Month: January 2015

Taking Anxiety to School – Sweating In Class (Part I – Preparing for a Seemingly Insurmountable Stint in Law School)

I dread sweating wherever and whenever it may happen (the only time it’s welcome is during physical exertion, when it’s cause is not anxiety).  But one of the hardest forums in which I’ve had to manage it is at work.

Whether it’s work or school, most of us have responsibilities where we need to interact with others.  I work as a lawyer.  I know, I know…probably not the best choice of professions for a person with social and performance anxiety.  That wasn’t lost at me when I started the path to attorney-hood.  The rationale in my head was this:   I was anxious regardless of the setting.  Even as a box-boy at the grocery store at 15, I can recall feeling anxiety speaking with customers.  So the idea  was that, if I’m gonna feel it anyway, it shouldn’t dissuade a career aspiration.  
 
Not surprisingly, this road has not been easy.  In law school, there was a lot of performance involved.  The professors often use the Socratic method, calling out students at random with questions on the material.  Just this idea was mortifying.  The forecast for my first week of law school was a torrential downpour of sweat, amidst an unhealthy and overwhelming cloud of cigarette smoke.

I was terrified to attend the first day of classes.  How could I, a person with a clinical anxiety disorder, with uncontrollable sweating, with performance and social anxiety to the Nth degree…How could I, of all people, handle this environment?  Could I handle it at all? Was this something that was just not possible for me to overcome?

I ruminated on this thought in the months leading up to the start of classes.  I went to a therapist.  I got a prescription for an anti-anxiety/anti-depressant.  I believe the flavor of the day was Paxil, although it’s tough to recall seeing as I’ve been through a catalog of prescriptions over the years.

My mentality was that I was going to war.  A war for my world, and to defeat my inner demons: social anxiety, performance anxiety, fear, doubt, and sweating.  Regardless of their origins, I would be facing them head-on.  It was a war I could not lose. I bought brand new bright white undershirts, knowing all-too-well they’d have a severely shortened life expectancy – doomed to yellow underarm stains on account of the sprinkler valves embedded in my ‘pits.  Collateral damage, I suppose.

The questions about whether I could weather the law school storm were bouncing around my head incessantly.  They were pressing.  Could I manage sweating in this high-pressure environment?  How would I make friends if I was always uneasy?  How would I react to being called on in class?  How could I hide my sweating?  If I couldn’t, what then would I do?  Would I quit?  

More generally, the questions were existential.  What was I going to do with my life, in light of the anxious sweat-storm that had befallen it?  Should I head for the hills, and seek sanctuary in some (potentially non-existent) occupation where I don’t interact with others and wouldn’t have daily situations that make me severely anxious?  Or did I need to face anxiety in this laboratory, so to speak, where everyday was yet another round of exposure therapy?

To put things in context, this is not hyperbole.  Every day that I went to campus ended drenched. There were no exceptions. There were days my mood was better, and others more defeated, but always DRENCHED.  So if you believe I am overstating the magnitude of my sweating issue, hopefully that puts it in context.  I imagine there are others who sweat more than me, but I also submit that I may be in the top 1% of sweaters walking the planet.  In fact, I think that’s a conservative estimate.

Anyway, I’d be bullshitting if I didn’t disclose that there were some tears – of agony, of anguish, of hopelessness and self-pity – that were shed that first week.  More than a few.

I recall a conversation after my second day of classes.  It was with my father, in my parents’ backyard.   One of those conversations in your life where you recall every detail, large and small.  I dribbled a basketball to distract myself from the discomfort of the conversation.  The weather was brisk, and there was a slight end-of-summer breeze that, upon hitting my damp underarms, drove home that even in that moment I was sweating about sweating…The irony.  And I recall the view of the horizon as the sun went down, granted it was blurred with tears of despair.  
 
Months of worry and concern had now come to fruition.  My journey through law school had begun.  And I wasn’t so sure it would last past the opening week.

My dad told me this:  “If you quit now, you will be quitting your whole life.”  Now, I don’t know if that is good advice or not.  I don’t know if that’s the proper mentality.  But I do know that every psychologist will talk about avoidance.  If you suffer from anxiety, avoiding the anxious situation reinforces that behavior.  Left unchecked, I suppose one would become a recluse or sorts.

So at the time, his sage advice resonated with me.  I might have been a sweaty mess, but I was standing up for a good cause – myself.  Somehow (maybe I’m masochist) I just thought that if I could do this, I could do anything.

To my surprise, I was wrong.  Had I dropped out of law school, I would have met my anxious self elsewhere, inevitably.  Maybe I would have quit again, or maybe I would have taken up the fight there.  So maybe I wouldn’t have been quitting my whole life.

But I didn’t quit law school.  I completed it.  I also got an MBA at the same time.  And I was relatively successful, finishing in the top 20% of my class.  But, having done it, I realized that doing it did NOT mean I could do anything.  The front had moved, but the war raged on.

Next Up:  Taking Anxiety to School – Sweating in Class (Part II – A Detailed Account of My Time in Graduate School)
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A Sweet, Illusory Escape (Part II) – The Turnaround

This year I have made a pledge to myself.  This way of escaping isn’t working for me.  It may for you.  And if it does, by all means, light it up.  But, after years of wishfully denying that reality, I have realized that facing life with anxiety, by escaping with weed, won’t work for me.

 

There may be a time, when I’m in a different place, that I can return to those glorious green buds.  Maybe if I use it in a limited fashion, I can incorporate it in my life.  But for now, it’s out.  Perhaps an occasional puff with friends, but having my own and using it daily is far too detrimental.

 

The rebound is too powerful.  The other side of the relaxation of a night stoned is the next day’s anxiety, which manifests more as a panic than as a general unease.  That feeling is more powerful, and I find it more detrimental to my well-being.

 

The upsides are numerous.  While weed relaxes me, it obviously makes me cloudy.  The cloud distracts the anxiety, and usually I won’t sweat at all.  Interestingly, if I do sweat, the secondary anxiety about others noticing doesn’t seem to be there, apparently also because of the anxiety.  As I’ve mentioned previously, this is proof, to me, that I don’t have a sweating issue, but an anxiety disorder.

 

With some additional anxiety, but without the cloud, I can focus on how to live a more productive life.  I can put more attention into the things in my life that add meaning, like this blog.  Letting go of weed is the primary reason I’m back posting here.  I also don’t experience nearly the same amount of panic.  Without the feeling of dependence, I’m more at ease knowing that, even if anxious, I am facing my life’s challenges.

 

I must admit I am using other substances to manage the anxiety, hopefully temporarily.  I take a small amount of Klonopin each day to reduce the feelings of panic I often experience.  I’m aware this too is a dependence, but I feel it’s necessary for the time-being.  More critically, Klonopin doesn’t undermine my mental acuity and my focus on the directions in which I want to take my life, and it allows me to build confidence that I can face anxiety without blowing my mind into a cloudy confusion.

 

Other people with anxiety have told me they can’t handle marijuana.  The high itself creates an anxiety avalanche.  But I also firmly believe there are many potsmokers out there that, whether they’re aware of it or not, are self-medicating with weed.  I’d caution against that tact.  The initial benefits can quickly turn on you, and the problem you’ve attempted to remedy is then far worse.

 

Next time:  Working Your Way Through It – Sweating on the Job

A Sweet, Illusory Escape – Cannabis (Part I)

Escape is an elusive sanctuary.  I can see it in a dream.  A safe place.  One to unwind, anxiety-less.  A long trip to the bathroom, alone in the stall for just a brief period in the midst of an overly-chaotic day. The calm in the eye of the storm.  I do this at work a lot (keep that between us).

To people with anxiety – with anxious sweating – the oppressive thought is that these feelings recycle. I may end a day feeling great about myself, satisfied with the way I handled some tough situations, and actually entirely relaxed.  Sometimes I think that end-of-the-stressful-day-relaxation is my body essentially running out of anxiety.  One quick look at the tank: “Anxiety on empty!”  Fantastic.  What a wonderful reprieve.

But it’s temporal.  The thought that of the next day – waking up with a re-awakening of anxiety, with a whole new set of anxiety-provoking challenges to come, more streams of sweat to pour out – that can be exhausting and, frankly, depressing over time.  Often that’s where escape comes in.  Some manner or way to distract our anxiety-obsessed minds.  These can be healthy, or unhealthy, and it’s by no means black and white.  The same escape may be destructive to some, while productive to others.

Escape comes in many forms.  “Avoidance” would be the psychological parlance.

I’ve been MIA.  I apologize.  I started this blog, and then….I escaped.  And avoided.  My primary form of escape is, and has been for years, what is now one of the most lucrative industries in the U.S.  Some have called it the modern-day “gold rush.”  Only green, not gold.

Cannabis has reached its tipping point.  At the time of my writing this entry, 23 states have legalized it, for medicinal and/or recreational purposes.  My state led the charge, but has limited legalization to those with “medical” reasons.

That said, it’s easier to get a marijuana card in California than it is to get high at a Phish concert.  You go through about a 30 minute wait at a “Doctor’s” office, mention that you suffer from: (a) migraines (b) anxiety (c) stomach aches (d) insomnia (e) weed addiction!  That’s a joke. But anything really will fly.  You pay $30-$60 for an annual card, and you’re set.  Able to purchase the best, most potent weed on the planet anytime you see one of those neon green crosses impossible for any pothead to ignore.  A toddler could do it.

My experience with weed has been mixed, but ultimately negative. I joined the weed-game relatively late, I’d imagine.  I really took to it during graduate school, when I found myself in a pressure-packed environment, where performance was of-the-essence, and my anxiety was kicking.  At the end of rough period, a small doobie did the trick like nothing else.

At the time, I managed to separate my life – my personalities – in two.  I was a duality.  Together, focused, organized, albeit anxiety-ridden around peers throughout the school week.  I was thereby able to manage interpersonal relationships, coming off professionally and put-together, all the while with a undercurrent of anxiety boiling up inside.

The outlet was the weekend.  The time with friends, and with my girlfriend at the time.  And those times couldn’t happen without weed.  It was the distraction that set my mind-straight.  In my head, that was me.  That was the true me.  I was funny, and bold, and not preoccupied with things that might happen.  Worries about how I came off to others were disregarded, and I got the distinct impression that it was precisely those times that I came off best.  Maybe I did.

Over time, as with all relationships, cannabis and I had a rift.  The occasional weekend escape had become a regularity.  What had began as the exception, was now the rule.  Dependency was the result, and I found rebounding the next day increasingly difficult, causing fits of anxiety and bouts of panic.  Like an astronaut returning to gravity, coming back to my anxious reality each morning could leave me weak in the knees.

Often, I’d handle the adjustment with a morning joint to stunt the inner-chatter.  But, of course, that simply propagated the problem further.  Eventually, inevitably, you have to come out of that cloud.  And while in it, it was simply not very possible to handle all of the other things life demanded, and move my life forward productively.  The day became a wait for the smoke of the evening, and everything truly was a bit of a cloudy confusion.  If I couldn’t figure an alternative, I was basically resigning myself to being a burnout.

Next Time: Part II – The Turnaround