“High anxiety whenever you’re near –
High anxiety – it’s you that I fear.
My heart’s afraid to fly – it’s crashed before …
But then you take my hand;
My heart starts to soar once more.
High anxiety … it’s always the same;
High anxiety … it’s you that I blame.
It’s very clear to me I’ve got to give in.
High anxiety: you win.”
In 1977, the master of comedy, Mel Brooks, released his Alfred Hitchckiik spoof, High Anxiety . In this film Mel Brooks plays the brilliant Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke, the new administrator of The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. He’s been framed for a murder that he did not commit. He goes on the run, accompanied by Victoria Brisbane ( played by the always funny Maeline Kahn) to clear his good name, and to reunite Victoria with her missing father. However he finds the task a bit challenging because he must also contend with his own anxiety disorder. Naturally, hijinx ensue.
I’ve experienced my own hijinx while suffering from anxiety. Off course they only tended to feel comical after the fact. I make a correlation between Mel Brook’s film and my own experiences with the disorder because it helps me to illustrate how ridiculous and yet difficult it can be to deal with a brain that has gone a tad bit haywire. You stick out a bit more than others. You do things that might seem strange or come off as being anti social. You find it difficult to relate with others. You get down on yourself. You become envious of people that can do something as mundane as sitting quietly on a chair thinking of absolutely nothing. You lash out at the gods above and wonder why they chose to curse you with such a handicap. You spend a shit load of time wondering what your life might have been like if you were normal. That’s the other thing too. That word, normal, takes on a whole new meaning. The word takes on a life of it’s own. It morphs from something simple, and tangible, to something almost mystical. It becomes this far of place, that can never be reached like, Shambhala, or Atlantis. It is lost to you for all time.
Off course the reality is that there is nothing abnormal about having a mental disorder. Your brain just has difficulty regulating particular functions that allow you to do certain tasks with relative ease. The cause of mental disorders are usually biological, environmental, or psychiatric in nature, although most likely it is actually a combination of all three. But when you discover that you suffer from a mental disorder, you just can’t help but feel like you are different. That you are not like everyone else.
The other thing that people don’t realize about mental disorders is that often times you don’t just suffer from just one. If you were do a bit of research about the different types of mental disorders, you would find that many share common symptoms. In fact oftentimes it is difficult to discern one mental disorder from another. Let’s take me for example. I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder about 4 years ago, however the physiatrist that I was seeing also believed that my history showed evidence of dyslexia, depression and ADHD. As Lucille and Buster Bluth would probably agree, I’m a bit of a “Hot Mess”.
Trying to achieve any level of success with so many handicaps, so to speak, makes it a tad bit challenging. Take the dyslexia for example. Almost every single time I write the word “and” I spelled it out n-a-d, “nad”. Granted, the 11 year old in me gets a bit of a kick out of it, however writing “nad” in a professional setting all the time, can get a bit awkward. I tend to spell words like store as “sotre” or the as “eth”. I remember having such a hard time reading as a kid. It was freaking torcher. I would see words backwards, I had a hard time telling aparts words that sounded similar. Even today, when someone speaks to me very rapidly, my brain seem to pick up only half of the information that is being transmitted. I still cringe at the thought of me having to read out loud in the classroom back when I was in elementary school. The kids would laugh at me and call me stupid and retarded. Making matters worse I was the only Puerto Rican kid, in a predominantly Italian school. I already felt like an outsider because of the way I looked, but now I was the dumb kid in class too. I couldn’t help but see school as a torture chamber created specifically to hurt me in every which way possible.
Although my anxiety disorder would not develop fully for another 30 years, I believe it is at this point that the foundation for the disorder was established. I was such a nervous kid. I hated school, I hated homework. I felt stupid and clumsy and not at all normal. And things were about to get worse.
My ADHD sure didn’t help things along. When folks think about ADHD they immediately image a rambunctious kid that runs around all day as if he had fire ants crawling up his ass. And yes, that is not so far from the truth for some. After all ADHD stands for Attention Deficit, Hyperactivity disorder. The thing is that although many kids do suffer from the Hyperactive part, others, like myself, suffered from the Attention deficit side of things.
What does it mean to have attention deficit in the first place. Well it basically means that the mechanism that regulates attention is faulty. So your brain has a harder time being able to maintain focus on any task that requires real attention. Especially if it is something, tedious, repetitive and uninspiring. Some people can sit down, read a poem out loud a dozen times and retain the poem to memory. In order to achieve that, you need to be able to push away all distractions long enough, for your brain to be able to imprint the poem into memory. I on the other hand can read the same poem 3 or 4 dozen times, and only about half of the poem will be retained. The reason being is that my brain has a much harder time quieting any external or even internal stimuli. So as I’m reciting the poem over and over again, some random thought will just come through. But but not only will the random thought pop in, but it will completely take over, and I will literally forget that I was trying to commit the poem into memory. Until eventually I snap out of it, notice that I am no longer concentrate on the poem and go back to it. However within a few minutes I will lose track of what I am doing yet again.
I remember there was this one occasion, when I was in kindergarten. I had probably been daydreaming deeply, when the kid sitting in front of me, passed back a small stack of papers. I snapped out of whatever world I had been visiting in my head, and found myself completely confused as to why these papers were being passed to me. The teacher looked at me annoyed and told me, “take one and pass it back”. I did as I was told. I looked down on the sheet and figured out that it was some kind of quiz. But for some reason I couldn’t register what exactly I was supposed to do with it. I looked around and saw the boy sitting next to me writing his name on the sheet of paper. His name was Tommy One Name Or Another (Sorry I can’t quite recall his name). So for reasons unknown to me I figured I was supposed to write Tommy One Name Or Another on my sheet too. He began to answer the question on the quiz when he notices me peeking at his paper. So off course he hunched over and blocks my view of the answers with his arms and body. I was clueless. I was scared. I was afraid to raise my hand and ask what were we supposed to do. I didn’t want to look stupid in front of the class. So I remained silent. I left the rest of the quiz blank, and prayed silently to God that the teacher would somehow not notice me sitting there. Or better yet, that he would be kind enough to transport me away from this dumb, boring classroom and into a another world that didn’t have quizzes and teachers, and mean classmates. Maybe to a world where the Autobots, Gi-Joe, Voltron and the rest of the cartoon characters that I obsessed about, lived, and fought and had fun, wild adventures.
Sadly, God did not hear me that day. Or chose not too. Because after about 20 minutes, our teacher came around to collect our sheets. She came up to me. Looked at my blank quizz, with Tommy One Name Or Another’s name on it, and laughed. “So your name is now Tommy One Name Or Another?” She asked in a mocking tone. I was confused. I just smiled up at her like what I can only imagine she interpreted as a grinning idiot. She then reached out, grabbed me by my ear and pulled me out of the classroom as all the rest of the kids laughed at me. Yeah, having ADHD can do a number on a young kid’s confidence.
Now please allow me to apologize if I have given off the impression that having ADHD means you can’t concentrate. Cause that is not remotely true. In fact it can also mean the complete opposite. Another symptom of ADHD is that you can find yourself becoming hyper-focus on one thing. At the detriment of everything else. Sometimes I will remain seated writing even though I know my ass should have already been on his way to work. I will put off doing chores to play video games or watch a movie. I find myself talking with co workers a lot longer than I should be doing. And the reason I do that is because they are all much more interesting to do than whatever menial, yet essential task I need to be doing in the first place. So much of what we do throughout the course of the day is so repetitive, monotonous, and uninspired. It takes focus to get through such tasks, but for folks with ADHD, we find it really, really, hard to concentrate on those kinds of things. However if I find something that is remotely interesting, my brain will make all the effort to absorb every aspect of whatever has my interest. That is until the subject ceases to aid in the release of healthy level of dopamine into my brain. Once that happens, I drop that subject like a bad habit and move on to whatever else that will give my brain that kick it hungers for. Trust me, that is not an easy way to live life. It’s like being a damn Pogo stick sometimes. Hopping from one thing to another.
And then there is the anxiety. The bane of my existence. Do you have any idea what i like to always be on edge? To always be questioning how others are constantly viewing you? Sometimes I get so nervous and excitable that my brain will work faster than my tongue. I want to get a words out that I hope will make me seem intellectual, suave, charismatic. But the words come out much too quick. My tongue gets tangled and trips over itself. At best, I come off sounding like Yoda. Speaking backwards. “Smart, I sound, yes?” At worst, I come off sounding a little less articulate than Mishka the Talking Husky.
All my life I’ve been fearful of how those around me view me. Do they think I’m stupid, mentally challenged, or perhaps an anti-social prick. Others probably imagine that I think of myself as some tough guy cause I’m big, and I rarely talk with others. I imagine others see me much like the Hogar, the mentally challenge big man from Game of Thrones. But to be totally forthright with you. What probably really bothers me most of all, is the thought that most people don’t think or have any concrete opinion of me at all. And that is so much worse. Humans are a social animal. We need to be with other people. We need to have a sense of community. We need a place to belong. And we need to find our niche in that community. Most of us want to serve some useful role. Even as adults we want to be padded on the head like we were as children, and be complimented on “what a good job you are doing”, or “what a soul person you are”. You want to feel loved, and appreciated. You want to feel like you serve a worthy purpose. But when you feel like a bit of an outcast, you don’t have that sense. You feel different. You can’t relate to anyone. I think that is why I always was gravitated towards the arts. Whether it was drawing for hours in high school, coming up with sketches to impress my friends, or writing poetry in college. I could allow the work to speak for itself. And I didn’t have to worry about my own clumsy ass getting in the way of how people perceive those things. In a sense those work’s were an extension of me. So if they liked them, then that mean that they liked me. And that was a darn good feeling.
Yes my friends. All that self doubt. That inability to feel like you a worthy of love and friendship, can makes it difficult to achieve any real level of success in life. However all hope is not lost. You don’t have to be a victim of circumstance. You can achieve a level of self autonomy. You can change you stars, so to speak. Unfortunately, you can’t start up that path until you’ve hit rock bottom. I will be exploring some of the details of that very dark period, next time.
To be be continued…
UP NEXT: High Anxiety Part II, or How Tom Earned his Tiger Stripes.