Monday, November 1, 2010

Look! The Other Shoe. It's Dropping!

I woke up with a start about 10 minutes before my alarm this morning. Annoying, I know. Sleep is precious these days. I have woke up like this a lot, off and on, in the last 5 years for various reasons. It always seems to happen after the same number of hours of sleep (either 3 hours or 5 hours). The waking stimuli is always something that has popped into my head in that light phase of sleep that is a part of every sleep cycle and it has upset or horrified me enough to make sleep no longer a possibility. I will lay there feeling wound up. Sometimes my heart will be racing. It doesn't seem to matter if this thought is a dream or my imagination or even if it is real. It has that same ultimate effect of making me feel an impending sense of doom.

I researched the origin of the phrase "Waiting for the other shoe to drop" because the sentiment reminded me of how I feel for the majority of the day after one of these startled wake-ups. One of the historical accounts I read stated the phrase may have risen in popularity because of a comedy joke brought to life in a play about two lodgers on different floors. The lodger on the lower floor is settling off to sleep when the lodger above drops one shoe. The upper floor lodger becomes aware that he is disturbing others so he takes the second shoe off more carefully and places it on the floor, but the lodger on the lower floor continues to lay awake in waiting, believing eventually, the lodger on the upper floor will drop his other shoe. When it doesn't drop, he finally yells out to his neighbor, "Well, drop the other one then! I can’t sleep, waiting for you to drop the other shoe!”

Other accounts date the saying further back to a meaning that implies, "Make your next obvious point." Drop the other shoe then. 

Waiting for the other shoe to drop perfectly defines my personal brand of anxiety.

Do we not all have our own personal brand of anxiety? Be honest here. Everyone has something that makes them anxious. Death. Public speaking perhaps (a fear supposedly greater than death). Sickness. Needles. Flying. Heights. Claustrophobia. Talking to the opposite sex. Those are just a few of the more common ones. I would trade my anxiety in for any one of those any day because exposure therapy works. My most recent anxiety provoking situation was uneven twisty downhills on my bike -- fear of falling and injury.

Many people could not write a blog like this because the anxiety and the potential for being judged and criticized is too much. On some days, it is nearly too much for me. 

Everyone's symptoms of anxiety are unique. Everyone has a story to tell. But at what point does anxiety become a problem that isn't simply just an annoyance? Being woke up by, perhaps suppressed, thoughts and emotional fears, as I am on a semi-regular basis, is more than an annoyance because it affects my whole day. And the thoughts that wake me up are about things that are tremendously emotionally painful for me. And most of the time what wakes me up is a fear that hasn't even happened yet ..... but I believe it could.

Most anxieties, like my uneven downhills, can be avoided without disrupting my life. Stay away from it and I don't have a problem. Or I can choose to take a deep breath, suck it up, and tackle it head on, learn a new skill, get tips from those that have been there before me, and it is usually never as bad as I feared. Practice makes perfect. Familiarity breeds contempt?  (That's so easy, says my kids about things that once upon a time they couldn't do and were afraid to try.) That is what exposure therapy is intended to do.

But for some, anxiety is paralyzing. It can create odd behaviour. It can cause you to overreact to what, for others, may be a seemingly benign situation. It can hold you back from achieving a goal in life. It can cause one to take action that forces the other shoe to drop, even though there may be nothing more. The other shoe may be safely tucked under the bed.

I'm a college instructor. I deal with my student's anxiety every day.  Presently I teach one course that has 98 students in it. Of those 98 students, 21 have been assessed and granted access to write their test in our exam services department, many of them because of test anxiety. These privileges allow them extra writing time. Usually, up to an hour. They have physical symptoms at the beginning of a test that cause them to become paralyzed for a period of time, blank out and forget things they knew easily the night before. They can feel faint, heart palpitations, blurry vision. They feel like they are having a stroke. Like they can't breath. Like they are going to die. I've watched students call in sick for tests, ignore emails, not show up for meetings because avoiding their anxiety is an easy coping mechanism.

Recently I met a young, obviously intelligent, woman who, when she found out that I also teach a writing course, pulled me aside and asked if she could sit in on my course sometime. Writing essays  has held her back from going into university, where paper writing is essential, and she's not living up to her potential because of it. Why? Because as a shy child she was forced to read things she wrote in front of the entire class. Just the memory of this makes the act of writing paralyzing for her.

I have another friend who is a performer. He is not comfortable performing if he doesn't have several drinks in him. Why? He sees people out in the crowd chatting and laughing and he thinks they are laughing at him and noticing his mistakes.

Another friend was getting up numerous times in the middle of the night to be sure his child was still breathing. An unusual fear? Not at all. It is the compulsive checking that is the unusual part; especially unusual, in this case, because it is not his first child. This started with child number three.

My anxieties are provoked from fear of being emotionally hurt. Like Lucy convincing Charlie Brown to let her hold his football for him, my anxiety, I believe, has evolved from being convinced to trust my heart and having that trust yanked away unexpectedly. The expectation of the hurt, causes me to feel it before it even happens. I create the next plot twist and live the consequences in my head, without letting life play out as it was intended.

And while I may be successful for 99% of my waking hours at hiding my fears, waiting for that other shoe to drop seeps into my subconscious and disrupts my sleep. It is a very powerful form of negative thinking.

And I don't know what to do about it. When I am in this state the most useless piece of advice you could possibly give me is, "relax and be yourself." "Think positive" is another trite gem. On some days I feel like I am lashing out at everything and everyone while desperately trying to keep my emotions under control -- masking my pain in sarcasm and gentle insults which only leave me feeling guilty and raw inside. And it begs the question of the self fulfilling prophecy because I am certain, at times, I have taken action that forces those involved to pick up that damn shoe and throw it at me.

I worked with a woman once who was always the biggest grouch. She snapped at people unnecessarily. She really didn't seem to like us young people at all (I was fairly young at the time). People were nervous of her, they tiptoed around her, walked on eggshells, (in a blog entry full of cliches and metaphors used to create irony and enhance cryptic-ness, let's add a few more), people avoided her and talked about her behind her back. People tend to condemn what they don't understand. I always tried to be extra nice to her. Complemented her, "sucked up," so to speak, and my experience with her was not as negative as some although I remember once being a couple minutes late relieving her from her station and she snapped at me, leaving me feeling torn in two.  She is an extreme example of how fear of the world's opinion creates negative behaviour.

I ran into her a few years later, now older and now well on my way to my future health care life, and she was in emergency at the hospital I worked at. She was there because she had brought in her son who was in the end-stage of AIDS. Nobody knew about this part of her history when I worked with her in a past life. I supported her and her son through the night and she couldn't have been more relieved to have a friendly familiar face at her side. She was pleasant company and I thought nothing of giving her a hug at the end of my shift. It was also the last time I saw her.

I suppose my final message is this: If you see someone behaving in a way that is out of character, seeming irrationally angry, insecure, bitter, loud -- almost like a six year old acting out to get attention -- take the time to find out why. Surprising things can happen. Life gives us all a beating sometimes. Their behaviour probably has nothing to do with you.

So what is your anxiety and how do you attack it? I would love to hear your stories if you can relate. Sometimes its nice to find out you're not the only one.


Jennifer P said...

I first ran in to this when I was in high school. A girl who we all thought was a snob was painfully shy and just avoided people. And was really lonely and needed a friend.
I love your final message. I am running into that a lot with my family now that I have moved home. For one reason or another, they can be Debbie Downers from time to time. I work very hard to be future focused and positive, not only for my sake, but theirs too. Great post, Kim. (as always)

Kim said...

Thanks Jen. I thought it was important to say. I try my best to stay positive during the day time. It hits me when I am defenceless and sleeping.

You have changed your life dramatically and as a result, also inadvertantly changed your family's life too (not meaning your immediate family, but the family in your new surroundings). Everyone adjusts.

Lisa said...

Night was always worse for me as well. I used to have major anxiety and wake up in the middle of the night worrying about money when I was a student. Then in the morning things never seemed as bad. When I left my husband I would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and the first thought was that I should just suck it up and go back to him. But in the morning, again, things were fine. I don't know what it is about the deep dark of night that promotes anxiety. Maybe during the day there are just too many other distractions that we have to focus on, and the anxiety just gets lost among them. At night, you can concentrate on the one thing, and it just seems bigger and worse. Just some of my random rambling thoughts...

Kim said...

Yeah that is pretty much exactly it. Fine during the day except for the exhaustion from lack of sleep. I had a money wake up too recently but that is unusual. The stuff that wakes me up now is highly outdated though, and only becomes an issue if something external reminds me.

Gail E. said...

Back in the spring of 2002, I was a stressed-out, anxious wreck. It was all work-related and my 9-to-5 day (so to speak) was a living hell. All the classic symptoms were there…..jumpy, nervous, couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t sleep, no appetite, drank more (it’s a miracle I still have a functioning liver) and a general disinterest in life. I don’t know how my co-workers didn’t notice something was seriously wrong. Well, actually, my behaviour was noticed enough by the wrong people to get me reprimanded (a whole other story altogether) but no one ever bothered to delve into *why* my behaviour was so abnormal. I still find this disturbing. And my support system at the time wasn’t being very supportive. So…a car accident, a visit to a psychologist and two months of anti-depressants later, I came through the other side relatively unscathed.

I hope I never have to go through anything like that again. It’s still a pain in my pride that I had to resort to being medicated to pull through that situation. However, I must admit that being a zombie for 2 months enabled me to reflect and regroup instead of being purely reactionary.

Sleep and stress…the vicious circle. If I’m stressed, I don’t sleep, which causes more stress….around and around we go. I don’t sleep well at the best of times and there are days when I’m so tired and emotionally charged that I’ll start crying for no valid reason. Either that or I verbally lash out at anyone in the vicinity. Luckily I haven’t resorted to throwing things :-) So, what anxieties keep my mind from shutting down at night? There are the common things like financial concerns, that’s a biggie. Then there are my insecurities. I also tend to dwell on, well, everything. I replay and analyze (ad infinitum) conversations, other peoples’ actions, various scenarios (both real and hypothetical) and try to draw some sort of conclusion. Usually I come to several conclusions in the hope that one of them is correct and then I dwell some more on how I’ll deal with each one.

I think I need a nap now. All that thinking about thinking is exhausting 

Kim said...

It all sounds eerily familiar Gail. Very erie. And thanks for sharing that.

I did have pills for a bit just to help me with the sleeping part and that was around the time that my X moved out -- 3 years ago. Still, I don't think that at any point in the last 4 years that I've even admitted to myself that I was dealing with a very situation specific anxiety -- very situation INITIATED anxiety would be more accurate....... when it is at its worst, it affects everything I do.

It always astonishes me at how calm I am when I am in the "eye of the needle" so to speak. Then I lose it later and sometimes I don't even know why. My most sharable example I can give goes back to when I was a nursing student and I was scheduled to go watch a bypass surgery the same day as my Grandfather, in the neighbouring OR. About half way through the surgery, the anaesthetist from my grandfathers OR came into my patient's OR and said, "The patient in the other room.... not a good candidate for surgery." I took the whole thing in stride. Shrugged t off. Did what I had to do. My Grandpa did well. He was't a good candidate only because he was 83. He lived another 9 years after that operation. But later that same night I had my first date with the guy who would become my husband and I had been very much looking forward to that date....... and while we were out I could feel myself slowly losing it. It predated cell phones so I couldn't just make a call and find out if he was OK. And finally I said... "I have to go home." It's amazing he called me again (maybe he shouldn't have but he knew the situation I was in and it was a reasonable response to a stressful day.

The hardest part about the present issues is convincing myself that I am having a reasonable, and not excessive stress anxiety response to circumstances. What I like the least, is how it affects my present relationships with certain individuals who have nothing to do with the situation but are rather guilty by association. That bothers me the most because it is not fair. I recently spent and entire weekend in "the eye of the needle" so to speak and I was fine. I successfully employed avoidance tactics and it was an OK weekend. What wasn't OK was the entire week after when, things were out of site and it was safe to break down a bit. I spent that entire weekend suppressing the urge to explode and then I lashed out the entire week at everything and everyone who were blameless. Mostly directed at myself.

We are pretty hard on ourselves to appear perfect when sometimes we have some pretty good reasons to not be perfect.

gregory said...

I typed in 'talented sports blogger' into Google, and this is what it gave me. Inspiring writing Kim. Keep up the good work! :)