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Coming of Age on Zoloft…, by Katherine Sharpe – Breakdowns

 

BREAKDOWNS:

 

I could see that the day was beautiful, but I was still waiting for it to produce in me the happiness that I expected from crystalline October days in Virginia. What I felt instead was that biking seemed harder than I remembered. I could feel my breath ripping unevenly in and out of my chest. I tried to shift down, but the gears seemed to behave exactly the opposite of the way I expected them to, and it got even more difficult to pedal. I was on familiar streets in a familiar neighborhood less than two miles from my home, but for some reason I began to panic. Or worse than panic: I felt a wave of despair rise, ripple through my body, and escape as heat from the top of my head. My stomach turned over. I didn’t want to be there, and a moment later I knew that I didn’t want to be anywhere. Merely living suddenly just seemed too hard, too undignified. The burn in my thighs, instead of meaning healthy exercise, felt like an emblem for the pain of life in general, a sickly reminder of every struggle to come.

 

It seemed as if all the strength and enthusiasm of the past nine weeks were gone, and I was right back to the worst of where I’d been over the summer, feeling unfit for the world and not up to the everyday tasks other people take in stride. These feelings seemed connected to Brendan, at one end, but they quickly spun off into something bigger, a dread without boundaries.

 

College felt like a fast-moving river. There was no safe time-out place to crawl into, nothing comparable to the gray sofa at home. I felt like I had to be poised and under control at all times, and I was ready to consider just about any solution that presented itself.

 

Everything meant something, but the meaning was always the same. Even inanimate objects, animals, and trees talked to me about suffering. Sitting by the plate-glass windows in the dining hall, watching a squirrel pick its way across a telephone wire, and wobble, and recover: this was the stuff of high tragedy. In reality, this period couldn’t have lasted for more than a couple of weeks, but in my memory it seems to stretch on forever—a strange little eternity in which shedding tears became a basic bodily function to be fulfilled regularly and by rote, a little pick-me-up squeezed into my hourly, between-class visits to the end-of-row stall in the ladies’ room on the first floor of Vollum Hall.

 

A lot of my early memories seemed tinged with fear, or just an all-purpose eeriness. I remembered wanting to feel connected to the other kids in preschool and kindergarten, but not always knowing how. They seemed so carefree, so thoughtless, so loud. Sometimes I forgot myself and blended with them. But at other times, the feeling that my dad called anxiety would descend for days or weeks, and nothing would feel right. That feeling clenched my stomach, pinched my breath, kept me awake in the dark while the red glowing numbers of the digital clock marched on and on toward morning.

 

I did have this kind of generalized anxiety thing, where I would just look at something and a visual something would snap in my brain that would make me feel horribly anxious. Like, it didn’t matter, like a tomato in a commercial, it didn’t make any sense. And that was horrible, it was like anything could throw me off and it didn’t have any sensible story to it. —Rachel, age twenty-eight

 

Coming of Age on Zoloft…, by Katherine Sharpe – Connecting with Others

 

CONNECTING WITH OTHERS:

Part of the reason why the moment on the porch stayed with me for so long was the sheer force of the relief it brought me to connect, in person, with other people whose experiences mirrored my own.

 

But there is understanding to be gained in such conversations; partaking in stories of one another is one of the purest and most elemental forms of comfort available to us in our sped-up, surface-happy world. When I conducted the interviews for this book, a number of the people I talked to thanked me. They told me that they didn’t speak about these topics very often, and that they were excited to hear what others had to say.

 

Midterms came, a week of intensely concentrated stress but also a bleary-eyed camaraderie that affected the whole campus and made the time pleasant in its own delirious way.

 

She thought, for one thing, that almost all people were neurotic to some degree, and that our society tended to make us so. While she didn’t think that neurosis was healthy, she believed that struggling with it was a basic theme in human life. (As if to underscore the idea, she often illustrated her points with examples drawn from world literature.) I liked the way her theories seemed to imbue mental suffering with a meaning, and therefore a dignity, that had always been conspicuously absent from the discourse of faulty neurotransmitters. Thinking about having a chemical imbalance had always made me feel helpless, the victim of forces beyond my control. To my twenty-first-century ears, the word neurosis sounded strange and old-fashioned at first, maybe even subtly non-P.C. But the idea behind it soothed and heartened me, making me feel legible to myself and connected to other people in a way that nothing else had.

 

Feeling less unique made me able to talk to other people more openly, and listen better too; when I did, I realized as if for the first time how many of my friends and acquaintances also had problems with depression and anxiety, though it wasn’t always apparent at first.

 

I began to notice how many of these people also possessed a certain cluster of traits: they were sensitive, moody, empathetic, creative, funny, demanding of themselves, self-absorbed at times, but also capable of joy and a deep interest in the things that moved them. I started to wonder whether people like this tended to cluster in the places I’d been drawn to, like academia and the arts. Maybe being a little melancholic was an occupational hazard of being a certain type of person in the world, an annoyance but also a feature that could pull us toward each other. If that were true, then depression lost even more of its sting; it was a potential to be fought by any means necessary when it became acute, but not something that needed to be feared or rejected for any reason other than its simple awfulness in itself.

 

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel


Life of Pi is the study of life through the eyes of a boy trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger in the middle of the ocean.  Through his ups and downs, his triumphs and his failures, he shares his innermost thoughts on the human experience.


People move because of the wear and tear of anxiety. Because of the gnawing feeling that no matter how hard they work their efforts will yield nothing, that what they build up in one year will be torn down in one day by others. Because of the impression that the future is blocked up, that they might do all right but not their children. Because of the feeling that nothing will change, that happiness and prosperity are possible only somewhere else.

Many times I’ve asked myself “Would I feel better living somewhere else, working somewhere else, removing myself from my current life and starting fresh?”

Somehow I knew it wasn’t a situation or environment that sparked my anxiety. Moving away or changing jobs wouldn’t ever get me away from the source of the problem: myself.

Running away from your problems isn’t going to get rid of them.  Take a good look at yourself and get the help you need.


Warmth came only when the sun, looking like an electrically lit orange, broke across the horizon, but I didn’t need to wait that long to feel it. With the very first rays of light it came alive in me: hope. As things emerged in outline and filled with colour, hope increased until it was like a song in my heart. Oh, what it was to bask in it! Things would work out yet. The worst was over. I had survived the night. Today I would be rescued. To think that, to string those words together in my mind, was itself a source of hope. Hope fed on hope.

The importance of hope in dealing with anxiety and depression is immense. What I’ve learned is hope can come from taking even very small steps.

During tough times, as long as I know I am taking a step towards help, towards being positive, I have hope – that lifeline that keeps us going.

If I’m taking a medicine that’s not working, at least my doctor and I are trying, and now we know I might as well pop Red Hots instead of that medicine.

Even making an appointment with the doctor/therapist brings me hope – cause at least I’m taking a step forward. No matter how small.


I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous, adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease. It begins in your mind, always. One moment you are feeling calm, self-possessed, happy. Then fear, disguised in the garb of mild-mannered doubt, slips into your mind like a spy. Doubt meets disbelief and disbelief tries to push it out. But disbelief is a poorly armed foot soldier. Doubt does away with it with little trouble. You become anxious. Reason comes to do battle for you. You are reassured. Reason is fully equipped with the latest weapons technology. But, to your amazement, despite superior tactics and a number of undeniable victories, reason is laid low. You feel yourself weakening, wavering. Your anxiety becomes dread.
 
Fear next turns fully to your body, which is already aware that something terribly wrong is going on. Already your lungs have flown away like a bird and your guts have slithered away like a snake. Now your tongue drops dead like an opossum, while your jaw begins to gallop on the spot. Your ears go deaf. Your muscles begin to shiver as it they were dancing. Your heart strains too hard, while your sphincter relaxes too much. And so with the rest of your body. Every part of you, in the manner most suited to it, falls apart. Only your eyes work well. They always pay proper attention to fear.
 
Quickly you make rash decisions. You dismiss your last allies: hope and trust. There, you’ve defeated yourself. Fear, which is but an impression, has triumphed over you.
 
The matter is difficult to put into words. For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your foundation, such as you feel when you are brought face to face with your mortal end, nestles in your memory like a gangrene: it seeks to rot everything, even the words with which to speak of it. So you must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.

Yann Martel brilliantly describes the progression of an anxiety attack / depressive episode with these steps:

starts with doubt > becomes anxious > turns into dread > experiences physical discomfort > dismisses hope and trust

In the midst of an attack, it’s impossible for me to pick apart the details of the sticky mess in my head.  But reading Martel’s description of it broken down into stages – digestible little snack-size pieces – makes it seem a little less scary.


But there’s more to it. I will come clean. I will tell you a secret: a part of me was glad about Richard Parker. A part of me did not want Richard Parker to die at all, because if he died I would be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger. If I still had the will to live, it was thanks to Richard Parker. He kept me from thinking too much about my family and my tragic circumstances. He pushed me to go on living. I hated him for it, yet at the same time I was grateful. I am grateful. It’s the plain truth: without Richard Parker, I wouldn’t be alive today to tell you my story.

In this excerpt, the main character describes his appreciation for Richard Parker – the tiger, his only companion as he drifts in the middle of the ocean.

The author has created an extreme circumstance – a boy trapped on a boat with a tiger in the middle of the ocean. This goes to show just how horrible depression and despair can be if someone’s happy to be in the company of a giant tiger instead of being alone.

It tells me not to hesitate to use those around me as a source of comfort – even my dog as he lays next to me with a terrible bout of gas.


Despair was a heavy blackness that let no light in or out. It was a hell beyond expression. I thank God it always passed. A school of fish appeared around the net or a knot cried out to be reknotted. Or I thought of my family, of how they were spared this terrible agony. The blackness would stir and eventually go away, and God would remain, a shining point of light in my heart. I would go on loving.


The worst pair of opposites is boredom and terror. Sometimes your life is a pendulum swing from one to the other. The sea is without a wrinkle. There is not a whisper of wind. The hours last forever. You are so bored you sink into a state of apathy close to a coma. Then the sea becomes rough and your emotions are whipped into a frenzy. Yet even these two opposites do not remain distinct. In your boredom there are elements of terror: you break down into tears; you are filled with dread; you scream; you deliberately hurt yourself. And in the grip of terror – the worst storm – you yet feel boredom, a deep weariness with it all.


High calls low and low calls high. I tell you, if you were in such dire straits as I was, you too would elevate your thoughts. The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar. It was natural that, bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God.