Category Archives: anxiety

Anxiety attack like jumping out of plane without parachute

By Jack Smith

I felt it coming like a freight train barreling down on me and  I was hopelessly strapped to the tracks.

My mouth dried out within seconds. My pulse quickened.  My hands started to tremble. Even my legs shook as though it were the dead of winter and I were standing naked in the snow.

My wife realized what was happening, so she looked me in the eye and said go where you need to go. I scanned the area looking for an escape, which I usually plan out in advance for times like these.

Anxiety attacks can feel like freefalling. Hard to stop once they start.

Anxiety attacks can feel like free falling. Hard to stop once they start.

You would have thought I were in a war and the enemy was after me.

I was really just attending a football game with 80-something thousands of my closest friends, as the t-shirt goes, when I had an anxiety attack.

I did what my wife and my instincts told me to do when it got out of hand. I got as far away from that huge mass of people as I could.

The best way I can describe a panic attack is that it feels like jumping out of an airplane…and then realizing you aren’t wearing a parachute. I feel fine one minute. Then all of a sudden I’m in free fall, the ground getting bigger and bigger by the second.

When panic attacks hit, I’m suddenly overcome with angst. It leaves me with  two choices: fight or flight. Sometimes I stay and fight. Other times I get the hell out of there to gather myself.

When it happened yesterday, I walked away from the crowd to the safety of open space and a lonely bench. I tried a mindfulness exercise that I learned in treatment. It worked more or less.

I closed my eyes for a moment, took some deep breaths and focused on my senses. I listened to the roll of drums from the band playing in the distance. I felt the weight and the coolness of the wrought iron bench on my thighs and back. I drank in the smell of meat sizzling on the grill.  I inhaled deep breaths through my nose and exhaled them through my mouth.

I soon felt sane again, relaxed enough to enjoy the game and the time with my family.

I’m not sure if what I experienced Saturday afternoon was a full-blown panic attack or just social anxiety I sometimes get when I’m surrounded by too many people.

I once coped with these episodes by working or drinking. Neither was an option on Saturday, so I had to fight through it.

My guess is a lot of you reading this blog have had similar meltdowns. I’ve been having them for years.

I remember another time maybe 10 years ago when I bailed on a newspaper banquet before it even started. It was one of those times when I had quit drinking cold turkey with no support group. I didn’t know how to handle being sober and being one of only a handful of people not drinking.

I was holding a glass of water when my usual hand tremor turned into the full-blown shakes. It was like Ted Striker’s “drinking problem.” I couldn’t raise the glass to my mouth without spilling water everywhere. So I just got the hell out of there.

I jumped in my car and drove over two hours to my home without telling anyone I was leaving, including the hotel. I avoided phone calls from my mother because I was too embarrassed to admit the truth.

I have it easy compared to others. Some have unrelenting anxiety so severe it makes daily living a nightmare. God bless them.

Instead of asking why in the hell a grown man can’t just suck it up and deal with it, my wife is usually patient and compassionate.

I’m harder on myself than she or anyone else is. I  get mad at myself and wonder why I can’t just be normal.

I don’t have many answers, except that I was born with an anxious disposition. That’s what one one anxiety specialist told me anyway. He said I’ve developed some maladaptive coping mechanisms over 40 years-plus years, and I won’t be able to fix them overnight.

I’m sure going to try, though. Life isn’t supposed to be lived this way. 



Living in the future creates anxious mind

By Jack Smith

I live in the future, not the present.

My mind is like a powerful radar, always sweeping the horizon for threats seen and unseen, problems known and unknown.

My eyes see through people like an airport scanner, sizing up their motives.  My emotional instincts are sensitive and sharp, able to gauge how others feel even before they can.

My anxious disposition is a blessing. It is also a curse.

Worry, an all-consuming art-form of mine, makes me good at my job. It also makes me insane.

I spent a good 90 minutes with an anxiety specialist today, and it took him less time to size me up than it did for me to realize he looks and acts just like Seymour Hoffman.

Seymour jarred me with real talk about my suicide attempt, apparently not convinced I understood the gravity of my selfish act. Speaking of my family, he termed it an attempted murder on a person they care deeply about. The problem, he said, is that the victim and the offender are the same person. He challenged me to reconcile that with all involved. I didn’t argue the point.

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Anxiety: Depression’s Evil Twin

Some times I have to reverse engineer a bad day to figure out how my anxiety gets the best of me.

Today was a tough day. My oldest child is six years away from college and yet I had a near panic attack worrying about how to pay for her college tuition. I worried about how we are going to pay for braces for my youngest two…not to mention theircollege tuition.

I worried about what my family would do if something happens to me. I have insurance, but is it enough?

Today was not unlike most Mondays, actually. I don’t do transitions well—and I’m not talking about my writing style.

The transition from the weekend to the work week is always a struggle. The transition from home to work in the morning and then work back to home at night is hard some days, too.

Change causes anxiety for me. And as I’ve written before, my problems controlling anxiety only aggravate my depression.

My doctor just today decided to increase my dosage of Abilify, because the progress I’ve made since some really dark days this summer has stalled.

(That paragraph is a good example of a bad transition).

In searching around for information on anxiety and depression tonight, I found some helpful informationon depression and anxiety from the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. It explains that depression and anxiety disorders are different, but some of the symptoms are the same. They include nervousness, irritability, sleeping issues and problems and trouble concentrating. Sound familiar? Does to me.

I have never been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, but I don’t need to be. I know it’s a problem.

So how do I reverse engineer my day? Looking back, I realize I should have done something helpful when the negative thoughts occurred. I should have written down an action item, like figuring out a way to set aside a little additional money for the kids’ college funds. Then I should have stopped worrying about it.

If you are like me, that’s easier to say than it is to do.

Why can’t I just let me be?

Being married to me must be exhausting, I told my wife.

No, she said, being you must be exhausting.

Sometimes it is.

The subtle mood swings. The nagging anxiety. The utter inability to just be… It is all so damn tiring sometimes.

My moods can swing like a heavy pendulum from happy to depressed, content to crazy, in a morning, much less in a week.

My current meds are working, for the most part. Beaten down and gaunt from the weight loss, I crawled out of the darkest, deepest and most dangerous depression of my life this summer.

Those fleeting impulses to say to hell with it all are fewer and farther between now, but consistent contentment eludes me still.

I am restless. They say Abilify can make you feel that way. But it may have saved me, so what to do? Flush the pills down the toilet and risk slipping back down that slippery slope into a pool of misery?

No! I can’t do that. I have to stay the course. I have to try again tomorrow. I have to do all the things my therapist is telling me to do but for some reason I don’t.

I have to remember my job is just a job. It’s what I do, not who I am.

I have to try harder to stop the negative thoughts when they start.

I have to go back to giving five minutes at the start of each day to my Higher Power and asking Him for help.

I have to learn to just be.

Oh, how I wish it were that simple.

Why doesn’t mental illness have a color?

When I strolled down the driveway this morning to pick up mynewspaper, I was surprised. Surprised because it (my newspaper, not the driveway) was pink.

It didn’t take long for me to realize the state’s largestnewspaper was pink in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a goodthing. The paper was chock full of stories about cancer survivors, cancerresearch, cancer prevention and more.

But it got me to thinking. How many people have a clue thatOct. 3-8 is also Mental Illness Awareness Week? How many blue newspapers were published today in honor of the week? Probably not many.

While cancer gets the headlines, mental illness is every bitas much of a public health crisis. Only it’s a silent killer. The stigma aroundsuicide, depression and other mental illnesses is so great that I’m too much ofa chicken to publish this blog under my real name.

That’s sad.

So in honor of Mental Illness Awareness Week, I thought I’ddo my part. Hereis a brochure from the National Alliance on Mental Illness on depression that might help you.

Major Depressive Disorder has been a hard fact of life forme for six or seven years. That’s since I was diagnosed. My issues actuallydate back to college and even, I realize now, back to my adolescence.

Like way too many boys and men, I suffered in silence forfar too long. I didn’t get help because I wasn’t sure I needed it. I was too scared or too ignorant to ask for help.

I am far from an expert, but now I know the symptoms, evenif I still fail to realize I’ve slipped into the deep, dark pit of depression until I’vehit rock bottom. I hit rock bottom this summer, and it was pure misery.

If you think you might be depressed, help is available. Here is some more great information from NAMI on what depression is exactly.

If you’re having a bad day, you may not be depressed. But ifyou can’t remember the last time you had a good month, I’d recommend talking toa professional. Folks who know a lot more about it than I do say psychotherapy— ascary sounding but basic term that means talk therapy—is a good place to start.You may or may not need medicine.

Since starting this blog, I’ve noticed there can be fiercedebate about whether drug-free treatment of depression really works. I wouldsay it depends on your circumstances, your family history and, probably, yourbrain chemistry.

The specific type of talk therapy that I havefound helpful is cognitive therapy. It’s basically learning to change the way wethink. There all kinds of techniques that a therapist or psychiatrist can teachyou.

One of the techniques I use when my mind starts racing isthe Stop Sign Technique. To stop the negative thought patters that sometimesresult in near full-blown panic attacks, I close my eyes andenvision a literal STOP sign in exquisite detail. Its color. Its shape. Theletters S-T-O-P and what they look like. It helps. Sometimes, anyway.

For many of us, talk therapy alone isn’t enough. It isdifficult if not impossible for me to imagine life without medicine at thispoint. Maybe that day will come, it just won’t come anytime soon.

A good place to start is to get educated. Talk to yourprimary doctor if you might be depressed. Ask—demand if you have to—a referralto a therapist or a psychiatrist, or maybe both. It may be the best phone callyou ever make.

If you are like me, your family will thank you for it.

I plan to blog a couple of times this week in recognition ofMental Illness Awareness Week.

My hope is it helps someone, even if it’s just ONE.

On drinking and depression

So this is the blog that might scare away men I’m hoping to help. Not a popular subject. Depression and alcohol.

The bottom line? A lot of one can lead to a lot of the other. Depression can make you want to drink more. And drinking more can lead to more severe depression.

It’s not cool to lecture others or say “here’s what you need to do.” Therapists and AA folks call that cross-talk. You’re supposed to say “I can relate to that because….”

So here’s how I’ll start. I can relate to the intractable problem of alcohol and depression. I drank enough beer in college to float a barge. I drank enough beer after college to drown a dragon. Only the alcohol never killed the dragon. It only made him angrier.

I kept on drinking, and drank even more when the first real tests of my life came. The loss of a loved one. The stress of owning a business. The stress of parenthood and trying to be a good husband, good career guy and good father at the same time.

The worse it got, the more I drank. The more pain I suffered, the more I tried to dull it with alcohol. I was quite clearly self-medicating, only this medicine has horrendous side effects. Hangovers. Even more anxiety. The inability to concentrate. The obsession over when the next drink can be consumed.

I once quit cold turkey once with no professional help but lapsed back into the same old patterns nearly a year later. Then my depression got worse than ever, and the abuse of alcohol became as bad as it had been in college.

Even though this is an anonymous blog, allow me a little room for rationalization here. I was never a Bloody Mary in the morning or bottle in the desk guy. But I was a prolific binge drinker. After Katy Perry-like Friday nights, I’d be hung over until Wednesday. And then I’d start again on Thursday with heavy drinking.

And it never, ever made me feel better. Only worse. My first therapist equated it to pouring gasoline on a fire. It’s simple, really. Alcohol is a depressant. Depressed people, umm, I should say people like me that I can relate to, probably don’t need more depressants.

If you want to read a great blog about depression and alcohol, which is the chicken and which is the egg, check this one out. If you want to read some scholarly articles about alcohol and depression, click on this link.

Praise God, alcohol abuse is not a problem for me right now. Not today at least. We’ll see about tomorrow.

Anxiety & Depression: Which is the chicken, which is the egg?

Before I was old enough to know what stomach acid was, I knew what it felt like.

I was in the fourth grade, best I can remember. The teacher told me the principal wanted to see me…on Monday morning.

That weekend was pure hell. I worried myself sick. What the heck did I do to get in trouble? Would I get paddled? What would my parents do to me when they were called in? Should I confess to a crime I didn’t commit?

Those crazy thoughts swirled in my mind and made my stomach churn…all weekend. I barley slept, worrying like hell about what was to come. I didn’t know then that the stomach-churning anxiety that tortured me all weekend all came from my thoughts…irrational thoughts.

Then Monday morning came. The principal called me in…to ask if I would do the honor of raising the American flag at school every day for the rest of the year. I nearly wet my pants with joy.

Some 30 years later, I repeat that ritual weekly, if not on a daily basis. I worry like hell about something that has or hasn’t happened and probably will never happen…and then I get depressed. It’s a slippery slope of misery that makes me wonder. What comes first? The chicken or the egg? The anxiety or the depression?

My former therapist (she moved to the West Coast) taught me some techniques to deal with the runaway thoughts of negativity and despair. She taught me to take a deep breath, close my eyes and envision a stop sign in intimate detail…the exact color of red, the lettering of the word STOP. It works sometimes, sometimes it doesn’t.

My current therapist, who is brilliant at helping me with these cognitive therapy techniques, has encouraged more of the same and taught me to reign in those maddening episodes of anxiety, to gently put the brakes on the runaway train that is my brain—without skidding off the highway. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

That’s because changing our behavior, our thoughts that control our feelings, isn’t easy.

Do you suffer from anxiety? If so, ask for help. For me, the combination of talk therapy, drugs (Abilify, Cymbalta and generic Valium as needed) has helped immensely from that dark, deep pit I felt helplessly trapped in not so long ago.

I am no doctor and no expert. I only know that asking for helping, taking deep breaths and thinking about stop signs is a good start. Maybe if I can keep sharpening those skills, the depressions that come won’t be quite so dark, quite so deep and quite so long.

To Hell and Back

We were standing atop a mountain, at one of the prettiest places in Georgia, when I grabbed my big brother’s arm and fell to my knees.

“I can’t do it,” I cried out, sobbing.
My children and their cousins were close by, but I couldn’t help it. I wept uncontrollably. This was it. The worst moment of my life.
But why?
I have a beautiful wife. Three beautiful children. A great job. So what the hell is wrong with me? Why so much darkness and pain—real, physical, gut-wrenching pain?
I didn’t care “why” that day. I only knew that it was time to surrender. Time to declare that depression had defeated me that day. Time to admit that the anxiety, the racing, jumbled thoughts that made my life a nightmare were much too much to bear alone.
We sent my children away that day, one week after the doctor instructed me to turn over my meds to my wife for fear that I might hurt myself.
It would get better. It had to. How could it get any worse?
I leaned on the arms of my family, my wife, brother and mother, and gave up. Right then and there I gave up and told them I couldn’t do it alone. I was sick of being sick, so sick of it that I didn’t care what the strangers looking on thought. Didn’t really even care that my children saw me in such a pathetic, miserable state. I had to get help. For them. For me.
Three days later, I entered a partial hospitalization program in Birmingham, Alabama. New drugs coursing through my blood and pumping chemicals into my brain, I found my bottom. I learned that my thoughts control my feelings.

I learned that my family history wasn’t my fault. I felt like Beniah of Biblical times… I had slipped into a snowy pit with a lion for the fight of my life. This time, I would not stop until the lion is dead.

I had lost 30 pounds without really trying. Left one career and started another. Nearly lost my wife, or so I thought.
This time, with God’s help, will be different. I will stand up and fight, even when I don’t feel like getting out of bed.

Thousands of dollars and numerous therapy sessions later, I am still standing, still fighting. I won’t give up.

I am a writer by trade, but writing this blog is the hardest thing I have ever done.

My hope and prayer is this little blog will help someone else. Southern men like me can’t admit when we are weak, when we can’t do it alone. It’s time for that to change.