Monday, December 8, 2014

What is it like to be a GAD?

In July of this year I was (finally) diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Since then I've been learning more about how much of my experience of the world around me would differ if my physiology responded "normally" to it. I've also been thinking more about the ever-so-human tendency to try to understand what someone is going through by relating it to personal experience. I have tried many times over the past months to explain what it is like to have Generalized Anxiety Disorder...and am starting to feel like I'm trying to explain what it is like to be a bat!
A comic strip of a skeleton talking to a bat. Skeleton: So, what is it like to be a bat?; Bat: Well, I really can't explain.; Skeleton: Is that because mental states can't be described objectively, because it is incoherent to speak of what subjective experiences are objectively like, since they can only be described as they appear from a particular point of view?; Bat: Nope. It's, you know, 'cuz I'm a bat. I mostly think about mosquitoes.

Please Note: While this post topic was born of frustration, it is not my intention to reprimand or blame any of my friends or family for their responses...I chose to be open from day one about my diagnosis so we're learning together and that is just fine! This is more an outlet for me to "talk" through what I have learned thus far.

1. I've tried the worry description... "I worry too much; I worry when others think everything is fine; and once I start worrying, it is really difficult to stop."

Usually I get as far as "I worry too much..." before the good intentioned prescription of "Stop worrying so much." is thrown back at me in one form or another...

But if I were a bat and said, "I fly too much; I fly when other organisms get around by walking; and once I start flying, it is really difficult to stop." would the reactions be the same? NO! "Stop flying so much." seems like a really silly response because the physiology of the bat makes flying easier than walking.
The usual image of a person with boxing gloves on (fight) and the same person running away (flight) but with a shaking uncertain person between fight and flight who is paralyzed by the fear instead.

2. So I tried the physiology description... "My body goes into the 'fight or flight' response very easily; and I function day-by-day with my body in this sort of aroused state almost constantly."

This works a bit better but I still get responses like, "Have a hot bath (or several)." "Take a break." or "Take something off your plate." These responses misinterpret my physiological symptoms as being caused by stress.  They are temporary fixes prescribed for a problem that is assumed to be short term.

This is a little like telling the bat to get off the airplane if it doesn't want to misses the point.

3. So maybe I just need to describe the parts of my experience that are so different from their own that people begin to look at me like I am a bat...

A flight of stairs in which each step is individually mounted to the wall as if it were a floating shelf. Excludes railings or other supporting structures.
In order to walk down stairs (whether 2 steps or 20), I have to actively suppress fear that comes with/from mental images of myself crumpled at the bottom of those stairs with whatever injuries are the worst case possible; the longer the flight of stairs, the worse the imagined injury and the greater the physiological response. I'm told that most people don't experience stairs in this way and if they have fear of stairs, it doesn't come with the worst-case-scenario thoughts and mental images I experience.
I learned quickly to suppress these thoughts and images so I could still live my life, stairs and all. If you know me well, you'll know I live in a second floor apartment and that my office at school is on the second floor. I do take them more slowly at times or hold the railing a bit more tightly but I am still able to use stairs!!! The exaggerated physiological responses from this type of worrying or catastrophizing are tiring but I am able to get through my day with tools I've learned during Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

Importantly, each experience with Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a bit different. I don't want to speak for others with the same disorder or other anxiety disorders. Rather, I hope to convince those who have never experienced the world through such a disorder to arrest assumptions about what it is like for someone with a mental health disorder.

Thanks to all those who have patiently tried to understand thus far...I have learned (like the comic's bat) that I can't really explain what it is like to have GAD. But I've also learned that support from friends and family doesn't require such an explanation.

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