Living with anxiety, searching for joy

By Kat Kinsman, CNN
updated 11:16 AM EST, Wed January 8, 2014
If depression is a
If depression is a “black dog,” Kat Kinsman writes, then anxiety is a feral cat.

Editor’s note: Kat Kinsman is the managing editor of CNN Eatocracy. Watch the Google Plus Hangout about coping with anxiety, hosted by Kinsman and featuring a panel of experts who have experienced, studied and treated anxiety.

(CNN) — “The blues are because you’re getting fat or maybe it’s been raining too long. You’re sad, that’s all. But the mean reds are horrible. You’re afraid and you sweat like hell, but you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Except something bad is going to happen, only you don’t know what it is. … What I’ve found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there.” — “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Truman Capote

I am hunched in half on a blue chair on the third floor of the Tiffany & Co. flagship store, willing myself to calm down or simply disappear. At this moment, the latter seems a more likely possibility, but even so, it’s not working. A neatly suited young woman is dispatched to assess the state of my well-being, because so far as I can tell, most other ladies are pretty jazzed to be in the temple of sparkle and promise.

I, on the other hand, am a quivering storm cloud, desperately trying to contain the shocks and sog of my current upset so they don’t stain anyone else’s happy pre-holiday afternoon. She approaches, kind-eyed and discreet, “Soooo, how are you doing today, Miss?”

Panicked, I start to babble. “Finefinefine. I’m fine. My husband is somewhere around here buying a present for his mom and his aunt and I’m just — there are so many people out today. So many people. It took 30 minutes to walk just a couple blocks and I’m — so many people. I’m just here — hiding. Until he’s done. See, there he is.”

My husband materializes with a white-stringed bag in his hand and nods at the woman. She’s relieved. I’m mortified — that my seams showed, that someone saw them, that my husband is stuck with a wife so pathetic that she can’t even manage a couple of hours of Christmas shopping without falling apart.

Twitching and sick to my stomach, I eventually make it home and cower under the covers in our dark bedroom until early evening. Despite my best attempts at slow, deep breaths and all the rest of the therapeutic tricks I’ve been taught, I’m unable to slow my firecracker pulse or the explosion of toxic thoughts rotting me from brain to skin.

“You’re so useless. You let down the people you love. Everyone who’s been stupid enough to love you will regret it when they realize how weak you are.” It goes on and on until my body just shuts down for a couple of hours. Then I wake up in near-screaming horror, and it all starts up again.

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This happened just three weeks ago. Anxiety and panic have been my constant companions for as far back as my memory reaches. The outlines of most of the milestones — birthdays, graduations, awards — are etched in acid relief on the walls of my gut while my mind tries to fill in the blanks with any color and joy I can muster. Even the mundanities of daily life are riddled with the shrapnel of the attack.

Empirically, I recall the verdant, sheep-dotted hills, azure lakes, storybook castles and mighty crags of Snowdonia, Wales, as seen from an open car, driven by the handsome man who had become my husband just days before. In theory, bliss. In reality, a steady series of flinches, gasps and stomach aches as we wound through hairpin turns on single-lane, left-hand-drive roadways, while I obsessed about the money we’d just spent on the wedding and if I’d paid enough attention to each guest at the reception.

After a grueling stint in grad school, I stood in line to receive my master’s degree and was convinced that a siren in the distance meant I’d left on the iron I’d used to press my gown, and that my house was burning down as a result of my carelessness. In third grade, I hunched in a ball at the edge of the asphalt, clawing at a scab while the other kids whooped and ran. I’d messed up a test question I should have gotten right, and my favorite teacher was going to know she was wrong for thinking I was smart.

Anxiety hurts. It’s the precise inverse of joy and blots out pleasure at its whim, leaving a dull, faded outline of the happiness that was supposed to happen. It’s also as sneaky as hell.

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If depression is, as Winston Churchill famously described, a “black dog” that follows the sufferer around, anxiety is a feral cat that springs from nowhere, sinks its claws into skin and hisses invective until nothing else exists.

For me, there is neither rhyme nor reason as to when it will strike. I can board a plane to vacation solo in a strange city, hold forth on live TV at a moment’s notice or speak onstage in front of a crowd of hundreds without many mussed feathers. The notion of leaving the house to get half-and-half for coffee flings me dead into the eye of a panic attack.

The store is a 30-second walk from my front door and some days, I just can’t make it there. The thought of leaving the cocoon of my apartment — my bedroom, even — just crushes my lungs and tightens my skin until it’s hot to the touch. My hands bobble the outline of the lipstick I try to apply so I can masquerade as a functioning human person, and I have to wipe it off and start again. And maybe again. And then my dress needs ironing. And the dogs need water. And I should answer another work e-mail. Anything to keep me from having to walk to the door, open it and face the world. The coffee will have to be black that day.

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What am I afraid will happen? There’s no easy answer to that. Anxiety is not easily explicable or rational — at least not to those who don’t suffer from it — and that only compounds the problem. If it were something concrete — a fear of clowns, birds, cheese or the music of Michael Bublé — there would no doubt be a definitive course of attack involving immersion therapy and a really weird party.

But Generalized Anxiety Disorder (300.02 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and the single most common mental health diagnosis) is more nebulous than that. It’s free-floating fear that metastasizes until it’s all-consuming and often debilitating. For me, it’s physically painful, from stomach, head and muscle aches to exhaustion from chronic insomnia to raw thumb skin that I’ve picked at until it bled — and kept picking some more.

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It’s deeply alienating to friends who assume that I didn’t come to their party, show up at their event or call to explain because I didn’t care enough or didn’t love them anymore. It’s perhaps even more humiliating to explain that I was too terrified to leave my house and interact with people in person where they could see what a drab, value-free mess of a person I am and that they’d made a mistake for ever liking me in the first place.

It’s senseless and hurtful to people I love, and that more than anything is why I’ve been trying to get better. That’s its own litter of rabid kittens.

Anti-anxiety medications work beautifully for millions of people. The withdrawal from a particularly wicked one nearly ended me, and the brain zaps (those are sharp, horrifying electrical currents you can physically feel inside your head) and metabolic sluggishness increasingly outweighed any benefits while I was on it. Perhaps I will change my mind someday, but for now that’s not an option.

The gym can be useful, but it’s on the other side of that damned door. So are the much-vaunted yoga and meditation classes that inevitably make me feel as if I’ve failed for being insufficiently zen and relaxed.

Behavioral therapy has perhaps been my most effective weapon, but when panic bolts down and pins me, shivering to my bed in the wee, small hours, it’s hard to summon semi-steady breath, let alone any mantras or creative visualizations.

Anxiety, you’re not the boss of me

I also suddenly and quite unexpectedly lost the man who taught me most of my coping techniques. Last spring, my therapist of nearly a decade and a half had a medical emergency and his practice abruptly ended. I missed him fiercely and held out hope for months — both for his well-being and for our continued work together. It was not to be, and I spiraled for a while, allowing the terror to swallow me, along with any scrap of happiness that might have come fluttering my way.

But in 2014, I am resolved, if not to tame this yowling beast, then at least to clip its claws. I’m sick to death of feeling ashamed for this illness, am just plain worn out from the physical fight and angry that I’ve let it thieve so much life and time with my loved ones. I’ve got a new therapist who is teaching me to wrangle upset where it arises, and not damning myself when I fail to do so.

I’m trying to let myself enjoy small pleasures, rather than brace myself for when they might be taken away. I’m also doing what I can to increase the frequency of their occurrence, and encouraging other people to do the same, with a public Tumblr — — where I hold myself accountable for one joyful or “fancy” thing a day and tackle the issue of anxiety in a public way. It’s silly, but it’s working, and even just in the few days it’s been up, dozens of people have reached out to offer encouragement, and share their personal experiences with the condition.

If fear begets more fear, then I’m willing myself to believe that joy begets more joy — or at least a measure of calm. This year, I will find my way to Tiffany’s.

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