Monday, February 02, 2015

The worst kind of monster

Overcoming agoraphobia is a lot like fighting smoke monsters. It's exhausting, the rewards are few, and the danger you are facing is never actually there. Just like my cat does every evening past eleven, I am battling invisible enemies.

The major difference between my cat and me is that to an outside observer, it's pretty clear that what she's doing is of the mortal combat variety. She's kicking ass and taking names. Whereas I, well, mainly just look like someone who's sitting here. What's going on inside, however, is of a kind of horror my cat can't even begin to imagine.

You may be planning to go to the supermarket, or meet a friend at a bar or any other place where humans come to congregate and judge each other, but what this prospect looks like in your head is this:

You know your fear is unfounded, and the obstacle before you isn't actually Mount Doom, but that doesn't make it go away.

Everyone knows that F. D. Roosevelt quote about how the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. It's often uttered to point out that, well, we shouldn't worry. "Oh, it's only fear," we're supposed to respond, "that's fine then. I'll just squeeze out all this excess adrenaline through my pores with just the power of my will."

I think it's safe to assume that Roosevelt didn't have much of an imagination, or either had never seen the movie 'Event Horizon', because "fear itself" is not something to scoff at like that.
Foremost, it's a chemical thing, a physical thing, seizing power over a bunch of body parts that you yourself cannot control, like your heart, or your amygdala.1
It then goes on to flood your brain with stuff like norepinephrine, this very brain you need to make any kind of sense of reality, and makes it about as useful in battle as that hysterical meth-head you once saw in the street screaming at pigeons. This is exactly the same as a computer virus targeting your anti-virus software first to leave you defenseless.

These tactics make "fear itself" without a doubt the most horrible monster you could ever face.
Its most terrifying aspect is that you can't use any kind of normal weapons to fight it. Much like the alien stuck on your spaceship, its blood is acid, and shooting at it is only going to destroy the ship and get you sucked out into space. You can't use flame throwers either though, so it's actually worse than those aliens.

You can't fight it because there is nothing out there to fight. The only living thing that ever enters the arena is you. The monster is you. And any gamer knows that those bossfights where you are suddenly up against your own avatar are always the most difficult to beat.

You can't use reason or cunning to defeat it either. Since the monster is you, it is every bit as smart as you, and it's aware of all your plans the moment that you have them. It knows your every weakness and how to exploit it for maximum effect. It knows exactly when to strike, and when to retreat in the shadows to mock you and point out that there was never any real danger at all.

There are only two things that can do it a modicum of damage, and one of those things is anxiety medication. The problem with medication is that for me, that road has been known to lead me to frightfully embarrassing places I would otherwise never go, like center stage at an open mic night as I was trying to prove to myself and the world that my meds gave me super powers.

I've also done enough damage to my brain by doing other drugs (which is partly how I got into this predicament in the first place) and the only thing that terrifies me more than the world outside is the thought of tweaking my precious brain any further. So that leaves me with just one other option, which is gradual exposure therapy.

It goes like this. Say you are afraid of spiders, and you would like to not be that way. What you should do then is, for starters, look at a bunch of pictures of the least scary spider you can think of.
- I don't know, a baby spider? -
Then you gradually crank that up to more scary spiders, until eventually, you are ready to go look at a not-so-scary spider at the zoo, behind glass, and so on. After a while, this should theoretically prepare you to deal with all kinds of spiders that are not behind glass, but in your home, all up in your shit. Every step of the way, you should also reward yourself by telling yourself nice things, because spiders are scary and you just went and looked at them of your own free will and that is badass.

The problem if you are afraid of going outside where people might see you, is that there's nothing really scary going on at all. So after you gave yourself a long reprimand, gathered up all your courage and set out to conquer your very own Mount Doom, when you look back on your accomplishments they invariably look like this:

So instead of proud, you are mainly just embarrassed for feeling like you were conquering Mount Doom in the first place. I mean, it certainly looked like Mount Doom, and the exhaustion you are feeling seems to suggest that you really did climb Mount Doom - it's just ... there never really was a Mount Doom to begin with.

Then this happens:

So now, instead of being able to show off to your friends how unafraid of spiders you are, you get to sit in your room and try very hard to find some dignity in being able to accomplish the same things as a six year old and come up with ways to explain why you did nothing all day but are still too tired to go out.

You keep going though, because it's the only way to ever gather the XP you need. And you know that, in the end, you will beat this monster. After all, nobody knows it better than you.

The monster is you.
And you are a powerful enemy.

1 Portrayed by Natalie Portman in the most recent Star Wars trilogy.


  1. It's interesting all the things that can be going on on the inside and no one else has a clue. That's my preference of course, probably for both sides of the equation.

  2. fillyourownglass2/9/15, 2:54 AM

    I remember seeing the movie Copycat years ago and thinking how easily I could end up that way. Only I can't afford to have groceries delivered, hire an assistant, etc. I suffer from panic attacks so I can relate on that count.

  3. As long as you (we) brave the panic attacks and face our demons, theoretically this should get better, same as with the spiders. It's when you keep avoiding your fears that they morph into something much more debilitating.

  4. Ashley Chappell2/13/15, 3:37 PM

    The closest I come to a panic attack is when I'm packed in a crowd and can't just walk away from it. I've got a pretty big personal space bubble (defended by my imaginary lasers), and when people I don't know are shoved right up shoulder to shoulder with me, I could barf. If I did, at least, I'd probably get some of my space back...

    But I'm proud of you for doing an open mic night! I don't think I ever could. I hate going out and talking to people in person, and right now I'm coordinating a literary festival and trying to deal with the dread of being in front of groups and business while we're fundraising. Evil Trillie would laugh at me, too, for that cold knot in my stomach when I'm just trying to dial the phone. It's sooooo people outside!

  5. That open mic thing was a dreadful experience fueled by anxiety meds and tequila. Everyone involved cried in the shower that night.

  6. You'll be standing in line longer than it has taken you to gather your groceries. That will do it for many ;)

  7. Trillie are you a psychologist? I feel like I need to PayPal you or something cause this is deep and intense stuff, presented in the most incredibly easy to understand way. Please write a book..

  8. Lol, no! Most of this stuff is just me trying to make sense of my own head ;-)
    A book, hmz? Are you at all interested in Placebo slash fic? :p

  9. haha no unfortunately :( I dont venture in to that part of the forums..

  10. Haha! I didn't figure you did! ;-)