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My Own Private High Anxiety

October 10, 2018
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The author in high school, 1983

“It must be hell inside this guy’s head.” That’s what one of the commenters wrote in response to my recent post Five Reasons ‘A Star is Born’ Sucks. And you know what? She’s right. Not about A Star is Born — it does suck (in my opinion, with which you’re free to disagree). But it is sometimes hell inside my head, and on this, World Mental Health Day… I know, there’s a day for everything these days, but this one seems worthwhile… I think it’s time to give you a peek inside my infernal noggin.

I’ve dealt with mental-health issues my entire life: anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, however you want to diagnose it. When I was in Kindergarten, I cried so much because I missed my mom and I had such a mad crush on my teacher (who now lives next door to my father, but that’s another story) that they sent me to see the school psychologist. I didn’t know he was a psychologist. To me, he was just Mr. Sargent.

He was my own personal Mister Rogers. Mr. Sargent had a puppet — a dolphin named Duso — and I was encouraged to share my feelings with this felt Flipper. I did, and I stopped crying. Thank you, Mr. Sargent, and Duso, wherever you are.

(I just now learned that Duso was part of a program called Developing an Understanding of Self and Others that later riled conservative parents in Lake County, Florida, among other places. The magic of Google! )

Through school, I used my anxiety to fuel my overachievement. I always got good grades, but I often felt bad about myself. I looked to others  — especially girlfriends — to make me feel better about myself. When those relationships inevitably ended, I’d be crushed and go into deep depressions. After one particularly painful breakup,  I felt suicidal and spent a month in a mental hospital over Winter break in Charlottesville.

The staff didn’t know what to do with me. The rest of the patients were locals (all the students were home for the holidays), and my problems were different from theirs. I’d try to talk to my fellow residents, but the conversations went like this.

RED SHIFFLETTE (note: this is a pseudonym for another patient) Why are you in here?

ME: I have problems with women.

RED: Oh. You mean, you hit ’em?

ME: No, I just don’t understand them.

Red walks away.

I didn’t talk much in group therapy, and there wasn’t much time for individual therapy, so it was judged that I was not progressing. The doctors diagnosed me with manic depression (even though I’d never felt manic), put me on Lithium and sent me home.

The drug zoned me out. I took a semester off, moved back in with my parents and worked in a record store, shuffling up and down the aisles like an extra from Night of the Living Dead.

I started seeing a psychiatrist for weekly talk therapy and medication monitoring, and he concluded I had been misdiagnosed and tapered me off the Lithium. That made me feel more like myself again — my depressed, anxious self — and as a talk therapist, he left something to be desired. One of our sessions went like this:

DR. BALLOON (again, a pseudonym) So, what seems to be the problem?

ME: I don’t understand women.

DR. BALLOON: Yeah, they’ve got it easy. The pressure is all on us men. Women just have to lie back and enjoy it.

I walk away.

I went back to school and finished, then moved to New York City and had to face my greatest fear: being alone. I’d always lived with someone — my parents, my roommates, my girlfriends — and I never felt safe without somebody else in the house. I traced this fear back to my childhood epilepsy.

I’d had seizures in the middle of the night starting in elementary school. I only had a few before my parents took me to a neurologist who put me on Dilantin, which controlled them. But I was always terrified another one was going to strike, and what would I do if I were all alone with no one to soothe me?

As epileptic seizures go, mine were pretty mild: petit mal, as they were called. I was never in danger of choking on my tongue, but the sensation of waking up from a dead sleep and realizing my brain was not communicating with the rest of my body is the most frightening experience I’ve ever endured. “MOVE!” my brain would tell my arm. It wouldn’t move. “KICK!” my brain would tell my leg. It wouldn’t kick. I felt a sensation like the pins and needles you get when a limb falls asleep, but over my entire body. It lasted for a few minutes, which felt like a few hours, and then subsided.

I felt a deep sense of shame about the seizures. I didn’t want anyone to know I had them. My parents worried about me having a seizure when they weren’t there to comfort me through it, so I wasn’t allowed to sleep over at friends’ houses or go away to camp. When I was in high school, a bully who sat behind me in Spanish class peeked at my medical records in the school nurse’s office and threatened to expose me as an epileptic. I spent the rest of the year with a feeling of dread in my stomach.

My response to this fear of sleeping alone was to jump into relationships with women, whether they were right for me or not, just so that I’d have someone there to take care of me in case I needed it. Even after I outgrew my childhood epilepsy and my EEGs came back clear, the phobia was deep-seated. So I got married too young, and to the wrong person. And that only led to more anxiety and depression.

These days, I’m doing pretty well. I underwent years of intensive psychotherapy with one of the best doctors in Manhattan, and I’m on meds that seems to be working. I’ve been happily divorced for more than a dozen years, I’ve got a couple of great kids, and I love my work. I get paid to watch movies and TV shows and write about them and interview the people who make them. What’s not to love?

But I still struggle with moodswings, although there have been many more highs than lows lately. At least the highs feel good when I’m having them, and my mania manifests itself in relatively harmless ways: I buy way too may Pez dispensers, say. I still have my lows, too, but they’re not as low as they used to be.

And every now and then when I feel out of control, I ask myself: What would Duso do?

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One Comment
  1. Thank you for sharing this, Bruce.

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