Am I A Control Freak? Panic, Responsibility One Man's Journey Towards Healing

Wednesday, October 22, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Anxiety

It’s all about panic this week, and I am a huge believer in both providing you with the research as well as the human experience. We all acquire anxiety issues a little differently. We all get through things a little differently as well. 

Today my guest poster takes you on his journey of self discovery, from where his panic originated through his use of cognitive behavioral skills to cope, including humor techniques, deep breathing, thought replacement, self compassion, mindfulness and vocalized defensiveness (which will be discussed further on Friday). 

Panic attacks, scary thoughts and anxiety affect more than you would guess. Don’t be afraid to talk about it.

By: Jonathan

I was a thirty-something-year-old bachelor that lived for fun. I had never been responsible for anyone other than myself. But that self  responsibility thing was daunting. 

On the day my story begins I was on a tower at work,150 feet in the air. The wind was howling. The wind chill was below freezing. I  had just climbed to the top of the stairs when the wind blew my hardhat off my head. And was as if an alarm went off in my brain. I couldn't feel my feet. A wave of shivers crept up my entire body. I was trembling like a tuning fork. My chest tightened. My arms went numb. I couldn't breathe! My immediate thought was "HEART ATTACK!" What was next!? Would I pass out and lose control!? Would I...FALL!? I clung to the railing and gasped for air. After a few minutes I gained the courage to come down, albeit slowly. When I hit solid ground, I was still shaking, but I could walk. I headed for warmth. 

And I never told a soul.  

When Panic Comes Back

Fast forward a year and I was living for more than fun. I was engaged to be married, remodeling a house, and putting in 60-80 hour work weeks. In my eyes, marriage was a huge and terrifying commitment, but I trusted my heart, and the beautiful girl who wanted to spend her life with me. We decided to fly to Salt Lake City to meet some friends who were helping with the wedding. I was excited; I had always loved to fly. 

Then the airplane door closed.

I realized that for the next three hours I had to sit contorted between two strangers with no way out. The alarm went off again. It took every fiber of my being not to scream out loud, "GET ME OFF THIS PLANE!" Eventually the waves calmed. I stared at a crossword puzzle for three hours, refusing to look up. What was wrong with me? Was I going crazy?

I had a few other minor episodes throughout the wedding months. And with almost every waking moment, the question always loomed in the back of my mind, "Is today the day it happens again?" Thankfully, the wedding went off without a hitch. 

Then my wife got pregnant and the questions started inside my brain. "What if I'm a horrible Father? What if I do something stupid that turns this kid into a basket case and ruins their life?” I remember calling my dad, trying to explain these fears in between snotty-snorts and bouts of uncontrollable crying. 

My dad did a great job of consoling me and after that phone call, I made a decision to act. I had choices. I could go see an M.D. but I didn't want to be automatically medicated without treating the root cause of the issue. My next choice was to see a shrink, but it felt like a show of weakness. My friends would see me differently. My wife would regret marrying a coward. The people at work would start with the "Going Postal" jokes. I needed to just man up and deal with this. John Wayne would never have taken Prozac. The shrink option was out.

So what were my other options? I could wad up into a useless ball and hide in the house, avoiding real life until this all passed. I could fake my own death and just leave, but I could never do that to my family. Or, I could just chalk it up to being batshit crazy and check directly into the looney bin, which, for reasons mentioned above, was out of the question. 

But I did have one other choice. One of my wife's best friends was a psychologist. Calling her wouldn't make me a wimp, right? Just two friends talking. And in that one phone call, I learned what a panic attack was and that I wasn’t crazy or dying. I felt so much better just getting it all out. It was first time I had the courage to admit that I had panic attacks. 

And I wished I had done it sooner. 

Hindsight is a powerful thing. While I understand the fear of being a “coward” or “wimpy” or “weak”, getting help is one of the bravest things you can do. You don’t have to suffer like I did before you call a professional. Trust me on that one.  

Seeking Control of Panic

I set out on a journey to take control of my situation aided by some anxiety workbooks and exercises recommended by my brilliant psychologist friend. The first paragraph of the first book I cracked open was like discovering fire. I nailed almost every criteria listed for anxiety attacks. I had just lost my mother to cancer. I had bought a house that needed a lot of work. I had sold a house. Gotten married. I was having a child. I had taken a promotion at work. Huge life-altering events that all felt like they were happening at once. I didn't have control. Just like I had no control of the wind and the weather that day on the tower.

I needed to feel in control at all times. I had to accept that I couldn't be. 

This “out of control thing” was difficult for me to accept and with good reason. I was a chubby kid with low self esteem and a horrible self image. I had an older sister who used drugs and, over time, deconstructed our once "normal" family. My early years were spent helping my mom raise my older sister’s child while my dad worked his ass off.

Obviously I had mountains of unresolved issues. The anger and guilt over not being able to save my sister from drugs, my family from falling apart, and my mother from dying. Not to mention, the self esteem made it terrifying to try new things. And it created thoughts like, "I can't do anything right. I will surely screw this up. I'm better off alone. The less you do, the less you'll fail at." Those were crushing thoughts rolling through my brain since I was a kid. Was it any wonder I was terrified of a wife, marriage, kids, all that responsibility? Especially if I was already convinced that I would fail before they even occurred? It was no coincidence that the panic attacks started when they did. 

It was also no coincidence when they abated because I worked hard on it. I spent years retraining my brain to sway the ratio of positive and negative thoughts. I had to learn to replace negative thoughts immediately to steer my brain back on course. The things that I use the most (both then and now) are funny sayings. If I'm being a Negative Nancy and I feel it getting out of control, I say (to myself), "SUCK ON MY FUCKING MONKEY BALLS!" It makes me giggle every time. And if I feel that old twinge of panic coming on, I start deep belly breathing to reverse it. In though the nose and out through the blow hole. I know I'm calming down when I start to yawn. Strange but true.

I just summed up in a few sentences what it took me years to come to terms with. It has been a journey of self reflection and forgiveness. For me, the toughest person to forgive was myself. 

One night, I actually closed my eyes, went back in time, and had a conversation with my twelve-year-old self. I told twelve-year-old me to keep working that sense of humor and that we’d eventually become semi-handsome. After that, we had a long talk about the fact that we could not control the things going on around us. Those other adults were making choices of their own. Nothing was our fault. Then I looked at twelve-year-old me and said, “I forgive you.” And I meant it. We hugged and cried. And at the end, I said "See ya around, kid,” and watched twelve-year-old me smile, wave goodbye, and pedal away on his—I mean my—bike. I opened my eyes to realize I was once again sobbing like a baby. 

So here am I today. Forty years old. Still married. Two kids. And still on the journey. I can't lie and say that I still don't wonder at times, "Is today the day it happens again?" No matter how much time passes between episodes, I still wonder, even after I spent eight hours on a plane this week with no issues. (Suck on that, anxiety!)

Stress and anxiety will always exist. I pray that one day I'll forget to ask myself, "Is this the day it happens again?" And if it happens to me, or to you, let me assure you, a panic attack cannot kill us. Just breathe. And keep talking to anyone who will listen.

Thank you for being that trusted person that I could talk to today. 

Jonathon is a writer, millionaire entrepreneur, famous drummer, comedic genius, ex porn star and a compulsive liar. Jonathon began his formal writing career on a dare, penning 365 consecutive daily Facebook posts describing his first year through the eyes of a new dad. Jonathon still manages to bang out daily posts on Facebook and Twitter from an iPhone in his upstairs bathroom. You can also find him on his blog, One Funny Daddy.

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Topic-Relevant Resources

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation
New techniques for mindfully altering the wiring of your own brain, leading to increased happiness.

When Panic Attacks
Detailed overview of cognitive behavioral techniques for changing negative thought patterns

Panic Attacks Workbook: A Guided Program for Beating the Panic Trick
Easy to follow exercises for understanding and taking control of panic attacks

Mastery of Your Anxiety and Panic: Workbook (Treatments That Work)
Worksheets, exercises and other tools to use both before and during panic attacks to retrain your brain and reduce symptoms