Falling Off Its Axis. A Trip through Anxiety

Anxiety makes me scream inside my head. I have created an anxiety end zone in my home.

There are gem stones, journals, homemade signs with positive affirmations, books about healing and combatting anxiety, meditation books, yoga cards, buddha heads, and meditation beads.

Anxiety doesn’t make sense. Its antics are illusive and odd, the sort of stuff out of a time warp or a B movie. I was once on a bus in downtown Chicago coming back from a therapy session. I started to feel like the earth would lose its axis and the bus would roll over and keep rolling. It sent me into a panic attack where I almost couldn’t breathe. I tried a mindfulness exercise my therapist always talked about. The one where you breathe in and out slowly and ground yourself in the moment. At my stop, I walked off that bus calm.

What causes anxiety may as well be the solution to stopping it. The existential dread we all fear can be quelled by grounding ourselves back to existence. Author and activist Melody Moezzi quotes Rumi in her book the Rumi Prescription on anxiety and its cure, “Forget your plans and embrace uncertainty. Only then will you find stability.” Thus, if we live moment to moment in order to embrace uncertainty, we will be graced by stability. This pandemic has brought about plenty of uncertainty. Uncertain futures for the economy, for our jobs, for who gets the virus, death. Death, perhaps, is what we are all panicking toward. Once we accept death as a fact of life and stop evading it, some of the anxiety disappears. Then, there is GAD or generalized anxiety disorder. Or as I call it…anxiety over life.

When I got into the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, I believed all the other students were judging me. I didn’t know how to talk to them—social anxiety at its finest. I drank through social gatherings. And then, I panicked. I was a fraud, an imposter, I could never be a real journalist. On my way to a law and journalism class, I ducked into a busy office and started panicking in front of strangers. Manically, I told them my life story—stuff that you’d be embarrassed to tell strangers. Wildly, I called old contacts on my cell phone begging them for legitimacy. Word got out to the dean of school and I was called in. They asked me to leave. I never looked back. Gradually, I built up the confidence to work as a freelance journalist. And, I did it without their fancy education. I have a passion for mental health stemming from my lived experience so I built it into this blog.

In my twenties, I lived in an apartment called the Artist in Residence in Chicago’s north side. A friend once referred to my neighborhood as the “Land of the Walking Wounded.” Old people pushing carts on wheels, panhandlers, drug dealers, insolent teenagers inhabited its streets. My apartment was on the second floor. I developed the irrational-rational fear of getting shot through my window or walking down the street to the train. I’d constantly look behind me as if checking for a bullet sailing past. Anxiety pretends. Anxiety gives us situations to be anxious about. And sometimes, these situations just make us shiver. Anxiety is a chill down the spine, or better yet, chills surrounding the whole body. Its electric energy pushing itself to our surfaces. Some use it to push further; but some are destroyed by it. We let it destroy us by not using it or letting it go.

Sarah Wilson writes in her book First, We Make the Beast Beautiful about anxiety spirals. The concept of spiraling which is a building up of anxiety over a period of time, is something we all experience in our lives. The loss of a job, a break-up, parenting, the uncertainty of this pandemic are all things that build up over time. Anxiety is the million little ghosts we try to slaughter all at once.

Young teens feel the drama of making friends and fitting in with the cool crowd. Adults at a cocktail party or networking event shudder at trying to make that lasting connection for work, friendship or love. The rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous are full of people who feel “terminally unique” that their situation and feelings are only experienced by them alone. Mental health advocates banter a cliché around “You are not alone.” It’s sort of the counter to feelings of terminal uniqueness we all feel.

Chelsea Ursin writes in her podcast Dear Young Rocker about feeling steam inside as a young teen. She finds rock music to blow off her insides.  Her social anxiety increases through the years following her to her twenties. She uses hiking alone as a way to catch her thoughts. And, we all have ways of dealing. Some have drinks with friends, some pour the wine alone. Some meditate, some journal, some exercise, some use apps, some get addicted to technology.

One way of coping is a practice called mindfulness. Rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy and eastern philosophy and practices, mindfulness shows us how to tend to our thoughts and let them go. Thoughts are like waves of emotion rolling down our bodies and back out where they came. We are not our thoughts. Our thoughts do not have to control our actions.

Having both bipolar disorder and an anxiety disorder myself, I understand the challenge of controlling my moods and energies while trying to manage anxiety. Depression is no stranger to anxiety. They’re cousins. While I take medication for my bipolar, I maintain my most anxious moments without drugs. My worst manic episodes like the one at Medill are peppered with severe anxiety and self-doubt.

Do you have anxiety? What was your worst anxious moment you lived to tell about? Tell me your stories in the comments or send me your stories via the contact form.

Find Your Shine

sun

When I was in the 7th grade, I was told I would never go to college, be anybody in the world by a school counselor.

I went to a high school where I was told I was a nothing and I blended into the school’s walls.

But what happened was I worked my butt off because I wanted to be a somebody.

I graduated with honors and was accepted into a small college in Boston.

But my drive continued even though I had proved them wrong.

It landed me in the hospital in my first manic episode.

I came back to college and didn’t know if I would ever find my shine. After all, I was now labeled, damaged, broken.

After several attempts to be a normal college student, a campus journalist, an actress, a political junkie, an activist, I dropped out.

I was a failure like my 7th grade counselor had said. I would never find my shine.

Through therapy, I eventually gained my voice back and entered a new school.

Upon graduation day, amidst the accolades and the magna cum laude, the morterboards and the circumstance, I realized that all that I had become was the result of what I had been through. Graduation was a sweet reward but I had not graduated life yet.

Life would throw curve balls too. And I would have to learn how to swerve to catch them, to make meaning and purpose of each one.

I became a mental health advocate and a writer/blogger on mental health. I used my experience and my passion to find my purpose. And I’m shining.

I would say that if you feel lost and labeled, if you are knocked down by the naysayers, get back up, spin around, dance, laugh, and try to find one good thing about your world. I have found one thing leads to another and another. Eventually, after enough trial and error, you will find your voice, your passion, your mission.

This will become your shine.

 

SIP Sessions: Innovative Way to Start the Conversation and Meet New People

“I’d love to see SIP sessions build a population that can do something about the state of Connecticut,” said Brent Robertson of Fathom. “I’d love to see Connecticut take responsibility for its own future. I think we spend a lot of time finger pointing about why things turned out the way they did or are as they are. I think we should figure out how to create the future we want as a state.”

This is why Fathom created the SIP sessions to elevate humanity through conversations that would eventually lead to creating change in communities. SIPs are not TED talks. They aren’t marketing platforms. They simply are people playing with ideas who want to engage others in a free and open to the public forum. 

“I like the quote ‘If you want to see change happen, find your allies and conspire with them,’” Robertson said. “SIP sessions are a magnet for allies. There’s something really powerful that happens when you realize you are not alone, not the only one with these thoughts. There is no better drug to either make or break a new habit than community.”

SIP sessions are an ongoing dialogue which have met in Hartford area cathedrals, other venues and businesses and most of the time at Spaces in Blue Back Square in West Hartford Connecticut. 

SIPer’s are a band of misfits, dreamers who see things could be better and are committed to doing something about it but may not know how to do it. They may not even know their are others out there with the same ambition. “They are people searching for something deeper and have made a commitment to live with more purpose and meaning,” said Robertson. “SIP is for people unsatisfied by the status quo.”

“We get all kinds of waks of life and we are trying to broaden it in 2020,” Robertson said. 

Started two years ago, the sessions have grown to holding one a month with 15 on tap for 2020. Fully funded by Fathom, SIPs keep expenses low by having attendees bring their own food and drinks to share. Whether seltzer or wine in hand, the conversation is sure to engage and motivate. 

The conversation leaders come from local business owners and thought leaders. One leader brought index cards of a book he was working on and handed them out to the attendees and had them ask him questions while he riffed. Another SIP session was on setting boundaries. Another was on letting go. 

Robertson wants to hold SIP sessions in places where they are less available such as the Hartford Public Schools. 

Connections, friednships and actions have been taken as a result of people meeting at these sessions.

During the pandemic, the SIP Sessions have moved online through Zoom. More information is on their web site.

To find out more about SIP Sessions and get a schedule of latest events, go to www.fathom.net. 

Mental Illness in Music: From Haunting Ballads to Anthems of Recovery

Halsey has bipolar. So does Mary Lambert—she even says so in her song “Secrets.” Musicians have embedded the theme of mental illness into their music for decades. Remember the anthem of every depressed teen? The Rolling Stones “Paint it Black” carved its way into the adolescent language and landscape. The Stones also wrote “19th Nervous Breakdown” also about mental illness. There’s the dark, shadowy hymns of Evanescence with their song “lithium”. Lithium finds its way into the work of a lot of bands and artists. Nirvana immortalized the drug with “lithium.” There are Blaine Larsen’s “How do you get that lonely?” a song about teen suicide and “Starry, Starry Night” by Don Mclean a song about the artist Van Gogh’s manic- depressive illness. There are songs about self-injury. The classics include the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” and “Scar Tissue.” There is the famous Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”—a Johnny Cash rendition. There are 90s ballads about relationships and mental illness/suicide such as “Jumper” by third eye blind, “She don’t want the world,” by 3 doors down, and “It’s been awhile” by Staind and “Freshman” by the verve pipe. “Kryptonite” by 3 doors down and “Bitch” by Merideth Brooks are about people in relationships who have mental illness or witness it in the other. There’s the haunting “Iris” by the goo goo dolls about suicide ideation. Matchbox 20 normalized the subject with “Unwell,” “Push,” and “Real World.”

Ballads like these have been written and sung through the ages. Billie Holiday sang a haunting ballad “Gloomy Sunday” –which legend says drives those who listen to it to suicide. Don’t forget this song was written during the Great Depression. 

Studies show that teens who listen to music for approximately 2 to 3 hours a day, especially when feeling distressed have a greater chance of suicidal ideation and suicide. The link between music and depression in young people has led to music being blamed for the suicide of youths. 

Then, there are the positive anthems promoting health and recovery. “Broken and Beautiful” by Kelly Clarkson, “Rise Up” by Andra Day and “Brave” by Sara Bareilles to name a few. There are songs about college students—the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes.” There is also a rendition of it by Limp Bizcuit. And, there are songs about losing sobriety and gaining recovery in “Sober” by Demi Lovato. 

Gabe Howard ; Author, Speaker, Podcaster, Mental Health Warrior

 

Gabe Howard is an award-winning podcast host, speaker and writer who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. He hosts the Psych Central Show and Not Crazy. He is the author of Mental Illness  is an Asshole, a collection of his observations and blog posts on living well with a mental illness, mental health advocacy, and debunking stigma. I sat down with him over Zoom to talk about men’s mental health, bipolar and relationships and creating a career that works with your mental illness. The following is my first podcast. Enjoy the listen. You can find Gabe Howard at www.gabehoward.com. Buy his book, listen to his podcasts and learn from someone devoted to the science of mental health and the truth.