Brain chemistry in the age of anxiety

I’ve had plenty of opportunities over the last 12 days to observe how my body and mind respond to stress, and I’ve learned something really interesting.  Specifically, my “mental illness anxiety” is quite different from my “fear/rage/stress anxiety.”  This is a useful thing for me to know personally, but it also relates to the way society has trouble understanding that mental illness is an illness and not just a bad day.

The mental illness is irrational.  It can be triggered by anything or nothing.  I’ve written before about what this anxiety feels like.  It is paralysis.  It is wanting to make my brain just stop it, accompanied by a frantic search for what is bothering me so I can make it go away.  Except there isn’t any particular thing causing it, and so my brain just keeps searching and panicking and pulling up every possible thing that could be a problem and making them seem worse and awful.

The fear-anxiety is rational, and so it manifests in my brain in a very different way.  Sometimes it’s overwhelming, and I cry in grief and terror and collapse for a while.  Often, though, it’s motivating.  Instead of freezing up and freaking out, my fight-or-flight mechanism actually kicks in correctly and I make plans to fight or flee.

Oddly, my physical reactions to these two anxieties are distinct, too.  In my post about anxiety, I wrote that it’s “a tightness in your chest, your arms, your jaw.”  If it’s really bad, it almost feels hard to breathe.  This is the reaction to the irrational malfunctionings of my brain.  The rational fear?  It leaves my chest alone but knots my stomach to the point where I cannot eat.  It twists my guts in knots—the same kind of knots that show up before the starting gun of a race.

In one case, my brain is reacting the way it has evolved to do.  It senses a threat, and it responds.  This is normal.  This is correct.

In the other, my neurochemicals are just totally out of control.  This is the illness.

They are different.

Because it might not be OK

We located an on-campus fallout shelter yesterday.

I wasn’t planning on looking for one, but my friend mentioned that one of the buildings she walks past on her way in, a building constructed in 1966, has one of the old fallout shelter signs on its exterior.  So later, on my way back from an errand, I stopped by.

There were no similar signs inside, but there were large floor maps posted by the elevators.  Wandering around the basement, I discovered a large central room whose only entrance was blocked by heavy vault doors.  I guess I don’t know for sure that it’s the fallout shelter, but the circumstantial evidence seems pretty strong.

I filed this information away in my brain, next to the memory bank that says, “Your desk is heavy and has three metal sides; if you hear gunshots, get under it and stay hidden.”

Of course we’re joking about the fallout shelter being a legitimate emergency plan—for one thing, I’m sure they pulled the supplies out twenty years ago.

Of course we’re joking.

Aren’t we?

I was literally vomiting on Wednesday morning.  The seven shots of tequila I had Tuesday night might’ve had something to do with it.  At least as a grad student, I could stay at home all day and nobody cared.  I could hide under the covers and hope that maybe when I woke up, something would’ve changed, the way I used to hope I’d wake up at Hogwarts when I was 11.

I’ve gathered myself together since then, put on a shell of “I can do today,” and resumed daily life.  But I’m walking a mental tightrope, a thin wire built of toddler smiles and hot cups of tea and the soothing banality of routine.  I’m trying to find the balance between hoping for the best and planning for the worst.

It’s tempting to tell myself that we’ll be OK, and that life will go on as it always has.  My family is white.  My marriage presents as, and for all legal purposes is, straight.  We have some money—enough to maybe buy stopgap health insurance if we need it, but maybe not enough to cover our medical needs if we can’t get health insurance at all.  Enough to move.  I have dual citizenship with Canada, I have a Canadian passport.  To be a bit melodramatic about it, they have to let me in.  We were already talking about it as an eventual destination anyway.

But.

But what if it’s not OK?

Because it might not be OK.

I don’t really know how to end this post.  I thought about listing all the ways it could be very not OK, and then I told myself I was being silly, and then I told myself no, all of those things could plausibly happen.

I thought about talking about how disgusted I am that so many American people could be such hypocrites.  About how all the stages of grief blend together into an angry ball of sorrow that refuses to “empathize” with ignorance and hate.  About how I wish I had more ways to fight back.

Instead I end here, open another browser tab, donate more money to Planned Parenthood, and wait to see what tomorrow brings.