“Beware lest in your anxiety to avoid war you obtain a master”. Demosthenes
“I can’t go tonight. I am working overtime tomorrow”. The disappointment in my friend’s voice on the other end of the line was evident. It won’t be as much fun without you. Next time.
His tone revealed that I let him down. I knew I wasn’t going to work overtime tomorrow. So why did I “back out” on my friends yet again? I didn’t have an answer. I let myself down too.
Contained in my youth were a number of similar instances. Those who don’t know any better would call it lying. I won’t argue, rather will add the full perspective.
While I understand that view, I see it differently. Holistically. Lying implies being deceitful. That was not what l was trying to be. My intent was solely to avoid another rumble with anxiety. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time. That came several years later when, in desperate need of an answer to the anxiety overtaking me, I simultaneously began studying counseling theory in college and seeing a therapist. Everything began to make sense. The fog of confusion lifted and was replaced with the bright shine of clarity.
I grew up much differently than my friends. Most enjoyed stable homes with both parents home each night for dinner. They took vacations to happy places and when they got a little older, did things like walking fifteen fun –filled minutes down the road with a group of pals to catch an afternoon matinee. Teenagers expect to be able to do things like this. At least my generation that grew up in the 1980’s did. But when your biological father is the deadly leader of a violent and sinister motorcycle gang, you don’t have the same childhood as your friends. You just don’t.
Making excuses was commonplace for my mother during my childhood. It took me a while to understand why but when I became a parent myself the answer hit me in the gut with the force of a hulking linebacker. You do what you have to do to protect your family, especially your children.
My biological father had physically attacked her on a number of occasions, including pushing her down to the asphalt and breaking her arm when she was 9-months pregnant with me. It’s understandable that I let anxiety run rampant for a couple of decades.
No doubt I experienced it in the womb- feeling the jolt of the ground, being bathed with stress hormones as they flooded the space that was supposed to be my place of nourishment. Hearing the drumroll of the racing heartbeat that accompanies panic. By the time I made my way into this world, I knew anxiety on a level that no kid should ever have to know. Kids deserve better.
One day, after another argument, he made an ominous threat to my mother. It was straightforward enough: ‘You better hold those kids close because if you let them out of your sight, they’ll be gone”. That’s enough to make any parent get into overprotective mode. Or engage in criminal activity. Fortunately, my mother did not resort to the latter. But what she did do was keep me close to home. All. The. Time.
I didn’t get to experience those memories made at matinee movies like my older brother and friends. Being three years younger and far more emotionally sensitive, I learned in my formative years that making excuses to avoid situations and staying close to home keep you safe. Physically and mentally. And so those lessons learned in the tender toddler years became ingrained. It was what I knew.
Going back to the phone call with my friend, I was not trying to lie or disappoint. I was trying to keep myself comfortable. After a lifetime of staying close to home, that was where I felt safe. I went out countless times with my friends, far more than not. My memories are crammed with late nights singing Karaoke, enjoying being young and driving home in the blue of dawn. And lots of laughing. Some chose to remember the times I wasn’t there and have forever tied me to it. Because of anxiety, I lost a few friends. By choice.
The guys who couldn’t differentiate between a lie and a legitimate reason, who kept bringing up the past, who wanted to be seen for the changed men they had become but were not willing to reciprocate. I decided I was not going to let their weight cuff me to the past one day longer. I had to make changes.
I took quiet time for deep self-reflection, identified behaviors I wanted to change, replayed the things I had seen as a kid and saw similarities in what I was doing and what my mother had to do. I then started out to become a new me.
These are gifts that anxiety gave me—the ability to look within, be authentic in my actions, take responsibility for my missteps and use it all to make myself better than before.
How did I make myself better? Anxiety attacks struck for nearly twenty years, including multiple times each day for over a year. My head and limbs would tingle incessantly. I’d wake in the dark of night trembling in terror, soaked in sweat. The force of the anxious energy would cause nausea and vomiting.
Since those nervous nights, I have not had one in nearly five years. Because I know where it comes from, anxiety no longer elicits a fear based response. Uncovering its origin changed my life. It’s like discovering the boogey man is not real. Once you do, the fear is erased forever.
Instead of suppressing my dreams, I pursue with great joy my authentic calling—writing (note- I believe anxiety can be triggered when one does not pursue their dreams and instead lives a life incongruent with who they are truly meant to be). I used to be underpaid and undervalued by any definition and had no vision for my life’s direction. Since then, I doubled my income, have a clear vision of the husband, father and man that I am and want to be. I’ve reinvented myself and achieved wonderful things that were once distant dreams.
I have freed myself from the heaviness that restrained my upward momentum. Changing the perceptions of others isn’t important anymore. Choosing not to surround myself with unsupportive people was inspiring and invigorating. I’ve got amazing things to enjoy and focus on and that is where I put my energy.
If anxiety is holding you back, you can do the same. Take time alone with your thoughts, map out your past, write in a journal, talk with a relative about missing pieces of family history or speak with a mental health professional. These are just some of the things you can do today to start gaining insight. Once you become aware of where your anxiety comes from, you have the power to set expectations and make informed decisions that will literally change your life.
Fortunately, the friend on the other end of the telephone line is still that today. A damn good friend. You may have lost friends, family or a job due to anxiety. Accept it and be appreciative of what was. Regretting the past will not serve you well. Use your time productively. Make a conscious effort to see the whole person and not just a skewed portion of that person.
If you’ve struggled with anxiety for any length of time, dive in and find out where it is coming from. I can tell you from experience, you’ll be glad you did. And chances are, you just may reinvent yourself along the way.