Modern Life Support – Panic Attacks, Expectations vs. Reality, and Stress. OH MY!
Man, if I was in Dorothy’s shoes, my feet would be KILLING me. Also, I’d be freaking out big time. I’d be so stressed out just from the munchkins singing, I’d go back in the house that killed the wicked witch and never come out. In my head, I’d be saying “I’m not supposed to be here, this is wrong. This isn’t how this was supposed to go.” I know this because I went through a couple situations at Origins 2014 that left me feeling the same way. Read on to hear more about them and what I did/didn’t do and what I should/shouldn’t do in the future. Apologies in advance, this post got super long on me. I won’t blame anybody if they decide not to read it 🙂
Everything described in this post will be as vague and nebulous as can be, while still keeping the general gist of the situations. People may be able to deduce and infer who and what I’m talking about. Just so it’s clear now, and throughout the remainder of this post…
Any blame for anything I experienced falls directly on my shoulders, and mine alone.
I am not a mental health professional. I have had no training. All I’m trying to do with Modern Life Support posts are to get things out of my head and expose them to the light of day. If that helps me learn from them and/or helps someone in some way with their own situations, then that’s icing on the cake.
I’m not the most emotionally stable person in the world. I’m not even top 1,000 or any top number. I struggle almost daily with depression and anxiety. I’ve gotten better over the years, but I still have triggers that will set me off on either a depressive slide or an anxiety-fueled full on panic attack. I’ve gotten better at hiding it, disguising it with bravado and boisterous behavior. Which is odd, considering I’m fairly introverted, but as it happens, it’s worked relatively well for me as a coping mechanism. And that’s kind of the key thing: coping mechanisms. Having “safe” places to go, things to distract me, or “escape routes” at the ready. The problem with coping mechanisms is they often tend to not be very portable, so when I’m going outside my comfort zone, say to a game convention, they don’t work as well, or sometimes at all. I’m obviously not a mental health professional, so I’m not preaching the value of coping mechanisms, just describing how they work for me.
I had a couple situations during Origins 2014 where my coping mechanisms. Oddly enough, one was a very depressive situation and the other a very anxious one. Neither of them completely derailed the con for me, thankfully, but I think both of them are valuable opportunities to learn.
I struggle with feeling disconnected, lonely, out of touch, etc. When those feelings get bad, I tend to bounce around between feeling sorry for myself, being irrationally upset at others, and being mad at myself for being upset at others. And typically they all center around Expectations vs. Reality. I honestly try not to be a “control freak”, but my brain likes to lay out storylines of how things should work out. I try not to let that turn into expectations, but sometimes I slip up. Wednesday of Origins was one of those times.
I’d met up with some friends on Tuesday night, had started the game playing early, and went to bed pumped for the first “real” day of Origins. Side Note: I really need to stop considering Wednesday the first “real” day of Origins. I got up on Wednesday, got dressed, got breakfast, and headed down to the convention center with thoughts of what to play first, etc,etc dancing through my head. I won’t go into details, but needless to say my plans didn’t align with the rest of my friends plans. I immediately felt excluded and shunned. Eventually I went back up to my room and actually cried for a bit. By the way, I’ll refer you back to earlier in the post when I admit I’m not the most emotionally stable person. Eventually, I calmed myself down, went down to the Board Room, checked out a big heavy civ game, and played it for four hours with a very nice man who happened by while I was setting it up to learn solo. I eventually did connect with my friends, and everything was cool.
Depressive Situation Analysis (or What the hell happened?!)
So, what the hell happened?! Well, like I said, expectations didn’t align with reality. Now, I’m a reasonably flexible guy in general. But at a Con, it’s one of those really rare times that I actually feel excitement and feel pumped up, jazzed, psyched,…I ran out of synonyms. And when that happens, I let my defense mechanisms slide. I got my hopes up. And I don’t tend to do well when that happens. Could my friends have done more to include me? Maybe, but that’s beside the point. I never should’ve gotten myself in the position where I was reliant on other people to make my day better for me. I never should’ve presumed that they’d think to include me in what was going on. And in reality, I wasn’t going to be able to be included in it anyways.
So, what could I have done differently? Well, I could’ve sucked it up and quit being a baby and manned up! Or, better yet, I could’ve just accepted reality for what it was. I wasn’t going to be able to change it, so why should I let that envelop me the way it did? Well, that’s a problem that’s rooted in neurological/familial/historical traits, but I can do more and do better to recognize it when it’s happening and adapt. I could’ve gone to the Board Room, and checked out a game, set it up, and played it with anyone who was interested. I could’ve explored the city a little, see what Columbus had to offer beyond the North Market to Convention Center to Arena District area. I still would’ve been bummed things didn’t work out like I’d hoped (and irrationally expected), but I could’ve done something much more positive with the situation than I did. There is one other wrinkle to this that also plays a part in the anxious situation and I’ll get into in more detail below.
Now let’s shift gears a little to the anxiety-riddled portion of this post. First off, if you’re still with me…wow, I feel like I need to give you something as compensation for your time. I don’t know what that would be, but I’ll think about it and get back to you.
I struggle a lot more with depression than I do anxiety. Depression is sneaky enough as it is, but anxiety, at least for me, is a much better master of disguise. Anxiety for me waits for just the right set of circumstances before he pounces. And he very patient and can go a very long time before he strikes. Also, did I just personify anxiety as a guy wearing fancy disguises? I’m not sure if that’s healthy or not…Anywho!
So, later in the week of Origins, a perfect storm was brewing. I was with a group of people rushing to get somewhere, somewhere that something needed to be done. We weren’t exactly sure where we were going, and we were running short on time. Once we arrived, things needed to be prepared, and with a modicum of haste. Within 10 minutes, I was in the men’s room of the establishment, in a stall with the door closed, trying to slow my breathing down and keep myself from literally running away.
Anxious Situation Analysis (or What the hell happened?!)
So, with that lengthy and descriptive setup there, I’m sure you all know exactly what happened, so I don’t need to write this part.
Kidding. So, what the hell happened?! Well, sometimes those set of circumstances that trigger my anxiety aren’t as easy for me to keep track of. And the things that triggered it this time were, for most people, innocuous at best, and minor annoyances at worst. Running late, being lost, preparations to be done. I wish I could be one of those people who let stuff like that just slide off their backs. Unfortunately, that wasn’t me that night. When I’m in situations like that, my inner “control freak” (you know, the one I claimed above that I try not to be) liked to come out like the hulk ripping through Bruce Banner’s clothes. I start to take over things that I’m not responsible for. I start to lose myself to the situation at hand and put everything I’ve got into getting it “under control”. I ignore myself and how I’m feeling, in order to get things in that magical state of “under control”. It’s like I believe that by getting things “under control”, I’ll automatically feel better.
Now there’s one key piece of this that I believe was the ultimate catalyst for my panic attack. I suddenly felt trapped. We were in the back room of an establishment, of which I was in the back of. I was surrounded by friends and people who I’d just met. And the one thing I desperately wanted to do more than anything was run away. I wanted to go outside. I wanted to go for a walk. I wanted to be completely alone. For just a minute, maybe 5. I wanted everything and everyone to just stop, like I’d hit pause on a video game. Due to some specific timing, that didn’t seem to be an option for me. So, I swallowed it down as best I could, waiting for the right moment to appear where I could bolt. But it didn’t seem to appear. And at that point, it was becoming very hard to keep it swallowed down. I don’t get like that very often. Honestly, it’s very rare that I do. And even after typing this, I still don’t feel like I have a good handle on exactly why it happened, everything I’ve described being my best guess.
So, that being said, what could I have honestly done differently? Well, for starters, I could’ve been doing a much better job of monitoring my stress level. I could’ve held on to my perspective and what I was ultimately responsible for in the situation (namely, me). I could’ve excused myself sooner, before it built up inside me.
Ultimately, there’s one thing I’m very proud of that I didn’t do. And that was to drink. This post is getting hella long, so I’ll try to be brief with this, and maybe go into more detail in a post of its own, but last year, I had a serious alcohol problem. I was drinking a bottle of liquor in a single sitting, once a week. I did it because of that brief moment of time when you’re so fucked up you don’t have a care in the world. The depression and the anxiety just disappeared. I was invincible. I could talk to whoever I wanted, I could do whatever I wanted. Eventually, my body fired a warning shot off of my starboard bow (read: my heart), and let me know there would be hell to pay if I continued. Since then, I haven’t had a single drop. 155 days as of this post. I went so far as to avoid food made with alcohol. It used to be my crutch. It used to be what I’d go to when I felt things coming on like I’ve described above. And during both of these situations, I really wanted that crutch back. Real bad. But I didn’t go for it. Sure, I stumbled as a result. But I’ll eventually get better at learning how not to stumble. I’ll find healthier crutches. Better ways to cope, to recognize, and diffuse these things.