Anxious Characters

modestas-urbonas-14752-unsplashAfter ten novels or so, I imagine writers begin to worry about repetition. Did I use this plot device before? Have I named a minor character this before? I have always been careful not to repeat myself. Or so I thought. Last week I found out different. I was listening to the audio file of Love and Death in Blue Lake. The main character suffers from anxiety. Really? I was mad at myself. Anxiety is too close to PTSD, which is what my current main character in Lily White in Detroit is in recovery from. There’s only one book between these two novels. I should have remembered.

Looking back, anxiety wasn’t even relevant to Courtney’s character. The plot didn’t need it, there was so much else going on. I could have taken it right out of the book; my editor even mentioned that. Smart woman. My editor is extremely kind. So she probably said something like “Does Courtney need to be anxious? Where is this coming from? Maybe delete it or fill it out more so the reader understands.” So I dug in deeper, at least enough to please my editor, but now, looking back I realize I gave Courtney anxiety because I was going through a terrible phase of acute anxiety and having regular panic attacks during the time I wrote that book.

I had a good source for Courtney’s profession–she was a psychologist. Yes, a mental health expert with a mental health problem. But this happens in real life. The first time I knew I had panic disorder, my husband had about gotten fed up with my weird behavior in the car. Basically I freaked out every time the road wasn’t straight and dry. Curves, cliffs, bad weather (snow or rain or the dreaded black ice) even sharp turns all made me so fearful I’d beg him to slow down or stop the car or whatever. We hadn’t been married much more than a year and it had been clear to him for a while that I had this problem. I had no idea why I was so afraid sometimes when he was driving. Why sometimes I couldn’t drive.

He wasn’t super patient with me as it rattled his nerves to have a nervous passenger. One time he said “What do you think is going to happen? Do you think we’re going to crash and die?” And I said “Yes! I do!” He suggested I go to a psychiatrist, actually he said “You’re nuts. You need to see someone.”  The psychiatrist knew right away what was wrong with me. I was having anxiety attacks, later upgraded to panic attacks, probably because I’d been in one too many very scary car accidents and then there was my family history in phobias and panic. Basically I inherited my illness and it was exacerbated by experience. Anyway, this psychiatrist put me on medication that gradually erased my symptoms. It was like a miracle.

No amount of talk therapy can cure what I have. But she had to see me once a month for an hour in order to dispense the drugs. We used to swap stories of driving while anxious. She admitted to me she was also afraid to drive in certain conditions. Her way of coping with snow was to turn on her emergency lights and drive very slowly despite people honking at her and passing her. She didn’t care. If driving 30 mph on the freeway would make her feel safe, that’s what she’d do. She seemed to enjoy telling me these stories, but they made me a little anxious. Then one day I was cured. We said our goodbyes and I went on my merry way.

What I didn’t know then was that I would probably never be cured. But at least I knew what I had and how to deal with it. I’ve had a lot of therapy but I am not willing to drive over the Ambassador Bridge several times a day every day or lock myself into a small space, so aversion therapy is not for me. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is of minimal help when anxiety mounts and turns into panic, but nothing stops panic in its tracks like my particular cocktail of prescription medications.

As it turns out the character of Courtney came from an experience with my real life therapist while also being a therapeutic tool for me at that time in my real life. Because writing (for me) is therapy and always has been. I’m not sure this is true for all writers, but for me, writing is a terrific coping mechanism. Still, note to self: no more fictional character who suffer from any type of anxiety disorder.


The Owen Effect

unnamedBack from blog vacation. Also actual vacation to see new grandson, Owen. Baby is beautiful. Lots of pictures on FB:) I miss him right now so I’m just going to move along and catch up on some other amazing things that have been happening, which I am calling “The Owen Effect” even though I can’t prove his being in the world is what is making my world change so much so fast so fabulous.

First, yes, I still fit into my jeans! I did everything I said I would during vacation as far as eating and exercising goes. Even did I a little yoga. So much walking. Was great. But for me this food control is huge. On vacation. After donating all big jeans and buying smaller sizes. That’s when I usually go up, up, up. Not this time.

Speaking of up, for some reason I just wanted to test out the Space Needle. I’ve been to Seattle before. I have family there. I have never wanted to even LOOK at the Space Needle, because I have a fear of heights. Panic attack level fear. So I just always say no to high places. Or take medication and sometimes emergency vodka.

But the kids, they needed bonding time with baby, so I would see them every day for several hours but I also got in a few tourist type things. I have no idea how the Space Needle thing entered my anxious brain. And why I decided to try it without Xanax. Not even a half. No emergency vodka, no wine, no nothing. Just me and my ticket to terror.

Funny, I didn’t feel terrified. I felt calm about it. A few months ago, I gave a speech, which before that day, public speaking always made me anxious. I did it when I had to, but I did not like it, and I turned down tons of opportunities to give talks. Then one day a friend asked, I couldn’t say no, so I did it. Fine. Fun, even. I figured my decades of teaching had cleared that fear.

But testing the theory, I zoomed to the top of the Space Needle. And had not a moment’s fear. I know! What is happening to me? How am I becoming fearless when I am used to being more riddled with nerves than Woody Allen?

It has to be Owen. No other explanation except maybe I want to not be afraid of stuff anymore. And use less medication. So, I decided to fly home without Xanax. Yeah, I worried a little about turbulence, but kind of shrugged it off. Even as I decided to do this, I was thinking ‘what is with you, girl?’ but I did it. And was fine.

Not saying I’m cured of my multiple phobias. Driving over bridges and on mountains. (I can walk over bridges and on mountains, just not be in cars. Weird.) Helicopters. Yikes! Hot air balloons. Whoa. Being buried alive or, more likely, crammed into an overfull elevator. Those things still sorta make me shake inside.

Still, I have had these fears for 30, 40, and 50 years. I remember the incidents that led to each fear, the repetition that led to anxiety and finally panic and a psychiatrist. Because I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I thought I was having some sort of breakdown or something. And, kind of, I was. Waking up at night terrified of suffocating? In a huge room in a king-sized bed? What is that about?

I really didn’t do talk therapy with the psychiatrist. She gave me meds for one specific phobia (the driving, which let’s face it, agoraphobia would have been next had I not nipped that one). After a year or so she pronounced me “cured” and I was. Kind of. Except in certain high anxiety situations. Snow. Rain. The aforementioned mountains and bridges.

Cognitive therapy is not a way to cure panic. The most popular form of cure is desensitization. You just every day do the thing you fear. While on medication. And then on less medication. Then less. Then none. That’s what I did. But really I can’t fly in an airplane every day or ride up to the top of the Eiffel Tower. (Was there. Could not do it.) I can’t cram myself into a coffin. So, when those things come up, it’s the meds. Except now, not so much.

I read something that said courage is not the opposite of fear. Courage is facing fear. That made me think, huh, wonder what it would feel like to face some of these fuckers? So I did and baby was I ever surprised. I also read somewhere that phobias will follow you into your next life if you don’t handle them in this one. So, just in case …