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Walls of Fear

It is early in the morning and I can hear Earl flailing around in bed – I'm in a homeless
shelter – and I know that as soon as I get out of bed he will follow me so that we can
spend the first hours of the morning together in silence, broken only by his remark
“man, the wind is cold out their this mourning,” to which I will answer “yeah.” This kind
of conversation was called “meaninglessness social noises” when I was in college. (Not
that I'm complaining, it has become my preferred mode of conversation and seems to
avoid all unnecessary drama and anxiety in my life!)

Finally, about just after 5:30 AM I roll out of bed, hunt for a cigarette in the dark and
head upstairs to smoke it. The shelter is somewhat of a dungeon, in the basement of
the “Family Shelter,” where actual families get to stay in what I imagine is a more home-
like condition. There is very little interaction between the two shelters and the implica-
tion is that it is better to be a family in need of shelter than a single person in the same
need of the shelter.

The sun has yet to rise, there is a sprinkle of snow on the ground, like powder sugar
on French Toast, and the wind is blowing cold – Earl and I will have something to talk
about. My thoughts are of my failure to form a long lasting relationships, bringing tears
to my eyes. This Epiphany hit me last week; why expect long lasting relationships when
I have shown myself nearly incapable of them? Sure there have been relationships that
have lasted for years, but all have ended with me feeling separated and alienated, won-
dering what happened. I suspect that what has happened is that at some time I have
outlived my usefulness, burnt all my bridges, they are done with me.

In the last months at the shelter I have had satisfying relationships with several of my
fellow “riffraff,” I use the term fondly, who gave me the support they could and for vari-
ous reasons moved on. Is it time to admit to myself that this is all that the world has to
offer? I am beginning to think so. Now, I have been thinking, it is time to realize that my
life has, for the most part, with few exceptions, been a series of short, if pleasant inter-
actions with others. It is time to admit that this is what my life will be and time to stop ex-
pecting anything else.

I know my tears won't last; they never do, because after the cigarette I will go back
down the stairs and take my first dose of Ativan. I take Ativan three times a day and it
usually, unless I'm over-stressed, deadens the anxiety so that I am once again capable
of being around polite company, participating in meaningless social noises.

Before I am finished with cigarette, Earl follows me upstairs for his morning cigarette
and I find myself turning away so that he can't see the tears, while behind me he says
“man, the wind is cold out here this mourning” and predictably I answer “Yeah.”

© B. W. Reed November 30, 2008


Walls of Fear
Crying is considered a bad thing in my family. As a small child crying resulted in the
expected Pavlovian response of “Big boys don't cry.” As I grow older my embarrassment
has escalated because it seems to happen mostly in the presence of some mental
health professional, trying to disentangle the reasons for my inability live a socially ac-
ceptable life. In my mind I imagine them saying “Mentally Healthy people don't cry.”

With time my anxiety has become worse, old triggers have strengthened and all too
often new triggers arise, by some mysterious process of spontaneous generation, from
my daily activities. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) has an answer for this constant
Anxiety called “Radical Acceptance.” It consists of, against all evidence to the contrary,
accepting what is happening to you “right now,” this very second. The Buddha was
probably good at this, but for us mere mortals it it is a constant struggle.

How do you get from “accepting the moment,” radically, to actually doing something to
make your life better? The psychologist that introduced me to Radical Acceptance spent
a lot of time coercing me away from this Acceptance; I suspect he was trying to “desen-
sitize” me to my anxiety triggers, but mainly he succeeded in strengthening them. When
I argumentatively mentioned this to him, he would say that it was “quite the bind.” Soon
the mere fact that he moved his attention to me became a trigger for anxiety.

My final response to his treatment was to refuse to attend any of his groups. I did at-
tend one more, on my last day, so that we could part on good terms. During that last
group he commended me,to the group, for “turning a bad experience into a good one.”
Privately, in a conversation after the group, he said “sometimes you wonder if you have
gone too far.” I took this as an apology, which in my experience is rare in the mental
health field.

Anxiety is in reality frustrated fear triggered by some external event. The triggers are
individual and it is easy to fall into the trap of minimizing the anxiety of another; their
triggers aren't yours. In normal fear, normal because everyone agrees that there is a
reason for fear, one has two choices, to fight or to flee, either one of which will reduce
the fear.

Anxiety is no different except others either minimize the trigger for the fear or fail to
recognize it as a trigger. The “fight” part explains why an anxious person pushed to their
limit is liable to strike out in an angry manner as, for example, often happened with the
psychologist I spoke of above. Remember that if this happens to you it's nothing person-
al and try to understand the reaction is to the fear and not to you; emotional words were
used that weren't meant.

© B. W. Reed November 30, 2008


Walls of Fear
The “flee” explains the perception that the anxious person is running from the world;
they are. All exits seemed walled off by the anxiety; the Anxious are emotionally cata-
tonic when pressed in the wrong direction.

I call Anxiety “Frustrated Fear” because, although it has all the mental effects of fear
for the one experiencing it, others are not likely to recognize the anxiety as fear and so
do not treat the one who is anxious as one who is frozen with fear. A good exercise is to
try to imagine living in near constant neurotic fear, for this is the mind set of the Anxious.

There are two kinds of anxiety. If I have a clear view of the future beyond the wall of
fear, for anxiety is a “wall of fear,” I can move one step at a time through the wall and
even feel pleasant relief afterwards. On the other hand, if I have no clear view of the fu-
ture beyond the wall of fear, then the wall seems nearly impenetrable and my any step
at all seems futile. If a person is truly blind to anything beyond there wall of fear, just bla-
tantly pointing it out to them usually increases their anxiety and if pushed they will re-
spond angrily.

Currently, I have “no clear view”; anything beyond the wall anxiety is blank to me, all
action walled away by anxiety, nowhere to go but to stay where I am, doing just what I
need to stay here. I am trapped in perpetual “Radical Acceptance.” On some days I can
present as being normal enough that people wonder what my problem is.

Anxiety is probably both under-diagnosed and over-diagnosed. Under-diagnosed be-


cause when not being triggered the person prone to anxiety can seem normal except for
their annoying tendency to blow-up at people for small reasons or stubbornly refuse to
do the smart thing. Over-diagnosed, because at its worst stages symptoms of anxiety
can mimic the symptoms of depression; the symptoms are superficially the same but
have different underlying causes. (This can complicate treatment because not all people
with anxiety problems respond to the usual treatment of antidepressants.)

So what helps? Relationships, sometimes called a “Support System,” most important-


ly; they distract from the ongoing anxiety, but only if the topic conversation is not solely
about the current trigger of the anxiety. If you are talking to an anxious person and they
are getting more anxious, it's time to back off and talk of other things. A close friendship
can give the anxious a reason to see something beyond the wall of anxiety, but any sign
of pulling away will be seen as a sign that the anxious person is not valued. Helping oth-
ers helps and distracts the anxious person from their anxiety, so don't let your knowl-
edge of their problems convince you that they have nothing to offer in the friendship.

Having a job helps, but it must be a job that engages their mind so as not to give the
smallest chink for the crowbar of anxiety to find a purchase. Any job that becomes auto-

© B. W. Reed November 30, 2008


Walls of Fear
matic or has little human interaction leaves too much time for the mind to dwell on any
number of anxiety causing triggers. Finding a job may be difficult because the whole
process of finding a job is a trigger for anxiety. Sometimes the knowledge that the job
won't provide an environment – too much stress, not enough human interaction, too
much time to think, etc. – can be a trigger because it does not allow them to use their
coping skills to handle the anxiety; others will perceive that the anxious person is unwill-
ing to do anything help himself.

Jokingly, after my release from the state hospital no better leaving as when I arrived, I
messaged that “I have two choices: either change the world or tranquilize myself
against it.” My quixotic decision is to change the world. There is no quality in life taking
medication just to make it through another day of anxiety. Anxiety is a symptom of our
overstressed Type A society. Society has the choice of continuing on its present course,
or the choice to collectively build a more human society. Is there anybody listening?

The following exchange took place at a


staffing at the Colorado Mental Health Insti-
tute at Pueblo on August 21, 2008:
Richard: “What are you so afraid of?
Me: (in tears) “Everything!”
(Later)
Richard: “We're not in the business of stop-
ping someone from making bad choices.”
(The staffing ends)
On August 27, 2008 I was released and, in
fact, the staffing at which this exchange hap-
pened was to discuss my “exit plan.”. Dis-
cussing my release with my treatment coor-
dinator, I was told that I was being released
because I was “a burr in the saddle of my
social worker.” I was released with a three
day supply of Ativan (1 mg). to be taken
twice a day), after my antidepressant had
been discontinued. I now take 2 mg three
times a day.

© B. W. Reed November 30, 2008