I. The Rise of The Fear
I never really considered myself a full-fledged man until I moved to Nürnberg, Germany, scared of what was going on, what the end game was going to be. I’d spent my last two weeks in the States wishing I wasn’t leaving, wishing I could deal with this next to the dolphins in my kayak, wishing I could deal with this near people who knew me, who loved me.
But I couldn’t. I had won the lottery. After getting rejected for teaching a second year in Germany, I had left Kiel reluctantly, feeling as if I had wasted the year. I returned home, immediately getting a job framing art in a gallery full of picturesque but soulless landscapes of Charleston. I knew it was a bad gig. After the first day working, I drove home to my parents’ beautiful view of the Folly River, and I felt disgusted looking at it. After eight hours of those landscapes, watching junkies shooting up would’ve been more palatable. But then I checked my email: there was a message saying a teaching position in Bavaria had opened up. (As an afterthought, I had put Bavaria as the third place I was interested in teaching. A stroke of very good luck.) My brain did somersaults for about thirty seconds before I decided I would move back to Germany.
But something was wrong with me. The first warning sign had happened earlier, on my journey home from Kiel, right when I stepped off the plane in Washington DC. As my first wave of humidity in ten months blasted me, a strong burst of apathy hit me as well. What was the point of all this. I should’ve been happy, getting ready to be back home to see friends, to be back with my family on Folly Beach. Instead, for the first time I felt nothing, then a new feeling. Who knew nothing felt so unpleasant.
But the apathy gradually floated away, and I forgot about it. A few weeks later, once the Nürnberg job was set in stone, I drove up to DC to see my brother and some old friends. I had lived there the year before Kiel, drinking my days away, unemployed in the terrible ’08 economy. It was there I had met Christina, a bartender, and we had had a tumultuous relationship, full of yelling and screaming over nothing. I was young. She was in a bad place.
My second day visiting DC, my brother Harrison and I grabbed a late lunch at Dungrats, a Thai restaurant where Christina and I had had an unpleasant meal. I thought back to it. We spent the entire dinner arguing in angry but hushed whispers. It was time to call it, to go our own ways. But I was young, and it was love. We waited to break up over Skype after I moved to Kiel, after I was already alone.
Back with Harrison at Dungrats, things seemed ok at first. I ordered a salmon dish. It was dark inside, and an odd ambient track with children’s laughter was playing. All of a sudden, all I could hear was the laughter. Everything looked and sounded distorted, and if I hadn’t known better, I would’ve thought my water had been drugged. I had tunnel vision. The conversations of the strangers around me grew louder as well. I could only hear the indiscernible voices. I knew I had dropped off the deep end. This was schizophrenia. Harrison noticed my eyes. “Are you ok?”
“I think I’m having a psychotic break.” Harrison smiled uncomfortably. What do you say to that?
Worried about my sanity I asked Harrison, “Do you hear those children laughing?”
“Yes, it’s part of the song. It is weird.”
“Maybe you should go outside.” I did. Things got better. The light and the heat felt good, normal, like a blanket. But my hands were shaking violently. The worst of it went away. But, like my hands, I was left shaken. I was full of The Fear.
I went back inside, and the food came. “Did the food come really quickly?” It couldn’t have come so quickly.
“It was pretty fast.” We proceeded to eat. I tasted nothing.
I was shaken by the experience, and the after effects lingered. I reluctantly described the experience to my friend Max the next day. It sounds like a panic attack, he said. I googled. It turned out he was right. Ten percent of me felt better; the rest remained unconvinced.
But it was a panic attack. For the next two years, I’d deal with anxiety. I renamed it “The Fear.” Anxiety was too clinical of a word, too weak for what it was. I wasn’t nervous when the attacks came—it was more like being in a dream, a nightmare, having that crazy guy chasing you with a chainsaw, swimming away frantically from that giant shark and his angry rows of teeth. An unreal Fear. Giving it that name also gave me some control over it. Made it real. Meant I wasn’t crazy.
I was lucky my parents were supportive. They had been expecting something. They had warned me that depression ran in the family. That I had my father’s genes. To be aware of that. And to let them know if something ever happened. (I did the day after talking to Max.) I was really lucky my parents were supportive. Though part of me wanted them to, they never told me not to go to Nürnberg, though they must’ve been concerned. I’d have regretted not going my entire life. It would’ve been admitting defeat. I knew that even then.
II. Dealing with The Fear
The point of this post is to potentially help one of my five readers if they’re in a similar place. While I only know anxiety from my personal experience, here are a few things that I’ve learned from The Fear.
1.) It will get better and you will get used to it
My experience with anxiety over the two years was like a bouncing ball. Over time the panic attacks got less and less severe, until finally they had no power over me. And it’s not like it evaporated from my brain. I just got used to it. After about the thousandth time, I simply realized I was having panic attacks. I wasn’t going crazy. I wasn’t dying. That killed their power. Even now, I can get a general feeling of uneasiness, but I always know what it is, and the all-out attacks never come.
2.) Talk to people about it
For some reason (not wanting to look crazy or weak, I guess) I tried to hide my anxiety from others. That doesn’t help. I mean, don’t go bringing it up to every stranger at the bar, but you can talk about it. People are generally understanding, concerned, and willing to give you support. Why tackle it alone? Something like 10% of Americans have a panic attack in a given year, so as alone as you feel, you ain’t. You’re not that special.
I remember having a panic attack come on in Tirana, Albania, at lunch in a cafe. I was with future best friend Martin and his girlfriend Ingvild. At some point I felt happy I wasn’t feeling The Fear. So of course that thought summoned it. I shook it off pretty quickly. Martin had asked if I was ok, and I had said yes, of course.
Later that night, I told Martin the truth about what had happened, what I was dealing with. “Why didn’t you just tell us? We would have tried to help!” I don’t know, Martin, I really don’t. But once I felt comfortable about talking about The Fear, the whole concept felt less severe. Talking to others also brought plenty of oh-I-had-that-too’s which brings me to my third point.
3.) Listen to those with personal experience
Everyone with experience with anxiety told me the same thing: it will go away eventually. I didn’t believe them and remained unconvinced I wasn’t going crazy. I remember wishing I could take a six month-long nap, to just have it go away. That’s not how things work of course. But, everyone I talked to was right. The Fear did go away eventually.
If I could go back in time and prevent The Fear from coming, I honestly wouldn’t. In the long run, it made me stronger, more stoic. Maybe it’s cliche, maybe it sucks, but it’s the difficult, even awful things you deal with that define who you are, that give you power. The Fear is how I earned my self confidence. Like I said, I didn’t consider myself a man until after I moved to Nürnberg, scared as I was. Fear only exists in the mind, and there’s no better comfort than knowing you’re strong when you have to face it. And everyone has to. More than once.