self-help

Panic Attacks and Sleepless Nights (Part I)

One of the most trying periods of my life occurred during my second year of law school.  For an entire semester, I suffered mid-night panic attacks on a regular basis.  The experience was brutal.

My first year, I was placed in a “section” and attended all the same classes with all the same people.  But in the second year that structure was removed, and we were free to select courses and schedules on our own.  This meant that each course would now be with a more or less random group of other students.

Compounding my unfamiliarity with the people in my classes was the fact that I had spent a year in business school, so I knew none of the people who were now second year law students. The people I began studying with had moved on to their third year.

I was taking more units of courses than ever before, and I had scheduled all of my classes over a three-day period (the purpose of this was efficiency.  I wanted to commute to campus as few times a week as possible. While efficiency was the goal, I suppose that my initial plan backfired on account of the extended period of exhaustion I experienced the entirety of the semester).  Thus, I had more classes, on fewer days, and with complete strangers.

I recall all the other students looking at me quizzically each time I entered a class wondering, surely, “who the eff is this dude?!?” In turn, I was like, “I was here before any of you kids. A little respect is in order.” But they had no clue.

Regardless, I was completely uncomfortable.  The prior year of business school had been a cake-walk.  I smoked weed often (“often” being a euphemism for near-daily), and was carefree and happy.  I was dating a girl I loved, and life hadn’t been better.

The summer before returning to law school, her and I broke up. The timing was off. She was ready to set sail on a marital commitment, and I wasn’t sure I was yet equipped to hold down the fort for myself, individually, let alone the two of us and a future family-to-be.

Come to think of it, it was an inopportune time for the parting of ways for me personally. Inopportune doesn’t do the timing justice. It was somewhat of a perfect storm. I was trying to buckle down for what I knew would be a challenging return to law, the tide of anxiety steadily mounting as I again approached the start of classes. I was weaning myself, unsuccessfully, off of an affinity for weed which had now certainly become an outright addiction. And I was coping even more incompetently with the loss of a relationship that only later would I realize I would never truly get over. One of those.

As is the case when something happens to you, unexpectedly, which has never happened before, I was caught off guard the first time – an unsuspecting victim of a sucker-punch from a lunatic roaming the streets in the middle of the night.

Here’s how I recall it going down:

In my second week of classes, I went to sleep uneasy with the amount of material I would be covering in the next-day’s classes. I had an initial impression of the classes, and classmates, I’d be spending the next several months with. Now my anticipated anxieties had faces, and names, and context in the form of the classrooms and professors where they’d play out. This feeling alone wasn’t unusual and did not give me pause. But this time the severity of the anxiety reached new heights.

It was the shudder of my nerves that first awoke me, followed by the inconsolable escalation of mental processes, from a deep slumber to an immediate fight-or-flight response. Like the gasp of air upon sudden consciousness, arising from the throes of a nightmare. A sudden shift of the San Andreas faultline, except without the earthquake.

The clock said 2:15 A.M. I had been asleep just 3 and-a-half hours. But I was far from that state now. I was drenched in a cold sweat, my sheets soaked through. They were wet to the touch, and although it was not hot out, my body was seemingly on fire.

My thoughts raced through different material I had read earlier in the week, preparing for classes I had the next day, inundating me with anxieties and fears. Would I be called on in Ethics class? How much uncomfortability did the day hold in store? And then, to other subjects: Should I not have given up on my relationship?

It was a full-fledged assault: My own mind attacking itself under the cloak of night when the rest of my being was most vulnerable. With my body and soul seeking the silent refuge of sleep, my brain had arranged an ambush.

3:45 A.M.:      Coming to grips with this twist of events, I lay open-eyed staring at the ceiling, wide-awake and yearning not-to-be. At this point, I realized that for the first time I had experienced a phenomenon a psychologist had alluded to years prior when she prophesized, “one of the dangers of anxiety disorders is their evolution into panic attacks.”

Here I was, far from that point in time the words were first uttered, experiencing my first panic attack. As it came to pass, I would need to learn to get used to them.

Next Up: “Panic Attacks and Sleepless Nights (Part II: A Poem)”

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Taking Anxiety to School – Sweating in Class (Part II – A Detailed Account of My Time in Graduate School)

Pressure is relative. Everyone has a different threshold. As I’ve mentioned, anxiety predated law school. But I knew when I enrolled that the pressure in law school would test me in ways I’d never experienced. My doubts were overwhelming, and I wondered how I’d cope with the feelings….and with the sweating.

In preparation for this “war,” I had been seeing a therapist. I had a prescription for Paxil which may have been working, albeit minimally, in keeping my mood positive as I approached Day 1.

The first week of class I was anxious, but fighting. I wore undershirts and oversized collared shirts to try to conceal the sweating. For people who sweat a lot, a tight shirt is terrifying. Give me about 4 minutes, and it’s soaked through. Hence, oversized.

While in class, I was distracted. Well, maybe that’s not the word. It was more like I had tunnel vision. In my head, I was back on the plains of the Savannah, staring down a lion. My attention was acutely focused on the professor and the material.

It was between classes, or at breaks, that I’d head to the restroom to do an underarm check. Without fail, I’d be soaked. I’d spread my arms like a bird taking flight, and to me deep disappointment my two shirts would be waterlogged.Flight cancelled for today folks! Inclement weather. Wayyyy too damn much precipitation for take off!

I’d grab paper towels to soak up what I could, but there was no real effective way to prevent the sweat marks. I was the Titanic, with a breach in my hull that could not be plugged…And I was sinking.

I kept trying to reinforce that, no matter the disappointment, I was fighting for myself. I was face to face with my lion – an entire damn pride – and I was holding my nerve (to a certain extent). But it would be disingenuous if I told you that the sight of soaked shirts did not bring me down every time I raised my arms in the bathroom mirror.

About 2 weeks into classes, I was talking to one of my closest friends about my predicament. He gave me what, in retrospect, was such simple, almost-intuitive advice: WEAR WHITE. It hadn’t crossed my mind previously. In fact, I had been more of the opinion that a solid black hue would be most effective at concealing the sweat.

If you are a heavy sweater, perhaps you have already realized the virtues of white shirts. The color simply makes the wetness less obvious…Less visible.

The advice helped immensely. It did NOT curb my sweating. I still sweated a ton. But it was much harder for others to notice. I did not need to be nearly as self-conscious, which drastically reduced the secondary anxiety over whether others would notice my condition. In fact, “secondary” only refers to which comes first: anxiety–> sweating –>anxiety about discomfort, embarrassment, others noticing, etc

In reality, I believe that often times secondary anxiety (the concern that others may notice the condition) can be far worse than the anxiety causing the sweating in the first place.

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)

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