Saturday, September 3, 2011

Dr. Fear

My hands are shaking a little as I reach for the phone. I'm finally going to make the call, the one I have been avoiding for weeks.  You would think I was calling to turn myself into the police, my fear is so great.  But the pain has reached an intolerable threshold, and I need to do something about it.

This is a small thing, really, not worthy of more than a few minutes' attention.  But my brain - oh, my brain - has other ideas.

My lower back has been bothering me, to varying degrees, for about two months now.  It started right after my Dad died.

Just after his funeral in late June the twinges started, and by my birthday weekend on July 4th my back was in full-on revolt.  Along with the lower back pain comes my old nemesis, Anxiety, who convinces me that this couldn't be a simple back spasm, that it has to be something awful.  Unlike many hypochondriacs, though, I am one who avoids the doctor, preferring to keep my head in the sand where it is dark and quiet and I can wallow in the not-knowing.

My back improved after a week or so, and I set about forgetting it ever happened.

About a week and a half ago, though, it came back.  I rested and stretched, took Motrin and alternated ice and heat -- anything - ANYTHING - to avoid calling the doctor.

By yesterday morning, though, the pain was finally too much and I called, hoping they would tell me they couldn't see me for at least a week.  They had an opening for 3:45pm that same day.

My anxiety kicked into high gear, horrible scenarios and outcomes tramped through my head all day.   By the time they called my name in the waiting room, I was a complete wreck.  My heart was beating scary fast and my palms were sweating.  The fear was so bad that I barely felt my back pain at all.

I sat on the crinkly paper with a wild look in my eyes as the doctor asked me some basic questions, and I found myself spilling it all out - my Dad's death, the stress of the summer home with two kids, my anxiety about coming to the doctor.  I'd like to say she had all kinds of advice for me, but all she did after I finished my tirade was blink a couple of times, and say, "Okay."  Her response didn't matter, though, because I immediately felt so much better, just from the unburdening of it all. 

She put her hand on my lower back and told me she could feel that the whole left side was in spasm.  After some more checks for neurological (disc) damage, she diagnosed back spasms and mild sciatica and recommended a regimen of ice/heat, rest and medication for the next week.

All that fear, all that wallowing, all those hours listening to the whispering voices of anxiety, for a diagnosis of a back spasm.

As I drove home from the doctor's with a new lightness in my heart, and a sense of pride coursing through my veins that I actually did it - I went  - I thought about fear.

There is fear that comes from things that are actually happening, and then there is anxiety, which is fear of things yet to happen. 

I thought about when I got sober, the fear and anxiety I felt during that tough time.

I experienced real fear of something that actually happened: I stopped drinking.   But most of the fear around getting sober was anticipatory - our old friend Anxiety.  I spent hours running the list through my head: what about my birthday? Christmas? Vacations?  What about so-and-so's wedding next October?  How will I get through the witching hour? 

And then, little by little, those things happened.  I faced the fear and made it through each one.  Looking back, I can see that the anticipatory fear - the anxiety - felt so much worse than the fear I actually experienced as I went through each of these milestones.   Anxiety doesn't come wrapped in a sense of accomplishment, like walking through fear does.  As scared as I was at the doctor's yesterday, I felt a undercurrent of strength and pride:  I'm doing it.  Here's me facing my fear. 

Anxiety is such a waste of time, I thought.  Fear is useful, to a large degree. If we're in real danger, we rely on fear - that old fight-or-flight response - to get us out of danger unscathed.   Anxiety is fear run amok.  My brain latches on to a fear - like the doctor's, or flying in an airplane - and runs with it. 

I had a lot of anxiety in early sobriety.  All that hand wringing - wondering about events down the road - robbed me of gratitude, peace of mind and a sense of accomplishment for the day I was actually living, right then, sober.

Anxiety is the brain's feeble attempt to control fear. Genuine fear - like a plane actually crashing, a doctor finding a tumor or not drinking when every cell in your body wants to - cannot be controlled, it can only be felt.

When I'm experiencing anxiety it is because I'm trying to go around something, like I did when I knew I had a problem with alcohol but tried everything I could to avoid this hard fact, instead of staring it down and doing something about it. 

Looking back now, I can see that the anxiety I felt about getting sober, or staying sober, was so much worse than facing the fear itself.  Each time I faced a fear and moved through it, I was rewarded with a sense of accompishment and peace.  Anxiety carries no rewards, no growth, no sense of accomplishment or peace.

Of course, my brain being what it is, by the time I got home from the appointment, Anxiety was already whispering in my ear: the spasms could be from some underlying cause, maybe tumors pressing on your spine, and the doctor missed it.

I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders and said, out loud, "we'll cross that bridge if we come to it."

With a smug smile, I think to myself:  Face fear, let go of anxiety.  So there.


  1. It's been almost a year since my own diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, a year of treating it, and still sometimes it rears it's ugly head. Ironically the panic causes panic, and I get scared. For me the medication has been so effective that I'm terrified of going back to what it was like before. But I have to admit I never considered just staring it down, rather than always trying to find a way around it. That's something for me to chew on!! Hang in there lady, I hope all settled soon.

  2. I'm going to try to restrain myself from writing a sermon here, because I've been down this path which got so extreme I could barely walk.

    This is something I would've disregarded at your stage of the game--if not completely, at least mostly.

    My horrendous back problems--sciatica due to a bulging/decomposing disc--resulted from years and years of muscle tension, causing that compression, and caused by my emotional bracing myself from everything and for the unknown.

    My healing path included a lot: physical therapy, accupuncture, therapy therapy, deep muscle release yoga for old people, and a steriod shot.

    But I did heal, completely. Inside and out. And of course the work is constant and ongoing and fluid, like everything.

    If you ever want to talk more about it, I'm happy to. And I apologize if this is too much already!


  3. As above, have been in your shoes,
    and here for you anytime.

    I understand the avoidance of the doctor, yet wanting to know, and then the quiet acceptance of the physician...I admire you facing it straight on and continuing to work on your total healing physical and spiritually. Avoidance is the tool that I know best.

    Will keep you in my thoughts and prayers...
    ☮ ♥ Siggi in Downeast Maine

  4. ow. Thank you for this post today. I am happy that you faced this and went to the doctor, and I am happy you shared it in relation to when you first stopped drinking. I am on the first day of sobriety and it is 9:30 am and I am running through EXACTLY what you said you did when you first got sober... what about the party in 2 weeks and the one in 3 weeks, what about Christmas, what about this and that... I realise after reading your post that I do have a lot of anxiety about what's to come. Thank you for putting words to my feelings.

  5. Thank you for this post. Seems like I always court anxiety, staying awake hours at night, expecting the worst, chewing my nails during the day. And when I finally face the situation head-on, I always realize what you stated: "Anxiety of such a waste of time." Let's hope I remember that.
    Lee Ann