You can’t outrun a panic attack

According to an old quip, “Insanity is hereditary—you get it from your children.”

The first problem with that saying is that insanity is a legal term, not a medical term. It describes a lack of responsibility or accountability due to mental illness, but a medical professional word not use the word outside of a courtroom.

Moreover, mental and emotional illnesses are not communicable diseases. You cannot catch it from another person the way you catch a cold or flu virus. The behavior of one’s children can create stress that acerbates one’s illness, but stress alone does not make a person mentally ill.

If my daughter did not make me ill, at least her condition helped me to discover my own problems and to seek help. Her struggle with depression became noticeable while she was in college. When she sought help from the school’s professional counselor, he told her that she was merely homesick. Years later, after two rounds of hospital stays along with medication and counseling, she is doing better. Of course she has good days and bad days, as do we all.

To be a supportive father, I took the time to learn more about depression and anxiety. I was aware that I have occasional spells of depression. My usual response was to push my way through the bout stoically. At that time I believed that virtue is doing the right thing in spite of one’s feelings. For example, courage is not lack of fear; courage is doing the right thing in spite of fear. I reasoned that, so long as I forced myself out of bed and met my responsibilities, how I felt was unimportant. Thanks to my daughter’s situation, I became educated about what a bad approach that was.

As I read about anxiety and the way it manifests itself, I realized that I battle anxiety far more often than I face depression. Being chronically short-tempered, responding to annoyances with over-the-top rage, slamming doors, kicking furniture—these were not bad habits proving that I’m a bad person; these were symptoms of a treatable problem called anxiety. Men, I learned, are more likely to feel angry rather than frightened when hit by a panic attack. No doubt that has something to do with male and female roles in society, but I’ve done no research on that aspect of anxiety. (This is why I republished my Basil Fawlty post yesterday.)

I see my other daughters acting the same way. Twice this spring when they have been together, they have been short-tempered with one another, quick to take offense, bursting into tears because of something a sister said, fleeing the conversation rather than getting over it. I am looking for ways to encourage them to get help, not to delay seeking help until they reach a crisis, as happened to one of them already.

The daughter who survived a crisis and is receiving appropriate care had a troubling episode Monday night. Her car broke down just before Christmas; she could not afford to repair it, so she sold it “as is” with plans to buy another car. So far, she has not been able to find one she can afford, aside from those likely to last only a short time. This situation led to an emotional melt-down that had her curled up in a chair, sobbing uncontrollably. I tried to offer what help I could, but then I backed off to give her the space she needed.

At this point, her crying pushed me into a panic attack. At first I just tried to close myself in another room, but I could still feel the attack at work. My fists were clenched, and I wanted to strike myself with the book I was unable to read. I wanted to shout at my daughter, to tell her, “You are obsessing over money and property. These things are not supposed to be so important to you.”

Instead I went for a walk. You can’t outrun a panic attack, but that’s no reason not to try. Working off nervous energy with moderate exercise is always a good idea. Actually, it was a very brisk walk with a lot of hostility still boiling inside me. When cars came toward me I held my ground and forced them to change their path. None of them came close to hitting me—and at that time, I followed that observation with the words, “I’m not that lucky.” I don’t doubt that people in the neighborhood wondered about the man stalking past their houses, but I needed that walk at that time.

As I walked down one street, I saw two people on the other side of the road with flashlights. At first I assumed that they were looking for something one of them had dropped in the dark—car keys, perhaps. As I got closer, I saw that they were bagging leaves. One of them was wearing a helmet with a lantern, the kind of gear associated with miners. This oddity helped turn my thinking away from my own problems. Who in the world is so obsessed with bagging leaves that they carry (and wear) lights to do it during the night?

I was going to share that anecdote with my daughter, but by the time I got home she had gone to bed. The car situation is unchanged, but she somehow worked through her attack as I worked through mine. J.

 

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Basil Fawlty and anxiety attacks

I once commented that at times it seems as though I have Mr. Spock on one side and Basil Fawlty on the other, each urging me to behave more like they behave. That passing remark prompted me to rummage through my DVD collection and watch again the classic British comedy Fawlty Towers.

For the uninitiated, Basil Fawlty is the owner and manager of a hotel in Torquay, Devon, England. He runs the hotel with the help of his wife Sybil and two employees, Polly (an aspiring artist) and Manuel (he’s from Barcelona). Basil Fawlty, portrayed by John Cleese of Monty Python fame, is arrogant, sarcastic, and short-tempered, fawning over customers who are rich or important but rudely insulting most of his customers as well as his wife and employees. Six episodes of the show were filmed in 1975, and six more were filmed in 1979. In spite of that short list of episodes, Fawlty Towers is very popular with fans of British comedy.

Now that I have become aware of my own symptoms revealing depression and anxiety, I wanted to see if Fawlty is wrestling with the same problems. I don’t believe that John Cleese intended to address mental health issues with this show, and I doubt that he is even aware of the internal struggles that might drive a man like Fawlty to act in the ways that Cleese portrayed. All the same, knowing that my occasional temper tantrums sometimes drive me to act like Fawlty (and I am tempted to “act out” like Fawlty more often than I like to admit). Irritability and fits of rage sometimes are signs, not of anger management problems, but of depression and anxiety. Even the physical expressions of Fawlty’s inner turmoil bring to mind the way overwhelming anxiety makes me want to act at times.

Fawlty has reasons to be depressed. He has chosen a line of work for which he clearly is ill-suited. He shows little love or affection for his wife, nor she for him. Guests frequently berate Fawlty or make unreasonable requests and demands of him. Fawlty wants to succeed as a hotelier, and the failure of his establishment and its workers leads him deeper and deeper into anxiety.

Of the twelve episodes, Fawlty’s struggles are clearest in “The Hotel Inspectors” (Season 1, episode 4). Facing guests who are clearly dissatisfied with their experience at his hotel, and hearing rumors that hotel inspectors are visiting Torquay, Fawlty wavers between his effort to be a good host to potential inspectors and his desire to treat his unpleasant customers as poorly as he thinks they deserve to be treated. As the episode progresses, Fawlty’s anxiety symptoms become increasingly strong until they overwhelm him.

Fawlty’s first defense against stressful situations is sarcasm. He insults his wife, his staff, and his guests with vicious humor, although often he hopes that they will not hear or comprehend his barbed remarks. He also seeks ways to blame others for the wrong things that are happening under his responsibility. As his level of stress increases, Fawlty begins to speak both louder and faster. He strikes out at inanimate objects or at the defenseless Manuel. As the attack deepens, Fawlty’s muscles begin to clench, starting with his hands but soon spreading to his arms and legs. His speaking voice becomes much higher and sometimes fails him entirely. In several episodes, Fawlty ends up lying on the floor in a somewhat fetal position, or he wraps himself in his own clothing as if to hide from the rest of the world.

I always laughed at Fawlty Towers, enjoying the witty dialogue and the slapstick humor. The show still amuses me, even though I now approach it from a different point of view. As Basil Fawlty, John Cleese openly portrays the way an anxiety attack feels. His methods of coping with anxiety and depression are not recommended, but the show can still be educational as well as entertaining.

J.

(originally published June 5, 2015)

A Day in the Life

One day last week another worker in my department declared a “hot dog day” and brought lunch for all of us—hot dogs and buns and condiments, and two of us provided potato chips. We sat together and visited while we ate, which was the reason for the gift of hot dogs. Generally, we are all introverts, focused on our tasks, more inclined to strive to complete a task than to stop and visit with each other. I know there have been days that I walked in the door, headed straight for my desk, and got to work, speaking to no one for most of the day… and I’m not the only person in the department who behaves that way.

The food was good, and I was able to take part in the conversation in spite of the fact that I started experiencing a panic attack as we were lining up at the food table. I would rate this attack at S2.5 on the SAPS.  My shaking hands made it hard to serve myself, and when I sat, I had to rest the hand holding my plate in my lap to keep from dropping it. I don’t think my voice sounded strange when I spoke—nobody looked at me as if it did—but I definitely felt all my muscles grow tenser through the course of the meal, as my insides churned. (And, no, nothing was wrong with the food.)

If I was writing a story about Carl, I suppose I would have to find some explanation for the attack. Maybe the morning traffic was bad because of a construction project which had just started. Maybe he snuck a look at some pictures of Rosa, his old flame, which he has hidden in a file on his work computer. Maybe he sat through a meeting about improving customer relations with the firm’s clients and wondered how much of the advice was being targeted personally at him. Or perhaps I could work in a problem with Number Seven—is she snubbing him now, avoiding conversations with him?

I am not writing a story about Carl, though. I am writing about myself, and I know enough about myself and my panic attacks to know that they do not always have an obvious trigger. Loud noises can make me nervous, but that was not a problem this noon. Anyhow, they would not be attacks if their origins were obvious.

All afternoon I wanted to talk to someone, to tell them what I was feeling. The truth is, I have never told anyone at work about my struggles with anxiety and depression. No one knows that a saw a counselor every other week for more than a year or that I have been taking medication for almost two years. If someone had asked me, “how are you feeling, J?” I would have answered, “I feel as though I drank six expressos about an hour ago.” After lunch, we all went back to our desks and focused on our own tasks as usual. No one had any reason to ask me how I was feeling.

I don’t even have a fitting conclusion to this post. Just another day in the life of Salvageable. J.

Did Jesus ever have a panic attack?

Some Christians would say “no.” After all, the Bible tells God’s people not to be anxious. “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or drink, nor about your body, what you will put on” (Matthew 6:25). “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God” (Philippians 4:6). “Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (I Peter 5:7). If the Bible tells us not to be anxious, and Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15), then it appears that Jesus never worried and was never anxious about anything.

As I have written before, “don’t worry” is not the eleventh commandment. When God tells us not to worry, he is promising to take care of us. We can tell God about anything that worries us, and we can trust him to take care of our problems. Worry and anxiety can be powerful temptations to sin, but anxiety in itself is not sinful. It is part of what happens in this world, more to some people than to others.

Anxiety is like anger. Anger can cause people to sin, but anger itself is not a sin. Evil things in this world make God angry, and they should make us angry. At times Jesus was angry. He was angry that the teachers of God’s Word were misunderstanding the Word and teaching others to misunderstand the Word. He was angry that the Temple was being misused. Jesus never sinned, but he was tempted by anger. Instead, he used the energy of his anger to fix the problem that made him angry.

Was Jesus ever tempted by anxiety? Did he ever have a panic attack? Jesus knew that he was on his way to the cross, but he did not dwell on what was going to happen. He was able to take one day at a time, just as he teaches us to do. He says, “Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). He taught his followers to pray for “daily bread.” Taking one day at a time, Jesus was able to bear the coming torture of the cross, remarking on occasion, “My hour has not yet come.”

Finally, though, his hour came. Jesus had the Passover meal with his disciples and then went with them to a garden called Gethsemane. There he was “sorrowful and troubled” (Matthew 26:37) or “deeply distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33). The Greek words used by Matthew and Mark are significant. The word for “sorrowful” is somewhat common in the New Testament and covers a range of sorrows. The word for “deeply distressed” is used only by Mark. In addition to the distress of Jesus in the garden, Mark also uses it to describe the surprise of a crowd when Jesus arrived unexpectedly, and again to describe the reaction of the women who found the tomb of Jesus empty. The word for “troubled” is used by Paul (Philippians 2:26) and is also translated “distressed.” It is a compound word suggesting “away from home,” or feeling badly out of place. Jesus, then, according to Matthew and Mark, was feeling a deep and powerful emotion of sorrow, trouble, and distress. He did not keep his feeling a secret, but told his disciples, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38).

Luke uses an even stronger word, “agony” (Luke 22:44). In fact, the Greek word chosen by Luke is the source of the English words agony and anguish. It refers to intense suffering, but only of an emotional nature, never to physical pain. Luke adds the detail that “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”

Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” In the garden, Jesus was tempted to leave his mission. He was tempted by sorrow, distress, and agony. Given the descriptions of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus was suffering from an attack of anxiety, a genuine panic attack.

Other people in the Bible faced anxiety and depression. Elijah was depressed and wanted to die. The book of Job contains nearly a complete medical description of clinical depression. Paul in some of his letters expresses his melancholy feelings. Even Jesus, the sinless Son of God, dealt with powerful emotions of distress and agony.

Jesus prayed for help. He asked first if the mission could be changed, so he did not have to endure the cross. But Jesus also prayed the words he taught us to pray, “Your will be done.” Jesus was strengthened in his agony and was given the strength to complete his mission. Sinners are forgiven because Jesus resisted the temptation that came with distress and agony and continued to walk the path that leads to our salvation.

Jesus has not forgotten how he felt in the garden. When we pray about our feelings, he understands. He is able to help us, because he has faced every problem he allows us to endure. I find comfort in knowing that my Savior understands me so well, that he even knows how my anxiety feels.

J.

Panic in the classroom

I respect every student who struggles with anxiety and/or agoraphobia and still attends classes to work toward an education. When going to school is a frightening experience, the temptation to drop out and stay at home must be strong. To all those reading who match that description, my hat is off to you.

For me, the classroom and the library have always been safe places and happy places. Even though I was bullied from the fifth grade through the ninth grade, I didn’t blame the school for that; being bullied during slow times probably only made me more focused on my studies. I loved going to college and to graduate school, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to return later to the classroom, this time as a teacher.

Not only am I introverted; I am also shy. It may seem strange that I enjoy teaching. When I teach, though, I know why I am there. I have a clearly designed role and task. I believe that three qualities make a teacher good: deep knowledge and understanding of the subject area, deep interest in the subject area with a desire to share knowledge and understanding, and genuine interest in the students. Those qualities make me happy to stand in front of a group of people and talk, even though I might not have the courage to approach any one of them or speak with them in a store or other public area.

One evening last week was different. I left work in the middle of the afternoon to prepare to teach, as is my habit, and as I approached my house I saw that the neighbor two doors down was having a tree removed. That made me sad and also a little angry, as I see no reason to destroy a healthy living tree. Of course I had to listen to the saws while I read through the chapter and ate my early supper. Still, I drove to the school and spoke with the office staff without feeling any different than usual.

The first sign something was not quite right was when I started writing notes on the classroom
whiteboard. I wrote “INDIA” in big letters at the top of the board, and it looked as if I was aiming for italics rather than bold letters. Then, when I tried to write “Harappan” underneath, it took three tries to achieve a legible “H.” A couple deep breaths and I was able to finish putting words on the board, but having my hands shake that badly before class even started was not a good sign.

As the students arrived one by one, I was able to enter the small talk before class—not my strongest suit, but something I generally can fake. Then I began the lecture and discussion. Fifteen minutes later I had completed half an hour of material without leaving out anything important. The thirty minutes on China were polished off in another fifteen minutes. I stammered more than usual and had to repeat some words—I can’t say whether that was due to talking faster or another symptom of the same panic. We moved on to the quiz, and the students who usually do well did about as well as usual, while the students who generally don’t do as well did even more poorly than usual.

I cannot guess why I felt so panicked in the classroom that evening. Was it lingering anger over the neighbor and his tree? Was staying up past midnight the night before to visit with family a mistake? Is the counseling that is working on identifying feelings and working backward to their causes making me worse instead of better? I have too many questions and not enough answers.

Lately I have been learning about mindfulness. (I will write more about mindfulness in another post.) I tried to be mindful in the classroom—I was able to talk to the class and cover all the material even if I did so in double speed. What happens this week is yet to be seen. Think good thoughts for me.

J.