This post is going to be a bit different from my usual stuff.
I watched Bo Burnham's new special the other night and I've been thinking about it ever since. It was such a raw look into his declining mental health... it really got to me. It also made me want to write about my own mental illness.
I've always been scared of sharing this stuff in public because I worried it could hurt my career. I didn't want gatekeepers to see it and decide I wasn't fit for a job or an investment. But it has meant so much to me to hear from others with similar problems, I want to do my part to contribute.
In that spirit, here's a story about the worst my mental health has ever been.
The closest to insane I've ever felt was in 2016.
My mental health had deteriorated a lot over the previous 2 years, to the point where I was constantly on edge and having panic attacks multiple times a week. I called my problem "anxiety", but found out later that it was agoraphobia plus a phobia of vomiting (weird, I know).
Because I was so scared of puking, I was struggling to make myself eat enough and I couldn't stop losing weight. By then I had shrunk to 125 pounds. It was scary; I felt like I was wasting away, but nothing I tried was helping.
It's hard to explain what it feels like if you haven't felt it, but I felt deeply unsafe. There was no place I could go to find refuge because the thing I was scared of was my own body. I was constantly watching for warning signs that it was getting sick, or that it was about to suddenly switch into panic-mode. It seems ridiculous that those harmless things could cause me so much trouble, but they were. The terror they made me feel was real, even though the threats weren't. Something I've learned is that there are no fake chemicals in the brain reserved for fake threats—it's all the same stuff.
One night, during a particularly bad panic attack, I had the worst moment of my life. I was exhausted, not having fully recovered from my last attack, but also frantic and wild-eyed with fear. I was pacing around the living room just trying to hold on. That was when I had this moment of total desperation where I thought: "I can't do this anymore." It wasn't a suicidal thought, it just seemed impossible for my brain to stay in that state without totally unraveling.
But the indescribably terrible thing was that even though it couldn't stay in that state, it was trapped there. It couldn't keep going but it couldn't stop either. It was incomprehensible.
I said it's indescribable, but I'm going to try anyway:
When you're having a panic attack, you have this feeling like you're trying to hold on. You're trying not to become completely overcome with terror. In that moment, I felt like I couldn't hold on anymore, but there wasn't any escape in slipping either. If you're holding onto the edge of a cliff, the escape you're hoping for is that you make it back to safety. But even if your muscles fail and you fall to your death, that's a different kind of escape. In this moment, there was no escape in either direction. That was really, really horrifying.
Of course, the attack eventually subsided and I returned to regular consciousness, but the experience really shook me up. I felt like I had gotten a glimpse at real madness, and it was awful to realize that my brain was capable of that. It also made me more afraid of panic attacks, knowing they could get worse than I had thought, and more agoraphobic.
Not long after that attack, I got a prescription for medication. I was so scared of the potential side effects (nausea and vomiting) that it took me a long time to start taking it, but I eventually did, and it worked! After all the fruitless years I had put in trying to fix myself with lifestyle changes, the pills seemed like magic. They didn't make me completely anxiety-free, but I slowly stopped feeling like I was constantly in danger. My panic attacks became much more rare.
Agoraphobia is still an omnipresent force in my life. I have to constantly push back against it to keep it from closing in around me, which means constantly putting myself in situations that make me anxious. To be honest, it's kind of exhausting, and I struggle with chronic fatigue because of how taxing it is to have my nervous system on high alert all the time.
But, it's much more manageable now. If my most extreme point was an 8 out of 10, I'm now at a 4. Meditation, in addition to the meds, has helped me a ton. I've been able to live a mostly normal life and grow at a rate that I'm very proud of. 7 years ago I was working as a labourer on the oilfields, now I’m a product designer at an awesome startup!
If you have an anxiety disorder and want someone to talk to, reach out anytime!