Hello Anxiety, Meet Brandon
I clamped my eyes to the door of the treatment room and struggled to focus as the walls ebbed and sunk. My massage client snoozed on the table in front of me while I kneaded their temple and tried to steady my trembling hands. A funnel of nausea crept up from my stomach. Under my sternum, my heart rate spiked. Please hold it together for three minutes, I thought. Please don’t throw up.
After months of random queasiness, lightheadedness, increased heart rate, shakiness, acid reflux, and a constant lump in my throat, I knew I was having an anxiety attack. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first attack I encountered during my part-time job as a Licensed Massage Therapist.
Prior to the last ten months or so, I never experienced extreme physical symptoms to stress or anxiety aside from a headache here or neck kink there. I had plenty to be anxious about in my 20’s. And sure, I’d undergone a lot of emotional trauma since my engagement unexpectedly ended a month before my wedding in 2015. And yeah, as a 33-year old I stressed over my career and finances and lack of basic adulthood necessities, but so does every millennial I know. Nothing a Valium and booze and some emotional eating can’t alleviate, right? It took weeks after my first anxiety attack to recognize what my symptoms were, and months to identify possible triggers. Finally, after a rough start to 2018—with the flu, bronchitis, and pneumonia all in a month’s time—I was done for. I was ready to get a handle on my mental well-being for the sake of my whole everything.
Last Thursday I phoned into my first counseling session in almost three years. We’ll call my counselor “Brandon.” Just so you know, he picked that alias. I wanted to call him “Trevor.” Brandon and I go way back. I mean, like, probably a decade. Maybe a little less. But he knew me in my post-college years, and through multiple jobs and roommates and relationships and out-of-state moves. My former pastor’s wife worked in the same counseling organization with Brandon in Maryland and recommended him when I asked her for help. When I moved from Maryland to Charleston, SC six years ago, I told him (because I’m a bossy client that way) that I refused to start over with another counselor. “So, you do phone sessions, right?”
Up until April of 2015, Brandon and I held phone sessions almost weekly. Then, when my ex-fiance called off our wedding, I stopped. At the time I thought, fuck it, I’ve been going to counseling for ages trying to fix my stuff and our stuff and I still ended up here. Of course counseling wasn’t the reason my relationship didn’t work out, but at that point I didn’t want to talk about my broken life anymore. I wanted to deal or not deal with it in my own way, even if it was destructive. Oh, and it was. I drank like an Irishman, socially and by myself. I made out with and fell for men who weren’t emotionally available. I lost weight. Then I gained 15 pounds. I spent money I barely had to make the surface stuff—my clothes, my apartment—comfortable and pretty because the lining of my life stunk of grief and failure and Jameson. If rock bottom had a basement, I sat in it with an empty glass.
I sent Brandon a timeline before our session, outlining what I’d been up to since 2015 to give him a sense of my current welfare. Nothing like summarizing the last three years of your life to point out your very dumb decisions and your very real need to get your shit straight.
I wasn’t raised in a family keen on talking about the mental or heart things. Grief, pain, depression, anxiety. But, whether it’s our refrigerators or cars or houses or relationships or hearts or health, something in all of our lives is broken. I need to dig up and process and pin point and strategize and conquer the mountains (and sometimes conquer the same mountain over and over). I’m not saying I enjoy it. Actually, I hate it. But I need it. Brandon knows how to steer me toward the root cause of my unhealthy thoughts and patterns, and he definitely knows what to call me out on.
Toward the end of our hour-long phone sesh, Brandon asked, “So, you said you want to be healthier. In what ways?” I highlighted a few—getting a grip on my anxiety, making some forward motion in my career, becoming self-confident and self-sufficient mentally, financially, and professionally. “You seem certain about what you want. I haven’t heard you sound so sure before.”
I will probably act self-destructive again. I will definitely fuck up and probably drink too much and accidentally scribble some lessons in dry-erase instead of permanent ink so I have to repeat them later, but I don’t have to do any of this alone. Life is too much and alone is too hard. I wasn’t made for that. We weren’t made for that.
Shauna Niequist said, “Left to our own devices, we sometimes choose the most locked up, dark versions of the story, but what a good friend does is turn on the lights, open the window, and remind us that there are a whole lot of ways to tell the same story.”
Community is my light. Counseling is my light. Brandon is my light. And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that demons really freaking hate the light.