If I think back to all of the most memorable and joyous moments of my life, my memories are laced with a dark, gripping cloak of anxiety.
Experiences that other people would celebrate, such as graduations, weddings, and promotions, are dreaded milestones for me — not the ferociously sought-after goals that they are for many people.
Sometimes, I think back to try to identify the defining moment that turned me into the anxious, paranoid wreck that I became for so long. I search for clues regarding what led me there. Maybe my mother was withholding, or maybe my father was too strict.
Perhaps those things are true. But my anxiety was always there, slowly bubbling to the surface for a quarter of a century, until it would eventually erupt, pouring into every aspect of my adult life.
As a kid, I would second guess everything that I did. I was told that I was “just shy,” and that I needed to practice doing things I didn’t want to do in order to get used to my shyness.
My mom would make me order food at restaurants and over the phone, in the hope of helping me overcome my irrational fear of interacting with others.
By junior high, I hid myself in class projects and after school programs so that every moment of every day was accounted for, leaving no room for self-doubt to creep in. The adults told me I was ambitious, driven even.
And perhaps they were right, but I see now that it was just my anxiety taking root in the deepest recesses of my personality and worldview.
In college, I continued working tirelessly on class projects and student organizations, using my anxiety as the fuel to my overachieving fire.
I hid behind the guise of being a good student, a good worker, and a good son.
But the dark reality was that if I stopped to rest for a single second, I would spiral out of control. The self-loathing would take over, and panic attacks would consume me. So I filled my time with more work, more activities, and more goals.
I graduated with honors, and at my college graduation ceremony — a collection of medals hanging around my neck — I was meant to lead my class out onto the stage to receive our degrees. The department chairperson gave me simple enough instructions, mostly just detailing the path from the entrance to our seats.
My mentor and friend stood nearby in excited anticipation. She quietly snapped a picture of me and sent it through later that evening.
When I stared at the photo later, I noticed the excited students around me with big smiles and oversized graduation gowns. The department chairperson had a relaxed face; her head slightly tilted as she spoke. As for me?
I stood frozen, my hands tangled in themselves, my fingers twirling the cords and medals hanging over my shoulders. My face was stiff, my eyes laser sharp, my lips set in a firm, straight line, and the muscles in my jaw were protruding ever so slightly.
As I received my instructions with poise, my inner world was in utter chaos. Though I looked confident and powerful on the outside, both my mind and heart were racing. Thoughts of self-doubt and self-hatred competed for my attention, all but drowning out the real voices around me.
The picture captured a moment of celebration, a quiet moment before one of the most exciting milestones in a young adult’s life. What it didn’t capture was the reality of what was happening on the inside.
A few years later, I was working dutifully in my salaried job, filling my days with even more tasks and chores in the hope of escaping the nagging voice that never went quiet.
One night, my anxiety had become so intense that it oozed out into my body, causing my muscles to spasm so tightly that they pulled my rib cage out of place. With every breath, my ribs rubbed against the soft tissue on the inside of my chest, causing extreme pain, and even more anxiety.
Finally, I went to a doctor, desperately searching for relief. He was able to pop my ribs back into place, before prescribing me oxycodone for the pain and Xanax for the anxiety.
“A lot of professionals would frown upon these prescriptions I’m writing you,” he said as he scribbled on his notepad. He looked up at me with a smirk and a twinkle in his eye.
“But you seem like a responsible young man.” He handed me the prescriptions and smiled.
At the time, I clung onto these prescription pills, hoping that they’d finally provide the relief I had never experienced. Little did I know that they would plunge me even further into my dark, tormented reality.
At first, these pills really helped. For the first time in my entire life, I couldn’t be fussed about anything at all. Everything seemed perfectly acceptable, perfectly harmonious. To be honest, I can’t think of any other time in my life, both before and since then, that I’ve ever been so happy.
Naturally, I wanted to feel that way all of the time. So, it became a ritual.
Every night when I returned home after work, I would take some oxycodone and settle down for the evening. Every morning, before heading to work, I’d take a Xanax to prepare myself for the day ahead.
After a few weeks, I began taking double the dose, sprinkling my hits throughout the day.
Within a month, I was taking the pills on a near constant basis, elevating myself to an ethereal reality that seemed to sit just above the reality that everyone else lived in.
I continued this way for a while, unbothered by my detachment from reality, and by my inability to think clearly. I didn’t care because, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t anxious.
The voices that had controlled me for so long were finally silent. For that, I would have continued in this stupor for the rest of my life. Little did I know, I was in the throes of an addiction to two of the three most commonly abused prescription pills. It wasn’t long before my life unraveled.
A few months into my addiction, I was burning through my prescriptions faster than my doctor could write them. I found another doctor to write me an additional prescription, trying my best to re-enact my behavior from the first visit to make sure I secured the second prescription.
I stopped spending time with my friends and family just so I could sit at home, stoned out of my mind and far from my anxiety.
As soon as the pills wore off, my anxiety would return in full force, feeding my paranoia and self-hatred in doses that I had never experienced before. As soon as my high disappeared, my demons took hold once more.
I eventually found a third doctor, and I hoped to gain a steady flow of prescription pills that would help me avoid my demons 24/7. This doctor, however, must have recognized the problems under the surface and told me that I should seek help, instead.
“You’re on a dangerous path, you know.” His gentle eyes forced me to make eye contact.
“What do you mean?” I didn’t want him to accuse me of having an addiction, though I was sure that is what he meant.
“Opioids are dangerous. You might want to try working some things out with a therapist or looking for more sustainable treatment methods.” He started putting away his things, tinkering with his little instruments.
“Like what?” I began to sweat, and my heart began to race. I couldn’t imagine going back to a life where my anxiety was free to exist on its own, without the stifling prescription pills.
“Maybe that’s what a therapist could help you find out.” He put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it. “Ask the receptionist for a list of therapists, if you’re interested.” With that, he left the room, and me sitting in it.
I’d like to say that I went straight to a therapist from there, but instead, I went in search of another doctor and another prescription.
It wasn’t until about a year later when I exploded at a work colleague for a small and unimportant reason that I realized it was time to seek more sustainable treatment, just as the doctor had recommended.
I eventually went into an outpatient detox program and got clean from my opioid and Xanax addiction. I attended individual therapy and group therapy, where I learned that exercise, a healthful diet, proper sleep, and meditation are among the best treatment methods for my anxiety disorder.
I immersed myself back in my support network. I spent time with my friends and family who had loyally stood by my side, even when I disappeared into my 2-year high.
And you know what?
The anxiety is still there. I’ll admit that I still crave the high, too.
But, for the first time in my life, I can manage these bubbling feelings. I finally have the tools to mitigate them so that they don’t take over my mind. For the first time in my life, I can actually live my life, rather than claw my way through it.
I finally know what those incessant thoughts of self-doubt are. I finally know how to recognize when the anxiety is tightening its grip on me. I finally know how to stop it all.
My recovery from both anxiety and addiction has been a long and challenging process, and there are still days when I feel like I’d rather be in the warm embrace of a good oxy high than ever deal with mundane life again.
But with therapy and self-care, I’ve learned to enjoy the mundane things and to accept the moments where I don’t enjoy them at all.
After all, anxious thoughts, self-doubt, struggle, and boredom are all a part of the human experience. If we commit ourselves to learn how to incorporate these experiences into our daily life without losing touch with reality, then we can really enjoy life.