Tuesday, August 9, 2022

My experience growing up as an anxious kid

I used to have a phobia that I was going to be sucked up into the sky.

It started in fifth grade, I think; right around when I started to hit puberty. In open spaces, I would refuse to look at the sky and wonder when the world would inevitably flip upside down and send me flying into outer space. Or maybe when I was mid fall the world would flip again, and I'd be sent crashing back to mother earth.

Gym class was an utter nightmare for me in middle school. Unlike other courses, which I excelled in (oh, to think of the days when school was easy 🙄) gym was the most mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing class for me. The openness of the middle school track wracked my brain and made me terribly nervous. When sitting on the field listening to my teacher with the other kids on the ground, I would grip the crew-cut length astroturf for dear life, in a futile gesture to maintain composure. Before those 40 minutes of torture began, I remember my heart beating so hard to the point that I felt an intense and persistent dull pain in my chest throughout the school day. It was then I began to know that something was seriously wrong with me.

My first therapist was named Dr. Jacobs. I came to him after I started having panic attacks. My mom picked him because he was Jewish and because my older brother went to him for anger issues. He had thin white hair that looked like it was always being blown in the wind, even without the faintest breeze in his home office; he was kind of wide and broad, but not fat. He had a faint Brooklyn accent, which made him sound a tad unprofessional at times.

The first session I had with him, my mom sat down with us. He asked me a bunch of questions about my fears (what I later learned is called a "consultation") and I began to cry when I told him of all my issues– my hypochondria, my fear of death, and my fear of the sky and the outdoors.

Looking back, he was actually helpful with my first issue, He told me that day, "Why are you so fearful of death? You are very young and young people don't really get sick." That stuck with me for some reason. After that, I didn't feel the urge to wash my hands as much, or to swallow or tap my knee a contrived amount of times in order to prevent myself from getting cancer or whatever (looking back that was definitely some kind of OCD).

But for the second issue, he was not helpful, and no wonder he wasn't. How could someone convince me that such a nonsensical thing wasn't physically capable of happening, even when I knew rationally how silly it was? So instead he talked about everything and anything else during our sessions to pass the time. I didn't entirely mind going to him– it felt good to speak with someone older and wiser than me– but I knew he wasn't helping. Often times, he talked a lot about himself and his life growing up (apparently he had his fifteen minutes of fame as a child for getting his hand stuck in a vending machine, something that made the news. He showed me a newspaper clipping of the aforementioned event in one of our sessions).

In April 2016, deep into spring break, I had the worst panic attack of my life. Out of all things, it was caused by playing too much Minecraft. I had become so absorbed into the game I had forgotten about everything else around me. For all I cared, I didn't even exist. When bodily needs caught up to me, I went out into the hallway of the apartment, and my mind went blank. Where was I? What was I? What was I looking at? The change of stimulation level from highly addictive Minecraft to real life was jarring to me. I immediately fell into a state of panic and disreality. I don't remember exactly how I reacted externally, but it was enough to summon my mom and my younger brother to my side. I remember hysterically crying and hyperventilating, the way a little boy would. To comfort me, my brother tried to watch a soothing movie (Penguins of Madagscar iirc) to calm me down, but I spiraled even further, unable to shake off the surreal quality of everything that surrounded me. Frantically, my mom called Dr. Jacobs and he said he was on vacation, and couldn't really help (after he gave some boring advice I don't even remember). Thankfully, I was able to calm down after taking a walk outside with my mom.

For my fear of the outdoors, I occasionally had brief reprieve. I became incredibly obsessive in checking weather apps to see when it would rain, praying that it would land on days that I had gym class. And when it became too cold to go outside, I was at peace for a little while. But of course, it was only so fleeting, and spring began again, and the world was ready to serve me a fresh platter of "fuck you".

After a few months of seeing him, I had enough of Dr. Jacobs, and instead my mom sent me to this "biofeedback" place that didn't really practice biofeedback. I remember initially being excited at the prospect, however: to have someone hook me up to a machine and try to figure out what was truly wrong with me without only analyzing what came out of my mouth. Instead, what I got was a balding hippie social worker with a pot belly who told me to "go with the flow." That didn't last very long, of course.

Luckily, there was another psychologist working at that practice (who also treated my brother initially before me), a man by the name of Dr. Calapai. He was a thin man with sunken, pale eyes and a pointy nose– kind of resembling Mr. Burns from the Simpsons, but in a more pleasant and academic way. His voice was flat and clinical and more expressionless than Dr. Jacobs, which I took note of subconsciously.

His approach was much more different than Dr Jacobs'. He had big handwritten posters he would point at and explain in a way resembling how Ross Perot would in a '92 infomercial about the national debt. Calapai told me about what the difference between rational thinking and irrational thinking was, and that kind of logos appealed to me. In a daring exercise, he once took me out of the office to a park across the street for some exposure therapy. He told me to stare up at a flagpole for as long as I could– and I tried and tried again to varying degrees of success until I could stare at it for twenty seconds at a time. I still felt lightheated and funny after looking at it for so long, but it was empowering to me knowing that I could do it at all. I remember him actually rationalizing away at my aforementioned symptoms, assuring me that my queasiness was coming from the blood draining from my head after looking up at such an angle.

I think back to Calapai fondly now. He didn't solve my issues completely, maybe not even by 30%, and he was a little bit Jordan Peterson-y for my taste, but his methods were intriguing and his scientific way of going about things resonated with my own growingly academic personality. For one reason or another, I didn't see him anymore or any psychologist for that matter throughout seventh grade.

In seventh grade, I learned how gravity works, which funnily enough helped me more than any therapy could with my fear of the sky. Also, my mom compelled me to join the middle school track team with my brother after school. So, armed with a lot of grueling exposure therapy and a more logical understanding of the natural world around me, my juvenile and reality bending fear of being sucked up into the sky morphed into more grounded and boring fears like a general aversion to open spaces and social anxiety. That's not to say my anxiety went away even remotely– I still had panic attacks regularly and even during outdoor recess, but it was beginning to become something else. It didn't necessarily dominate my life as much as it did the year before.

In eighth grade, my anxiety came back with a vengeance. Gym class was as terrifying as ever, and I recall having an immense panic attack outside on the turf (to the tune of Muse's Knight of Cydonia in my head of course), bolting to the closest bathroom to collect my thoughts. Kids banged on the door, doing the I-need-to-pee-now dance as I tried to summon the courage to go back out there. Out to the wide and neverending sky. I remember having an incredibly awkward conversation with my gruff middle aged gym teacher while passing by in the hallway, and him telling me we would "figure this out together". The solution ended up being that I would sit out of gym in the main office, with all the misbehaved kids, feeling dejected and punished for my own mental instability over such a trivial activity as passing a ball outside. 

I began to become familiar with the lexicon of what I had and what made me the way I was. That episode I had all the way back in sixth grade during spring break and intermittently experienced relapses of ever since? That was derealization. My fear of open spaces? It's called agoraphobia and lots of people have it. The various things I did to evade these horrible experiences? Those were avoidance behaviors. I remember combing through WebMD and YouTube and various subreddits to figure out more of what these things were and how I could overcome them. I learned that Dr. Jacobs' diagnosis of PTSD from some mildly unpleasant experience I had in elementary school was total horseshit.

I went through two more unhelpful therapists throughout eighth grade: an Orthodox Jewish woman who told me to stop watching Stranger Things because she thought that the "upside down" from the show as I explained it to her was wreaking havoc on my impressionable brain, and another go-with-the-flow guy who asked what my GPA was and then had the gall to ask, "What's the problem then...?"

I became friends with a girl towards the tail end of that year who once revealed to me that she also experienced derealization. She was an articulate and brilliant writer who had a way with words. In English class, she gave a beautiful, mildly graphic, and incredibly ballsy oration about how derealization affected her life day to day for what was an otherwise rather benign end of the year assignment. She talked about what it felt like to learn of her mortality as a young girl, and how she learned to live with all of the emotional baggage of reality. It was truly something to behold. Over the years, I lost touch with her, but she continued to be herself to a fault which earned my total respect and admiration of her. She's headed to Princeton this fall by the way, good for her!

On the other hand, I was becoming more and more scientific with how I treated my anxiety, keeping quiet about it all the while except with family. For my apprehensions about the track team, I used Bayes' theorem (which I learned about from my dad), treating it like a black box to calculate the probability I would have a panic attack the next time we had practice. I became rather good with using avoidance behaviors to stay afloat– I remember lugging around a book about Bitcoin I borrowed from the library and sneaking reads of it to distract myself during anxiety inducing situations. 

High school was game changing for me. Gym class was more laid back as I had friends there to keep my mind off things. The school issued us tablets to use in class, so I could keep my brain active in periods of inevitable boredom (which induced anxiety in me). This was much to the irk of my ninth grade French teacher– who used the school issued spyware on the school issued tablets to block me from playing chess during class. I switched to Chinese the next year :)

At this point though, I began to notice a pattern. As I matured, my fears became less whimsical and more situational. My neuroses followed me and tried to attack me in new and innovative ways. Since gym wasn't a problem anymore, classes where I couldn't have use my tablet became sore spots. And sometimes, the whimsicalness of my brain manifested itself in funny and ritzy new avenues. For instance, I took a class about space exploration, which was obviously super cool. But I quickly began to feel aware of my cosmic insignificance in that class. Seeing rockets launch off into the heavens and talking about the enormity of space and how precise NASA had to be to accomplish a do or die lunar injection spooked me. It was all so foreign yet vivid to me at the same time. I began to become pretty anxious in that class– during movie showings of outer space, I cowed my head down in fear of looking at a spacewalk or a shot of an enornmous planet or star. My anxiety metastasized to something I had genuinely enjoyed, and that was pretty upsetting to me!

Then, COVID happened. 


Now that the pandemic is a less contentious topic to talk about, I'm not afraid to say that its arrival was one of the best things to ever happen to me. I talked about the academic reasons why it was so valuable to me in my first ever blogpost, but of course it also did miracles for my anxiety. During COVID, I could choose where I wanted to be, what I wanted to see, who I wanted to be with as much as I pleased. Effectively, since COVID started, I haven't had any serious anxiety or derealization episodes* and not a single panic attack. A part of me wonders if that has to do with the fact that I've become more mature now and can manage my emotions better, but that feels like a bit too much of an easy answer. 

Maybe it's not the maturing itself that has made me much better, but that after so many years of grappling with anxiety, you just learn to work around it. I scheduled classes this semester to minimize any anxiety episodes (*yes I still get them, it's much more manageable now though. I'm keenly aware of what situations put me on edge and I do my best to avoid them. IMO as long as they don't affect your life too much, avoidance behaviors are A-OK!), and I know what I can and cannot do. I'm moderately agoraphobic and experience derealization ever so often, but it's becoming more manageable. I still hate playing field sports but my friends just shrug it off as me being unathletic, which is fine by me. Neither can I muster up the courage to watch those scale of the universe videos on YouTube... they make my armpits incredibly damp. Last week I went to the beach and dipped in the ocean for the first time in five years, so progress is being made! That being said, I am apprehensive that this remission will end at some point– but I'm doing my best to enjoy my life in the meantime. I don't take any medication or antidepressants of any sort, and don't plan on taking any for the foreseeable future (though I've 100% considered it at my lowest points).

This is what I would do if I could meet my middle school self: first of all I'd hug him because I know how touch starved he must be and then I'd give him a copy of "The Stranger" by Albert Camus. I read this book recently and found its themes remarkably cathartic. It is an antithesis to the phobias and aversions I had experienced during those terrible times– as silly as the name may be, surrealism is a great (but not entirely complete) answer to the questions I started to have during that time: my fraying religiousness, my derealization episodes, and my fears of solipsism/being a Boltzmann brain. I'd also tell him to read "Meditations" by Marcus Aurelius because he bought it for $15 on iBooks and thats a lot of cash money to spend on something only to pirate it off of Libgen a couple years later (in all seriousness a great character building book, one I look to for guidance and think about here and then). 

So no, I'm not afraid of being sucked up into the sky anymore, mashallah. I've been above the clouds in planes at altitudes of tens of thousands of feet and stared at the fledgling towns far below. It's kind of nice up there actually.

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