You asked for it, you got it

I’ve received a few messages (okay, meaning two) requesting that I post more stories of my relatable experiences with intrusive thoughts, so with some reservation I’ve decided to share what happened to me last night.

I was exhausted from a new medication dosage and ended up sleeping from about 6 to 8 p.m.  As is usual for me, this sleep was filled with violent, disturbing nightmares, and also as usual, I woke up shaking, drenched in sweat, feeling like there was a crushing weight on my chest.  Then for some reason I started thinking about ways people die, and why people are more afraid of some causes of death than others.

Specifically, I wondered why people are more terrified of dying in flames than of dehydration, which is a much more protracted experience.

And all was well with those thoughts until I remembered a movie from a few years back called Ladder 49, in which Joaquin Phoenix gets trapped in a burning building and calls off the rescue operations because he doesn’t want his fellow firefighters to die in the futile attempt.  I wondered if I would have the courage to do the same.

And there went the thoughts.  Suddenly, in a matter of seconds, I became utterly convinced that my apartment was about to catch fire and burn me alive.  I knew beyond a doubt that I had to get out of there, but at the same time, I knew that I had to be there to save my beloved cat and my family photos and my laptop.  I lay in bed feeling paralyzed, not knowing what to do, for over an hour.

Perhaps this was substantiated by an electric fire in a neighboring apartment building, where my mother lived, a year and a half ago.  Perhaps it was spurred by my childhood obsessive fear of spontaneous combustion.  I don’t really know, I just know that it felt as real as anything around me, all of which, including my own self, felt less and less real.

Even as convinced as I was, there was still a cold, logical part of me that knew I was being irrational, and this only made it more painful because I felt so ashamed and frustrated at not being able to control my thoughts.  Luckily, after enough time had passed, that part of me induced me to seek help.  I texted Person of Interest and we were able to video chat for a couple of hours, until I felt distracted; he even managed to make me smile, which is a special superpower he possesses.  He helped me to put my thoughts in perspective and remember how to deal with them.  As I sometimes do, I was able to envision locking the thoughts in a safe deep in my mind and building brick walls around them until I felt slightly less controlled by them.

Of course, my inner narrator, of whom I’ve spoken in a recent post, made all of this much more difficult.  She was talking to me, describing the whole thing at every turn, murmuring things like, “The apartment is about to burn down.  She knows she should get out but she’s too stupid and cowardly.  She’s going to burn alive because she’s so stupid and lazy.” How do you cope if the extra person inside you, who knows your every thought, predicts your imminent demise with such clarity and conviction?

But at the same time, I think she, the Narrator, helped to create the resourcefulness that allowed me to keep a little perspective and seek help.  I’ve grown so used to her over the past 25 or so years, so used to recognizing her as unreal, that I’ve developed an intensely skeptical attitude toward pretty much everything.  Show me the evidence or GTFO, and there was no empirical evidence to support my claim of immediate danger.  I’ve always cultivated this side of myself because it’s served me well– certainly not in relating to a community, but definitely in creating a separate area of my mind that analyzes and criticizes itself at all times, inducing a scientific, doubtful frame of mind.  Were it not for the unexpected power of this part of me, I don’t know what I would have done.

Still, despite all that, I kept getting up to check that the stove was off– rattle each knob five times, then say “Goodbye, Mr. Stove” and soon do it all again– as well as unplugging all the lights and electronics, despite my terror of the dark, because frankly being attacked by an intruder or supernatural being seemed less horrible than being burned alive at random.  I was in agony, much more so than any physical pain I’ve ever experienced.  I have a special ability to consciously control my own heart rate, but only when I can focus intensely, and so even that wasn’t helpful with such distracting litanies occupying my brain. 

I hyperventilated and had cringeworthy heart palpitations and, again, felt like an anvil was on my chest and pressing my shoulders into the bed.  Every muscle in my body was tensed to the extreme.  It felt like every neuron in my brain was firing and frying; I didn’t know what was real; I couldn’t control myself; the cognitive strain seemed to induce an indescribable migraine in which everything I saw swam about randomly, my ears rang deafeningly, and a specific spot in my head endured a sharp, focused pain.  The narrator whispered, “She’s going crazy.  She’s broken.  Her mind is broken.  She thinks these things are real.  She’s lost it.”

After I talked to Person of Interest (who is fantastic at making me feel better, but talking to someone else I trusted would also have worked well) I laid back down and thought I would go to sleep, when I suddenly remembered that after using mascara (which I very rarely do) a few days ago, some of my eyelashes– maybe half a dozen– had fallen off when I washed my face.  I panicked and worried that there was some disease on the mascara that was going to make all of my eyelashes fall out while I slept.  I kept having to check my eyelashes by touch at one minute intervals, and after every three checks, I had to go turn on the bathroom light and scrutinize them in the mirror to make sure they were okay.  I vaguely remembered reading the story of a girl who suddenly lost all her hair at age 11, and was mortified to imagine walking around with no eyelashes, as much an object of ridicule as I already am. 

Fortunately, in this case, I was able to reattribute my thoughts and distract myself with 5 episodes of 30 Rock, because the skeptic in me knew how absurd the fear was.

I like to think I’ve gained some control over the way I react to panic attacks and intrusive thoughts, but the fact is that the sensations of the thoughts, the physical symptoms, are still ever-present and seemingly intolerable.  Over the past few months, in which I’ve had to work myself down from panic attacks multiple times per week (sometimes multiple times per day) I’ve even learned to consciously control my heart rate (I know, pretty awesome, right?) but it only works when I can focus exclusively on it.  My narrator has both made matters worse, and helped me develop rock-solid defense mechanisms.

Frankly, it’s fucking confusing.  I’m used to understanding and adjusting to the mood-based tricks my brain plays on me, and addressing irrational anxiety.  But over the last six to eight months, and particularly a difficult time I went through several weeks ago (not to say it was wrong or intolerable; any other factor could equally have triggered the same result) I’ve begun to break.  Like a piece of aluminum sheeting that’s been bent back and forth so much that it’s not quite severed yet, but the stress has begun to show clearly on it; it’s grown thin and weak. 

That’s how I am.  I am a camel’s back waiting for a straw.  I am a storm waiting for a butterfly to flap its wings.  I don’t know what’s happening.  I have cocooned inside my own mind, and the thoughts there seem more real, more concrete, than anything outside myself.  And yet I have protected this small part of me from the deluge.  Who can explain it?  Not I.  To break, I was fragile to begin with, but why?  Why did I have to quit university?  Why am I unable to work?  Why am I who– no, what— I am?  The question frightens me.  I have to walk away from it now, before it scares me more.

I hope this story, as painful as it is to share, is helpful to one or more people out there.  Cheers.

ETA:  It’s been brought to my attention that this post is slightly incoherent and somewhat redundant.  I do apologize for the problem, but I haven’t the capacity to rewrite it in a better manner right now.  I hope it will still be helpful.

Edited for grammar and coherence 9/10 –mhc

The coat in the woods

One of my superhero powers is a vivid, accurate memory of things that happened when I was very young.  My earliest memories that I know for sure are real come from when I was three and four, and they are many and detailed.  Yet for some reason, it never struck me until tonight how much some of those memories may explain about why I felt so “different” so early on.

I’ve been reading and writing a lot about intrusive thoughts lately.  I know that I had episodes where they bothered me severely from the time I was about 9.  For a long time, I was petrified that I was going to see a ghost: not that it would harm me, just that I’d see one.  If I heard a sound or saw a shadow move at night, it was a ghost.  I was sure I was going to see it in my bedroom, so I couldn’t stand to be alone in there.  I would leave the light on if I could, or go into my parents’ room and sleep on the floor next to their bed.  (Even now, though I don’t believe in or care about ghosts, I still struggle with fear of the dark.)

In another case, I watched an episode of Unsolved Mysteries about spontaneous human combustion, and over the next couple of days became obsessed with the idea that I was going to spontaneously combust.  I lay awake at night thinking about it, the reenactments from the TV show running on a loop through my mind as vividly as when I watched it.  During the day, I felt distracted and jittery, and couldn’t enjoy things.  I think this lasted about a month.  At the worst times, even when it was totally inappropriate and humiliating, I was convinced that I would combust if I didn’t repeat my mantra, please don’t let me spontaneously combust, continuously.  Out loud.  (Luckily, I never become convinced that muttering wasn’t good enough.)  I repeated this sometimes for hours at a time, out at restaurants, during conversations, when alone.  When my parents asked me what I was muttering, I lied.  I told them I was trying to memorize the lyrics to a song.

So why did I lie?  Why, at 9 or 10 years old, did I already feel so much shame about something so painful that I couldn’t tell my parents what was happening?  I just remember it feeling like a horrible secret that no one must ever know, that I was bad, defective, different.  And after thinking about it tonight, I know that the problems began much earlier than that.

All my life, at least as far back as I can remember, I’ve had a narrator in my mind who relentlessly describes every single thing I see, think and do.  I remember the first time it occurred to me that this was actually really annoying.  I was four and I was kicking a ball across the yard and realizing that that simple action became in my mind something like: “The black and white ball is on the greenish-brownish grass, the sun is bright, she’s squinting, she’s thinking about kicking the ball, she’s kicking the ball, she kicked the ball, now it’s over there under the tree, the grass is crunchy, she wonders if she’s good or bad at kicking the ball.”  I didn’t want to be part of a story about kicking a ball, I just wanted to kicking the ball.  So I tried and tried to turn the narrator off, but never had any success, and still never have.  (I have since tried to explain this experience and why it’s bothersome to a couple of people, and it has made no sense to them, so perhaps it makes no sense here either.)

Before that, when I was three, I got a coat at a thrift store that I really adored.  It was dark blue and had fake fur around the hood and it had the most glorious soft, silky texture I had ever felt.  I’d only had it maybe a few days when, coming in from playing in the snow, my older brother suggested I hang it on the wood stove to dry out, so I did.  Needless to say, it got scorched beyond repair. 

I’m sure I cried and whined to my parents at the time, but I remember long after that having an irrationally inconsolable feeling of loss about that coat.  I was experiencing what I now recognize as anxiety symptoms– feeling a hard lump in my throat, feeling sick to my stomach, my heart pounding.  If anything provoked a single thought about that coat, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I hated how it made me feel.  I tried desperately to avoid ever thinking about it, which of course only made it happen more. 

Eventually, it faded from my mind, but some time later– it was early spring– I was walking in the woods with my parents and we passed the pit where we dumped our trash and I looked down and saw the coat lying there half-buried, so forlornly.  And all the thoughts and the feelings came crashing back down on me and stayed for a second round.  I wished that coat had never been made, and that made me feel guilty because I felt sorry for the coat.  If it occurred to me that I should tell someone how I felt, I had no idea how.

I’ve always had these memories– and there are others like them.  They’ve entered my mind from time to time, and made me unhappy, but for whatever reason for a long time it didn’t occur to me that by any standard, the things I was experiencing from age three onward were disruptive and bothersome, and therefore not “normal.”  It is clear to me now that something very real was problematic in my brain from almost the beginning of my life– something I don’t think is entirely attributable to autism.  There was never a moment where something happened that “screwed me up.”  If I’m screwed up, it’s just me.

But I am still left with the nagging question: why the shame?  Why did I feel so acutely that my experience would be incomprehensible to anyone else, so convinced and resigned to suffer through it alone without letting anyone know?  And nothing I remember gives me any answer at all.