I developed a severe anxiety disorder after a medical scare at the age of 21. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, the gains from my battle against hypochondria are finally starting to outweigh the losses.
It was Boxing Day, 2013. Mackelmore’s “Thrift Shop” was top of the charts.
That year, Christmas vacation wasn’t going according to plan. Instead of enjoying a quiet night by the tree, my mom was driving me to the local hospital with all of the tell-tale symptoms of a migraine.
That was my first time having a migraine. Turns out, they really suck.
Six hours later, we made it through triage and one of the nurses ushered me into a small room. My head was still pounding. She tied a rubber band around my arm and searched for a vein. She explained that the drug was called Maxerane. It was going to take the migraine away.
“Just a little pinch now.”
The injection felt like concrete being poured into my arm. I immediately knew that something was wrong.
I went from ‘healthy 21-year-old with a migraine’ to ‘ICU patient’ in 30 seconds flat. None of us knew what was happening until it was already too late: I’m allergic to Maxerane.
Things moved fast. I was swarmed by doctors and nurses, and I could see fear in their eyes. My mom’s voice became frantic. They hooked me up to a monitor where we could all watch my heart rate skyrocket out of control. I heard one doctor yell down the hallway: “SOMEONE GOOGLE MAXERANE!”
In those moments, I had to come to terms with the kind of things that very few 21-year-olds have to come to terms with. The next morning, I left the hospital as a Popsicle stick puppet of myself. It felt like the real me was still back there somewhere in the ICU.
Stephen King defines terror as the feeling “…when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute.”
I tried hard to resume business as usual, but everything was just different. Terror became a constant background noise. Everyone told me that I was safe, and I tried to tell myself the same thing. The injection had no lasting effects on my cardiovascular system. And people have near-death experiences all the time. What made mine any different?
Still, I could feel a breath on the back of my neck. Some deep-seeded part of my brain had woken up that night — a part that didn’t understand logic or reason. In the months that followed, I went batshit crazy.*
I spent most of my waking hours with two fingers on my neck, constantly surveying my pulse.
I suffered from severe panic attacks every night at sunset.
My hands became raw from extreme handwashing (I still have a couple of books in my library that are covered in bloodstains).
I avoided all unfamiliar substances (e.g. every ingredient in the bottle of hand lotion that could have soothed my hands).
I developed an irrational fear of cellphones and microwaves.
I had to rinse my water bottle out eight times before taking a drink.
My new behaviours weren’t logical, and I knew that. But they gripped me like a bear trap.
To save myself from the embarrassment of having others know that I was batshit crazy, I completely isolated myself. Within weeks I had lost most of my friends and acquaintances. In the absence of any observers, my compulsive behaviours started to snowball.
The worst of my compulsions lasted for about a year.
After that, it still took many years, many therapy sessions, and a shitload of support from my closest friends and family before I began to feel ‘normal’ again. As things got incrementally better, I turned to activity and socialization as a way to combat my fear and anxiety. I kept myself constantly occupied with school, work, and social events.
Today, my biggest fear isn’t of dying… it’s of going batshit crazy again. After years of progress, I still haven’t shaken the worry that if I experience another health scare, or if I became isolated again, that the crazy will start to creep back in.
So here we are.
It took less than 24 hours of social distancing for me to realize that I’m going to have to dust off my old toolkit.
I’m scared of COVID-19. I’m scared of what’s going to happen in the coming weeks, and in the coming months. But I’m also confident that I’m handling this fear better than I would have without a history of hypochondria.
After all, I’ve become an expert at recognizing my own catastrophization. I know how to sift through my thoughts and categorize them into “what I can control” and “what I can’t control.” I know how to catch my brain when it’s crying wolf.
And this time around, I’m not the only one. While I’m alone in my physical space, I have tons of company in my emotional state. It’s kind of nice, in a selfish, schadenfreude-y sort of way. There wasn’t much solidarity to be found when I was scared of the microwave.
I don’t take mental stability for granted anymore. It took me years of hard work (and a good deal of $$) to develop healthy coping mechanisms. After lots of trial and error, I know which tools work best for me. Those are now proving invaluable as I navigate the complicated cocktail of anxieties that COVID-19 is stirring up around the world.
It’s been five years since my allergic reaction, and two years since my last panic attack. In all my life, my mental health has never been in a better place than it is right now. And I intend to keep it that way.
To that end, I’ve compiled the Cole’s Notes from what I learned on my journey back from insanity:
1. Allow yourself to be scared
It’s reasonable to be experiencing fear right now. There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to COVID-19, and fear stems from the unknown. Now, more than ever, I’m reminding myself that fear serves a purpose — like pain, fear is meant to protect us. Some of the most dangerous things going on right now are because of people acting with a lack, not an abundance of fear.
But I also know how to recognize when my fear is beginning to morph into something more pernicious.
‘Scared’ starts to become ‘batshit crazy’ when we use logic to solve problems that are out of our control.
We don’t like to be scared. We’re problem-solving creatures, and tend to think: “I’m scared of x, so I must y.”
This can be a healthy train of thought, provided that x is a real threat that you have control over, and that y will have an effect on x.
It’s the difference between “I’m scared of making vulnerable people sick, so I must practice social distancing,” and “I’m scared of the global supply chain failing, so I must buy 12 family-size packs of toilet paper at Costco.”
If you don’t have any control over x, and it scares you, then that’s rough. Trust me, I know. Acknowledge that fear, acknowledge your limitations, and shift your focus towards something actionable.
2. Learn how to reapproach scary shit with curiosity.
What happens if you’re constantly inundated with something that’s scary, and that you have no control over? The “focus on something else” thing is going to stop working at some point.
Sometimes you’re not the one dwelling on it.
Sometimes the world dwells on it for you.
Sometimes it’s inescapable.
Switch yourself into ‘curiosity mode.’ Learning how to do this was the secret sauce that helped me manage my highest levels of fear and anxiety. You see, there’s this weird kill switch in our brains :
It’s damn near impossible to feel afraid and curious at the same time.
So how can you approach a global pandemic with curiosity? That depends on what interests you. I’m a polisci junkie, so I’ve begun to ask myself questions like: “What kind of political movements will this initiate? How will those movements change our social and political institutions?”
You don’t have to be interested in politics for this to work. Your questions could be something like: “I wonder what methodologies researchers are using to develop a vaccine?” or “I wonder what new art is being made because of this?”
3. Do the good things.
All the lifestyle blogs are telling you to do the good things. All the doctors and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men are telling you to do the good things. Just do them.
Drinking and breathing are the most important good things. If you’re dehydrated or hyperventilating, then you’re already primed for a fight-or-flight response. Keep a water bottle nearby and try your hand at square breathing if you find yourself getting overwhelmed.
The other good things are important too:
- Eating well is good.
- Exercise is good.
- Sleep is good.
- Talking to people that make you feel good is good.
You’re probably going to have to adapt your good things while you practice social distancing. For a great resource on how to go about doing that, check out this article written by my friend Alix.
4. Don’t just ask for help: offer it. Don’t just offer help: ask for it.
Healthy relationships are a key ingredient in maintaining our sanity, and good relationships are built on a foundation of quid pro quo interactions. Don’t be afraid to ask your loved ones for help for fear of being burdensome. Don’t hesitate to offer help for fear of being overbearing. If you have a friend/family member with a history of mental illness, reach out to them. If you have a history of mental illness, reach out to a friend/family member with a good track record of being helpful.
Help doesn’t have to be a big thing. It doesn’t have to involve talking directly about anyone’s mental health. Help can be a 5-minute chat about something completely unrelated to the pandemic. Help can look like an unexpected meme or a check-in text.
If you aren’t able to get the help you need from friends/family, and/or your fears and anxieties are manifesting themselves as unhealthy behaviors — get professional help as soon as possible. Almost all psychotherapists, psychologists, and counselors are still offering remote appointments via video conferencing.
If you can’t afford therapy, try your best to find an online resource from a reputable organization that speaks to you. When I couldn’t afford therapy, I turned to Crash Course’s course on psychology to help understand what was going on inside of my mind.
5. Give yourself time.
When the rug is suddenly pulled out from under you, it can take a little bit before you find your footing again. Something tells me that a lot of us are going to wake up from this pandemic and emerge into a Popsicle stick world.