Anxiety, Part 1 - Introduction.
“And no Grand Inquisitor has in readiness such terrible tortures as has anxiety, and no spy knows how to attack more artfully the man he suspects, choosing the instant when he is weakest, nor knows how to lay traps where he will be caught and ensnared, as anxiety knows how, and no sharp-witted judge knows how to interrogate, to examine the accused as anxiety does, which never lets him escape, neither by diversion nor by noise, neither at work nor at play, neither by day nor at night.”
― Søren Kierkegaard , The Concept of Anxiety (1844)
Years before I suffered from the disease of addiction, I suffered from another “A” word which has honestly been more damaging to me than any other.
In 6 years of recovery I’ve come to understand that anxiety was the underlying cause/trigger of my addictions. For years it was my constant companion, and somehow inside I knew that what I was feeling was different from what others were feeling. However, this anxiety didn’t simply come out of nowhere. It’s not as if I woke up one day at age 3 and was simply terrified of everything.
Before I begin, understand that this is my personal experience of anxiety and how it manifested in my life. As individuals, we all have different backgrounds and unique paths. I would never attempt to marginalize someone else’s experience by saying that mine is somehow gospel. It’s simply the story of how my anxiety presented itself, and how that anxiety became the root cause for my drinking and drug use.
Both of my parents, whether they admit to it or not, have always been anxious in their own way. It’s how they handled that anxiety that made the impression on me as a child. When my mother is anxious, she internalizes it. Her discomfort is not presented outwardly, but is locked up inside. My father, when he becomes anxious (or afraid), gets angry. As you can imagine this was a winning combination when I was younger. More importantly, however, it was the first real example I had of adult interaction, and conflict resolution.
As an overweight child, I hated going shopping for clothes. My mom would always try to squeeze me into the tightest possible clothes, and tell me to “suck in my gut.” I realize now that this was my mother imitating her own mother’s anxiety about appearances, but over time it led to me feeling uncomfortable in my own skin - a trait I think many addicts can relate to. No wonder I came to love the baggy fashions which accompanied rave culture!
I also hated athletics. My parents put me in swimming lessons the summer before I began first grade. I had accidentally been put in the wrong class, one for “intermediate” students rather than beginners. When I was unable to do the things the other students were doing, my mother looked at me, put her hands on her hips and simply said, “Well? Swim!” After talking to my instructor, she realized what had happened. Unfortunately, the lesson I took away was (a) that my inability to do a thing was entirely my fault, and (b) if I wasn’t good at something within the first 5-10 minutes of learning it, then it was pointless to attempt it.
When my parents fought, my father was the one doing most of the yelling. Usually, it was something I did that would trigger his anger. A temper tantrum, a spilled drink, or something else. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. He and my mom would get into it, and then he would simply leave the house and not say where he was going. Later he would tell me that it’s sometimes better to simply walk away from an argument and cool down, but my impression of my dad was that when he got angry, he was leaving us - forever. I’m not sure if my mom ever knew where he was going, and if she did, why she never told me.
After my mom began battling her alcoholism and my parents’ subsequent divorce, my anxiety only got worse. I also began acting out, shoplifting, lying and failing in school (I was in Junior High at this point). Yet no one ever put me in any kind of therapy. My dad and I did start going to church, and it was in church where I first heard the message “all families are dysfunctional.” Similar to what I had been told as a child about anxiety (“You’re not anxious. Everyone gets anxious!”), I was again told that I was just like everyone else. I wasn’t different, wasn’t somehow a special case. Just shut up and take it like a man.
The problem is that when what you’re being told outwardly conflicts with what you feel inwardly, anxiety is the by-product. Somehow we’ve developed the belief in our culture that simply telling someone the opposite of how we want them to be will be the catalyst for change. Acting selfish? Just be grateful! Feeling angry? Be happy! Feeling lonely? Find a friend! In my opinion, this is the lazy man’s way out of a much deeper issue.
Things only got worse when I got to high school. I had developed severe stage fright, and recall in ninth grade having to stand up and read a creative writing assignment in front of my English class. My hands were shaking so badly I couldn’t hold the paper; I began to get tunnel vision and almost fainted. To this day, my father doesn’t believe me when I tell him this happened.
I was also bullied by an upperclassman my first 3 years of high school. I think in this day and age we’re all too familiar with the concept of what it’s like to be bullied. No longer is it the kid with the black leather jacket and low self-esteem stealing Jon’s milk money. Now it’s the college freshman who secretly records his roommate having his first sexual experience and posting it to YouTube. Again, it’s the lazy man’s way of saying to our children “just ignore the bully” that has brought us to this point - children and young adults committing suicide after being outed on the internet, children and young adults bringing firearms to school and causing harm. Our procrastination has brought us here.
Ultimately, even the fear of becoming like my alcoholic mother wasn’t enough to keep me away from taking my first drink. The internal pain and discomfort I was feeling were simply too much to bear. It outweighed every message that told me alcohol and drugs were ultimately going to be the death of me. I didn’t care. As the consequences of my alcoholic/addict behavior got worse, my anxiety increased exponentially - anxiety which I drank and used to cover up, further exacerbating the problem.
Dr. Gabor Mate recently had the following to say about the nature of addiction:
“So if you look at the California based studies called the Adverse Childhood experience studies, which looked at 18,000 people, 80 percent Caucasian, 10 Hispanic, 10 Afro-American they looked at what happened to them in childhood and what the adult outcomes were. And an adverse childhood experience is something like physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, the loss of a parent due to a death, being jailed, or rancorous divorce, violence in the family, addiction in the family; for each of these adverse childhood experiences the risk of addiction went up by 2 to 4 fold. So, by the time a male child had had 6 of these experiences his risk of becoming an injection using substance addict was 4600 greater than that of a male child that had had no such experiences. So the risk of mental illness goes up exponentially, the risk of physical illness, like autoimmune disease goes up exponentially, and in Canadian studies it has been shown when children are abused in childhood their cancer risk goes up by nearly 50 percent. Why? Because you can’t separate the mind from the body and you can’t separate the individuals from the psycho-social environment.”
It wasn’t until I had been arrested for two DUI’s, nearly died of an overdose, ruined friendships and lost at least 3 different jobs due to my alcohol consumption, that I faced for the first time the childhood trauma which caused my anxiety, the source of my addiction. I don’t believe that it had to happen like that. I believe we can do better.
I could go on and on about how as a society, we need to re-learn what compassion is. How we must look honestly at childhood trauma. How our society needs to stop and take a long, hard look at the messages we send to our children. Not all addicts are born in childhood, but many are.
However, this isn’t about societal change - this is just my experience. The bottom line is that my parents weren’t evil people. They loved me as best they knew how and were only imitating the examples they’d been shown themselves as children.
In part two, I’ll discuss how I overcame my anxiety, and learned to manage it. To be clear, this only became possible *after* I quit drinking and using drugs. Recovery has allowed me to redefine my life in ways I never thought I could. And for that, I’m forever grateful.
Jon Gerler first began his journey in recovery from substance use in November of 2009. Under his musician alias “DJ FM,” he’s been a part of the southeast US EDM scene for over 15 years. Not only has he DJ-ed from Baltimore to Burning Man, as a musician he's performed his original electronic music with a live band, produced over 90 songs, instrumentals and remixes, and even had his original tracks used on MTVs Real World, Road Rules, The Hills
and Making The Band. In 2015 he helped found the non-profit organization RaveClean.org, which throws alcohol-and drug-free rave-style dance parties
with donations of time, money and equipment. He also maintains his own
recovery blog, mylaststand.org.