Sunday, May 17, 2015

Life with an anxiety disorder - Part V: Four legs gooood, eight legs baaaad

As I am typing this, a big fat crane fly is sitting on the wall next to me. I am not bothered by it in any way. It is basically the same size as a house spider. The body is basically the same size as a house spider's. The legs are the same length and thickness as a house spider's. It just has two fewer, and a set of wings instead. Other than that, very similar in appearance to a house spider. It just doesn't bother me that this crane fly is sitting on the wall right next to me. If it was a house spider, however...

Well, if it actually was a house spider, I wouldn't sit here typing. I'd have jumped up, possibly yelping, fled to a bit of a distance and stared at it in mortal terror. My pulse would be going through the roof. I'd take short, flat breaths. I'd be sweating. Cold sweat. I'd be in a state of fear as intense as if I were facing death. It's fight or flight. It's my apartment, so flight is not an option, so I can't go and wait until the spider leaves by itself. What do I do? I can't get closer than two meters to it, too terrified. I could call my mother, who leaves nearby, but that would be pathetic. It's got to be the vacuum cleaner with the long pipe. Poor animal, some would say, but it's it or me. I am dying a little inside as I approach to the length of the pipe and am mortified at the thought of it escaping the suction and getting under the couch or behind a cabinet where I can't get it. I succeed. The terror does not subside. The rest of the day I'll be a nervous wreck scanning the walls for spiders with my eyes.

That's right, today's topic is phobias. Because what would an anxiety disorder be without a good old fashioned phobia to mess it up even more? It's spiders for me, but many people have a phobia. Many people who are otherwise completely healthy as well. But what's really interesting in the context of this series of posts is how phobias interact with an anxiety disorder. If you are anxious all day every day already, how does the prospect of mortal terror being literally around every corner ready to hit at any moment without warning sound to you?

One defining factor of an anxiety disorder is what therapists in Germany call "the fear of the fear": The idea that your anxiety is not just focused on high states of anxiety itself or panic attacks in particular, but that these states are actually so horrible to you that you spend your whole time fearing their next occurence. "There is nothing to fear but fear itself" gets a whole new meaning for those suffering from this illness. Fear is literally the worst thing to fear. And then you add one or more phobias to the mix and you're in a permanent condition of fear of what will happen one minute from any given moment, or even one second. They can really kill it all. You can have a good day, have your normal fears under control, can go to the grocery store without a panic attack, can talk to people without your social anxiety giving you much trouble, generally feel it's one of your better days, then a big house spider decides to explore your apartment and everything is fucked. It doesn't matter anymore how well you were dealing with your normal problems that day, everything is ruined. Imagine scientists announcing CO² emissions are at an all time low and global temperatures are stabilising, and half an hour later Putin launches nuclear missiles on half the planet. That's pretty much what a phobia does when you're dealing with an anxiety disorder. It's the "terminate all"-button that doesn't care how you're dealing with your life that moment otherwise.

So you always have that in the back of your head. And the feeling that no matter how well you do with dealing with your main illness, "something is out there that can ruin it all" just puts an impossible strain on your confidence in your coping with your daily life. It puts you on edge automatically, because you can never feel entirely free or relaxed and enjoy a moment of your anxiety disorder letting up in intensity, because you  know there's something out there that can change the situation to the worst any given moment. So fear always remains part of your thinking no matter what happens. And I put animal phobia as one of the worst type of phobias to interact with anxiety disorder, because it is one of the phobias that is hardest to control or avoid. A claustrophobic can avoid enclosed spaces, an agoraphobic open places, but you never know where a spider or other animal you fear is coming along. Not saying animal phobia is the only type of phobia with such an issue of lack of control, it is one of a group of phobias that occupy a special circle of the hell that is phobia as a whole. Phobias where you can't predict when or where you are confronted with them, and have no way to prevent that situation from occuring. Like a constant dark cloud hanging threateningly above your life.

Anxiety disorder and phobia are a very bad mix, because they interact in a very bad way, amplifying each other constantly to unbearable levels. The good news is that you can do something about it, and phobias are generally much easier to treat than anxiety disorder, with a much higher rate of success. For me, of course that would involve being in a room full of huge spiders with the guidance of a therapist, eventually taking a few in my hand and letting them crawl on me. I'm sorry, but fuck off. Or in more polite terms, I am not ready to do that yet. It's literally the least desirable thing in the world to me. Waterboard me instead. But to end on a positive note, once I conquer my weaker self, it really is a pretty easy treatment. Hang around some spiders until it doesn't bother me anymore. And it's something anyone suffering from a similar problem should consider: It really is quite simple stuff, you just need to get yourself to do it. And you can be damn well certain that it would take an enormous weight off your shoulders.

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