Seeking joy and meaning in a joyless mind and meaningless existence

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Incredible Shrinking Man

My life is shrinking...

One might hope that one's idiosyncrasies would mellow with time and age, and to a certain extent, some of mine have.  But my anxieties have only multiplied as they diminish my quality of life and self-limit me in the things that I can do and the enjoyment I can get out of life.  I trace the beginnings of this anxious phase back several years when I lost the ability to fly on airplanes.  It began in July 2005 when I flew from California to Massachusetts for my dear high school friend Diana's wedding.  (Diana passed away from leukemia last December, leaving her husband and their lovely daughter.)  Close to my destination, the plane suddenly lost altitude very quickly.  I don't know how far we dropped or how long it lasted, but it was long enough for people to scream and for me to utter "Oh, God!  Oh, God!" several times.  I never particularly enjoyed flying before, yet I was never overly bothered by it either.  But that experience eroded the disconnect between the experience and my anxiety.  Over the subsequent years, even though I only flew once or twice a year, my terror grew.  Every time the plane shakes, my flight/fight reflex is triggered and I panic.  It grew steadily worse until I flew the last time several years ago on a return trip from visiting my parents at Christmas.  I had taken several Vicodin  before the flight.  (Tranquilizers have no effect on me.)  But I was still a nervous wreck after being a nervous wreck the entire trip as I dreaded the flight home.  So now all of the wondrous vistas opened by the advent of safe, reliable air travel have firmly shut for me.

But wait there's more!  Anxiety is an insatiable beast that will consume a person's entire life if it's able!  (e.g. Howard Hughes)  When I was living in Los Angeles, I had a job that I absolutely loved at a firm that I just adored.  I worked in their downtown office on the 20th floor.  The height never bothered me at all, and I was able to visit even higher floors without being troubled by anxiety.  Then an earthquake hit while I was at work.  It wasn't a very strong one, between 5 and 6 on the Richter scale, and it didn't really bother me at the time.  But I am cursed with an active, vivid imagination, and I started to imagine what it would be like to be so high up if the "big one" hit.  To make a long story short, I soon began to be increasingly agitated by being on the 20th floor, and it got to the point where I can no longer stand to be high up in buildings.  This was the deciding factor in my decision to move back to Memphis from Los Angeles since I ended up having to leave my job.  (The move actually wasn't as devastating as one might expect because I knew I'd be practical about the whole thing, realizing that I can be miserable in Memphis just as easily as in Los Angeles.)  So now my anxiety has robbed me of my ability to be higher than the tenth floor without feeling nervous, and I have the thought, "How high up is that office/hotel room/etc.?" constantly in the back of my mind.  And my world continues to shrink...

Lately my anxiety complaint du jour is an increase in panic attacks. While I've struggled with feeling anxious as long as I can remember, I haven’t actually suffered too many panic attacks until recently, and for that I am grateful! The first time I had one—as a child after obsessing about the murder of Bob Crane and dreaming of being stabbed—I wanted to kill myself so that I would never have to feel that afraid again. I don’t know if I’m right on schedule with some kind of midlife crisis, but just hearing about dying or the death of someone makes me fixate on the inevitability of my own demise until I am certain I am having a heart attack. (I feel it even now, writing this.) I cannot fathom what kind of twisted design of God or nature made the physical symptoms of panic—chest pain/tightness, lightheadedness, palpitations, tingling in the extremities—almost identical to a heart attack.

I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours
But I think that God’s got a sick sense of humour…
{Depeche Mode, “Blasphemous Rumours}

I personally blame my alchoholism for my midlife spike in anxiety.  It's a scientific fact that prolonged, extensive alcohol abuse damages the brain.  While I only have my intuition to base it upon, I believe that my alcohol abuse damaged my ability to regulate and handle anxiety.

My friend Jonathan sent me an interesting opinion piece on anxiety from The New York Times.  The author has written a book and has his own website about anxiety and his struggles with the disorder.

"Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On"

Where my Memphis and L.A. lives intersect...  I was reminded of my anxiety prison by the reports of the recent Southern California earthquake "swarm" that occurred earlier this week.  Jonathan, who works in the same office building in Los Angeles where I used to work, told me that they were focused in Imperial County and that he didn't feel them at home or work.  (He's on the 31st floor!)  But I shudder just to think about it all the same.