Scared To Death

When things started to go bad for me after college it wasn’t immediately obvious what the problem was. The first symptom that really got my attention was the constant feeling of nausea. Everywhere I went I felt like I was going to vomit. The idea or fear of being sick in public wasn’t in and of itself entirely foreign, but the frequency was problematic in particular given that I was flying small airplanes for a living.

The first truly bad event happened a day or two after graduation. I was working as a flight instructor for the college I had just graduated from. The job had become full time after I had had an internship as an instructor the last half of my senior year. During that semester I had a student that was very challenging to deal with, and due to his slow progress he had stayed around after the school year ended to try and finish his practicum. We had been stuck on a night flight where he was required to navigate from one airport to another and home again. We had attempted the flight three times and never even gotten off the ground. He had trouble arriving prepared. I got a call after dinner asking where I was. He had placed himself on my schedule without telling me and was at the airport ready to go. I arrived a few minutes after he called, reviewed his planning and the weather, and we set off into the night.

He seemed finally to be prepared, but as we climbed to altitude and turned on course it became clear something was terribly wrong with his planning. He set of in a direction approximately ninety degrees to the required course, and no matter how I prompted him I could not bring him to the conclusion that he was wrong. After a lot of guidance and outright intervention from me we arrived at our destination significantly later than we should have, and the air traffic control tower was closed. Not a real problem as the airport was still open, but had ATC been working the next event would have been avoided. He landed and began taxiing back to the end of the runway. As we rolled down the taxiway he had chosen we were approaching an extremely bright light that seemed to be shining directly at us.  As we got closer I commented that it seemed odd that this light would be there interfering with our vision. I opened a book that provided information on the airport and discovered that the taxiway we were on was closed to civilian traffic. I knew there was a National Guard base at this particular airport, and should have checked on this before we arrived. I looked up from the book just as we passed the obnoxious light and entered a ramp full of A-10’s.  My student says, “Cool look at the A-10’s”. I saw the flashing lights of two vehicles approaching us and said “we’re not supposed to be here”. I took control of the plane got us out of there, into the air, and headed home. About the time we leveled off I began to feel very ill. My mouth was salivating to the point I had to spit it out, and I felt as if I would vomit at any moment.

The high engine position on this USAF A-10 Thu...

From that day forward I felt sick every time I flew, and often throughout the day whether I was flying or not. When I started this entry I noted that the fear of being sick was not a new concept in my life. Much like the depression that had been hiding under the surface I had this other problem that I had simply developed coping mechanisms to avoid. The problem was twofold. First I was (am) terrified of throwing up. I know what you’re thinking because I hear it all the time “nobody likes to get sick” or “I hate puking too”. Both those statements are true about most people, but does the fear of it enter into your daily decision making process? Or in the case of the second part of this problem, being afraid to get sick in public, do you look for the restrooms or try and locate all the trash cans whenever you enter a new building? I am going to guess probably not. As absurd as it sounds this problem has been extremely debilitating. Anybody who has struggled with anxiety knows that rational thought has little to do with it.

The best I can tell the two fears come from two different events in my childhood. The actual fear of vomiting stems from an early experience with the stomach flu. I don’t recall exactly how old I was, but I believe I was around five. I caught a bug that caused me to vomit violently. I puked so often and with so much force that I pulled muscles in my abdomen and as I continued to vomit these damaged muscles caused excruciating pain. Anything that went in came out almost instantly. I remember my Dad desperate to make it stop forced me to take Pepto-Bismol. The stuff literally bounced off my stomach and into the toilet with the associated agony from the muscles in my midsection. I should probably point out that I have almost no memories of my childhood, but I have images of this event in my head as clear as a digital photograph.

The second event happened at a McDonalds when in the care of my Grandparents. After the experience described above I was terrified of vomiting. When I got sick as a kid I would call for my mother who would hold me while a shook, literally vibrated, throughout the process of being sick. My grandparents had spoiled me rotten as any good grandparents are wont to do. On this particular day they had allowed me to eat way too much candy. I remember the last thing to go in my mouth before lunch was a Three Musketeers bar.

3 Musketeers

All the sweets mixed with McDonalds led to the predictable upset stomach. I was too old to me taken in the ladies room so into the men’s room I went to experience the trauma of being sick alone. This is the only memory I have of being sick in public, and having to experience it alone given my circumstances is the only source I can think of for being so scared to be sick in public.

With the sudden onset of nausea after college, and a history of what I just termed “stomach trouble” I endured a barrage of testing to uncover the source of the problem. As this process unfolded a general feeling of unease was developing. When flying the physical symptoms began to be accompanied by irrational fears. My mind would wander down a “what if” scenario such as what if the tail falls off this airplane? I knew the physics well enough to know exactly what would happen and my mind would play it out all the way to conclusion. I have literally watched myself die in my mind’s eye probably hundreds if not thousands of times. This is something that still happens to me on occasion.

Over the weeks and months the anxiety grew. Every headache was a brain tumor; every bump was going to cause internal bleeding. I was going to die. Forget sleeping, I could not let my mind be at rest like that. If it had nothing to focus on it would take over and seemingly do what it liked. I would sit on the couch watching TV until I fell asleep. When I awoke I would try to get into bed before I woke enough to have trouble getting back to sleep. I recall the town I lived in had a medical center with and emergency department that was open until 10:30 or 11:00 in the evening. For a long time my goal was to get to sleep before the emergency department closed. I knew that the things happening in my brain were irrational, but the fear was real. My logic was that if something awful happened they would be able to save me at this ER so if I could get to sleep before they closed I could go to bed with a safety net. Once I actually got to sleep I was okay.

The anxiety made me distrustful of myself. I was deeply depressed, and the irrationality of the anxiety scared the shit out of me. I thought about suicide a lot. I did not want to kill myself, but I was afraid I would anyway. I lived in a house with guns and when I lay in bed at night and I could feel them in the room. I would drive down the road and think about turning into oncoming traffic. There were moments when I really felt like I may get to a place where my rational self would be overpowered by the irrational thinking and I would do something stupid. This fear just fed into a cycle that I could not shake.

These days I am in a much better place with regard to anxiety. Much of what I have written about still happens, but on a smaller scale. The Nausea and stomach issues still exist, though they have evolved some. Now that I know what is happening my stomach is almost an early warning system for the onset of depressive symptoms. I will have nausea or other physical symptoms before I notice any change to my mental state at all. The fears surrounding vomiting are still there and still very real. It is interesting that despite having been sick as an adult, and after each time thinking “that wasn’t so bad”, I cannot shake the deep seeded fears. It also seems ironic to me that I have always chosen to do things that could easily lead to motion sickness. In fact they last time I threw up I was seasick.

Much of the paranoia about what this or that physical ailment means, i.e. I’m going to die, is gone or at worst fleeting. It has taken help from medications, and some hard work in therapy to get through all that, but it is pretty much gone. I credit mostly the meds with this. I have had mixed results with medication and I plan to write about that, but in my darkest days they gave me the chance to reset myself and start fresh. I doubt I would have made it so far without them.

The one thing that still happens to me occasionally that I hate is the “what if” scenario. I still occasionally find my mind wandering down a road that leads to my death. Not by my own hand, but through some accident. As recently as a few weeks ago I have watched my own death play out in my mind. It is very unsettling when this happens, and it has thankfully become infrequent, but I would love someday for it to stop all together. Very few people have ever been told that this happens to me. It is a very hard thing to explain, and it freaks people out a bit.

This has been a very long post, but I had two purposes in mind when I started. The first was to chronicle my own experience with anxiety. I have found it horrible to experience such fear for no rational reason. To me it has been worse than depression. I am sure others have experienced the same sense of irrationality, and as a second purpose I hoped that by sharing the sordid details of my experience I could add to the commonality of experience I mentioned when I introduced this blog. The problem with anxiety is that rationally we know that the fear is baseless, but the fear is still there and just as real as if someone were holding gun to our heads. I thought nobody would understand how I could be so scared of nothing. I have come to understand that others have been through this, and it is important for those suffering to know that no matter how silly or irrational they may think their anxieties and fears to be, there are people out there who won’t judge them because they have been through it themselves.

Anxiety was and still is a big part of my life. This posting it post of the high point (should that say low points), but as one might imagine the experience is broader and deeper than can be described in two thousand words. I hope to bring more of my experience to this blog in the future.