Anxiety and Existential Fear

At various times in my life I’ve felt a lot of anxiety. It has shown up at different times, in different places, and in different contexts. Some of it has felt overwhelming as I was experiencing it. Some was the result of me not taking my health seriously enough, and not doing what was necessary to manage my mental illness, while on other occasions it was largely the result of circumstance. I would say that most of my anxiety, at its core, stems from a deep, existential fear. In the process of trying to know myself, to understand my subconscious motivations and in general my emotions and their source, I have given a lot of thought as to where this fear comes from. What is this fear, and how does it inform all of my actions?

I guess it perhaps stems originally from early childhood, and it developed for reasons I can’t fully explain. I grew up in a very stable and loving household. Unfortunately, I was raised in a very devout Christian household, and I was taught from a young age that man is by nature sinful and evil, and therefore I was sinful, and evil, and in need of salvation through Jesus. Perhaps as a result of this, and other factors, I never felt good enough, I always felt defective. I worried that I was doomed to hell, and I prayed desperately for a way out. When I would engage in behaviors that my parents, pastors and peers called sinful, I would feel immense guilt afterwards, terribly confused about why my behavior was not in line with what I was taught I should be doing. A sort of existential confusion ruled my childhood. Because I was told that what I wanted was inherently sinful and basically wrong, I resisted wanting anything, I attempted to drown out my desires with distraction, because my desires were at root evil. I simply viewed myself as worthless, not worthy of love, not deserving of anything.

As I grew older, I thought, at the age of 22, that since my actions (not going to Church, reading the Bible, or praying) didn’t line up with the faith I purported to believe, I realized that my only logical option was to abandon my faith and declare that God was dead. I was miserable emotionally, and the struggle I had with my newly discovered mental illness made me consider that maybe religion had it wrong. This was a big event in my family, and when I revealed to my parents that I didn’t believe in God, they were terribly concerned and viewed that information as some kind of emergency. The real emergency was that I seriously needed effective mental healthcare, which I did not receive.

I did not recognize my anxiety for what it was as a child and a teen, because I wasn’t always very consciously aware of it.  Looking back, I can see how it informed nearly all of my actions. Getting bullied at times, lashing out violently at students who mistreated me, generally experiencing unnamed fears over various situations and interactions, not doing things to help myself, procrastinating endlessly, I can now say all stemmed from my anxiety and fear. In my 20’s, as my illness progressed and worsened, these feelings at times became overwhelming. The fear manifested itself in many different ways. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of intimacy, fear of abandonment, fear of rejection. Fear of making decisions or taking on challenges. Fear of school. Fear of work. Fear of losing all my friends, being destitute, being homeless.  Again, at its core, much of this fear came from the early, very early notion that I was essentially bad, not worthy of love, and flawed. I was destined for hell, so clearly I didn’t deserve love. I failed miserably at loving others in my 20’s because I had never learned to love myself. I didn’t know how to express outwardly something I had never done inwardly.

Concepts like happiness, contentment, and inner peace were completely foreign to me. Not long after I had entered college, I turned to substances to replace my feelings, to numb out, to escape myself.

I remember vividly the first two times I was intoxicated. The first time, on a family trip with some cousins, I got fairly buzzed, but not fully drunk. The second time, in college, I drank heavily, and got very drunk. Both times, the feeling I got from alcohol was incredible to me. I had never felt this good before, that I could ever remember. I thought to myself, perhaps subconsciously, that I was finally alright, that this was the best feeling I had ever experienced. The beauty of it was that I could drink whenever I wanted. Instead of choosing awareness, and difficulty, and perhaps some form of emotional progress, I took the easy way out: I chose the bottle. A few years later, as I was a junior in college, I tried marijuana for the first time. The feeling I got from my first hit was wondrous, to me it felt just as good, if not better than the alcohol. I had a new favorite substance. I was finally home. The moments when I was high, I felt ok with myself.

My substance abuse helped me to fail out of college. I had, by my senior year, entered into a deep depression medicated by alcohol. After dropping out, I returned home and took solace in more booze, and this time much more marijuana. I eventually got around to trying pills as well, but usually infrequently and when it was randomly available. The next 11 years of my life were marked by moments of insanity, hospitalization, arrest, misery, and depression. My drug abused threatened any type of stability I had in my life. My only friends were generally people I got high or drunk with. I did this to escape my anxiety and fear, to treat my depression or my mania. To distract myself. Anything to avoid my feelings. The perpetual knot in my stomach signified an area of my brain and body that I refused to go to, that I refused to acknowledge or deal with or attempt to resolve. Functional relationships were extremely difficult, if not at times completely impossible. I did my best to muddle through, but it seemed like every time I tried to go to school, to get a new job, to do anything for myself, I always failed.

The hallmark of these times were usually short periods of attempted sobriety followed by even worse alcohol and drug abuse.

Finally, I reached a point in the last year where my situation became desperate. I had finally run out of answers and excuses. The way I was living wasn’t working. My mental life was a mess, and dominated by thoughts of suicide. After multiple months of this, looking for a way out, looking for answers, I finally realized that I needed to stop abusing substances. I had tried living clean before but it had never worked for me. This time I fully committed myself to the process and attempted to change everything about my life that was in my power. I wrote out how I felt, and I focused on what I didn’t want, and how my feelings were. This was the turning point for me. Sharing this with others, and then going back over it myself helped me to achieve some clarity. I’ve always been pretty bad at figuring out what I truly wanted and acting on it, so instead I focused on what I didn’t want. I didn’t want to kill myself, ultimately, and I didn’t want to keep feeling the way I felt. The drugs no longer numbed me out, no matter how much I used. The escape mechanism stopped working. I was forced to come to some realizations about myself and my situation.

With a lot of help from others that I reached out to, I started over again. I’ve been clean nearly 4 months now. I got a job, I changed my living situation, and started making friends with people who were also clean and making good choices. I’ve never felt more certain about what I need to do, and I’ve never felt better about myself. Still, the self-doubt, self-hatred, and self-pity that were my mode for so very long are still there, but less so. When I feel those things today I respond with action, with positive movement in a good direction. I realized that if I’m not moving forward with my life, if I’m not growing, I’m dying.

The anxiety and fear are still there, but I have to aggressively attack these feelings by continuing to walk through it. My confidence is growing, little by little, after having been crushed for so long by many personal failures and disasters.

I read something yesterday, spoken by Winston Churchill, many years ago that really got to me when I saw it. That’s how I’ll close this writing. He said: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

I could not agree more.