October 23, 2013

The Panic Machine. ~ Melissa Petty

Anxiety hasn’t always been a part of my life.

As I have gotten older, experienced more, felt deeper it seems as though it is now my constant companion. Even in good times, I feel an underlying sense of fleeting. Always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Always waiting for the rug to be pulled out from underneath me.

I woke up one morning under a dark grey cloud; I let out a heavy sigh, in some sort of an attempt to expel the rotten mood. My boyfriend, limbs still tangled in mine, barely awake asked, “Baby, what’s wrong?” I shook my head. He pulled me closer.

He is new to this and me. He doesn’t understand why it is difficult for me to verbalize the thunderstorm occurring in my head. He doesn’t understand why I don’t want to share the weight of it. “You need to stop worrying,” is his solution.

Believe me baby, I know I do.

I’ve been good at compartmentalizing minor bouts with anxiety. I acknowledge it, give it a smile and send it packing. But standing on the precipice of what feels like a million changes simultaneously, it is hard to make time to adequately address the nagging sensations.

And so, it fires up. The tiny engine in my brain: the one that produces all that worry and stress. This engine runs around the clock, chugging and churning, whirring and billowing smoke. It creates the “worst case” scenarios that stick with me regardless of what is occurring the rest of my life.

I diagnose myself with all kinds of incurable maladies. I fear losing the people I care most about. I worry about being able to pay bills.

It consumes my waking hours.

I become a fretful ball of nervous energy. I have persistent low-humming nausea. I am irritable. I am withdrawn.

On a recent trip to New York I stayed with a college friend of mine. This girl has known me since I was 18 (and a whole lot of trouble). It was so comforting to be in her presence, sitting across a table from her, hearing her perspective.

This amazing, lighthearted, positive, sweet, happy-go-lucky girl is a substance abuse counselor in New York City. Despite how frustrating, difficult and heartbreaking this job might be, it hasn’t affected her outlook on life.

“Sometimes when I’m laying in bed at night I start to feel stress about the next day,” she said, “But then I just say ‘no’ and it goes away.”

Her point being that you can’t worry yourself with things that have yet to come to pass. Whatever is going to happen tomorrow is going to happen, and there is no use making your present miserable for fear of the future.

She observed that I had never been this anxious in college, after I had spilled my guts to her the vast array of illnesses I was certain I had. She was right; I wasn’t.

In those moments, crying over nothing in the middle of Prospect Park I felt lighter.

I can almost directly link the first rumblings of the Panic Machine to the loss of my mother. Suddenly there was danger everywhere, unspeakable things could happen at any time. For almost a year, the machine was in constant production and so, fear was all encompassing.

Once I had gained control and stability in my life, the cogs began to slow, the smoke settled. Minor uncertainties were easier to manage. Take a deep breath, count to ten, primal scream therapy, the usual techniques.

However, at this particular time I was attending my father’s wedding, dealing with the resurgence of the loss of my mother, feeling deeply the estrangement of my father and preparing myself to lose $700 a month as I changed professions.

The machine was unstoppable this time.

I stood beside it as it puffed out big clouds of worry and doubt. I redirected my stress to imaginary scenarios, because the time and emotion I invested in them bore no consequence. I used my overblown anxiety to distract myself.

I convinced myself that I had to worry about unrealistic dangers in order to avoid my very substantial issues.

But instead of diverting my attention, I compounded my own problems. Increasing the tension to the point that I felt stifled and choked; I was suffocating inside of my own head.

In those minutes I spent sitting in the grass crying, unloading my problems on a friend I see scarcely once a year I could feel the machine slowing, like a train coming into the station—and that’s when I realized it.

The stresses that I caused upon myself weren’t there for distraction; they were steps along the way.

The machine had a purpose—an end goal.

These worries are a call to action; they arose to remind me to make space for myself. They caused me to reflect.

I needed to imagine and feel the worst of it, so that I could see my situation with more clarity, like, that first moment after fog clears when everything feels new and fresh.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise

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