This is my brain on anxiety… and this is my brain on drugs (pt. 2)

Quick recap from last week: my psychiatrist has put me on clonazepam, a benzodiazepine-class tranquilliser, while I ramp up the dosage on my new SNRI.

The clonazepam has created an immediate and very measurable transformation – enough so that, for the first time, I feel like I’m in a position to observe the differences in my patterns of thought and behaviour with and without anxiety.

So I’m recording my observations. If you’ve never had anxiety (or if you don’t know if you have it), I hope this helps you understand what the world feels like to someone who does.

Part one was about the “obvious” (in hindsight) effects of anxiety; this week is about the rest of it. Before clonazepam, I would have said that anxiety was just one of a suite of problems my brain had in functioning. It turns out they were a lot more related than I’d realised.

Part 2: Losing the thread

Before clonazepam, concentrating – on conversations, on writing, on any mental task that I couldn’t complete quickly and easily – was so hard that one of the diagnoses I thought I might get was adult ADHD (I have a friend with adult ADHD who was right there with me). I couldn’t understand how other people stayed tuned in to one thing.

In reality, my brain was so busy looking out for “danger” that I could never be fully present.

Around other people, I was constantly “zoning out” as my brain analysed the interaction: Am I talking enough? Was that an awkward silence? Is this someone I trust to give my honest opinion on that subject or should I play it safe and just make a non-committal noise? Am I supposed to recognise that thing they’re referring to? Why did I just pretend I knew what they were talking about? (spoiler: it’s a reflex that kicks in when you’re afraid of looking stupid, among many other things), Oh gods now I’ve lost track of what they were saying how do I keep them from noticing??

Taking instructions was even worse: Did I understand that right? Why did they say that? I shouldn’t interrupt to ask a question but what if I forget what I wanted to know before they finish? Wait, what did they just say and was it important and am I going to mess up now from not knowing??

When it came to performing tasks, on the other hand, I tended to zone out to avoid the thoughts it brought on: Am I good enough? Am I doing it right? What if I mess this up? How do I know I’m not messing up right now? Argh, I’m stuck – well that’s it, I’m doomed, I’ll never figure this out!

It was so easy to get overwhelmed by doubts and flee without even thinking about it to the comfort of webcomics or Facebook memes, where I could hide for hours without having to concentrate on anything difficult.

Losing the plot

And because I couldn’t concentrate, I retained very little. I have honestly thought for years I had some kind of memory problem.

I would put things down and then be unable to find them again. I had a whole fear-induced routine around patting my pockets every time I stood up, because of how often I used to lose my wallet or keys.

Worse, I would walk away from conversations and be unable to tell you what we’d talked about. I kept waiting for my friends to realise I remembered almost nothing about them – their jobs, their plans, what was going on in their lives that we’d talked about just hours before – and hate me for it.

Clonazepam has made a huge difference to all that. The internal distractions are gone (though I can still lose the thread to a particularly interesting sight or a cute dog – what can I say, the world is distracting!). I’m taking things in, and I’m retaining them.

Losing my mind

And then there were the worst patches – the ones that originally got me diagnosed with depression.

When my danger-seeking brain turned inwards, I would get into some very dark places. Being challenged over some idea I’d been previously confident in would cast into doubt my whole understanding of the world; I stopped trusting anything I thought or believed. If I got some benefit from an action – like Ben comforting me because I was breaking down in tears – I’d instantly mistrust my motivations: had I really been upset, or had I done that just to get what I wanted?

At times like this, the constant second-guessing and over-analysis and catastrophising could get so intense it turned into a mental death-spiral. I would lose myself in a tangle of doubt and negativity until I could no longer articulate my thoughts at all, to myself or anyone else. A mental cacophony too loud to let me concentrate on anything, let along calming myself down.

And when the mental death-spiral got too much, my mind would seek escape by shutting down thinking altogether.

That’s when I went into what looked liked depression: becoming inert, unable to function, brain either overwhelmed with self-loathing or staying vigilantly blank because thinking was too dangerous. That’s when getting out of bed, or feeding myself, or concentrating even on my usual distractions of comics and Facebook, became too hard. I would mainline funny YouTube videos, or simply lie in bed staring into space.

Maybe that still counts as depression – certainly it had all the markers of it apart from being too short-term (usually a day at most, unless I was doing very badly). But since I’ve been controlling for anxiety, I have yet to have an episode – and that’s a very long time for me to go without. My thoughts are clear and easy to follow; they don’t scare me anymore.

Reclaiming my brain and my life

Finding a medication that controls my anxiety has changed my life in so many ways.

I no longer look for ways to avoid seeing or talking to people; in fact, I love socialising.

I no longer monitor my thoughts and silence myself because talking about what I’m thinking feels too risky, or because my thoughts are just too messy and difficult and stressful. I’m comfortable saying what’s on my mind.

I’m actually getting things done – not just the easy, procrastination tasks like housework, but the hard ones, like making myself sit down and write every day, no ifs, no buts. I can stick with a task and get it done, or spend the time on it that I want to spend, without disappearing into distractions.

I can be alone with my thoughts without immediately opening Facebook or looking for something – anything – else to keep me from thinking.

It’s never been so clear to me just how much anxiety has affected every aspect of my day-to-day life, from the obvious to the seemingly unconnected. My only regret is that there’s no way for me to go back in time and pass this insight on to myself at 30, or 25, or 18. Who knows how my life might be different by now.

This isn’t to say that medication is a perfect solution – or, indeed, that it should be treated as the entirely of the solution. But that’s a topic for another post. For now, suffice it to say, I’m much happier with where I am than with where I was, and finding appropriate medication has played a huge role in that.

Featured image by Daniel Hjalmarsson on Unsplash
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