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Invader in My Brain
Living with anxiety
V.T.
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I often feel as if someone has forced their way into the home of my mind. I have no power over this invader, even though I am the original tenant. The invader ignores my pleas to stop the ruckus, and I can’t evict the son of a b-tch.

I’m only 19, and I have had anxiety attacks for nine years. My therapist diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) a few years ago. This means that I can’t help but worry about every little stupid thing. I tell myself that I’m worrying for no reason, but reasoning with the racing thoughts of anxiety is like arguing with a stubborn, babbling person.

Worrying is inevitable, and sometimes necessary. But for me, worries about small things take over. Normally, if I have homework or a project to finish, I want to get it done so I don’t fail the class. But if I’m overwhelmed by my anxiety while working, the racing thoughts prevent me from high-level thinking, so I can’t do the work.

To help my mind settle down, I used to draw. In elementary school, people told me that I was good at drawing and that I had a natural talent. But after a while, I couldn’t get my drawings to look the way I wanted them to look, and I decided I sucked as an artist. I thought about taking art lessons but I never followed through. Now, I usually watch TV to make my mind go blank. The TV calms me down, but I also get mad at myself for feeling the anxiety in the first place.

Socializing is also a challenge because I think everyone around me is judging me. One of the first times I experienced intense social anxiety was in the 5th grade, when I was 10. I liked a girl named Danielle, and I was staring at her in class because she looked nice. When she looked back at me, the panic set in. I felt like I had butterflies on steroids. My heart was racing, I was hot and cold, I was twitching, and I produced buckets of sweat.

Danielle gave me a weird look. My teacher also noticed, and after class she asked if everything was all right. I said yes, but I was lying. That’s when I started to avoid things that triggered these horrible symptoms. There are many triggers—a crowded bus, people I pass on the street, any confrontation—but girls I’m attracted to really turn my stomach into a knot. I feel that everyone is staring at me, and I feel an uncomfortable rush. I stayed away from fun things like going to the park, birthday parties, and dances to avoid anxiety.

But some triggers were unavoidable, like school and traveling, and I would still have anxiety attacks as often as 20 times a day. Each “pang” lasts between a few seconds and a few minutes. The anxiety played like background music whenever I was around others, and a tiny trigger could set the panic off. For years, my symptoms went untreated, even though I’d been seeing a therapist since I was 6. That’s how old I was when my little brother and I were removed from our parents.

Into Foster Care

My brother, who was 3, and I went into care after my 2-year-old sister developed pneumonia, and my parents did not take her to the hospital. Instead, they tried to treat her themselves. As a result, she died. Later that night, some people took us away and put us in foster care. They assigned me a therapist to help me cope with the separation.

At the time, I didn’t feel like I needed the therapist because I didn’t feel anything. I must have shut down emotionally; looking back, I can see how anxious the situation made me.

When my siblings and I first entered foster care, we saw our parents a few times a week. Sometimes those visits were great—eating lots of Mom’s Haitian food, getting pocket money from Dad. It felt like a reunion.

But other times, my mother would blame my brother and me for being in care. She would tell us to act up and make our foster parents’ lives a living hell so we could come home. I knew she was wrong: My social workers said it was up to my parents to do what they had to do to get us back. And if I made my foster parents’ lives a living hell, my brother and I would be moved into another foster home, not back with our parents.

And yet I still managed to feel guilty. Like I was betraying my mother and plotting against her because I didn’t act up. Like I was choosing my foster parents over my own blood. My anxiety would flare up whenever I thought about being in the middle of this tug of war. I didn’t want my parents or my foster parents to be disappointed in me so I never really chose a side. Nobody would have an excuse not to love me.

At first, I didn’t feel any sort of familial connection with my foster parents, but then we grew closer. When I was 13 they adopted me and my brother. I have grown to love and trust my adoptive parents, but my anxiety didn’t go away.

In junior high school, I kept to myself most of the time. Kids at school used to call me Turtle because I was so quiet. I got a new therapist when I was 12, and we started talking about my anxiety. I was diagnosed with depression my first year of high school. I started taking antidepressants that were also good for anxiety and things got better.

Sophomore year, I made a few close friends, Jeffrey and Artur, and they made me happy, even during the times I found it hard to crack a smile. I often just stay in the background with my friends, without saying a word. The anxiety that I’m being judged by my friends is part of the racing thoughts; I know it doesn’t make sense. Telling myself to just say something doesn’t work. It’s like a latch locks my voice in whenever I get anxious.

Joining my school’s track team in high school helped a lot. The running released the angry energy inside of me. At the time, I was attending weekly therapy and taking antidepressants. I was still scared to talk to other people, but I was more willing to face my fears.

Whenever I was in a good mood, I would think that I was all better, but I wasn’t. My therapists say that my problem will probably never go away and that it will only dwindle in size. My first response to that was “That’s not fair” and “Why me?” These thoughts later evolved into “How do I live with this?” and “How do I control it?”

The Wrong Outlet

Things were going fine until college, when track was no longer an option. I had to find another outlet, and I chose marijuana.

image by YC-Art Dept

The first time I smoked a joint, I was 16 and a junior in high school. I felt like I was in a video game. Time slowed down and everything seemed brighter and funnier. At first, I only smoked on the weekends. But I wanted to feel this way more often, and by the time I was in college, I smoked almost every day. The anxious side of me receded when I was under the influence.

At first, smoking made it fun to be around people, but when I fell into my depression, smoking made me paranoid and expanded my anxiety to levels I’d never imagined. I usually smoked alone, and one time, I could have sworn that I heard my older brother and father upstairs trying to decide whether they should kill me or not. It was one of the scariest moments of my life.

I know now that I was avoiding my emotional side, but it kept calling to me to acknowledge it. I felt intense loneliness when the weed wore off and there were times when I became really depressed. I smoked more (every few hours to keep the high going) to get rid of the feeling, but whenever I came down from the high, I would feel worse than before. The negative feelings began to seep into my highs. I’d stopped going to therapy because I felt so hopeless. The antidepressants stopped working: It turns out that marijuana interferes with the medication.

I longed to connect with people but couldn’t, and I began to consider ending it all. I never attempted suicide, but having this idea in my head made my world even darker. I stopped smoking when I became increasingly paranoid during my highs. I replaced smoking with an unhealthy amount of sleep. At this point, I realized I needed a change and I went back to therapy.

At my first appointment, I poured my heart out and told my therapist, Ms. Luda, how worthless I felt. She told me that I could take myself out of the rut I was in, and she was right. I’d gotten so used to being miserable, though, that I found it hard to change.

Hearing My Emotions

As Ms. Luda and I talked, I realized that, although I am intellectually smart, I lack emotional intelligence. Responding a certain way to other people can make or break relationships. The things I was doing to try to avoid anxiety (like not talking to friends or blowing off plans) tended to break the few ties I had. When I faced this, I became more analytical about my troubles. Quitting pot and starting exercising has helped.

Now, I talk to my therapist to access my emotional side to see what it needs. The answer is more companionship and friendships that are meaningful, so the challenge is to become more social. My main goal right now is to stop the anxiety around strangers and to be able to interact even when I’m feeling uncomfortable.

Ms. Luda taught me how to breathe deeply in anxious situations and she got me to talk about my problems. Whenever I went off topic to avoid answering a question, she said I was “deflecting” and she led me back to the topic I didn’t want to talk about. I hated her for that but it was beneficial to me.

Lately, I’ve been trying deep breathing and mindful thinking. In this technique, you close your eyes and rhythmically breathe while you observe your racing thoughts and then let them float away. It’s hard to do, but when you can, it helps you see that your anxious thoughts are just thoughts, not reality.

Part of what’s so hard about my anxiety is trying to explain it to other people. My adoptive mom feels terrible for me but can’t understand what it’s like. She says well-meaning things like, “Why don’t you just calm down?” and “Why is this happening to you? You don’t deserve it. You’re a good boy.” I hate when she calls me a “good boy.” I don’t feel like a good person. I can hear something good about myself, but I tend to brush it off.

I may never be a cheerful person with high self-esteem, but I can make my life better by abstaining from marijuana, staying healthy, taking my meds, and keeping therapy appointments even when I don’t want to. I’m also acknowledging that I need other people. I used to tell myself that I was a lone wolf who doesn’t need anyone else, but that’s a big lie. Making new friends is something I have to work on by breaking through my protective shell.

Fear of feeling overwhelmed by something too difficult has made me avoid certain classes and challenges. Gradually exposing myself to things that frighten me is a good idea but it’s hard to get a jump start on this kind of exposure. I have to push myself to change because if I don’t act, nothing changes and I want change.

School is a great place to start. Next semester, I can talk to the people sitting next to me. I can mention the clubs at school, classes, or I can ask someone an open-ended question about their lives. This way they talk and all I have to do is listen. I can make an effort to talk to those who have something in common with me. And when I feel more comfortable around them, we can hang out outside of school. That’s my plan, anyway.

Starting a simple conversation and speaking more often can hopefully lead to me forming more relationships. I realize that, scary as that is, it’s what I need the most.


Marijuana and Depression

Smoking weed sometimes seems to lift your depression, but it frequently ends up making the depression worse or making you paranoid. What is going on?

It has to do with serotonin, a chemical in the brain also known as a neurotransmitter that regulates brain functions such as mood, appetite, sleep, and memory. Problems with serotonin have been linked to bipolar disorder and depression; SSRI antidepressants like Prozac, Paxil, Celexa, and Zoloft help your brain produce serotonin.

So does marijuana, also called cannabis, but only in small amounts and if used infrequently. Using marijuana a lot actually lowers your serotonin levels, making you more depressed. A researcher in a 2007 study from McGill University said, “At low doses cannabis increases serotonin, but at higher doses the effect is devastating, completely reversed.” The study also found that “Excessive cannabis use in people with depression poses high risk of psychosis.”

So if you’re self-medicating your depression by smoking pot, you’re probably making it worse. Lowered serotonin levels make it even harder to feel optimistic or in control.

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