Two people, one condition. See how anxiety affected the lives of Liskula Cohen and Matt Rozsa.
There is a chaotic quality to suffering from anxiety. As this article was being developed, it became clear that it’s impossible to effectively capture the experience of clinical anxiety in the same linear fashion used for other medical conditions. In the following piece, I cut between Liskula’s experiences and my own, covering them in rough chronological order (her words are in plain text and mine are italicized). – MR
I thought I was a dying slow, torturous, evil death.
My anxiety condition first appeared right after the crash of TWA Flight 800 on July 17, 1996. I was in Rome waiting for that plane; it was scheduled to stop in Paris before picking me up and flying back to New York City.
I had a good friend on that flight. The minute my feet touched ground in the United States, the anxiety started.
At first I didn’t know what was causing the attacks. My mind would go into hyperdrive and I’d become uncontrollably paranoid. Soon I was spending a fortune on doctors. I felt that I couldn’t be alone, and although my then-husband was mostly helpful, he still wound up enabling my attacks.
Eventually I found solace in my mother. For a few months I lived at home with her, sleeping on the floor beside her bed out of fear of being alone. She took me to see all kinds of specialists; after that, we went to a Chinese herbalist and relaxation classes taught by a 90-year-old blind woman. The herbalist made me an awful tea with licorice and cinnamon, the worst I’d ever tasted, and told me to “go swim in big water” to gain perspective on how small my life was and how beautiful the world can be. The old woman made me an elastic wristband with a cat bell on it and told me to snap it whenever I felt an anxiety attack coming on. All of this worked… the first time.
If you trace the roots of my anxiety, you’ll probably find that they’re planted in the soil of my childhood – more specifically, the emotional isolation I experienced throughout my formative years. When you have Asperger’s Syndrome, you need to learn from scratch the rudimentary social skills most other people develop instinctively. Until you do this, your esoteric passions and awkward behavior will cause you to be shunned by your peers. You embarrass yourself; you’re annoying to others; no one shares your interests or enjoys your company. It never stops hurting, but eventually you get used to it. Perhaps it’s akin to the characters in “The Shawshank Redemption” who were ‘institutionalized’ – so used to the misery of prison that the uncertainty of freedom is terrifying. After spending most of my childhood as an outcast, I panic whenever I feel accepted… to say nothing of loved. This has happened on and off, with varying degrees of intensity, for my entire adult life.
My second series of anxiety attacks occurred shortly after September 11th.
I was in a horrible relationship at the time. My partner was leading many lives and I learned to live in fear of him. He had me feeling trapped – but this time I sought help from a therapist and got a prescription for Celexa. Unlike my previous anxiety condition, which was induced by the realization that life is fleeting, this one was brought on by depression. Thanks to the medicine and psychological care, I eventually developed the strength to end my toxic relationship.
Even so, I will always live in fear of letting my mind take over like that again. I felt like I was on the brink of schizophrenia, like I had no more control of what my mind and body wanted to do. That said, I know now that I will never let myself spiral down like that again. I know what situations trigger it in me and accept that I can’t be in control of everything. After ten years of being too afraid to visit Europe, I can now fly without serious incident (it’s different with my daughter, but I suppose that’s to be expected).
I doubt I will ever be “normal,” but I have accepted that. What’s important is that I keep it moving.
More than a decade has passed since my childhood ended. During that time the traits I developed as a high functioning autistic have stopped being an albatross around my neck. Indeed, they’re a boon to my professional life, which has inevitably improved my personal life as well. Yet despite having countless close friends (in person and online) and being a veteran of half a dozen or so relationships, my anxiety is no less severe today than it was years ago. Necessity has required me to internalize it, and so I do. When the internal pressure becomes too much and I find it impossible to work, as occurred very recently, I seek help until I can put a cork on the bottle and return to my routine. It’s fun to work as a writer, a scholar, a politician. There is a perverse glee in turning the source of my inner turmoil into my greatest strength and claim to social status. It doesn’t stop the demons from tormenting me, but every moment in which I’m excelling at the work I was meant to do, I torment the demons right back.
If there is one thing that little old lady taught me which I carry with me today, it’s her special anagram for “fear”:
Forget Everything And Relax
I think about that all the time.
Our hope, our hope is that others who recognize their own struggles in these stories will reach out for help – whether from a specialist, a spouse, friends, family, or anyone else. There is nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be ashamed of… and no reason why you should have to feel like this.
Photos courtesy of authors Liskula Cohen and Matt Rozsa
Author, co-author bios:
Liskula Cohen is a Canadian-born former model who has worked in New York, Paris, Milan, Tokyo, and Sydney, among other cities. She is a feminist and loves every second of raising her amazing daughter as a single mother.
Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published in “The Morning Call,” “The Express-Times,” “The Newark Star-Ledger,” “The Baltimore Sun,” and various college newspapers and blogs. He actively encourages people to reach out to him at [email protected]
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