Late Summer of 2009 I had an anxiety attack.
I’d never had one before (or anything even close to it), so it caught me completely off guard.
I was camping in the North, with my son and some of our friends, and woke in the night in my tent – absolutely pitch black – several hours by canoe from anywhere. It started out slowly, with my remembering a call I’d forgotten to make before embarking on the trip (and the client who would be rightly upset with me). I asked myself what other commitments I may not have followed through on… and the flood started. My wedding vows – having left my wife the year previous. My political career – having resigned my candidacy after a year of fruitless campaigning. My real estate business – shuttered in 2007 to pursue other goals (that didn’t pan out). Suddenly, my indefatigable optimism had sputtered to empty, and I was staring at a rather sobering reality – I was basically penniless, separated, living in my truck, apart from my kids, with no solid plan going forward. As my heart started to race I clicked the flashlight on for a few seconds. There was my son sleeping beside me, oblivious to what a complete fuck-up his father was. I hoped he would not wake up, because I did not want him to see me feeling the way I did. I tried to calm down and, hopefully, to even sleep. But that was not going to happen. I started to shake uncontrollably and couldn’t catch my breath. I found myself completely unable to think of anything good in my life, or any “solid ground” on which to stand and look forward. What the fuck was I doing? How was I going to take care of my kids? Who screws up this badly? As I felt my whole world unravelling, I spent the next hour flicking the flashlight on and off, praying for the panic to subside.
Before that night, I did not have much sympathy for people who suffer from anxiety. I even knew some, very close to me, but just didn’t understand. I am very grateful, now, for that night. While I’ve never had another episode like that (I did start down a similar path one night at home, but got up and watched “Winnebago Man” until I fell asleep on the couch!), I can now at least empathize and be much more compassionate.
Why am I telling you this?
Well, I’ve also been fairly insensitive to people suffering from depression. I’ve long been THAT guy who is FULL of advice and ideas about how to “buck up” and “get off the couch” and “make your own happiness”. I acknowledged this about a month ago, when I posted this awesome article from The Onion, with the mea culpa that I knew I was a bit much myself sometimes. Looking back, that “gesture” was probably the beginning of an admission (at least internally) that I was showing some rather tell-tale signs of mild depression myself – always tired, lack of usual enthusiasm, neglecting exercise and proper diet. Again, I don’t claim to be a “sufferer”, but I sure have a much kinder attitude now towards those who are. I have an amazing life, and am fundamentally hardwired towards optimism and energy. So, if I can hit a rough patch like this, I can only imagine how difficult is must be for so many others.
I am not looking for any sympathy, or even support. My problems are ones of abundance – where I’ve attracted pretty much everything I want and am now finding myself rethinking much of it. And I don’t actually renounce most of my philosophies about how to approach life (“seeing the sunny side”, “counting my blessings”, deciding to be happy”, “acting boldly”). I still believe there is so much that we can, and must, do to generate our own outcomes (and I am working on all of that -with a much better understanding of how much work it can be).
But I sure am quite grateful to be able to climb down off my oh-so-high horse and acknowledge my own challenges, and to keep growing in my fledgling humanity.
As for that anxiety attack on the canoe trip, I never was able to reel myself back in – so I finally walked across the campsite and woke up my friend Rob. Being the phenomenal person that he is, he rekindled the campfire and listened to me for the next few hours. He didn’t tell me to “cheer up”, or to “get over it”. He told me that he understood (whether he did or not), and that he knew I would be ok. And that he would stay up with me as long as I needed. I aspire to be as good a person as Rob is.
Finally I went back to bed (if not to sleep, at least to rest) and ended up having a great week of paddling and laughing and bonding with Jack.
And things got better.
As they always do.
A couple of great bits…
- “This ability to persevere despite obstacles and setbacks is the quality people most admire in others, and justly so; it is probably the most important trait not only for succeeding in life, but for enjoying it as well. To develop this trait, one must find ways to order consciousness so as to be in control of feelings and thoughts. It is best not to expect shortcuts will do the trick.
– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi