As many of you already know, my father battled ALS for three plus years. What many of you don’t know is that his first symptom was the inability to completely close his index finger. The way it bends is usually into the shape of a square, but for some reason, it wasn’t happening. He didn’t say any more than that, but I wonder what went through his mind at that exact moment. I wonder if he panicked, or if he just thought it was some sort of muscle spasm or twitch, and continued on with his day.
Junior year at college was when I first noticed my anxiety; around the same time Dad started having symptoms. After living at home the entire summer and working in an auto parts warehouse, it was time to pick up my life and move back to Connecticut for the academic year. I never handled this transition well, but this year it was more pronounced than usual. I’d be sitting in the middle of class, and I’d feel my heart start to race and occasionally palpitate. I’d sweat, and start to shift uneasily in my seat. I had no idea what was happening to me, and I wondered if something was seriously wrong.
My panic attacks grew teeth that year. I remember times when my only response was to come back to my dorm room, shut the lights off, and springboard off my desk into my lofted bed. I didn’t know how to respond to the spike in anxiety, so I’d curl up into the fetal position and hug myself until it was over. The relief was overwhelming when my anxiety finally subsided, but I knew that there had to be another way to handle it. If I was ever going to successfully work a 9-5 job, I had to find a way to deal with my anxiety, aside from going home and just waiting it out.
I spoke to my roommate about what was happening, and as a fellow sufferer, he gave me one of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve ever received, “Just make sure you tell yourself that you’re not going to die. It’s just anxiety, it can’t kill you.” I’ve never forgotten his words, and in conjunction with some breathing techniques, I’ve averted panic attacks on numerous occasions. As soon as I start to experience the rising in the middle of my chest, that tightening feeling, I go to another room and try to breath it out. Usually that’s effective.
These techniques have proved helpful over the years, even as my anxiety finds new ways to manifest itself. This past Friday, I was driving to pick up some equipment from a family in Maine, and was really enjoying my morning. There was nothing but open road in front of me, good music coming from the stereo, when my pinky finger on my left hand got caught under my ring finger. I had trouble working it free, and that was all it took. That was all it took for me to spiral downward into anxiety, for me to assume that this was my first sign of what would eventually be an ALS diagnosis. I tried to talk myself down, to breath deeply, but I felt that familiar rising in my chest. I was having a panic attack, and it had been so long that I was caught completely off-guard.
At dinner a few nights later, my stepmother asked, “Why didn’t you call me when this happened?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “It just sounded really stupid to explain it.” Rather than talking about it with someone I trust, I let my anxiety run wild while I was home alone that Saturday afternoon. Once it became clear that the attack was only going to intensify, I took action. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply for several minutes, trying to slow things down. That night, I went out with a group of friends in hopes that a night out would distract me, and it actually worked. Rather than isolate myself, the company of friends helped me not to think about my hand and my anxiety.
I’ve made some big strides over the years, but I’m still a work in progress. I still experience crippling social anxiety from time to time. I get nervous when I don’t know where the bathroom is in a bar. I’m occasionally uneasy in crowded places. I’ve gotten better at coping, though, I’ve improved. I’ve also gotten really good at hiding these things from those around me, although I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. At the very least, I can hold it together when anxiety chooses to strike.
One last anecdote: in 2013, I was on my way to a diversity reception for accepted students. I was so nervous when I got there that I had to walk around the block for 10-15 minutes beforehand. I had to give myself a pep talk in order to be able to walk through the door. Once at the reception, I admitted my nervousness to the other students, and rather than ridicule or mock me, they each in turn admitted their own nervousness. I have come so far since this night, made significant progress, and knowing where I’ve been has made climbing out of the anxiety rabbit hole so much easier.