Of Bright Lights and Empty Spaces: Thoughts of the Perpetually Anxious

I change subjects approximately 8 times in 1 minute. I know this because some friends from work used to keep track of my topic shifts.

A typical monologue from me would sound somewhat like this:

“So my cat Moxie escaped from the living room last night and we were so freaked out OMIGOD. I mean, Paolo and I had to run around screaming his name and I was in my pajamas. You know I bought pajamas from Landmark and they’re quite comfy. They’re silk. How can you tell if they’re real silk? We went to this silk factory in Cambodia and it seemed interesting only it wasn’t. Are you still going to Cambodia? Yes? OMG we had fantastic noodles by the roadside while waiting for my friend who rode an elephant up a hill. Have you SEEN the video about how elephants are abused? So sad no. Wait, we have to order food.

If you think that’s hyperbole, it only goes to show that you (thankfully) do not know me that well or at all.

***

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“You were always such a persistent chatterbox,” my Mom told me. She was mending one of my school uniforms where I had accidentally torn it. She expertly and effortless jabbed thread into the eye of a needle (sans threader! I was always envious of this skill). Sew, sew, sew.

I sat there chewing my lip. I had come home from school with a note from my teacher, saying that I had been disrespectful in class. Miss Loida was our Filpino grammar teacher, and I had been pestering her about a group declamation contest. The rest of the Grade 5 batch already knew about the contest, but I had only found out about it through the grapevine. I wanted our class to win. Right before our last period ended, I approached the teacher’s desk.

“Miss Loida, kailan po yung contest?” (Miss Loida, when is the contest?)

She sat there checking papers, completely ignoring me. I assumed she didn’t hear me. I stepped closer and peered into her face.

“Um, ‘Cher? Kailan po ung contest? (Teacher, when is the contest?)

Miss Loida momentarily glanced at me from the top of her bifocals. She ignored me again.

This time, I knew she was just really choosing to ignore me. But at 11, I had the determination of a baby deer trying to learn how to walk.

“Miss Loida…”

With one swift movement, my teacher rapped the board with a stick. The entire class was stunned.

“Sasabihin ko mamaya. Maari ka nang maupo.” (I will tell you later. You may sit down now.) It was phrased like a request, but sounded more like a drill sergeant’s order. I ran to my seat and lowered my gaze.

She sent me home with a note about my behavior to my parents.

“You need to learn when you should stop talking.” My mom shook her head. “Learn how to stop thinking and talking too much, too. Listen.”

I never listened.

***

megaphone

My constant need to fill entire spaces with my words intensifies when I’m in emotional turmoil. A lot of people share this predicament, however my emotional scale runs incredibly wide. I can be set off by mere changes in my favorite restaurant’s menu (“No more chicken fingers? What do you mean you stopped serving them? You’re NEVER going to serve them again?!”) and/or possible but highly improbable threats of natural calamity. (“Have you SEEN that article on TSUNAMIS?!”)

Reactions to my seemingly unstoppable tirades run the gamut from complete disregard (at one my point my roommate pretended to sleep while I was talking) to outright avoidance. I don’t blame them because I get exhausted listening to my own thoughts.

Oh my god, have you seen what he posted? Wake up, Dianne! Wake up! Look at this. Oh my Lord, John Lloyd is a fox isn’t he. Teka teka teka, what about drinks tomorrow? Oh, you need to do overtime? Wait, have you read this book? It’s so good. She thought she was going to die so she wrote a book of life lessons. She didn’t die, and the book lives on. Maybe I should do that. Will I make a great writer? You think? WAKE UP, DIANNE! I WILL READ YOU AN EXCERPT FROM HER BOOK.

It doesn’t help that I have the voice of an extremely high strung Smurf. Thank God that I’m not blue.

***

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Then a little over 2 years ago, I could not control my thoughts.

It was an unexpected development, to say the least. I was at a bazaar in the middle of a busy mall on an ordinary Saturday. Talking to myself was an entirely normal activity, so I did just that while walking. I said hello to a few friends in one of the booths, then went on my merry way. I weaved in and out of the little hallways.

Out of nowhere, my heart started pounding in my chest. I became lightheaded and nauseous. Suddenly I was in the throes of my very first panic attack.

Within minutes, my brain started screaming at me.All the sounds from the bazaar started flooding my mind and I felt like I was going to explode. I could not understand what was happening, but I knew that if I didn’t leave something bad was going to happen.

Am I going to die? Why is this crowd suffocating me? Why am I here? What am i doing here. Make it stop, please make it stop. I am going to scream. I’m going to scream now. Now. NOW. Please make it stop. Am I going to die? Am I going to fade away? What is happening? There is an elephant on my chest. I need to leave. Now. Leave this bazaar now. Why am I so alone? Am I going to die alone? AM I GOING TO DIE NOW? PLEASE DON’T LET ME DIE NOW.

I want to say that the above is hyperbole. But it isn’t.

My then fiance drove me to the hospital. I screamed uncontrollably, eventually settling on praying the Our Father out loud in the car.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name OH MY GOD PLEASE DON’T LET ME DIE. Is this an aneurysm? Lord, please. Mama Mary please. Help me. I can’t breathe. Please just let me get to the hospital. Lord, please don’t let me die. My brain is going to explode, please don’t let me die.

I cried while praying. I was terrified.

The emergency room nurse told me that my heart was beating thrice the normal rate. I was asked to lay-off the caffeine for a week.

I gave up my 4-cup habit and felt reassured that it was just the caffeine. It wasn’t going to happen again, so long as I quit coffee.

I had everything under control.

***

But it did happen again.

Over the course of that year, I had 6 individual attacks at different places in the city. I broke down in the middle of another mall, seemingly incapacitated by the the crowd. I chalked it up to trauma. Or maybe I had too much caffeine again? I shrugged it off, uncomfortable with the thought that it would be anything to worry about.

But on random nights I’d wake up in cold sweat, feeling my brain screaming at me. Each time it happened, I felt paralyzed by fear that I was losing my mind. I was scared of everything: the future, my life, accomplishment or lack thereof, and for whatever reason I also thought of dying. What was I doing wrong?

Why am I scared. I’m so scared. What if my life is going nowhere? What if I’m dying? What if  this is all there is? What if all my friends hate me? Do all my friends hate me? I’m so alone. I’m so alone. Why am I so alone.

I became terrified of crowds, bright lights, and large empty spaces. Trips by myself to the mall would induce palpitations. I had learned to use a brown paper bag to calm myself down. Soon even the thought of being alone in our flat petrified me. Empty space was horrifying.

I filled my calendar with meetings, professional or otherwise. If I didn’t have time to think about me, there was nothing to worry about. So long as I wasn’t alone with my thoughts, I was safe.

But that tactic soon failed. About a year and a half after the first incident, I had an attack as I was leaving a meeting room. I gasped for air and cried in a bathroom stall after a client meeting. I told my client that I had become ill and left. They believed me.

Soon after the attacks would occur in the middle of the work day. For months, I’d check myself into the emergency room because I could not breathe. My husband or my sister would leave their offices to accompany me. I blamed the weather, my allergies, the food I ate. They could never really find anything wrong with me.

On a company trip to Singapore, I would panic every time somebody turned off the lights in a meeting room and turned them on again. My teammates thought it was a quirk. I didn’t care to explain how I felt with every flick of the light switch. On a separate company trip, I broke into tears in the middle of a night out by the beach. I was so embarrassed.

Subconsciously, I  started sealing myself in our apartment. I didn’t know what I was scared of exactly, I was just horrified at the very thought of having to endure my brain’s screaming again. The longest I stayed indoors without leaving was 6 days.

My friends didn’t know what I was going through. I had coped by putting up a constant cheery chatter on social media and real life. I’d switch topics swiftly, secretly trying to keep the conversation alive for fear of being left alone with my thoughts.

Oh my god, I missed you. How are you? I’m so happy you’re here! How is work? Is it hard being a client? What about your dad, how is your dad, I love your dad. Dads are the best! You know who is a good dad? Marlin the Clownfish from Finding Nemo. Isn’t Pixar the best? I DREAM of working for Pixar .When are we doing this with the gang? Huy, you’re not listening to me na. Hello? Hello?

“You’re such a social media flooder,” my friend would joke. I didn’t mind, the flooding helped calm my thoughts. Seeing people respond to me in whatever form made me feel like I had someone to talk to. I was embarrassed that my husband was the only person who could listen to my lightning quick topic switches all the live long day. I felt bad that he had to endure being with me.

During a trip to Tokyo, I had one of my worst attacks at the Shibuya crossing. I felt like my insides were screaming, and soon enough I was gasping for air. Unable to walk, my husband sat me down inside a deserted photo booth. He let me throw up into a bag until I calmed down. He held me until I started breathing normally again. Knowing that I had messed up our vacation felt terrible. I cried all the way back to our room.

I finally saw a doctor 2 years after my first attack. At the age of 32, I was diagnosed with an Anxiety and Panic Disorder.

***

anxious

Many factors contribute to Anxiety. This is how I acknowledge this now, with a capital A. It was not easy for me to admit. It took 2 years before I even accepted that there was anything wrong. Today,  I can talk about it freely.

My doctor said that the condition was caused by a combination of environmental and physiological factors. On my first visit, I was armed with a print out from WebMD and my own narrative of my symptoms. I discussed my self diagnoses with the doctor (‘Is it just vertigo, doc?’) I presented my case the way I would present a campaign concept to a client.

Dra. Tan chuckled lightly. “This is very common for highly productive individuals,” she said. “The mere fact that you came here armed with information is an indicator that you are prone to anxiety.”

I will explain it here the way she explained it to me: Imagine that the human body is powered by a battery. The battery has always been at full capacity, keeping me on my toes and on the go. Given the nature of my work, this has been my life for so long. Some people feel nothing at all after years of running around like this, but some others react differently. Some people’s batteries get drained over time, leaving them weak and unwilling to do anything. This drain causes and imbalance of hormones in the body, and also prevents it from recharging to full capacity. As a result, the person becomes frail, agitated, listless, and unfocused.

My doctor told me that about half the working population is afflicted by anxiety, but not everyone seeks help. This statistic, while alarming, was strangely comforting.

“Why did you wait this long to seek help?” She studied my face carefully. “You seem relieved.”

“Yes, somehow it feels like I’m not alone.”

But see, I never was.

***

I’m writing this all down now not because I want to present myself as a hero that conquered Anxiety. To tell you the truth, I still battle with my brain constantly. Others, as I understand it, actually have worse symptoms. Depression is a more complex condition that I cannot pretend to know anything about. If anything, depression needs even more vigilant surveillance and care. I will not try to make a mountain out of my mole hill, but I also need to come clean about what has happened. My only aim is to shed a little light on what people like me go through. I will tell you my story as honestly as possible.

My Anxiety is not as bad now that I have been given the medication needed to address the physiological factors affecting my mental health (I’m off them now, I finished the cycle). But the fear, I have come to accept, will always be there.

The first time I had an attack in front of my entire family was while we were on vacation. Up until that point (2 years and 3 months after diagnosis), I had not informed my parents about my anxiety. I feared that they would not understand. While my sisters knew, I downplayed everything else about my condition. I was the eldest kid, and had always been somewhat of an achiever. I didn’t know how my parents would accept that their productive daughter was struggling.

It was a humid summer night, and we were walking down a bright but deserted Kowloon alley to dinner. I began to feel lightheaded midway, and after a few minutes I had a full-on attack. I gasped for air and sat down on the sidewalk. I sobbed into my husband’s shoulder. I sat there until I could breathe again. I am always so grateful that my husband understands and is always able to soothe me back to normality.

I looked up to see the terror in my Mom’s eyes. My Dad became quiet. My sisters knew, but had never seen an attack. I hated that they had to see it.

The next day over coffee, I explained my condition to my parents. They listened as best as they could, and I welcomed all their queries. Most of the questions were various permutations of ‘why’, and I gave all the physiological factors that can cause the attacks. Some others were downright silly, even funny. (‘Anak, is it because you worry you are too small?’)

“Anak, thank you for telling us,” My Dad said. “Your husband texted us after you left, and he said ‘Don’t worry, Dad. We’re here. We got this.'”

I breathed a very big sigh of relief.

After our talk, I predictably switched topics and proceeded to enumerate the many restaurants where we could have lunch in the area. I was just that happy.

***

writing down

The first thing I want you to know is that mental health is important.

I’ve seen others shrug it off. Even now, some friends I have spoken to insist that anxiety and depression are ‘burgis disorders’ (afflictions of the bourgeois). It may be true that I had the privilege and means to have myself checked by a doctor, but I am also here to say that mental health problems are real.

They are very real for a lot of people.

The second thing I want you to know is that you are not alone.

I am eternally grateful that my support system is solid. While I kept my concerns from my family and friends for a long time, they were there to listen when it was time for me to tell my story. They accepted the problem, and they understood that I needed to do something about it. They also embraced that I cannot do it alone.

Not all families and friends are like mine, I know. But there will always be someone there to listen. The Department of Health in the Philippines introduced The HOPELINE Project in 2016. In case you feel your mental health waning, you may actually call The HOPELINE Project’s hotlines to seek help. I will list the hotline numbers at the bottom of this entry.

The third and last thing I want you to know is that you are going to be okay.

There is no end to my story yet, but I guarantee you that I will be fine. I have the best support I can ever hope for. Trust me, your loved ones will rally for you.

But if all else fails, dear reader, I am just here. I’ll even switch topics 10 times for you.

 

***

Hi! Are you new to my blog? You are, aren’t you? Thanks so much for stopping by! Do you like what you read? Are you open to new ideas? You are? That’s awesome! You know what else is awesome? A great cafe mocha. I had one today and it was just DIVINE. I’ll take you there sometime. You know what else we can do? We can go on a road trip to see all the churches South of Luzon? Do you know how to drive? If you don’t, I can drive for you. Are you okay? I hope you’re okay. I will pray for you. Oof, fell off my chair.

 

 

1 thought on “Of Bright Lights and Empty Spaces: Thoughts of the Perpetually Anxious”

  1. Thank you for writing about this. I briefly got panic attacks from when I got out of two unhappy work situations but fortunately, they would only trigger when I’m in an area near the office location so I’ve managed to get over those on my own. It’s truly an awful feeling but I’m sort of glad I experienced it because it helped me to understand my husband better.

    Also, hi, I’m an Aquarian and jump through topics too fast. Most recently, I was having a conversation with myself (in my head) that went from thinking how awesome my deodorant smells to a disturbing conclusion that my dad may have been a bum. So yeah, I feel you!

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