Fight or Flight? Freeze.

I constantly struggle to decide how much and what, exactly, I should share about my personal life on my blog. I have often wanted to write more about my personal experience in dealing with mental illness; but I felt that these struggles were either too personal or would open myself up to a lot of critical judgment from others. I’ve experienced, firsthand, the stigma of mental illness and the feelings of worthlessness that can result from thoughtless comments made by people who simply cannot understand what they, themselves, have not personally dealt with.

No one likes to feel vulnerable, me included.

The problem is, though, that no matter how hard I try to remain positive on my blog, many times this aspect of myself seeps through anyway. Stress and doubt and all those fears I fight against every day make it very hard to be open and completely honest with my readers if I am constantly trying to hide that ‘thing’ that deeply affects my life. Hiding it also prevents me from posting a lot of what’s going through my mind and getting much-needed feedback from others.

The more stress I feel, the quieter I become.

Communication is never so difficult as when I feel overwhelmed, and it takes so little to overwhelm me. The slightest change in my environment or daily routine turns my world into a chaotic nightmare. It takes me forever to find the words to express what I’m feeling or thinking. Processing emotions and thoughts for me is like trying to read a book with AC/DC blaring on the radio while my reading lamp flickers on and off, spiders crawl all over me, and the TV streams non-stop obnoxious commercials, not to mention that annoying clock ticking that even AC/DC couldn’t drown out!

Life has a funny way of re-testing us over and over again. If we fail miserably the first time we are tested, that lesson continues to present itself in one form or another until we finally learn from the experience what was meant to be learned. I’ve experienced many of these tests over the years. Most, I don’t care to repeat; but there it is again without fail. This makes me question. What am I missing? What lesson have I still not learned? I don’t understand….

And I say all of this to get to the point of this post.

When danger or fear presents itself, the common responses are fight or flight; but I think there are variations of how these responses present themselves. For example, rather than a physical altercation as a fight response, people might use sarcasm, insults, or any other verbal abuse at their disposal. Flight, or running away from danger, could just as easily present itself as “freezing,” like the opossum who plays dead in the face of a threat.

I’ve never been a fighter. Heck, when I took karate to fulfill one of my college physical education requirements my freshman year, I remember one particular day in class when we paired up, sparring. The girl I was sparring with hit me right in the solar plexus, not hard, barely a tap; but I started crying! Of course, everyone (including the teacher) thought I was hurt and gathered around me for assistance. And of course, that made it even worse! By the time the teacher sent me back to my dorm room, I was in a full-blown panic attack. So, no, I’m not a fighter. Dare I say that I’m a total wuss? Yes, probably so.

I hate confrontation. In fact, I avoid it at all costs, even if it would be beneficial to spar with words to improve a relationship. Verbal arguments are the worst for me because I end up saying things I regret when I’m pushed to the point of feeling overwhelmed and hearing words that can never be unheard, whether they’re being said to me or thought in my own mind. It’s like my brain doesn’t work quickly enough to process the thoughts and information being shared. Then, I find that I can’t figure out how to respond appropriately; so I end up blurting out the first thing that pops into my head, resulting in a lot of hurt feelings. All while only hearing half of what was said.

Or – I shut down completely.

Quickly manifesting thoughts, emotions, and harsh words drown out the glaring, red light in my brain flashing: “WARNING! WARNING! Information overload… Shut down in 3… 2… 1…

Then, nothing.

And I think the hardest part of this shut down is that it happens so quickly that I don’t even realize it is happening. There’s no way to stop it. My mind simply freezes. Hours later, I wonder to myself, “What happened?” I’m left trying to piece together an argument that feels vague and confusing, not fully understanding why the other person is still so angry with me.

This unconscious behavior, for lack of a better term, isn’t just isolated to confrontations and arguments. It’s a forever-present defense mechanism that occurs for any type of overwhelmingly fearful situation in my life. And since most things outside of my normal everyday routine produce anxiety and fear for me, it’s a minute-by-minute struggle on a daily basis to challenge myself to stay present in this moment. Forget about thinking about the future. That is completely incomprehensible to me. It is enough of a challenge to keep a positive attitude in this moment and concentrate on what needs to get done right now.

It’s, flat-out, exhausting!

The reason I tell this story is that last year while Social Security was reviewing my case, this fear response took over my life. I couldn’t fight them. I froze. And I lost my SSD benefits as a result. Finding a therapist to help me felt too overwhelming. Finding anyone to help me felt too overwhelming. As the stigma of mental illnesses became a talking point for political bureaucracy, the voices of so many people commenting on blogs and articles about the misuse of social services ran through my mind, saying things like, “Why can’t you just keep a job?” Or, “You need to try harder.” Or, “You’re just lazy.”

I struggled the entire 5 years that I received benefits to justify my need for them. I questioned the validity of my illness. I developed a fear of psychiatry, medication, and general medicine so severe that I quit seeking treatment altogether! I haven’t been in therapy or taken any psychiatric medication since the middle of 2007. I didn’t quit seeing therapists and psychiatrists because I thought I was “cured” or even stable. On the contrary, my anxiety and fears became so severe that I fled.

I fled because I felt they were doing more harm than good. Over the course of 13 years, I had been hospitalized 9 different times for psychiatric emergencies and had taken every new medication available at the time, sometimes several at once. At best, the medication made me feel unreal or numb. At worst, the medications made me suicidal. Nevertheless, I found that my creativity suffered; and I no longer had the desire to do anything, including live.

Throughout those years, I was shuffled through countless psychiatrists and therapists due to insurance issues. They didn’t listen to my complaints about the medications and ineffective treatment. They offered very little productive feedback. Each one gave me new labels that ranged from a variety of Axis I to Axis II diagnoses. The list below is just the ones that I remember receiving in the order I was given them:

Postpartum Depression

Dysthymia

Major Depressive Disorder

Borderline Personality Disorder

Anorexia Nervosa

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Schizoaffective Disorder

ADD

Bipolar Disorder

There could have been more, but it’s difficult to remember a lot of things from those years that I was medicated. After this 13 year roller coaster ride with psychiatry in general, I gave up because I was fed up. I was tired of being a guinea pig or lab rat, whichever floats your proverbial boat.

In any other species, the weak simply die off. That is, after all, natural selection. I’m not saying that this is either right or wrong. That’s just life, the way of the universe. Humans are only slightly more civilized than other species of animals in that they provide assistance through a variety of social services. At least, they like to think they’re more civilized. Receiving said services are, however, conditional. I’ve witnessed some of the most beautiful acts of kindness and compassion through this window to my outside world – my computer. I’ve also heard of some of the most atrocious acts of violence.

Fear is a debilitating emotion. I know I need help. For the first time in 6 years, I’ve resorted to going back to therapy. I am thankful that I finally found the courage to ask for help because sometimes, I need someone else to help me make sure my thinking is rational and constructive.

It has taken me many, many years of self-reflection, meditation, and therapy to understand the inner workings of my mind, to even label the emotions that I feel, to understand that to be conscious is a choice that one must make consciously. I’m not certain that I will ever master this human experience; but taking each moment as it comes, allowing myself the time it takes me to process whatever I’m dealing with, is the best solution I have to cope with the challenges I face and the challenges that others place in my path.

I apologize for the length of this post, but I had a lot on my mind. Mental illness affects so many people today. Telling our stories is an important part to creating better solutions and better care for those who so desperately need these services. Thank you for reading my story!

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9 thoughts on “Fight or Flight? Freeze.

  1. I am sending you a virtual hug! You are a remarkable writer, and person. This post comes at a time when my worry over a person I love, who is struggling with mental illness, is just about doing me in. I know she’s brilliant, as I suspect you are, too. My family has a gene pool of various conditions that make life a struggle for many of us, directly or indirectly. Sometime, if you have a minute, you might want to read a post from my blog. Here’s the link:
    http://sublimedays.com/2012/11/10/david-foster-wallace-and-depression/
    It will give you my impression of the presentation of depression and other mental conditions in the human race. You are not weak. You are the strongest and brightest among us.
    Thank you for sharing your story.
    Mary

  2. Dear Pixigiggles, you shouldn’t apologize for writing such a good post! Thank you for writing it, I read it with great interest and learned from it.
    I wish you all the best and I hope your post generates support and gives support to those suffering the way you do.
    Love, Paula

  3. I’m sorry to hear you lost your benefits. We with mental health issues are not the best at advocating consistently for ourselves and dealing with bureaucracy! Thanks for an honest and eloquent post. I agree diagnosis and treatment is still a mess but we need to do the best we can with it. Wishing you well.

    1. Thank you, Tertia. Your kindness is greatly appreciated. I have hopes that this experience with a new facility might be different. Even if it is not, I feel that we, as clients of the mental health industry, have a responsibility to figure out why something is not working and speak out about it. I know that can be hard and frustrating, but each of us deserves the best chance we have for survival.

  4. Patricia, this post is heartwrenchingly beautiful. My own mental health issues have kept me away from blogs for some time now, yours included, but I’m kind of happy to have refound Pixygiggles at THIS post.

    I can’t relate to everything you mention here, but enough of it to offer you a bit of solidarity. Deciding with how personal and dark to allow our blogs to be is something I bet many of us struggle with. I know I do. At some point last year I found A Canvas of the Minds (http://acanvasoftheminds.com/), a collective blog devoted to writing about mental illness and eliminating the stigma. They’re a wonderful group, and have influenced my blog and me profoundly. You might want to check it out.

    I wish you all the best with your journey, and hope you find some peace of mind soon in that you’re doing what you can to help yourself. Even that’s a difficult thing, I know, but we can do it.

    1. Thank you, Sid, for all of your kindness and the recommendation of A Canvas of the Minds. That blog looks very interesting to me.

      Glad to see you back! I understand the complexities of trying to keep up with the blogging world while trying to deal with the emotional turmoil of the real world. These are trying times. Keep the faith that we will get through them. 🙂 Wishing you all the best, too!

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