Learning where my anxiety originated from was one matter. Overcoming it has been a challenge unto itself.
When I first got clean and sober in 2009, I was facing a mountain of legal and financial difficulties that I’d created for myself in active addiction. I was also having to face those difficulties without the aid of any of my “crutches,” and with very little support from anyone save for close family, a few good friends from my using days and my new friends in the 12-step fellowships I was attending. If there was a real danger of me relapsing, the first few weeks and months of my recovery were it.
When most people in recovery talk about overcoming their difficulties, they tend to get metaphysical and vague. My intent here is to be practical, and tell you exactly what I did. Again, this is just my experience, but hopefully you’ll be able to use some of these practices in your own life.
The first and most important step I took was this: *kick alcohol and drugs*.
Nothing else I describe here would be possible or even useful without that. In the beginning, alcohol really worked for me as a way of self-medicating my anxiety. After a number of years, as I developed a tolerance to it and became physically dependent on it, it evolved into an additional problem in its own right. When I say physically dependent, I mean I had to be *weaned* from it. Alcohol is one of the only drugs you can take where, if you’re too far along in your addiction (as I was), simply trying to quit “cold turkey” can result in heart attacks, coma, even death. I was given a 3 week Ativan taper by my doctor in rehab to survive these awful consequences.
Once you’ve passed that milestone, you must find some kind of regular support. I found mine in the various 12-step fellowships that exist. They are free, and they’re everywhere. They’re also not perfect (as people themselves are not perfect), and probably won’t work for everyone. But you won’t know until you try. The fact of the matter is for most people suffering from addiction, going it alone simply isn’t possible. For me, I also had to be in a sober living environment - a “group home” with other people who were struggling with the same things I was.
I also had to develop coping strategies that were healthy. If I was going to be DJ-ing in nightclubs again, I had to completely re-learn how to exist in a nightclub without alcohol. I learned that diet soda, besides having caffeine which would allow me to stay up, was also carbonated, and the carbonation helped settle my stomach when I would get nervous. I also drank the diet coke out of a pint glass. So I had the comforting effect of the bubbles, as well as the glass in my hand which I had previously associated with beer. These small changes in day-to-day behavior are essential to rebuilding your life. Today, I drink sparkling water instead of soda, but the effect is the same. People think I drink sparkling water because I’m a snob, but in fact the carbonation keeps any lingering anxiety at bay. I’d rather be viewed as a snob than as a *relapsed* snob. Or a dead one.
Once these are in place, however - you are left with the original problems that got you started in the first place. The anxiety. The trauma. The bad memories and hurts. Some of these can be dealt with, again, in 12-step fellowships. But I needed more.
As I began to describe my formative years to my various outpatient counselors, they soon realized that my anxiety probably originated when I was very young. I was always painfully shy as a kid, always had a slight tremor in my hands (which I now know to be “nerves”), and would frequently bite my fingernails and wring my hands, certainly before 2nd or 3rd grade. These are all signs of generalized anxiety disorder.
Add to that the divorce, my mom’s alcoholism, my acting out during my early teen years and almost failing 8th grade, and suddenly the problems became magnified. I was now the adult child of an alcoholic, characteristics of which were described by Dr. Janet Woititz in her 1983 landmark book Adult Children of Alcoholics.
I was all of these. I was asked over and over by the various therapists and doctors I had seen why, having had two well-educated parents (one of who was a professor of counselor education), I wasn’t put in some kind of therapy early on. Over and over again I heard that same question, and a resentment began to form. “All of this could’ve been avoided if my parents had just done their job!,” I kept thinking to myself. I was angry…it took me a few additional years of therapy and 12-step work to be able to resolve that anger, or at least come to terms with it. I’m not fully over it, but I’m certainly better than I was.
Still, 2+ months into my recovery, my hands hadn’t stopped trembling. I still had terrible stage fright and shakiness. I was having trouble sleeping. I still had the butterflies in the pit of my stomach that had plagued me since childhood. So one of my therapists recommended a medication to me called Effexor, an SNRI (Serotonin–norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor).
We’ve all heard about anti-depressants in the news, how this particular workplace shooter was prescribed this-or-that SSRI, how doctors overprescribe this-or-that drug. We live in a society where all we’re hearing is the bad news about these substances, so our reaction is black & white. “Get rid of all the drugs!” And in many 12-step fellowships, I’ve heard people talking of taking medication for their illnesses as though they’d relapsed! I’m here to tell you that Effexor was the “magic bullet” I’d been searching for my entire life. In my case - and probably in the case of many other people - it has been essential in overcoming and managing my anxiety.
One of the reasons it worked so well for me is described in the name itself - *norepinephrine*. We all know that serotonin is a brain chemical responsible for regulating our mood and appetite. Norepinephrine, on the other hand, is the brain chemical that governs, among other things, our “fight-or-flight” response. My “fight-or-flight” response had always been hyperactive. For instance, I would go to interview for a job, and where most people would simply get a case of “nerves” but then be able to manage it, the feeling I felt was more akin to terror. As though I were running from some life-threatening situation. I felt this same thing any time I had to get up in front of a group of people, play any kind of sport, even walk into a crowded room or hallway. Absolute, paralyzing terror, and very real physical manifestations like trembling (to the point where I couldn’t hold a cup or glass), the inability to speak. Visible signs which were embarrassing and prevented me from developing any kind of self-confidence.
Within a month after taking Effexor, the shift in me was nothing short of miraculous. I could read and speak in meetings without fear, I could stand in front of groups holding papers in my hands and they’d be steady as a rock. Finally, in my 30+ years of life, I knew what it was to be like “everyone else.” I had confidence I’d never had. As a musician and DJ, I was able to perform in front of crowds as large as 500+ without fear - no weed or Jagermeister required. Effexor, plus my work with therapists, 12-step meetings and new coping strategies began reshaping me into a new person.
An additional step I’d recommend: exercise. And by exercise, I don’t mean 2-3 hour marathon sessions at the gym. I mean something as simple as walking, daily. Most cities have greenways and parks that are free to the public where you can be outside, breathe fresh air, and be active. Our smartphones today have built-in pedometers or downloadable apps that will allow you to see how far you’ve walked, and how many calories you’ve burned. You’ll be able to track your progress and feel a sense of accomplishment.
There’s one thing, however, that has been unique to me in my recovery. That has been re-discovering my love for music. I have always loved music. Fortunately, I loved music long before I ever picked up a drink or a drug. I started playing instruments and learned to write songs long before picking up a drink or drug. I can tell you that without music, I’d have died (at least inside) long ago. In fact, I wrote and produced an entire album while living in that sober house I mentioned earlier.