No Bones About It: Anxiety
By Michael David Sims
There's a prescription for Xanax on my counter. Or there was when I started writing this. It's since been filled and taken, and I don't know how I feel — or how I'm supposed to. My jaw, usually clamped tight with gritting teeth, is loose but I wouldn't say relaxed. When I look at the screen — this screen, this blank screen — the anxiety is still there, but it's become a foggy dream growing more and more distant as the minutes pass. Is the drug working already, or is my mind making me think it is?
My name is Michael David Sims, and I suffer anxiety attacks.
The first time I recall having one of these was while watching The Matrix Revolutions. As the Sentinels flooded into Zion and people died left and right, my heart raced as I thought about my own mortality — a thought that has plagued me since early childhood. At first I didn't realize what was happening. It started as a slight tapping of the foot, and escalated to a racing heart and shortness of breath. Something inside of me was clawing desperately for escape. I was torn. Do I stand up, drawing the attention of others, and inexplicably leave the theater, or ride this out? Now see, I'm a proud man. I don't like people to know when I'm not well, and I ask for very little. But here I was — desperately needing to make a decision. Do I chose pride over possible comfort and relief? (Okay, those weren't my exact thoughts, but it's the best I can do to summarize them.)
I chose pride — grabbing Jenny's hand tighter than I should have, and rode the heart pumping, head dizzying wave all the way to its end. Later, she'd ask me if I was okay, and I'd lie if only to comfort her.
It would be several months later when my next attack hit. This time, I was in the front room watching TV, though I can't recall what, and suddenly there was that clawing feeling in my chest again. My foot was tapping without my notice or control, and, of course, my breathing grew as rapid as my heartbeats. But it was short — much shorter than the incident in the theater. And, again, I ignored it.
Several weeks ago I was putting the finishing touches on a script for submission to Marvel, and all seemed well — until I handed it off to Jenny for a second opinion (and much needed proofreading). The second I handed her the script and returned to my office, my heart quickened. Nervous, my eyes shifted from the monitor to the open door, from the cluttered floor to the chaotic desk and for a moment I contemplated calling Jenny in for help. But what could she do besides rub my hand and sooth me with a coo? Plus, I really needed her to read that script.
When she returned with her comments and corrections, I told her about these attacks. Well, not all of them. Just this one, really. To which she responded with a soft smile, "There's no need to be nervous, baby. It's just me." She was right after all. But it wasn't that she was reading my script that made me fuss. It was that she was reading my script that made me fuss. Moreover, that it was being read by anyone — especially someone who I know is a better writer than I.
Of course the attack passed and the submission was mailed. No more attacks.
Until I was somewhere between Chicago and San Diego at 30,000 feet. And this was the big one. The I'm gonna die or pass out or both and they're going to have to land the plane just for me and everyone's going to be pissed and people might miss their connections because of it and I really don't want that but what if they don't land or don't land in time and I die right here on this flight? big one.
But I seem to have gotten ahead of myself.
Everything seemed fine that morning. We took and early flight (as usual) and an even earlier cab (as usual), so we could get to San Diego early enough to settle into the room and relax as a preemptive strike against the hubbub of the next few days.
Now here's the thing — I can't sleep on flights. No matter how long, I cannot sleep. Maybe it's the sitting up factor (I almost always refuse to recline and bother the passenger behind me); or the incessant buzz of conversation and ding after ding after ding of people calling for service; or the stuffy, recirculated air. I don't know. Truth be told, I might catch a wink's worth, but no more than a broken hour at best. (Usually more like thirty minutes.) But, having stayed up all night — paranoid (as usual) that we'd oversleep and miss the flight — I really needed the rest and was on edge from the moment I settled upon my unassigned seat.
A quick nap was had, followed by boredom and another attempt at a nap, and when I awoke the second time I realized that clawing feeling was rising — but slowly. I took a glance at my watch, which was already synced to Pacific Time, and groaned when I realized we were still two hours away. Despite that, I believed I could suppress the attack, or at least conceal it from Jenny who, of course, was sitting right next to me.
Some time passed, I don't know how much, and as the clawing slowly rose, I came to realize how much worse this was than a sudden burst because I had time to think about it — and was helpless to prevent it. Because I had the window seat, getting up for a stretch was impossible. Not because I'd have to ask Jenny to movie, but because I'd also have to inconvenience the fellow sitting on the aisle. So I tapped my foot and tapped my foot and tapped my foot, and started to feel trapped. Trapped literally between the window and two people (as well as inside the hulking plane, of which I had no escape), and figuratively by my own inability to ask them to kindly move. This, of course, worsened my condition and caused my breathing and heart to accelerate until I began turning my head from side to side looking for a path to freedom — though I knew none existed.
Jenny took note of my behavior, and I lied when she asked if I was doing okay. It didn't take long for the lie to become obvious, especially when I started to tug at my seatbelt and mutter, "I need to get out of here." Being the sweetheart that she is, Jen unbuckled herself from the seat so I could make an exit — at least to the aisle — but I sat her back down, insisting I was fine. She grimaced, knowing I was lying for sure.
Not minutes later, I turned to her and grunted, "I need to get up. Now!" As she rose to her feet, she turned to the man on the aisle and asked him to kindly move so I could take a stretch. Little did he know of my panic, and though his motions weren't laborious, they weren't fast enough for me — not in that state at least.
Once in the aisle, with Jenny in front and the man behind me, I gripped the headrest of the seat at my side. It was all I could do to prevent myself from passing out. Everything was fuzzy around the edges and on the brink of spinning, and I realized if I was going to die this was the last sight I would see. I would die at 30,000 feet with a packed plane and Jenny staring on. My eyes rolled into the back of my head, and I struggled to pull them back down — to focus and settle my breathing. If I leaned forward, I would have fallen over and not gotten back up. If I sat down, I couldn't guarantee my legs had enough strength to lift me once more. Yet if I remained standing in the aisle, a steward surely would have taken notice and one look at me would have undone the need to ask if I was ill. (Later, Jenny commented I had turned white, "even your lips," she'd say.)
So I did all I could do and plodded my way to the bathroom, which was thankfully unoccupied, and took a seat if only to be alone and settle my nerves. The minutes passed, and when I emerged I was calmer — but not steady. Needless to say, the experience had shaken me to the very core and exposed a secret I had been desperately attempting to keep under wraps (even from myself) — that these anxiety attacks were happening more and more frequently, and were intensifying.
I was as weak as a newborn puppy, and none too happy to have that revealed in such an embarrassing manner.
Once we arrived at the hotel, I expressed to Jenny that this same thing (though to a much lesser extent) happened when I flew to LA for E3 — a trip I took alone. Needless to say, she wasn't pleased with me for having kept that from her. But what was I to do? I didn't realize I had a problem. Seriously. I though this is who I was, and I had to play the hand I was dealt. I mean, do you know you're blind until someone tells you? I didn't know I was any different until my body told me in such a dramatic fashion.
Because it had been exposed — because I had been exposed — and because she would have done it if I hadn't, I phoned my doctor from the hotel and explained the situation, asking if he could prescribe something, anything for the return flight — just in case.
Two hours later I picked up a single pill — a $12 dosage of Valium. As I left the local pharmacy I stared at the clear, brown bottle contemptuously — it being another sign that I was different and weak. Strength in a pill was an idea I did not and do not like in the least. But, unless I wanted to suffer through another bout of anxiety, I had little choice and popped the pill as instructed — 30 minutes prior to the return flight.
Much like the Xanax that has been in my blood for three hours now, I didn't know what to expect — dopiness, slurred speech, lethargic motions, drowsiness? Thankfully, I slept for an hour and awoke with an idea for The Powerpuff Girls comic. (During my stay in San Diego, I was fortunate enough to meet Joan Hilty, Editor of the PPG series, and was invited to send her a pitch.) It was a simple story and came rather quickly, so I pulled my journal from my bag and wrote ideas, notes, and, most importantly, the pitch itself. It all came so easily and without worry.
However, when it came time to type it up the next day, the anxiety began anew. What if it isn't any good or she doesn't respond or this story's already been done or what if I got something wrong and it makes it look like I don't know what I'm talking about or she does phone and I call her by the wrong name? Having it handwritten helped subside the worry (because I didn't have to stare at the blank screen waiting for the idea to formulate), but, as with the script I had prepared for Marvel, once I handed this single page over to Jenny, my insides all but exploded.
A pattern was arising — one I didn't like in the least.
Twice these attacks happened in conjunction with writing and/or submitting. Not to mention all the other times I was mentally crippled with fright at even the prospect of writing, and, so, didn't. As a writer, this wasn't a revelation I wanted to uncover. Having had the Valium, I knew I needed help — but drugs? No. None for me please. Not even prescribed, FDA approved medicines.
Wouldn't you know it, it happened again when I had Jenny read my Superman: Red Son review. This time, I shook. Literally shook as she read it in the next room over. It wasn't anywhere near as horrific as my attack on the plane, but clearly worse than both the Marvel and DC incidents combined.
So here I sit, a writer crippled by fear of writing. A writer who when he even thinks about writing has his insides filled with so much anxiety he'd rather crawl under the covers and disappear — or nap.
Then I saw my doctor Wednesday for a quick check-up and reluctantly (and nervously) mentioned this to him. Of course he already knew about the incident on the plane, but the rest was news. Despite my outward disapproval, he prescribed me the anti-anxiety medication Xanax which he said should calm my nerves when writing and submitting — and any other time I'm stricken. With much reluctance, I pocketed the small, rectangular sheet of paper and drove home with little to no intent of actually having it filled.
Yesterday I sat down to write the first part of a series of columns chronicling my experience and struggles as I've attempted to break into the comic book industry. And though the piece started out okay, the bubbling began again and I had to walk away from the computer after just a few paragraphs. I couldn't do it. I couldn't write. And if I can't write, I might as well flush my degrees down the toilet, wallow in self-pity as I pay back my enormous student loan debt, and resign myself to a menial 9-to-5 for the next 40 years. The prescription, however, was still sitting on the counter, waiting to be filled. The prescription the doctor said would help — if only I took it.
Stubbornly, I refused.
Until I awoke this morning bent on writing a review of It's a Bird..., and another anxiety attack hit me slow but hard. I started it. It's fractured, but I started it. But nuts to that! Starting isn't writing it! Starting it isn't finishing it! Starting it is nothing! Leaving it on my desktop to collect virtual dust is where it would stay — along with the rest of my unfinished pieces of writing and un-started pieces — unless I did something about it. And I had the cure sitting on my counter.
A few months ago I quit my job so I could spend the entire summer writing. Not only did I start an online writing forum to help myself and other writers, but I assigned myself a daily writing goal of 2000 words. To date, I've met that goal twice. Once, with my script for Marvel, and today with this piece. I'm still not keen on the fact that I apparently have to take medication to work through the anxiety brought on by writing, but, frankly, I can't call myself a writer if I'm not writing. And if this is what it takes, so be it.
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