“The only way out is through.” ~ Robert Frost
A note from Alex: The following is a personal account of my struggle with an anxiety disorder. I’m sharing this so others don’t feel helpless, alone or embarrassed. It’s a real and devastating condition, but there are steps you can to take to overcome it. Here are my steps.
The QuickTrip gas station looked abandoned. With more than 20 pods of black and red of gas pumps, it was surprising that I was the only one there. Dodging potholes filled with a mixture of ice and water, I selected a pod closest to the convenience store’s front door.
When I stepped outside of the car, the cold Atlanta morning made me shudder. I already missed Mary Beth.
Moments earlier I kissed my wife goodbye as she slept in her sister’s house. We stopped in Atlanta the evening before after spending the week in Florida. She would return home soon. I was heading there now.
After pulling the credit card receipt from the gas pump, I walked into the store for a cup of coffee and something to eat. I asked the cashier to put the banana and doughnut in a bag. There was little chance I would eat the food, but I wanted to have it with me in case I changed my mind.
Avoiding the same potholes on more time, I hurried back to my car. I studied the Garmin to make certain I understood how to navigate to the I-275 Atlanta Bypass.
The 12-hour drive waited next.
The day’s first attack
I pulled out of the QuickTrip and spotted the I-275N ramp. The amount of traffic at 5 a.m. took me by surprise. I thought there would be a clearer path to I-75N before the truckers and commuters got started.
Nervousness was my only passenger as I drove on the dark, unfamiliar highway. What I wanted most was peace, but what I got was worry.
The day’s first attack was underway.
My mouth became dry and I felt perspiration drip down my arms. My body was on high alert against the perceived danger. It seemed like the trucks and cars were fighting against me – rushing around me, cutting me off, and making it impossible to feel comfortable.
It was as if they realized I was weak and they weren’t going to do anything to help me. I felt so alone; so vulnerable.
Sunrise brought a little relief on the other side of Chattanooga. It was good to be out of the congested traffic. Spotting the plastic bag next to me, I was tempted to reach inside and take a bit of the doughnut, but I didn’t want to spoil the peace that was beginning to settle in me. I chose to eat at a McDonald’s instead.
The second attack
The sun’s warmth continued to encourage me as I made my way to Kentucky. A few miles outside of Clarksville, the car’s low-fuel warning light alerted me and I felt my chest grow heavy again. I had finally found a stretch of highway that wasn’t clogged with truckers, but I had to stop.
Standing outside my car as gas filled the tank; the cold air seemed sharper than it did in Atlanta. Alone and still so far to go, it felt like I would never make it back home. The second attack was underway.
I walked inside the gas station to use the restroom and get a bottle of water. For a moment I considered calling Mary Beth to ask her to meet me. I knew my plan was irrational, but it felt safe there.
Gradually, my rational mind returned. It told me I had made the trip several times before; it told me I would be home in less than nine hours if I could find the strength to keep going. My rational mind promised me everything would be okay if I surrendered the anxiety.
A few miles later, it was right. The sting of the second attack became easier to bear.
I pressed Scan and the radio’s tuner landed on an interview with singer and song writer Josh Wilson. The interview focused on his new song, Carry Me.
Josh explained the inspiration behind the song was his struggle with anxiety and the panic attacks he suffers. It felt like he was talking about me and to me.
The first attack happened a few months after my brother died. Eric’s death was so sudden and unexpected that it triggered an avalanche of anxiety so powerful that I haven’t been the same since.
The panic attack occurred when I was sitting in a New York City hotel room watching the news. The local anchor was reporting on a suspected terrorist plot in Times Square – the location of my hotel. In that moment, I felt so alone, afraid and vulnerable. Home, and the safety it offered, seemed so far away.
Two months later I was pulling a trailer filled with furniture to our Florida beach home. During the trip I stopped for a snack. Swallowing the first bite, it felt like the food was stuck in my throat. I thought I was choking and there was no one there to save me. In that moment, I felt so alone, afraid and vulnerable. Home seemed so far away.
When the interview with Josh Wilson was over, the DJ played Carry Me. I turned up the volume and asked for the words to help carry me, too.
Here’s what I heard (Reading by email? Click through to the site to listen.)
Sometimes the simple path to coping with anxiety begins by acknowledging its power and then asking others to help carry you from your sinking sand and to their solid ground.
The First Step
The sight of The Mississippi River told me I was getting closer to home. I’ve traveled I-70 West from St. Louis to Kansas City many times so its familiarity helped me feel more relaxed; more like myself.
I was also feeling tired from the long drive. Eating something would boost my energy and help take me the rest of the way safely. I spotted the bag of food and considered the two options. I opted for the banana because its soft texture felt safer to eat.
Before reaching home, I made the decision to tell Mary Beth. She needed to know what I was struggling with so she would no longer be confused by my actions.
I knew the first step to finding relief was asking for help, and I was ready to ask. I would tell my wife that I missed feeling safe, regardless if I was at home or not.
Anxiety had arrived like a thief in the night robbing me of my bright spirit and positive nature. It was stealing my happiness and creating a world of worry that was so cold and dark that I thought I would never find my way out.
More than anything, my anxiety left me feeling abandoned and responsible for Eric once again.
When I arrived home I got the sense that a longer, more difficult journey was waiting; but I felt a twinge of confidence in me that I hadn’t felt in a long time because I knew I had already taken the first step.
What is A Simple Path?
This post is in A Simple Path, a twice-weekly series of short pieces inspired by my own life experiences. Each post is a simple path to experiencing something wonderful: maybe seeing life from a different perspective, or celebrating its beauty. Click here to read all posts in the series.