20 January 2015

4 Things That Aren’t True About Anxiety

You may be able to tell from my earlier posts that I suffer from the occasional panic attack or two.  Life often feels like a balancing act: caffeine intake, exercise, sleep, food choices, movie selections, goals accomplished… you get the recipe wrong, and you’re asking for an attack.

But my experience isn’t everyone’s.  I read so many lists of things that “every” person with anxiety supposedly experiences, that “every” friend should know if they want to help… and sure, some of it rings true, but so much of it has nothing to do with me and it drives me crazy to be defined by others’ too-broad lists.  It’s a symptom of a greater evil – a desire to classify and cure all forms of mental illness, to compartmentalize and, intentionally or accidentally, to marginalize.  So here’s a list of what, to me, is NOT true about anxiety.

Myth #1: The symptoms of anxiety are common to all anxious people

Anxiety runs the gamut from a mild difficulty around which one can still function to a crippling daily bombardment of terror.  It can come suddenly out of nowhere or predictably in certain circumstances, and it can be about any number of subjects or even nothing at all. 

For years I convinced myself I didn’t really have an anxiety problem because I couldn’t easily pigeonhole it into one of the classic anxiety disorders defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  My attacks weren’t about nothing, they were always about death.  I could trigger them myself if I thought about death long enough.  They didn’t happen very often or over a specific period of time.  And not being able to define my problem in the context of an external diagnostic system made me feel like a phony.  I didn’t have anxiety and I didn’t deserve to complain about it.  I was just being silly.  And that’s a bullshit thing for a teenager to have to feel when they’re sitting there in the shower bawling their eyes out because one day they will, inevitably, die. 

This is a truism that applies to so many different aspects of life and self-identification: External sources don’t know your experience.  They can’t.  If you’ve got anxiety, you’ve got anxiety and no manual is going to justify or deny that for you.  What those manuals can do is help inform you of the wide variety of methods you can use to help yourself out of whatever you’re experiencing.  Which brings us to another myth…

Myth #2: There is one best way to help all people who experience anxiety

The other night I told my husband we couldn’t watch the Nostalgia Critic review of the movie Casper.  I didn’t have to say why.  He knows me well enough by now to leave it alone and watch it on his own time.  So tell me – exactly how many other people with anxiety would this no-watching-Casper treatment apply to?

I hope it’s obvious that a mental hardship (not necessarily a disease, a disorder, or even a problem) with symptoms as broad as anxiety would also have a wide range of legitimate treatment options.  And the most important part should go without saying, that the person with the anxiety is the one with the final word on what they will and will not allow for treatment and help. 

This is something we often miss with mental hardship.  It’s your brain that’s “broken”, so it must be a reasonable assumption that a broken thing can’t be trusted to fix itself.  And in certain extreme cases, that may be true.  But it’s a rare case of anxiety that doesn’t come and go.  A person not currently in the throes of anxious grief is certainly capable of explaining how they want to be handled when they are having a problem.  The phrase, “What can I do to help?” is a powerful one.  Use it.  As genuine and good a place as you’re probably coming from, you can really, really mess with an anxious person in the middle of an attack by doing and saying the wrong things.

But if I can presume, a word of caution to fellow anxious folks: you know yourself best, but please be open to others’ insights.  The best help I got was from a counselor I was almost too proud even to go see for the two sessions I really needed him.  I thought I could take care of it myself and no one could tell me anything I hadn’t already considered.  I knew in my bones the book was closed on the afterlife, and the inevitability of my cessation was crushing.  And all the counselor had to say was, “I know you think you know, I know it feels concrete to you, but what if you can tell yourself, logically, it’s impossible to know?  What if you can force that room for doubt?”  At the time I smiled and nodded and thought to myself that was a nice load of crap.  Now I tell myself this every single time the panic looms.  It still feels like a lie and it probably always will, but humbly I admit I don’t own the answer, and it helps.  Help can come out of anywhere.

Myth #3: When people are anxious, it shows

That depends.  For the big stuff, probably you’ll see some classic symptoms.  Maybe it involves panic attacks, maybe it’s physically apparent – but maybe it’s not.  To beat to death a tired cliché… that whole iceberg thing.  Ten percent above water and all that.  You know it.

I don’t like getting people all riled up about my anxiety.  It’s tiresome.  So unless I really need a hug, I’m likely not to mention how long it takes me to calm down enough to get to sleep some nights.  If someone never looks anxious, always seems bubbly and happy, doesn’t seem to have a care in the world… it’s still not reasonable to assume they never have a moment of oh-my-God-I’m-going-to-die-right-now pants-soiling fear for no reason.  You just never know.  And it doesn’t make their troubles any less real or worthy of regard if they do open up to you about it.

Myth #4: Everyone who has anxiety wants to be fixed

Confession: I do.  I really do.  But not with drugs, and not at the expense of anxiety’s benefits – that high-strung, “dancing on the edge of something awesome” kind of feeling.  I don’t believe it’s possible to simply excise the part of me that breaks down in terror at the thought of death while leaving the rest of me intact.  It’s a lament I hear often with various forms of “mental illness”: No treatment, please, if it means any kind of loss of “self”. 

That’s the real bitch about it.  Much as we may want to, we can’t ignore that the problem is in our brains and our brains are ourselves and our selves have been built with anxiety (or whatever) as a fundamental component.  So sure, I’d love for mental illness to be taken as seriously by both the medical community and society at large as a tumor or diabetes is – but I’m tired of the concomitant assumption that viewing it in that light means it needs to be treated with the same sterile hand.  It’s been my experience (and I’m positive I’m not alone) that like it or not, my brain is myself and altering that means altering me, which seriously limits the options on “fixing”.  I also know dozens of people who feel that life is much better, and they feel more like themselves, when they can manage their symptoms with a pill.  Both are fully understandable, legitimate approaches to dealing with mental illness. 

Understanding goes a long way toward helping someone with their anxiety.  If you see a problem in someone else, maybe ask them about it and see if they’d like you to do anything or even just be there for them.  If you see it in yourself, find someone to talk to who will listen.  That last bit’s critical.  And most importantly, don’t let this post or any other external source make you think your problems aren’t worth tackling.

16 January 2015

Another update

Let’s pick up where we left off, shall we?

We’re one doctorate and one kid up from the last post, and I’m finally starting to remember what it feels like to be human.  I wrote that post about sleep, didn’t I?  I can’t follow my own advice.

So here we go again on another quest – to become an Author.  It’s fast approaching.  Stay tuned!

26 May 2013

Something to Leave Out of Your Carry-On Luggage

I had the most bizarre experience in the airport security line today.

The security guard scanning the carry-on luggage asked to run my laptop bag through the machine a second time, which I thought was a little odd – there was almost nothing in the bag after I took my laptop out.  The second time through, she stopped the bag and hailed another security guard to search it.  She pointed at the screen to show him what to look for, and he nodded and brought the bag over to me.

By this time I was thoroughly confused.  The guard asked if I had anything sharp in the bag that he could cut himself on and I told him no, not to my knowledge – and what a weird question, right?  I’ve never been asked that when my bag’s been searched, before.  He searched through all the main pockets and came up totally empty, as expected, and then went through them again for good measure.  I was getting a little annoyed at his persistent searching. 

But then he turned the bag over, opened the back pocket, and pulled out a 10-inch butcher knife!

Let me tell you, a giant unfamiliar-looking knife is not something you want to see come out of your laptop bag at the airport.  I think my heart stopped.  The guard looked at me like I was crazy and then showed the knife to the first guard and then to another guard and asked if I needed to be brought in for further questioning, and all the while I was blathering that I didn’t know where it came from or how it got in there, and absolutely yes, please go ahead and confiscate it.  The third guard assured me I didn’t need to be interrogated but of course they’d be taking the knife away from me, and to my infinite relief they let me go on my way.

It took me about a half hour of racking my brain after that to piece together a story about the knife.  It looked kind of like a knife from work in Arizona, and it’s possible I put that knife in my laptop bag to keep from stabbing someone on the way to cutting a birthday cake in the lab.  And then I totally forgot about it for many, many months up to and including the moment it got pulled out of my bag by the very worst possible discoverer.  I still don’t particularly recall having done this, but it sounds plausible and almost familiar.

I just want to point out that this means I’ve taken that knife with me on at least one other flight before this one, if not a few more.  I find it a little concerning that it hasn’t been found before now.  But if I could I’d give those guards today a raise.

20 May 2013

The End of Hibernation

I think I’m finally ready for a return to blogging.  A lot has been happening since I last posted – mostly, this stupid degree has been dragging on far longer than it needed to and I couldn’t in good conscience keep up with a blog while I was supposed to be writing a dissertation.  But by the end of May this nightmare will be over, and I will have time again to devote myself completely to my writing passion!

Well, for two months, anyway.  In August I’ll be distracted again by another major project in the form of a mini-person.  I don’t intend to let this devolve into a mommy-blog, a topic already done to death by much better writers than myself, but you can rest assured you’ll have to wade through a couple of anecdotes that I will find far funnier and cuter than you will.  Bear with this first-time mom and her oxytocin rush.  Nevertheless I intend to stick around this time, for good – and I imagine that blogging and writing will take center stage as a welcome diversion from the insanity of infant preoccupations.

I have ten days to go on this degree, and then it’s game on with the blogging!

06 October 2012

Things Short-haired People Don’t Understand

This should really be titled, “Husband – JUST READ THIS AND QUIT NAGGING ME.”  But I figured I’d write for a more general audience, so here you go – things you people who’ve never had long hair need to know about my lifestyle, because sometimes it just doesn’t seem to get through.

1.  I need more shampoo than you.

Your hair is like ONE INCH long.  At most.  In some places it’s shorter than your eyebrow hair.  You don’t shampoo your eyebrows, do you?  Why should you need to shampoo that part of your scalp at all?  But even so, for the sake of this discussion let’s assume your hair is one inch long, and mine is ten inches long.  I will need to use – you guessed it – TEN TIMES AS MUCH shampoo as you to get the same amount of coverage on my hair.  So don’t be telling me I’m using too much shampoo.  I’m using twice as much shampoo as you.  Three times at most.  So really, YOU are the one using too much shampoo. 

2.  I should not shampoo every day.

The thing about short hair is that it has not been on your head long.  ALL of your hair on your entire head has been there for less time than the bit of hair that’s two inches away from my head.  I did extensive, thorough research on this subject (thank you, Answers.com) and have determined that hair grows at a rate of about half an inch per month.  That means ALL YOUR HAIR has been around a maximum of, say, three or four months.  Mine?  These ends have been with me for two YEARS.  So while you can happily destroy your hair by shampooing away replenishing scalp oils every single day because you’re not even going to see that hair half a year from now, I NEED that oil to maintain this mane I hope will still be treating me right two years down the road.  I don’t want some kind of split-end mutiny on my hands.  Do you even know what split ends are?  Can you get a split end in three months?

This applies to hair dye too, by the way.  When I go to dye my hair, I’ve got to worry about how it’s going to affect my look two years down the road.  How old am I going to be?  What will I be doing with my life?  Will this affect any future job I could try to get?  Because some colors are easier to dye over than others.  I’m just lucky I can go back to brown whenever I have to – I salute all you brave blondes out there.

3. Your bad haircut is as nothing compared to my bad haircut.

Again, if you get a bad haircut, the absolute longest you have to worry about it is three months.  And I’m pretty sure in two weeks it’s going to settle in just fine and you can get it fixed, no problem.  You can move on with your life.  Two weeks isn’t even long enough to really notice the roots under my dye job.  When my hairstylist messes up, she chops off three extra INCHES, not millimeters – and we’ve already discussed that it can take months to recover from that kind of error. 

Now, you may be saying, “But you still have a lot of hair to keep cutting and get the shape right.”  NO.  If I wanted to take another three inches off my hair, I would have done it the FIRST time.  Now I have to wait another SIX MONTHS to get it even to the point where it SHOULD HAVE BEEN WHEN I WENT IN.  That’s HALF A FREAKING YEAR.  If I want to cut more off and reshape it, I basically have to resign myself to an entirely different hairstyle and look.  Maybe I don’t even have the right clothes or earrings to pull off that mop.  I could have to invest in a whole new wardrobe.  So don’t tell me your awful haircut is worse than mine.

4.  My hair takes a lot longer than yours to get pretty every day.

If I want to do my hair and make it look actually pretty, it takes me an hour.  I have to do it in layers, one row at a time, getting each section right before I move on to the next part.  This is a complicated work of art I’m sculpting, here.  I’ve watched you short-haired people “doing your hair.”  It takes like ten minutes.  It doesn’t even involve any kind of iron.  So if I say I need to get ready to go out somewhere, you can assume that I need to get my hair done, and that’s going to add an hour to whatever time you were estimating for yourself.  And that’s assuming you’re also doing your makeup like I am.  No?  No makeup?  Add another half hour.  Being beautiful takes WORK, bitch.

5.  A ponytail is a legitimate hairstyle.

I don’t want to take an hour out of every single day to get my hair looking gorgeous.  You’ll be lucky if you get that once a week.  Once a week for me is about equivalent to all the time you’ve racked up over the week doing your hair daily, anyway.  If I don’t do my hair up nice, though, it’s utterly hideous because I also have curly hair (and that is just a whole other rant for later).  It’s not only ugly, it gets in my way.  I can put up with it getting in my way if it’s pretty, but if it’s going to be hideous too then that is just unacceptable.  So if I shove my hair up in a ponytail all day long, DO NOT make fun of me and my childish-looking hairstyle.  It’s convenient and comfortable.  End of discussion.

I hope you’ve learned something.

24 July 2012

Is it a healthy sense of caution if you’re constantly envisioning your own death?

I’m on a plane over New Mexico right now (well, not right now right now, when I’m posting this or you’re reading this.  I mean maybe I am.  It’s just a highly unlikely coincidence.)

I’ve been saying to a lot of people lately that I’m not afraid of flying, and I see now that I was so, so very wrong about that.  I thought I was telling the truth.  But sitting on this plane right now, I don’t actually think I’ve gone a whole minute without being fully aware of a pervasive sense that I’m stuck in a poorly ventilated tin can death trap.

Let me give you (future me who’s reading this and trying to convince herself she’s really not afraid of flying) a few examples that I’ve come to realize do not connote a healthy level of fear:

1. As I sent that last-minute text to my husband before I had to turn the phone off on the tarmac, I wondered whether he would think to post my message to my friends on FB when I died so they could know the last sweet sentiment I said to anyone I loved.

2. I’ve repeatedly cycled through all my dozens of plane crash stories, trying to figure out which one best applies to my current flying environment and whether I’d die if any one of a wide variety of malfunction or human-error scenarios occurs.

3. When we lifted off I was looking out the window watching the city get smaller and smaller, and with every miniscule lag in acceleration (typical of even a successful takeoff), I was Zen-preparing myself to watch that ground start to tilt and get bigger again.

4. I was pretty convinced that the drawn-out grinding sound I heard on the ascent was an engine failing.

5. I practically ran back from the bathroom because there was a small jolt of turbulence and I needed to get back to the safety of my seatbelt before a panel ripped off the plane and I got sucked out the hole like that one lady did in that one Cracked article I read that one time.

6. When we landed on my first flight we turned into the airport at an angle, and all I could imagine was the plane barrel-rolling out of control and plummeting into the earth.

7. Whenever we went into a cloud I was ready for the moment another unseen plane collided headlong with ours, and I couldn’t decide just how likely I was to even know what hit me in the fractions of a second it’d take for me to get crushed or exploded to death. (I mean in a head-on collision, our plane and the other plane would each probably be going ~500 mph for an effective speed of ~1000 mph, or 450 m/s, and if our plane was in the neighborhood of 100m long, then at row 25 I’d be dead in about a tenth of a second and it’s arguable whether all of that sensory information could manifest a conscious acknowledgement in that time, although I have a sinking feeling I might get to enjoy a few milliseconds of perfect imminent-death awareness. P.S. that is why you learn algebra, my friends.)

I know that air travel is safe.   I know this.  I know that even if problems occur I’m likely to make it out just peachy.  But none of that matters when you’re dealing with a phobia.  Talking yourself out of a death phobia is pretty useless.

And I still fly.  Regularly, even.  At the beach I still swim out into water that’s probably deep enough to hold great white sharks and I inadvertently do my best injured seal impression trying to stay afloat.  I’m totally willing to drive on the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway even though I’m pretty sure the bridge is going to collapse and I’m going to survive both the impact and the threat of drowning only to be shredded alive by a pack of ravenous alligators.  I sometimes even lean against railings on high balconies, although that just seems foolhardy when I can get the same view just standing near the edge rather than risking death-by-shoddy-railing-craftsmanship.

It’s just I feel nauseous every single time I get on a plane.

02 July 2012

The difference between Necessary and Sufficient, or, Why your emoticons should not have noses

In this crazy new cyber-world we’re living in, the entire rich array of human emotional facial expressions is being reduced to nothing more than a select few humble punctuation marks grouped together to look like caveman scratchings turned on their side.  In social media conversations, these so-called “emoticons” (also called “smilies”, for those of you not hip enough to be up on your “cyber-lingo”) have assumed the vital role normally played by our naturally expressive faces, becoming the sole representation of our emotions toward the people with whom we interact.  This is distressing in and of itself, but it’s not the point of my discussion today.

Correctly typed, the most common standard emoticons consist of virtual “eyes” and a virtual “mouth”, made using punctuation marks.  The simplest of these is the basic colon-plus-end-parenthesis – :) – though many other variations exist:  ;)  :D  :(  :’(

But a deeply bothersome trend has managed to grow and fester deep in the bowels of the emoticon world: the dash-nose.  This hideous abomination has wormed its way into all the great emoticons, a defilement I’ve never abided graciously:  :-)  ;-)  :-D  :-(  :’-(

And today, I finally figured out why that nose bothers me so much.

Humans have a very limited range of physical features they like to monitor during social interactions.  When we see another human face, we attend most to the eyes and mouth because these are the expressive features that move and tell us how we’re supposed to respond to their owner.  But a nose?  No one cares what a nose does.  A nose stays pretty much the same no matter what we’re doing, and outside of augmenting a very select few emotional expressions (e.g. the scrunch of disgust, the flaring nostrils of fuming rage), our noses are practically pointless.

Which brings me to Necessary and Sufficient.  These terms are regularly used in the sciences to describe two unique aspects of how important a certain factor is in creating a given outcome.  A factor that is necessary must be present to produce an outcome, while a factor that’s sufficient is all that’s required to produce that outcome.  So if it’s necessary, you absolutely have to have it, and if it’s sufficient then it’s all you actually need.  (And it is possible for a thing to be both necessary and sufficient – or neither.)

These are both readily testable properties.  To determine if something is necessary for a certain outcome, you just remove it and see if you obliterate the outcome.  To determine if something is sufficient to produce an outcome, you remove everything else and leave only it, and see if the outcome remains the same. 

For example, removing a necessary facial feature will prevent you from recognizing an emotional expression (like a smile), while leaving only a sufficient facial feature present will still allow you to recognize that expression.

Let me demonstrate on myself.  Say hello to me:


I hope you were gracious enough to at least offer a greeting.  I mean look at that big ol’ toothy grin.  That is a smile.  How could you ignore that kind of smile?  And how can you tell it’s a smile?  Well, the corners of the mouth are turned way up, the eyes are happily scrunched, and the nose… yeah, it’s not doing much. 

Now, let’s look at what happens when I take the liberty of altering each of these three facial features (mouth, eyes, and nose) independently. 

Let’s start with Necessary.  Is any of these three features necessary for you to be able to tell that I’m grinning at you?

The truth is, no.  As long as you have any combination of the other two features (eyes and nose, mouth and nose, eyes and mouth), you can tell I’m meant to be smiling at you.  That said, the third smile with both eyes and a mouth present is definitely the most informative of the three faces, in that it looks the most like it’s smiling.  This suggests that the nose is the least necessary component of the smile.

So how about Sufficient?  Would any of these features alone be enough for you to tell I’m still smiling?

Well, how about that?  My mouth and eyes are each sufficient, but my nose does absolutely nothing toward helping you figure out if I’m smiling.  In fact, if that nose picture still looks like I might be smiling at you, it’s only because I didn’t go and doctor the dimple out of that freakishly sculpted right cheek so you’re still getting the impression of a mouth-smile.

So what does this tell you about your use of :-) and :-( and ;-) ? 

It says that the only thing the nose-dash is doing is making you take longer to generate your virtual expression, and making others take longer to observe and evaluate it.  The extra dash adds nothing at all of value.  In fact, if you were to do my same necessary/sufficient experiment with an emoticon, you’d find that BOTH the eyes and mouth are necessary to convey information, but the nose is neither necessary nor sufficient for anything – see how it’s the exact same dash for every emoticon you type? 

The emoticon nose is, in short, a waste of a character.  This could have a profound impact on the quality of your tweets, people.  Think about that the next time you write another, “LOL :-D !!!!1!1!”