Celtic Riverside – The Online Journal of James Keenan

Anxiety, Medical Anxiety, and Depression

I want to share a brief, personal story today inspired by some peers on Twitter who courageously shared similar stories of their own.

I want to keep this concise, so excuse me for ham-handedly cramming in the background here in lieu of more poetic prose.

My entire life has been with anxiety. That’s really how anxiety works – there is no triggering event, although certain events may trigger the anxiety. The Catholic priest did not abuse me and I was not in some terrible accident. That’s trauma, and the aftermath is post-traumatic. Anxiety is its own thing.

I did not know this as a child. Getting ready for school most mornings I would get a stomachache like I had to go to the bathroom. My parents would wait impatiently for me to finish so we could get going. During the school day I often visited the nurse with similar feelings of malaise. Nothing physically wrong, but I was not pretending either – it was the anxiety.

Part of the anxiety was social – people tend to make me uneasy because people are not rational. Even when I read someone well enough to see what irrational thing might come next, that it’s irrational still causes me unease.

No, I am not perfectly rational. Hypocrisy is not actually a logical fallacy though, and I’m stuck with myself. Living with multiple anxiety disorders and a personality disorder. I’m paying the price for wanting that level of rationality in the world.

Which brings me to the other part of the anxiety – the personality disorder. I have OCPD, which I have written about here. The associated perfectionism and rationality cause me a great deal of stress. Think Chidi from The Good Place.

TRIGGER WARNING for the next paragraph if you hate needles and such

Third, you should know that I grew up with a phobia of medical settings. On the one hand it was part of my social anxiety – people are imperfect and make mistakes. I feared the idea of my human doctor cutting the wrong cord or prescribing the wrong medication that would cause me harm. Additionally, I hate body mutilation in even its simplest forms. I hate needles. I hate cutting. The thought of a paper cut is enough to send me into a severe panic attack if I do not distract myself immediately (as I will now do). Medical settings seem to offer both in spades.

Okay, back to pleasantness.

The final piece of this puzzle is my great grandfather. Not my biological great grandfather, but the man my great grandmother married long before I came around and loved me like blood anyway. He was considerably younger than my great grandmother, by nearly 20 years, and so he functioned more like a grandfather or older father than what one probably imagines of a great grandfather.

He was a mechanic, even in my youth. He worked every single day and all weekend in their monstrous backyard, because he was a nurturing with a plant as he was efficient with the mechanics. And he always found time to stop and play ball with me. The man was a machine.

He came to all of the sporting events, which I appreciate more now as an adult. In my mind I was Wayne forking Gretzky out there on the ice, but I’ve since seen home movies he filmed and, Jesus, we were a boring lot to watch. That man drove hours in the freezing cold to watch what looked like a baby deer on ice skates because I enjoyed it.

We travelled every summer, my great grandparents and I. We picked a direction and he planned. All the way north to Maine and New Hampshire one summer, all the way down to Tennessee and Georgia the next. Up to Canada. Out to the Midwest. I saw a lot of country and put a lot of miles on that old truck with him.

My great grandmother, again the older of the pair. Got sickly when I was in middle school. Every winter found her on the brink of death with something resembling pneumonia, and she would spend days or weeks in hospital.

One morning my parents called my brother and I into the living room. My mother was barely keeping it together. My father, ever the stoic, look shaken. I knew it. My great grandmother had finally died.

Except, she hadn’t.

My great grandfather had suffered a fatal heart attack. He was gone before they got him to the hospital. We had been outside playing baseball days before, and now this man who was like a second father to me was gone forever. I had never lost anyone close to me before and had no idea how to handle it.

So I didn’t. I cried that morning with my family and then suppressed those feelings hard. One day at school it finally caught up with me and I broke down, but I went right back to slamming them down. I slammed them down so hard that I went numb.

It never occurred to me that it was depression because I rarely felt sad. I felt nothing at all, except perhaps the occasional anger. Much of the anger was that this healthy, happy man could be stolen so suddenly and violently.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned the truth. My great grandfather had a known heart condition for years and refused to seek medical treatment for it, despite the protests of the adults in the family. He always said he’d be fine. Then he wasn’t.

The new information set off a crisis in me. On the one hand, I hated medical offices. Deep down I knew every checkup was going to result in the need for a serious surgery. They wanted to cut into me to fix things. Half the visits as a child involved a needle of some kind. They weren’t being mean – medicine just meant a lot of sharp crap.

Yet, lack of medicine meant death? Is my arm sore because I slept on it funny, or is it sore because my heart is developing a slow blockage waiting to kill me? Remember Natasha Richardson? Every time I bump my head even in the slightest I think, “That’s a time bomb now. The embolism will kill me any day now.” I took my temperature obsessively and researched every ailment online. “Could be sore from yelling at the hockey game last night. Could be irritated by some post-nasal drip. Could be throat cancer. Somewhere in that range.”

Every little twinge meant, “We should go to the emergency room.”

Every severed limb meant inventing reasons why I didn’t need to go to the emergency room.

I once stepped on a nail so hard that my doctor said, “Forget the puncture. That will heal quickly. You may have broken your foot.” That was five hours later. I had bled into my shoe and nearly passed out twice “walking that off” because I did not want doctors sticking me with needles and operating on my foot. They did give me a tetanus shot – they did not have to operate.

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum. One time after taking my dog for a walk in the Florida summer I decided to take a nap. I woke up one hour later feeling…dizzy? No. Nauseated? Nope, stomach is fine. Something feels off about my vision…my entire head. I feel like I’m tipping over as I walk. Passing out?

Oh, right – the heat. This is dehydration or heat stroke. I’m too sick to drink water right now. An ice cube will help. It will cool you down and provide water as it melts. Maybe a second one. Let’s have a third to be safe. I’ll take one more and hop in a cool shower real quick.

Still feeling off after the shower. Take your temperature. It’s like your blood pressure. They always want to know that. 93.4 degrees. That can’t be right. 93.3 degrees. Okay, well that can’t be healthy anyway.

To the Google.

93 degrees is hypothermia temperatures. My body temperature is low and getting worse. Something is really wrong!!

Cue the full panic attack. Cue the frantic call to my wife who was driving home. Cue the call to emergency services to get there before I die. EMS is on the way, sit down on the couch and wait.

Actually, now that I’m sitting for a moment I feel better. Breathing helps. Oh, you dumbass. You know what lowers the temperature on an oral thermometer? Sucking on a half dozen ice cubes right before you use it. Your body temp wasn’t 93 degrees – your oral temperature was!

Things got better as I pursued mental health treatment (sadly still quite unavailable for many who need it, either due to scheduling or because it can be prohibitively expensive), but I still manage all of those anxiety disorders to this day, and so much of it goes back to that summer afternoon learning about my great grandfather.

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