A Weekend to Forget: A Lesson That Anxiety Can be Dangerous

I had no illusions or lofty expectations for my birthday last Friday. Some Chinese food and relaxing were on the agenda. My week was going okay. I was beginning my next semester as a graduate student, and I was ahead of schedule, which gave me a rare day off–and on my birthday no less! It seems anxiety and stress had a different idea.

Back in January 2017, I was in the midst of the worst two months of anxiety in my life. My levels of anxiety were so high every day that it was impossible to function, and most days, I failed. My doctor has tried unsuccessfully to take me off Ativan, and getting back on only made things worse. For the three weeks I was off benzodiazepines in December, I was on a rollercoaster of anxious thoughts, anxiety, isolation, and panic attacks.

The culmination was a week and a half in the hospital with bleeding ulcers (where I was literally bleeding in my stomach so much I was puking pints of blood), and I had to go through several blood transfusions and an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy three times. The first time I had a panic attack just before and passed out from the blood when they had to pull it prematurely. I spent two days in the ICU because of the loss of blood. It was the worst painful experience of my life. When I finally got the two endoscopies, first to fix the issues and then to see if it worked, my stomach was never the same for two years. I gave up meat entirely.

Afterward, when I went home, I realized that my anxiety can be a dangerous thing if left unchecked. I began to makes changes with adding meditation, and though I had issues over the next two years with what I could eat, and what made me hurl was an adventure. I got better at dealing with anxious thoughts, and panic attacks were not a weekly occurrence for the most part.

It was never perfect, but last summer, I was able to slowly reintroduce meat into my diet. It was good, and life was good. I wrote a 210,000-word novel and a 30K novella in just four months. No issues with my stomach. I took my daily dose of the neutralizing stomach acid medicine, and with the change from Ativan to Clonazepam last year, I was able to find some relative balance. Then COVID-19 happened.

I am not blaming everything on the virus. In truth, I am to blame for allowing fear, which I have talked about in the past, from taking over my life. Last week it culminated for the first time since 2019 that I had terrible stomach issues. The weekend I had to tone things down and change my diet (which included once again giving up coffee), and I had to de-stress my life. I walked away from social media and writing all weekend. I stayed in bed (which didn’t help my depression, but you can’t win every battle).

Monday, I felt a bit normal, and today I was able to eat. I am working not stressing out. Playing video games and writing helps. Also, not following every single article on COVID-19 really helped me. I am hopeful the upward trend continues. Less stress and more focusing on the positives. I am healthy and social distancing like I am supposed to, and I can only control what is in my orbit. Life indeed is too short to spend it obsessing if I will or won’t get sick. I am not going to go out and lick things, but social media takes a back seat. I will continue to do my part.

Last weekend was a life lesson in the dangers of anxiety and anxious thoughts.

Always Keep Fighting

James

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Less is More

Something I have learned over the course of the last 17 years in struggling with mental illness, is the application of the principle in the title: “less is more.”  Learning how to do this was not easy for me, but it has helped me in so many ways.

The old me–the me of not that many years ago, lived with a different mantra: “If less is good, then more is better.”  I had this idea that the more elaborate and complex something was, the better it was.  Also, the more time and effort I spent on the something, the more value it had, and the more value I had.

Let me give you some examples.  When my older children were small, I would read to them often.  Reading to children is good right?  Well, I made it better.  I didn’t just read, I made it fun.  I did all the voices and sound effects.  And I didn’t just read a couple books, I would read a whole stack.  “Less is good, but more is better.”  I’m sure my kids really liked this, but I felt exhausted afterward.  Present day me knows that if something makes me exhausted, it’s probably a good idea to tone it down.  However, at the time, this was proof that I loved my children and wanted to do what was best for them.  I had done more than the bare minimum, therefore it was better.

Here’s another example.  When having family over for dessert, or planning a family get together for my son’s birthday, it was not enough to grab a cake mix and some ice cream and call it good.  That would never do.  This is my family, we’re talking about!  Only the best for them.  That means everything baked from scratch.  This meant hours in the kitchen, preparing not one, but multiple dessert items so that there would be options.  More is better, remember?  Exhausting work, but–had to be done!  The more I work, the more love goes into it–right?

Another example: I was asked to serve in a position at church that would involve me overseeing all of the children, including their Sunday and weekday classes and activities.  It was a big responsibility.  This was the perfect opportunity to really dig in and put everything I had into making this the best run children’s program ever!  Was it enough to do the bare minimum?  Are you kidding me?  Of course not.  These kids deserved better than that!  I went the extra mile in every way possible and ended up completely burnt out after serving just shy of 2 years in this position.

I could go on and on with examples because this was literally my guiding star.  If I didn’t almost kill myself to do every little thing in my life, then it wasn’t good enough.  Oh sure–it was good enough for everyone else.  But it was not good enough for me.  I could not accept it—I could not accept me, if I wasn’t going above and beyond.

Then, deep depression hit–you know the story.  After my youngest son was born everything came crashing down.  Not only could I no longer go the extra mile, I couldn’t really do much of anything.  And I can honestly say, especially when discussing this particular topic, that I am so glad depression slowed me down.  I was forced by my circumstances to do a complete reset on how I approached my life.  I got to start over.  I got to learn a new way of living that helps me be a much happier, much more balanced person.

How was it a reset, you ask?  I couldn’t function in life. I could barely get through from minute to minute.  I was doing the barest of bare minimum efforts required to keep myself and my family alive.  As I got feeling a little better over time, I had to be careful, when adding things to my life, that I didn’t overload myself.  So I rebuilt my efforts from the ground up.

Now, instead of going above and beyond, I ask myself, “What is sufficient?  What is the simplest way to do this?  How can I expend the least amount of energy and still get the job done right?”  This is a much more relaxing way to approach life.

I learned a lot through this process.  Among other things, I learned that I could read a couple of books to my children when I have time, and that would be good enough.  I figured out that I really dislike entertaining and so avoid doing this these days.  When birthdays roll around, I reach for the cake mix and ice cream.  And I figured out that when given a task or assignment, I don’t have to make it bigger than it is.  I can just do my best to do what needs to be done and that is enough.

I find it much easier to manage my bipolar symptoms with the philosophy “less is more.”  I now have minimal amounts of stress in my life.  Because I am not killing myself to get things done all the time and trying to “wow” everyone with how hard I am working, I have more down time.  This translates into living at a slower pace, which I find very beneficial for my overall health and happiness.

“Less is more” can be applied to so many areas in life.  I have also benefited from using this wisdom to guide me when making purchases, or decluttering.  “What is sufficient for my needs?”  is a great guiding question that is helpful in these circumstances.

How have you benefited from following the philosophy “less is more?”  Do you ever find yourself caught in the trap of thinking you have to go the extra mile all the time?

As always, I would love to hear your story.  Comment below to share your experience.