On the sixth day of our 12 Days of Self-Care series, John Phipps shares his own story — one that’s familiar to many of us. For more helpful tips on coping with common stresses of the holiday season and the transition into the new year, check back every day.
Hello, fellow GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) sufferer. I’m John. I’m 37 and I’ve dealt with crippling anxiety my entire life. Straight up: I am not a therapist. I’m not a doctor. I never even finished college. I have no formal training in this sort of thing whatsoever. I’m loud, brash, back-slapping, physically strong, and I may even come as a bit endearingly arrogant (I prefer “boastful”) when you meet me.
But, it’s all a veneer. Smoke and mirrors. A shield to hide my true self. Not my final form, for you JRPG fans out there.
The reality is, I’m just a regular guy who’s lived in almost paralyzing fear his entire life. That’s a difficult thing for me to admit; I was a U.S. Marine who valued strength, who saw multiple combat tours in two different theaters across seven deployments. In 2004 I fought in the battle of Fallujah and saw/did things there I cannot even describe and will never fully reconcile with. But the fear you experience in combat, for me, is nothing compared to fear of the unknown, which is precisely where the core of my anxiety emanates from. To put it bluntly: if you gave me a weapon right now and told me to fight, I wouldn’t hesitate. Live or die, I know there’s only two possible outcomes, and I’m ok with that. I have a defined enemy. But the myriad scenarios conjured by my own anxious mind have left me reduced to tears, where combat has not. My anxiety scares me more than Iraq ever did.
Anxiety, for those who don’t know, is like a Hydra; it has multiple heads, each operating independent of the other. What I mean is: ever have two different anxiety triggers fighting for dominance? Sometimes I’ll be out with a group, and my social anxiety is churning along when someone brings up a deathly ill relative. And that’s when I immediately imagine myself with whatever illness that is, and the two mindsets fight to determine which one scares me the most. Eventually one loses, but as they say in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “cut off one head, two more take its place”. Of course, different heads will attack during different scenarios. But if you’re like me, it seems every single head rears in unison for holidays involving large groups of people. Like Christmas. Let’s talk about that, shall we?
I don’t know about you, but I simultaneously enjoy and abhor this time of year. I love spending time with my wife and son, but if the group gets any larger than that I tend to curl into myself and become brusque and anti-social. It doesn’t matter that I really love my wife’s family; that’s just how my brain is wired. It’s especially bad when I’m arriving to a Christmas function late and everyone is already gathered. When I walk in the house, EVERY SINGLE PERSON is focused on me. Greeting me, hugging me, touching me, noticing me. It doesn’t matter that I know they love me and understand my anxiety. At that moment my basest instinct is to rip open a hole and time and space, so I can slip into some pocket dimension where I’m utterly alone.
But I can’t do that. Neither can you. It’s not fair that we have to live with this, but then again, life isn’t always fair, is it? But don’t despair. The thing about anxiety is that it’s part of US. WE are NOT part of IT. We OWN our anxiety. It does NOT own US. Remember: anxiety is a state of mind. YOUR mind, to be exact. MY mind. Can we control our anxiety? Not really. But we can do the next best thing: we can act as it’s master. I’ve found that exerting “control” over my anxiety, even if it’s just me telling myself I’m doing so, is extremely empowering. What do I mean?
You are the majority shareholder in your own mind. When you feel your anxiety ramping up, don’t fight it. Let it in…..with the strict understanding that YOU are allowing it to run rampant for a bit. I liken it to letting my dogs run it out at the park to calm them down. When I feel the sea level in my ocean of anxiety rising, I tell it, “you have X amount of time to do your thing. I’m letting you in momentarily. I’M letting YOU in. You have ten minutes. Go wild. After that, I’m shutting you out. You’re going in timeout. And you’re staying there until I say otherwise”. It sounds shlocky, but I’m telling you right now: it takes the edge off something fierce. Everyone wants to feel powerful. And nothing makes ME feel as powerful as when I bring order to my most personal antagonist: myself.
I’d also recommend shining a light in the darkness. If you’re comfortable, talk about your anxiety, either with a licensed therapist or loved ones you can trust. I’m lucky enough to have an extended family that knows about and understands my anxiety triggers. It’s not always roses, but a room full of people who know and understand what’s happening is an incredible boon, and makes me feel less drawn into myself when things get heavy. Of course, not everyone is going to have that sort of immediate familial support. Hell, my wife’s family understands my anxiety better than my own blood. But you’re still not alone, my friend. You have an extended family of millions. 40 million to be exact, just in the United States alone. 40 million people who need support, just as we do. Don’t EVER feel alone, especially during Christmas or any other holiday. Your other family is bigger than you could possibly realize, and millions of us are always willing to listen. Reach out to us. Anyone with anxiety will understand more than you realize.
We all love you, my friend. You’re not alone. Merry Christmas.