Imagine yourself, if you will, at home alone on a stormy Saturday night. You are sitting on a big black leather couch in a dark room. You are watching a horror movie, which is set in an old manor-style house in the countryside. The house in the movie sits on several acres of land and has dozens of ornately-furnished rooms spread across three creaky old floors. It’s a stormy night in the movie too – the rain is pelting the windows, the wind is whistling through the trees, and frequent flashes of lightning intermittently light up the black night sky.
The movie is about a mad, masked psychotic murderer who is on the loose; he is scouring the house, in search of the lone young survivor of his recent massacre of the rest of the family. It’s at the point in the movie where the poor, terrified young victim-to-be is slowly creeping backwards from room to room, in a vain attempt to find her means of escape from an unthinkable ending. The unmistakable sound of those pesky creaking floorboards follows her every step.
Unbeknownst to her, but as you can clearly see from the safety of the couch, she is about to back into the last room in the house that she really wants to be in. In it, we can see the dark shadow of the villainous psychopath awaiting her, with the long, blood-stained blade of his knife glimmering in the flashes of lightning. The closer she gets, the higher in the air he raises his knife, and the higher-pitched the music gets. At the last second, she turns around, comes face to face with her nightmare, and much to her horror, the reality of her inescapable and imminent fate sets in.
Now imagine that at that very moment you find yourself sucked into your television, into movie world. You now are that poor, terrified victim whose bloody-bladed fate is staring you in the face. For a brief moment, it all feels very real. It is you who has come face to face with your worst nightmare. Your stomach literally feels like it is being physically twisted in a knot, your head consumed with a numbing cloud of anxiety, and your whole body is trembling on the inside. Where’s a decent commercial break when you actually need one?
And then you find yourself whisked back to your couch. A few moments later, you find yourself being sucked back into the same fateful moment in movie world. And then back to the couch. And back again to movie world, again to the same moment. And so on and so on, always back to the same moment in the movie. You know it is just a movie – but you cannot convince yourself it is not real.
Well, you’ve guessed it, that more or less sums up how real my irrational worrying and the resulting anxiety and depression felt, which is what this post is primarily about. If you replace the analogy of the psychotic masked murderer and his bloody-knifed intentions with other nightmarishly unpalatable endings – of losing my job, losing my family and everything that is dear to me, of being sentenced by a judge in court for no valid reason whatsoever, going to jail for no reason too – or whatever your own biggest fears may be – you might start to get a feel for just how real it felt.
I’m not suggesting that I was hallucinating. I wasn’t constantly convinced there was a psychotic murderer after me, nor did I find myself walking the streets with my head bowed as if in the dock, and saying “Yes, Your Honour” to random strangers in the street. Nor did I find myself at home at night wailing out in anguish and hugging my wife and kids for the last time as my sentence was read out and before I was dragged off to the local jailhouse. At least if I did, nobody ever told me.
In many ways, however, the sheer crippling anxiety that I was experiencing was actually far worse than would have been the reality of some of the outcomes that I was imagining. But my vivid imagination was so overactive, my anxiety so consumed me at times, and my fate felt so sealed, that they all might as well have been real.
I would often find myself in and out of movie world several times a day. During periods of peak anxiety, when I had a particularly large black dog growling at my feet, I would visit movie world several times an hour, or even in a minute. Sometimes my visits might even last all day uninterrupted.
During those peak periods, I might get up to one hour of relief a day if I was lucky, usually about an hour before bedtime. The worries and anxiety would just lift, I would realise that everything really was going to be alright, and I would be filled with a sense of elation. It would be tinged only by the certainty that I knew the anxiety could return at any time, and I would be whisked straight back into movie world.
I might also experience a brief anxiety-free moment when I woke up in the morning and hadn’t yet decided what it was that I was going to worry about that day, or had forgotten what I had been worrying about the night before. Indecisiveness and temporary amnesia – they can be such a bitches at times.
A constant question I would ask myself when I was in movie world was “what if?” What if, for example, rainwater was indeed seeping through the walls of my investment property? What if it had actually reached and weakened the plaster walls and the ceiling? What if the ceiling did fall down? What if my tenant was – asleep – at the time? What if only my apartment had a problem and it was causing damage to the rest of the building? My god, what if I was liable for – the whole building? What about the safety of other tenants in other apartments? What if the water caused the inner steel reinforcement of the concrete walls to rust and crack? What if not only the ceiling of my apartment – but – my god, what if the entire building started to crumble and fall down?
Everywhere I looked I would only find more uncertainty that would make me ask more and more what-ifs, create more and more scenarios, more courtroom scenarios, more reasons to go broke or go to jail – all of which were highly irrational and yet also seemed so real.
The best way I can think of to describe the impact and feeling of the constant what-ifs is to first imagine a single shot from a revolver, a single bullet, as being a clear, distinct thought. It would be a thought that you could focus on clearly, contemplate it and consider it; it would be a healthy concern as opposed to an anxiety-yielding, all-consuming worry. You would be able to address the concern calmly, confidently and rationally, fix up any problems, and just move on with life.
Irrational worrying and constant what-ifs, on the other hand, can be more likened to a machine gun firing off multiple random rounds. What’s worse is that it would be someone else’s finger on the trigger, the trigger would be jammed open, and the machine gun aimed towards you – at point blank range.
The example of my inner-city apartment – with the sort of water views that you don’t really want – was just one of many sources of irrational worry and anxiety for me over the years. For sure, it was one of my bigger black dogs but it was by no means the biggest. And just in this example alone, all the worrying, torment and endless stream of what-ifs were swirling around in my head most of the day, every day, for months.
What’s more, my irrational worries were indeed always highly irrational, but they were always based loosely around facts. My apartment, for example, did indeed have a defect that was letting moisture in – that was without question. It took a few years of red tape and stress dealing with insurers, lawyers and builders to get it fixed, but it did eventually get repaired – and fairly easily so in the end. But a defect is a defect, and I really was convinced for a while that apartment walls could come crashing down despite reports from various building engineers that didn’t mention any structural defects whatsoever. No amount of reason from anyone in the real world could convince me that everything was going to be ok while I was sitting in movie world. Whether it was the sky, a wall, or an entire building, something was going to fall down somewhere for sure.
And yet somewhere, somehow, through all the different worries and what-ifs that I conjured up, and as weak as I felt from the hail of bullets (warning: moment of martyrdom approaching) I found the strength to carry on with my both job and my personal life – day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute.
Bear in mind as I’ve mentioned before that on paper, everything in my life looked really quite rather rosy – beautiful wife, adorable children, beachside living, all the time while holding down some fairly responsible jobs that allowed me to travel to parts of the world I may never have seen otherwise. But anxiety and depression are not usually about what you have or don’t have. In fact if, as I did, you believe you are not worthy of what you have, then the more you tend to have in life, the more you stand to lose. The worse, therefore, your potential anxiety and depression.
Talking of my wife and kids, I’m also conscious of the fact that I was not the only one affected by my anxiety and depression. It wasn’t just about me – whether they realised it or not, my friends, family and colleagues were all affected, and I do intend to discuss that in a later post. But for now my story is all about me, and hopefully how you can relate to it. To this day, however, the more I share my story with friends, the more it astounds me when they say how well I was clearly able to hide it all.
For all those years, I was certain that I must have been coming across as a permanent stress-head, and the last thing I was doing was trying to hide anything. And yet, while I was dealing with real people, real situations and the normal everyday pressures of work and life, I was often at the very same time in movie world within own thoughts, or taking a walk with a growling black dog. Who says men can’t multi-task?
Many people reading this might think that what I’ve just described above sounds more like anxiety than depression – and they would be right. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, mine was more a case of prolonged doses of extreme anxiety, with a resulting dollop of depression on top, like the icing on the cake.
I guess I do consider myself lucky in a way because I know there are many people who suffer depression far, far worse than I ever did – people who might find it impossible to even get out of bed for days on end because of depression alone. The depression I experienced can best be likened to when the machine gun would become unjammed, and stop firing those random uncontrolled shots. I might then dwell on just a single bullet – a single irrational worry – for a while, in a state of depression rather than anxiety.
I also experienced depression at times as a deep, lingering sense of doom and gloom, a lack of overall purpose in life, without any specific cause to pin it on. Which was probably the worst part of it – if you can’t pinpoint the cause, what can you really do about it?
At other times I was depressed just because I knew with certainty that the anxiety was coming. Sometimes I would even become consumed by the cloud of depression at the same time as having a bout of irrational worrying and anxiety. Anxiety was a bitter cake to try and eat at the best of times; having to wolf down the icing at the same time didn’t exactly leave a good taste in my mouth.
Whether depression was the dull calm before, during or after the storm, the only place to retreat to would be the inside of the nearest dark cave within my own head, with the company of only the black dog. And while anxiety and depression are two quite different feelings, nae experiences, I did find them to have a few things in common. For one, I found that the all-consuming dark cloud of depression might also linger over my head for hours even days at a time. And again, after committing myself to martyrdom, I was able to somehow find the strength to function day to day while suffering from bouts of depression.
For several years, I tended to have one big building-sized black dog of a worry roughly once a year that would last for months. It would sprout more and more unfeasibly irrational what-ifs and worries, before eventually wandering off one day. I would then experience lots of small to medium-sized worries in between, all of which could bring on a cloud of depression. But gradually over time, the gaps between the bigger black dogs got shorter and shorter until one day I woke up with about five big black dogs growling at the entrance of my cave all at the same time. It was becoming increasingly harder and harder to cope. It was time to seek the assistance of modern day medication.