I’ve talked about my “mood disorders” and my “diagnoses” and my “anxiety,” but I don’t think I’ve really explained what life is like, day-to-day. So here’s how it works:
I feel anxious every day, to some degree. I almost never panic. What’s the difference? Anxiety happens around something real, like a job interview. Everyone feels anxious about a job interview, right? That’s normal. I feel anxious about the job interview and then anxious about whether or not I am qualified and then about whether or not I should have written a different cover letter and then about whether or not I will ever find any job and then about the money I spent on the cup of coffee in my hand, which I clearly shouldn’t have spent because I’m about to be jobless forever and poor. Not so normal. It’s a lot better than it used to be; it used to spiral from anxiety about a job to panic that I was a fraud and totally incompetent and didn’t deserve a job, all in about five minutes. As you might imagine, I’ve cancelled a number of job interviews in my life. I cancelled because I had worked myself into an anxiety attack. During an attack, I’ll cry hysterically and start to hyperventilate, often sitting on the floor clutching my hair. It’s painful. I usually have to sleep afterwards.
A panic attack is different in one essential quality: there is no discernible reason for me to sit on the floor in the bathroom, crying. Sure, the example above is a completely disproportionate reaction to the job interview. But it’s an extreme version of the emotion that everyone feels before a job interview. In college, I once came home from a perfectly fun night out, went into the bathroom to wash my face, took one look in the mirror and burst into tears. It took me over an hour to calm down. I still have no idea what triggered that panic attack. The kinds of thoughts that race through my mind during a panic attack have a general theme of self-hatred, but I don’t need a reason. The bathroom sink, the front door, the coffee machine. These have all driven me to tears. I haven’t had a panic attack since I started taking Klonopin. You might understand if I’m nervous about going off the drug. The panic attack can’t get going, you see, if the physical symptoms don’t start it. A good cry doesn’t turn into panic if the medication keeps my brain from sending crazy electrical signals that say “you can’t breath!” or make me dizzy.
I do not experience depression unless I stop dealing with the anxiety, start feeling panic, go deep into denial and, essentially, start giving up. Depression happened because I tried to pretend that the anxiety wasn’t there. I was pretending because I thought that it wasn’t normal, it would go away, I could just work harder and make it stop. The diagnosis is Major Depressive Disorder, however, because depression is the place I go when I am extremely discouraged. I stop getting out of bed. I cry a lot. I don’t eat much. It follows me because I know I will go back there if I allow anxiety to take over my life again. That’s not the reaction that most people have, so it’s a disorder.
“Mood disorder” is the umbrella term for each of these more specific disorder for an obvious reason: my mood stops matching the situation and becomes very dark. Psychosis is not a mood disorder; during a psychotic state, people see, hear, believe, know, things that aren’t real. It’s not about the mood so much as the thoughts. Anxiety, panic and depression are all about the mood you’re in when something happens. They’re sneaky because they live inside my reactions to my life. A perfectly normal reaction can turn into an anxiety attack, especially when I’m vulnerable. When I’m sick, have had a series of migraines, have not been to therapy in awhile, then it’s harder to say “no” to the thought “you are not good enough.” The thought spins around, in it’s various, highly detailed permutations, until it has spun my mood out of control. It takes an awful lot of work to turn that mood around.
It looks so hard when I write it all out. It is difficult, I suppose. But my alternatives are worse. And I just got used to doing that work, once I learned how. I’m still learning. I know that the analogy I’m about to share is a little bit silly, but my therapist in college came up with it and it just describes what I’m learning to do so well. She said that it’s like I have been walking through the woods, and suddenly here’s this path. It’s not going anywhere. There’s no destination. But since I’m walking through these woods anyway, it’s really a lot easier to walk on the path. I lose it sometimes and end up fighting my way through stray branches, roots, rocks and dense trees. But I find it and get back on. And keep walking.