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So you live with anxiety?

By Michael Kimber, Features Contributor

 

The room is completely empty except for a jowly woman readying her presentation. Empty chairs surround the circular table where other people should be sitting. I’m in a self-help group and I am the only one who showed up for class. Her presentation is Power Point and she makes jokes about how she is not good with computers.

“I’m such a luddite,” she says. “So is my mom.” She smiles and I half expect her to

tell me that she had a mother too. She has been delaying beginning the presentation for 10 minutes in the hopes that other people will show up. She checks her watch once more. Ten minutes have passed since we first sat down. About 20 seconds since she last checked her watch.

“Well at least this means I don’t have to worry about my fear of public speaking,” she chortles.

Her jowls shake and it reminds me of ass cheeks clapping for some reason. I dutifully laugh trying to fight my desire to run from the room screaming loud enough that they bring someone competent to help me. Instead I sit and wait.

“Everyone gets worried sometime,” she says. “That’s perfectly normal.”

Silence.

I hate being talked down to and remind myself that I have gone crazy. Society does this to my newfound people all the time. You can’t call a girl fat, in intelligent places you can’t call gay people fags or black people n-bombs, but anywhere in this world you can be condescending to people with mental illness. According to a 2003 Statistics Canada study, only one-third of all people who need mental health services in Canada actually receive them. Two-thirds of those who refuse to seek treatment do so as a result of the stigma attached. The shame of mental illness is literally killing us.

I won’t lie. I’m ashamed too, but I know that I need to get help.

She might not be condescending. She might just be dumb. Or I might be abnormally sensitive and taking a cliché line personally.

“Been in the city long?” she asks.

“My whole life,” I say. I wonder if I’m supposed to make jokes. “I hate Barrett’s Privateers. I’m that Nova Scotian. Every time I hear that song I want to kill myself.”

Oops. I can tell from her expression that was the wrong thing to say. “Just kidding.”

She doesn’t laugh at my joke but instead looks down at her presentation notes.

“I’m almost ready to start,” she says. “I am not that good at public speaking. My fear.”

“I’m not scared of public speaking,” I say. “Just about everything else though.” “We’ll see if we can help with that,” she says and passes me a pamphlet. The pamphlet says something along the lines of: So You Live With Anxiety. Click. The first panel of her presentation says: So You Live With Anxiety.

“So you live with anxiety,” she begins. She proceeds to read word for word from the screen what is in front of me on a piece of paper and projected on a screen next to her head. I read much faster than she talks and soon have nothing to do.

Interesting points are made. Alcohol and marijuana are bad for anxiety. Limit

your caffeine intake because it can cause insomnia. Make sure you set a sleep schedule. Do things you love doing. There is a list of things one can do to alleviate anxiety. Breath deeply. Hold your breath in your belly and count to five and then exhale twice as long.

This releases tension you keep in your chest. Go for long walks because the activity of walking releases chemicals that cause relaxation.

Half way down the page hidden from prying eyes is the word masturbation. I consider asking her about the proper method of jerking off. I feel she is an expert. I wait to see if she says it as she goes over the list of relaxation techniques. She doesn’t. I tell myself to pay attention and stop being an asshole. I need help and she is trying to provide it. She finishes the list and looks around the room. “Does anyone have any questions?” she asks.

Do you realize I am the only one here?

There is a reason why mental hospitals are filled with the homeless and psychologists’ offices are filled with successful people with anxiety disorders who somehow function in their day-to- day lives. Proper care matters and if you don’t have money you are unlikely to receive it until it’s too late. Poor people have to rely on the system to help, and the system in Nova Scotia is totally and completely fucked. That’s what happens when two per cent of health care dollars are allotted to deal with 15 per cent of our problems. The problem is not necessarily due to the incompetence of the workers, though in my experience that certainly wasn’t lacking. It is the incredible burden placed on the system by the epidemic proportions of the mental health crisis we are facing.

Each year the numbers seeking treatment grow exponentially and the money for mental health fails to grow in proportion. One in five people deal with a mental illness in their life. My guess is that a lot of the rest just don’t deal with it. Why? It’s a fucking inconvenience getting treatment.

To be admitted to a mental institution you must show that you are a clear and present danger to yourself. Not simply that you are suicidal but that you have a plan and intend to act on it in the near future. Having spent a long day trying to convince workers that my suicidal little brother indeed wanted to kill himself, being turned away for having not proved our case, I had a slight clue that getting help was not as easy as it appeared in the movies I watched. For those of us who don’t present a clear and present danger to ourselves and aren’t looking to be committed, the system faces an incredible backlog. To see a qualified psychologist I faced a wait of six months.

The alternative? Self-help groups. This meant discussing my intimate problems with complete and total strangers. Or in my case, one counsellor who had a fear of public speaking. “It’s important to think positive thoughts,” she says.

“It’s called happiness because it is not what happens to you, it’s how you feel about what happened. It’s your decision.” She beams. Happens doesn’t equal happiness. Brilliant.

I can tell she feels this has gone very well. I have been nodding over and over again with each point to show that I’m paying attention. I’m not. Paying attention is not an easy thing for me right now. My thoughts are totally and completely consumed with trying to solve the problem of what is going in my head.

Whatisgoingoninmyheadisa torturous circle. It begins with why do I feel like this? My mind frantically goes over everything that could possibly be upsetting me and then the circle spins again. My mind focuses on these negative things trying to provide solutions that life just doesn’t offer. Then, I get angry with myself. Why the fuck am I so depressed? Am I one of those little emo assholes who listens to Radiohead on repeat, smears my black make up and takes cold showers to feel alive? The anger turns to guilt. Why do I feel sorry for myself?

Pretty tough being a spoiled middle- class white kid. They should hold a fucking telethon for me. Bono should save his pubes to raise money for me.

The guilt is heavy and builds each day. I think of what I’m doing to my mother and father, who I collapsed in tears in front of at a Chinese restaurant a few days earlier. About my incredible girlfriend who has been with me through thick and thin. She doesn’t deserve to be with someone who can’t at the very least gain control of himself. I was so happy. Why did this have to happen? Which nun did I spit on?

My greatest and most present worry is that the worry will never stop. As a result I have trouble listening to what anyone in my life is actually saying. When I am not worrying for a few minutes I will suddenly think I feel better. I feel good now. Then I start monitoring it and it sinks back to shit. “The most important thing is the now,” she says. I tuned in when she said most important thing.

I thought she was going to tell me what I needed to know to get over this. The simple secret that everyone knows and won’t fucking tell me. “Right now?” I ask. *Stop being an asshole.*

“Each and every moment,” she says. I feel like giving her a standing ovation. Instead we do a deep breathing exercise. She has me imagine I’m on a beach. Can I hear the waves? I can’t. I can just hear the radiator turning on and her watch ticking. Can you smell the sunscreen on your skin? I nod my head.

Can you smell the ocean? Salt and spray. I almost can. I want to. So badly.

Can you feeling the sun on your skin? My cheek is hot. I remember being on the beach with my girlfriend the summer before. We had a couple’s day with her best friend and her boyfriend. The morning began with fresh fruit, eggs, bacon, raisin bread (prepared by me – fuck can I toast) yogurt and eggs and three different kinds of juice. Ketchup on everything. On to the beach, where we played in the waves.

She was wearing a yellow bikini and looked so beautiful. You know that sort of beautiful where you don’t feel like life is real and you are just a character in a play and you can’t believe some dumb ass gave you this part. The type of beautiful that is strange and exotic and somehow home. I took her in my arms, muscles tensing, and the beautiful soft fullness of her body as light as air, warm to the touch in the cold salt water of the ocean. My nipples sharp, hers diamond.

Laughing so loudly that the whole beach turned and looked at us. I lifted her above my head and she felt like nothing balanced in my hands. When we got back from the beach I received a phone call. My parents had been in a car crash. They had flipped their car, launching them 20 feet into the air, spun them round and round, flips like gods flicking coins into the air, heads or tails, dead or alive. Bounce. Crash. Flip. Land on their backs, upside down, dangling from a thoroughly destroyed vehicle. My mom breaks her wrist. My dad is covered in scratches. Both survive when they should have died. While we laughed and screamed on the beach. A few centimeters left or right my parents would have died.

I wanted to go back there. Push through the sands of time and end up on that beach forever. Where the weight of my love was nothing. Where we feasted and laughed until we couldn’t stop because we never knew that life could be this good. Where my parents were invincible and car crashes couldn’t kill a Kimber. Now I was killing myself and I couldn’t stop. The relaxation ceased and the tension renewed itself.

“And when I count to 10 you’ll come back and you’ll feel the relaxation wash over you in waves.”

This story was originally published on Michael Kimber’s blog, Colony of Losers. Today, after smacking his cheek against Halifax’s creative ceiling for too long, Kimber is moving to Toronto to begin his career as a writer.

 

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