Giving up my invisibility

CN: anxiety and all the symptoms entailed, including ideation of death. Below the fold.

Photo by DasWortgewand - wiremesh head CG image.
Photo by DasWortgewand – wiremesh head CG image.

In light of “Autism Awareness Month” and all the bullshit that underprivileged neuroatypical folks go through when the focus is on “awareness” instead of acceptance, I’m going to explain why I give a damn about disability despite being seemingly in possession of the full royal flush of privileges, including appearing to be neurotypical. It turns out, I’ve been using my invisibility on one axis as a crutch for a very long time. So, I’m going to proverbially bleed on the page a little, if you’ll indulge me.

For as long as I can remember, I have had a brain that goes a mile a minute, projecting possible outcomes and giving probabilities for these outcomes constantly. Any time I’ve mentioned this to people, they treat me differently, so I have learned to not tell people about the inner workings of my mind. The extent of these possible outcomes, prior to my learning how probable or improbable certain events were, have included full, graphic ideation of the worst possible cases.

When I was a very small child of probably about four years old, I am told that I asked my father what might happen if a volcano opened under us, what would happen if the moon fell to Earth, what would happen if a tornado opened above our house and destroyed it and only it. I am told that I was honestly scared of these things. I am told that I was freaked. Knowing how my brain works now, I have no doubt I imagined the full scenario of the moon actually crashing, and every one of us — me included — being vaporized by the wave of fire that would sweep across the planet. I have no doubt that this image played in my mind on a loop while I tried to go about my business of playing with dinky cars or LEGO or whatever. I hadn’t yet developed coping mechanisms for this ideation. I was told to not worry about these things because they wouldn’t happen. I am sure I assigned “very low probability” to them and tried to stop imagining them, probably unsuccessfully.

Growing up, my parents tried to encourage me to participate in sports, because I was a timid and introverted child. I was in soccer for a while, but it wasn’t really all that organized a thing, and I don’t remember why it stopped. My father wanted to “toughen me up” and got me to join boxing, which I actually enjoyed up until it came time to engage in my first practice match against another kid. I won. The other kid had a bloody lip. That image seared into my mind, I immediately quit, with ideation of being on the receiving end of a pummelling a hundred times worse than I just doled out. Every time I had to put my dukes up thereafter in self defense, I remembered what I did to that other kid once, and I’ve always pulled my punches. Not that I think I’m some sort of superhero in a world of cardboard — I simply hate causing pain because I empathize with it when I see it, far too viscerally. And I assign a high probability to getting injured in any fight as a result, so I am extremely pacifist.

I had a paper route around that time. I was saving up for a Super Nintendo. One day, in the rain, I was almost sideswiped by a taxi that took a corner too fast and hydroplaned a little on a small amount of rain accumulation. This was a mere block from my house. I remembered this every time I saw that intersection; every time I see rain; every time I’m unprotected and a car is moving a little too near to me. Every time I remembered it, I was turned into a smear, instead of a near-miss. I quit my paper route because the ideation simply got too bad. I eventually worked through that fear, but I still shied from moving cars through until at least university, where I had to painfully admit this story to my friends to explain why I kept being so jumpy walking with them anywhere off-campus.

These days, when things get bad, I’m imagining the bus that I’m in jumping the guardrail on the I-94 and plummetting into the Mississippi, or imagining a catastrophic rollover on the highway, or imagining a car plowing through our living room wall and smearing us when I hear screeching tires outside. And not only physical harm: I’m imagining saying one wrong thing and alienating people I love and care about forever, losing my job over trifling errors, losing my wife over inattention or accidental mistreatment. If a loved one is out for an expected period of time and they take longer than I think they will, I get anxious and begin imagining the worst possible scenarios for their life. A sound outside at night makes me think the home’s being invaded, even if the dog isn’t alerting us to a problem as a result.

For the most part, though, these issues are entirely invisible. I don’t outwardly react to these things. I might be a little more acutely aware of my surroundings in public situations, but otherwise, I’m mostly okay. It has gotten such that unless I’m under a lot of stress, these ideations give me nothing worse than a moment’s pause. They might be playing through my head constantly — they don’t always, only when it gets bad — but even when they do, they don’t generally cause me to lose my focus or shut down.

As an adult, I’ve developed more issues that fit with the classic generalized anxiety disorder symptoms. I get headaches. I have frequent gastrointestinal issues. I have recently had long and terrible bouts of insomnia. I try to play 3D Chess on every problem I have, triangulating on the best possible outcomes for the largest number of people, even when I have to sacrifice my own safety and mental health. This last, I think, is because I have found that if I have a superpower through all this, it’s that I actually have surprisingly immense reserves to draw on. I can keep going where others might not, and can take punches that others cannot. I do have to recharge those reserves frequently, but I have ways of coping.

Even when these bouts of anxiety-brain happen, I have learned that I can quiet my brain and stop my fixations by distracting myself. My coping mechanisms as an adult for these issues include consuming media constantly. I feel a need to watch videos, play games, read books, read articles, any time my brain starts playing What If with anything that’s going on in my life. I also take long baths. If it weren’t for those baths, my shoulder pain (which I assume is another symptom of being anxious or stressed) would be significantly greater. Though I am very careful not to overdo it, having a drink actually does help slow my brain down to a reasonable speed as well — I am acutely aware that my father is an alcoholic and I suspect that I have to be careful about one drink turning into three.

My invisibility has been a crutch for a very long time. I hate it when people treat me differently when I admit any of these things, as that change in treatment tends to set my stress levels on edge and I tend to imagine losing friends over this, so, until now, I have been very careful who I tell about these issues. But I realized that there’s nothing people can do short of scuttling our friendship that can actively increase my stress and increase my ideation, so it’s not like malefactors intending to do me harm can actually intentionally push my buttons — and anyone who would scuttle our friendship over how I react to stress wasn’t really my friend to begin with.

So, that’s me. A fretful basketcase who wants to do right by as many people as possible, who feels it viscerally when it doesn’t work out that way, especially when I’m pushed into situations where someone’s going to get hurt regardless.

I’ve never been diagnosed with GAD because I’ve been very careful to not mention any of the anxiety symptoms to people who might stigmatize me, including backward and provincial doctors in Nova Scotia. I have pursued the headaches, the insomnia and the gastrointestinal issues separately, and have come to no real conclusion on them as separate issues, so it’s fairly obvious to me that these are symptoms of the greater problem. If I’m right about what I have, then I’ve probably been diagnosable for my entire life. Not just my entire adult life — my entire life.

That’s why I care about mental illness — because I’m pretty sure that I am mentally ill myself. But I don’t identify as such, because I’m not ENTIRELY sure, and because I am perhaps not the best voice to speak for those who are. I dread going to the doctor and talking to her about this because it might make it real, but I feel like setting this all to digital paper is making it more real in a way.

Giving up my invisibility

11 thoughts on “Giving up my invisibility

  1. 1

    I hope writing this down and sharing it publicly did something good for you. Someone always says this on these kinds of posts, but I guess it’s my turn: identify with this.

    It’s hard to judge severity, and I’ve never felt a constant, dominating presence of painful thoughts, but imagining terrible (improbable) scenarios or thinking about how we’re constantly inches away from death on the streets are things I had to suppress.

    Because of people talking about stuff like this, I see myself calling out my own anxiety and mentioning it to others. Acknowledging it as real, naming it. If not taking control over it, at least being aware of it.

    You make it easier for others by sharing this. Thanks.

  2. 3

    I feel like I can relate to this. I suffer from chronic depression and social anxiety, but I rarely tell even my closest friends about it. The best therapy for me is usually social interaction, and I have found that I am treated differently and less likely to be invited to social events if I tell people. So talking about it is something of a catch-22. There have been times when I have asked for help, and people reacted in the worst possible ways. So I don’t ask for help any more.

    I also suffer from a highly visible form of obsessive compulsive disorder, which people never recognize as a mental illness.

    The best way to get by, I have found, is to pretend that I am neurotypical. But that isn’t always easy.

  3. 5

    Thank you for writing this. I too have stuggled my entire life with being neuroatypical and mentally disabled. I struggled in school and could never figure out why. I then did the research mysrlf, and looked at my symptoms in the DSM. I have now confidently self-diagnosed with an intellectual disability per the definition in the DSM

    As someone living with intellectual disabilities, I find the Orbit blog network to b be extremely inspiring and helpful to me. It is great to see so many orbit bloggers who are openly and honestly writing about their intellectual disability. I really enjoy your writers, especially Greta Christina. Greta’s writing and thinking has an honesty and a simplicity that I can really relate to. I also love the social justice focus of the Orbit. My intellectual disability has led me to strong support and activism for feminism and social justice. Keep up the great work 1st the Orbit!

  4. 6

    Not to be glib, but your imagination sounds FUCKING AWESOME (from the outside looking in – it appears to be traumatic from the inside looking out).

    Why aren’t you writing fiction and making movies? Get that shit out of your head, get it on a piece of paper, and make worlds for other people (who also have imaginations, and find themselves surround by people without one) where they can connect with the inner life of the like minded.

    I swear, my first thought about the moon falling to earth, volcanoes opening up out of nowhere, and creeper tornadoes with stalker habits was “HOLY SHIT, THAT WOULD MAKE A GREAT MOVIE SCENE!”

    Please don’t misunderstand, I don’t want to minimize any of your pain or suffering. But it doesn’t have to STAY suffering. Do something useful with it. Make a little money and make other people happy with the lemons life seems to have dealt you. Imagine what it would have been like when you were a scared little kid to open a book (or comic book, or video game) where you recognized your life in the threads of the plot, and yourself in the characters?

  5. 7

    Thank you so much for sharing with us. Not only does it let us understand you better, but it may serve as a signpost to help understand other people as well. Some of the symptoms you describe (an awful lot of them, actually) are…recognizable… in certain people I’ve been wondering about possibly having anxiety issues lately. Hugs to you if you want ’em.

  6. 8

    Mark: to be clear, this is not “suffering” to me. It’s not “pain” necessarily. It’s frequently inconvenient, and sometimes very draining, but it’s been a part of my life for my entire life, and I have found ways, as I said in the post, to deal with it.

    In fact, my anxiety makes me a pretty damn good sysadmin. I try to cover all contingencies and account for all possible issues in advance. I constantly fret about new attack vectors and do what I can to compensate as soon as possible. Stuff under my care doesn’t stay vulnerable to new attack vectors for very long at all.

    Not that I’m the greatest. There’s always someone better, and I’m always finding new things I could integrate into my toolkit. But my anxiety is part of that toolkit.

  7. 10

    Hi Jason! I’ve been catching up on my favorite blogs after taking a very long break from online activism, and I had to say something when I saw your post. Thanks for talking publicly about your issues. I can relate to so much of what you describe, especially catastrophizing, being horrified by my potential to hurt others, being haunted/constrained/agitated by traumas from the past, and distracting myself with media. Your openness is an inspiration to those of us who tend toward silence and isolation.

  8. GAD

    I had very similar ideations as a child and eventually was diagnosed with GAD as an adult. The most comforting part was when a therapist listed the GAD symptoms. I felt less alone knowing that this is common enough to have a list of known symptoms. Your disclosing your condition helps others feel less alone too. Thanks.

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