpful and supportive?

  9. B
    September 25, 2012 at 10:26 am

    I live in your world. I’ve tried to stay away from medications because I work in pharma and I see first-hand what overmedicating can do, but I think I’ve reached a point where I need to change the method to change the results. Too much of my life is spent worrying about things I can’t change and being depressed that I won’t change the things I can. Social anxiety, general anxiety, depression, numbness where joy used to be, a constant struggle seemingly searching for meaning (that never came with religion either, 19 years as a Roman Catholic) where there is none.

    So yes. I live in your world.

  10. September 25, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    Dermatophagia. I didn’t know there was a name for that. I do that, and also pick at my skin enough that I always have some minor injuries to tend to. So did my mom, ever since I can remember.

    Other than that, and an inability to sleep at night if there’s anything to think about, and an upset stomach before and after social events, I present as relaxed, unstressed. And I’ve ended up in Emerg a couple of times with what looked like heart attacks and were not.

    Maybe I’m not as relaxed as I think I am.

  11. September 25, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    Another good article… I’m there with you, Al.

    Bipolar II, with no shortage of anxiety/panic attacks. In fact, I started to have one this morning while sitting on the freeway (which was NOT the reason for the attack). Thank medical science for medication… If not for its calming effect, I’d have walked into my office shaking like a leaf, gasping for air and on the edge of a total meltdown.

    If you haven’t already, check out and the Bipolar Burble. Lots of good information and research about all sorts of mental illness and how to cope with its effects on you and those you love.

  12. Josie
    September 27, 2012 at 9:32 am

    I’ve been picking at my fingers for 30 years and never realized that there was a name for it until a few months ago when someone else on FTB mentioned it (maybe Jen?) One thing I’ve found that helps is to keep nail clippers/nail scissors/cuticle trimmers around at all times. Let’s face it, there is really no way you are going to stop picking at those rough spots you feel. BUT…if you regularly trim your cuticles, slowly and carefully, paying attention, not just blindly picking, it does decrease the amount of blood you shed and some of those ugly scabs on the fingers. Keeping my nails polished bright, pretty colors helps too, but that solution doesn’t work so well for men.

    • the artist formerly known as round guy
      October 2, 2012 at 9:07 am

      Take it for what it’s worth, but I found a lovely indigo nail polish that really helped me out with the finger chewing.
      My wife was less thrilled than I and my employer equally unimpressed, but, hey, it did the job. I still wear it at home sometimes.

      Great series Al—you have really helped me understand myself a bit better and made me feel a little less alone.

  13. September 27, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    Is “Free Floating Anxiety” a
    valid entity?

  14. September 28, 2012 at 6:56 am

    I’ve developed this weird anxiety about enclosed places over the years. I had one mini-attack about thirteen years ago when I was in the back of a minivan one hot evening. I got that whole world coming down on me feeling, but I was able to manage it. Just last year the family and I were at EPCOT and we went on this Mars Mission ride which required me to be in a very small space. Now, my wife had no idea I’ve developed this weird thing, and I joked as we were in line, “Hey, I wonder if my fear of small places is going to crank up.” Of course it did. I was able to manage it by closing my eyes and counting back from 100.

  15. lamaria
    September 29, 2012 at 9:31 am

    Thank you for this post! It means a lot to have people discuss these things rationally. I had pretty much daily (actually: nightly) panic attacks between the ages of 12 and 19 and I never dared tell anyone because I (irrationally) thought I might be considered “mad”, put in solitary confinement and literally die of fear.

    Then one day when I was about 17 I decided there was no reason to believe any gods existed. Which actually made things a little better because now I could allow myself to apply logic to my demons as well. I could talk to myself, telling myself none of that bullshit could exist – which you can´t do properly while at the same time leaving room for another supernatural entity. Rationalyzing doesn´t solve the problem, but at least it doesn´t exacerbate it.
    No more frantic praying with the background monologue of “god won´t allow anything to happen to me while I´m praying, that would make him look bad, he just won´t, will he? I didn´t do anything wrong, he won´t allow anything to punish me, ok there´s the story of Hiob but I´m not important enough to use as an example and…” Whatever. Not that I ever believed the bible was literally true by the way, it was just a garbled mess of hope, fear and disconnected lines of thought fanning the fires of fear up to the point where I would sit in a corner with my back against the wall, all lights turned up, too scared to breathe properly or even blink.

    So disposing of religion helped a little. Then two years later our local herb lady put me on a sugarfree diet (for something quite unrelated), which helped somewhat too.
    Now (over 10 years later) I can live a pretty much normal live, walk home alone at night and sleep with the lights off as long as I´m careful not to eat too much sugar or read or watch anything that might set off the internal horrormovies.

    At the same time I still feel that with my peculiarities I´m not good enough to be considered normal and shouldn´t get pregnant or deserve to be in a balanced relationship. Thank you for reminding me James 777, you made my day.

    On the subject of cuticles: in my case it helps to brush them with a nailsbrush under cool running water for 10-20 seconds per hand every day before massaging oil into them. Keeps them soft and because of that I´m less likely to bite or peel them off.

    Anyway, thanks for helping me to understand myself a little better and thanks for allowing me to share.

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