Facing the Demons of Chronic Anxiety

Richard DeFino was 17 when he first realized he had a mental illness. It took years to accept the idea that his condition simply wasn’t going to change overnight.

Hand making a scary shadow puppet

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The word recovery has always frightened me when it came to my own mental health. For years I’ve asked myself, how exactly do I recover from something that is with me for the rest of my life?

My anxiety can overwhelm me when I’m trying to sleep. Sometimes, as I’m about to drift off, I imagine a person is hovering over me. Although I’m fully aware that no one is actually there, my hands start to sweat and my feet turn to ice. A feeling of nausea builds until I’m about to vomit. If I try to stand up, my legs may collapse like cooked spaghetti. Other times, my anxiety sends me lurching out of bed to vacuum imaginary spiders from the corners of my ceiling.

When I was 17 and first realized that I had a mental illness, I spent the entire next year in complete denial, telling myself that one day I would wake up and the anxiety would have vanished — that I would forget I ever had to suffer from the voice in my head telling me that with every step I take, I will die. But after waking up over hundreds of mornings to find that my irrational fears were still with me, I realized this wasn’t going to change overnight.

That wishful thinking as a teenager only made my situation worse, especially when it came to my unorthodox methods of self-care. I left scars on my arms from both cigars and razors. I started to drink in the morning before school, and I took any prescription pill that I could find in my parents’ medicine cabinet, only to find myself now becoming physically ill as well.

All these negative behaviors were attempts to ward off the pain. And throughout my early 20s, I remained optimistic that I would someday find a simple cure for my anxiety, but reality wouldn’t set in until I received the greatest advice ever given to me — advice that would end up saving my life.

I left scars on my arms from both cigars and razors. I started to drink in the morning before school, and I took any prescription pill that I could find.

By the time I was 29 years old, though I was married and had a job, I was spiraling out of control. I was drunk every morning before work, and my marriage was failing. I was in the darkest depression. I had seen many therapists, but they all seemed to be telling me what I wanted to hear just to shut me up and shove some medication down my throat.

Searching for mental health answers isn’t easy, especially with the hundreds of different types of medications that are available. On the ­advice of therapists, I had tried Prozac, Effexor, Zoloft, Xanax, and Clozapine. The Prozac and the Zoloft made me tired all day. Effexor gave me ­terrible mood swings, horrific nightmares, and erectile dysfunction to boot. Xanax and Clozapine both worked wonders for my anxiety by completely eradicating all my fears. But aside from being highly addictive, their major downside was forgetfulness. Sometimes I would come home and not remember a single thing I had done all day. And then there was the chronic drowsiness: I could fall asleep at the dinner table mid-chew.

One day, I happened to drive by a Red Cross blood donation bus. I associated the Red Cross with needles and pain — but pain always heightened my senses, so I decided to give it a try. I had never donated blood before, and after I entered the bus and filled out the paperwork, there was the option of a 10-minute blood donation or a one-hour plasma donation. I figured the longer that I could sit in this bus with a needle sticking in my arm, the longer I would be able to focus on something other than my anxiety, so I chose to donate plasma. It actually worked. The pinch of the needle delivered just enough pain to quell my angst. Two years later, it had become a ritual of sorts; I was donating plasma every couple of months. It helped, but only temporarily. I only wished the pain would last longer.

When I finally found a cognitive behaviorist, I could immediately tell that something was different. The first thing he told me was that he didn’t prescribe medication. Then, when we started our sessions, he refused to coddle me when I poured my heart out; he just wanted to get to the solution. After a few visits, he sat forward in his chair and said to me, “Ricky, your anxiety is real, and it’s with you for life. You will never wake up one morning to find that it has magically disappeared. Now, when you feel yourself having an attack, just repeat this to yourself, ‘This sucks! But I am not losing my mind; this attack is not real and will only last 10 minutes.’”

I was taken aback by the doctor’s words at first, but my illness of 12 years suddenly seemed to make so much sense to me in a matter of seconds. Still, I was surprised when the mantra the doctor gave me worked — the very next day.

Since just waking up in the morning could be a trigger for my anxiety, as I had to go through the lengthy process of convincing myself that I was real and not stuck in an alternate dream universe, I made sure that I had the doctor’s words memorized so I could be ready. As soon as I woke up, I immediately recited the mantra out loud. In a nervous but confident voice, I said the words he’d prescribed, right down to the part about how it would end in 10 minutes. And it did! My first panic of the morning subsided, and my breathing slowed down. I felt a calm that I had not felt in years.

Despite this seeming miracle, the doctor informed me that it didn’t matter how many positive affirmations I repeated to myself daily, the mantra included; if I was truly going to get better, it was also necessary to work hard to help myself — and the most important thing I needed to do was to love myself above everything else.

Coping with a mental health disorder is a full-time job, and after ­being diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, depression, PTSD, and de­personalization disorder, these are the self-care steps that I take every day to maintain my ­equilibrium:

Facing reality: Every morning, as soon as I wake up, I remind myself that I have a mental illness, and that it’s not going to magically disappear. My anxiety is something that was manifested in my mind from experiences throughout my childhood. And because I know I will live with this invisible illness for the rest of my life, I must not run from it. I remind myself that today and for the rest of my life, I will live with this disorder, but it is okay. I’ll be just fine as long as I follow the next four steps.

Finding joy: For the empty feeling of depression, I make it a point to find something that brings me happiness. One of my go-to remedies is watching something funny on TV, which makes for an inexpensive and easily accessible self-care fix. For example, a single episode of The Office has brought me back from multiple anxiety attacks and bouts with depression. If it’s a nice day, taking a walk with my wife and the dog works wonders.

Accepting dark thoughts: Whenever I feel anxious, which for me is all day and every day, I use the mantra that I learned from the cognitive behaviorist. If that’s not working, I’ll take three deep breaths and focus my attention on the negative energy that’s plaguing my thoughts and rid them from my mind. Sometimes I just have to remain calm and do my best to remember that I am stronger than my anxiety.

Using natural remedies to sleep better: Trying to fall asleep, let alone staying asleep, might be the hardest and most concerning of all my problems. Each night when I lay my head on the pillow, my mind starts to race with horrible thoughts that have haunted my sleep for years. I’d remember the years of abuse that I suffered at the hands of an older relative who would tiptoe into my room while I was sleeping, hover over my body, and punch and kick me. Years before I got sober, I would easily take four Clozapine pills and wash them down with a tall glass of merlot, but now that I’m sober, I find that essential oils, such as lemon, mint, and eucalyptus oils, work miracles. I rub them on my wrists and chest every night. This way, no matter which position I am sleeping in, I can breathe in the soothing aromas. I also keep a vial of oil in my car and at work. To complement the oils, I keep a humidifier next to the bed to help me stay cool at all times, and I play soothing nature sounds quietly in the background. (Thunderstorms or seagulls usually do the trick.)

Eating a wholesome diet: I used to binge eat to make myself feel better. Nine out of ten times it was greasy fast food or Kit Kat bars. After a binge episode, I would feel terrible self-loathing, of course. About two years ago I made a transition to a vegan diet, and I can’t even begin to explain the benefits that resulted from the switch. I feel healthier than I ever have before, I’m less tired, and my mind is clearer — not to mention the weight loss. Overall and most importantly, my self-esteem and confidence are at an all-time high. Today, I feel proud of myself for committing to a strict diet and lifestyle change, and for the first time since I was a teenager, I feel good about myself when I look in the mirror.

 

There are many different forms of self-care, and what works for one person might not work for someone else. Maybe medication works for you, and maybe it’s therapy, or both. For me, there are two ways of getting help: the stubborn way and the logical way. For years I tried the stubborn way, which was living in denial, hoping that the anxiety would cure itself.

The lesson I’ve learned is that while life will sometimes seem impossible and anxiety will feel unbearable, as long as I’m willing to put in the work, it will get better. For those of you who have experienced similar feelings, there will undoubtedly be days when you might feel that no one in the world knows what you’re going through. During those lonely moments, just remember that someone just like you wrote this article. If you hit a wall, turn around and try a new route, because at the end of the day, your determination to persevere in life will shine through the darkness. All you have to do is take those first steps to finding happiness.

Be kind to yourself, love yourself, and never give up.

Richard De Fino is a New York-based writer and columnist whose work has appeared in Chickpea Magazine, The Bronx Magazine, and Stigma Fighters, as well as in his former column for Feminine Collective. For more, visit richarddefino.com.

This article is from the November/December 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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