After I finished my last two weeks managing the Meatball Hut, I was under the impression the most difficult part of my life transition would be returning to serve Sunday brunch once again. I had no idea then, but refilling hot waters with lemon was going to be the very least of my concerns.
The plan, as I imagined it, was simple math. By reducing my weekly hours by two-thirds (from 60 to 20) I was going to have more than enough time to write before clocking into my six o’clock dinner shift. If I could work eleven to thirteen hours each day inside a dining room, there was no reason why I couldn’t be just as productive outside of one. That was until I discovered one major plot twist – the return of my arch-nemesis Anxiety.
It was a beautiful day last February that my mental foe wrapped its claws around the heart in my chest. It was ten o’clock in the morning when I opened my laptop screen at a table in the coffee shop. I booted up Microsoft Word and got set to begin the first day of my new life. Without a lunch service to run or one-hundred emails to reply to, I had the entire day ahead of me to focus on writing. And what a beautiful day it was at that!
After winter failed to RSVP to the West Coast, Vancouver moved directly from fall back into spring. Outside the sky was bright blue while the sun lit up every Cherry Blossom petal scattered on the sidewalk. Directly behind me to the North, the mountain peaks were naked without so much as a single snowflake to cover up with. I took a sip from my dark roast and settled into write my first line when a strange feeling came over me.
Without warning, I suddenly could feel my heart begin to beat a million times per minute while beads of sweat trickled down my forehead. My hands began to rattle over the keyboard and if it weren’t for the old man sitting next to me drinking a cup of tea and reading the Vancouver Sun, I could’ve sworn that I was in the middle of an earthquake.
It was not until a wave of terror washed over me that I knew exactly what was going on.
“No, no, no!” I screamed, slamming the laptop shut. “This can’t be happening!”
Just when I was out of the restaurant and thought I had reached freedom for good, it appeared I had exchanged one prison cell for another. I began to panic that I was never going to be able to write again. Then I began to panic that I had made a terrible mistake quitting the one position I worked so hard to achieve. And then in classic form, I began panicking about panicking. And that was when it was all over.
Since I turned fourteen, I have been no stranger to mental illness. These days, I consider myself to be somewhat of a Power Ranger when it comes to battling depression. After spending the better part of seven years with a personal daily forecast that never changed from overcast, I have become quite savvy when it comes to knowing exactly what to do when the clouds roll in. The second my bottle of red wine starts tasting hopeless with a finishing note of despair, I put the cork back in and get to the gym before it is too late.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a much different beast. If Anxiety and depression were partners in crime, then in my life experience, Anxiety is the trickier and more cutting of the two. With lightning speed and stealth precision, I have never been able to sense Anxiety coming as much as jump out of the bed in the middle of the night in terror with the realization that it is already here.
When it does move into stay even the most logical part of my brain is paralyzed with irrational fear. With its power of manipulation, a simple afterthought turns into the worst-case-scenario. “Did I leave the light on?” a basic question on the drive to work becomes a flashing red light, “I am going to burn the house down.” “I wonder why he hasn’t texted me back yet?” a brief glance at the Samsung twists into “I said something terribly wrong and it's all over.”
For years, I managed to successfully keep this monster under lock and key while keeping myself busy at the restaurant. Every Friday and Saturday night around four o’clock, I would throw it a bone and have a mild panic attack before holding the door open to a severely overbooked house. The few times it did manage to get out, I would lock myself up inside the apartment with enough red wine to sedate a small town. At eleven thirty in the morning, I would be bumping into walls and praying to Meryl Streep that “this too shall pass.”
Back at the coffee shop I shot out of my chair, threw Hunter around my shoulder and stormed out the front door. My pace sped up to match my heartbeat as I flew passed all the mothers rolling their strollers back-and-forth on the patio. I feared the loud shriek of a baby’s cry might be enough to put me over the edge. I fumbled to retrieve my cigarettes from my pocket, but then put them back as soon as it occured to me a single puff might be my last breath.
Opening the door to my hatchback Fanny, I started the ignition, turned the sound of CBC radio down, and knew this time around something had to change or else I was going to give. I set the GPS for SOS and checked in at the nearest walk-in clinic.
The doctor that walked in the door and shut it behind him was an Indian man that was roughly my age. My initial observation of him was that I was highly attracted except for the fact that I disagreed with his choice of socks. He flipped through my chart and then looked up at me, “so it says hear that you are having trouble with anxiety.”
“The sky is falling,” I replied.
In retrospect, I suppose I could have just come right out and said, “Hello my name is Rugged Fox and I have a mental illness,” except that sounded much too sane.
“Do you know the sky is falling?” the Doctor asked, adjusting himself in the chair.
“Of course I don’t. It is very blue today, not a cloud in sight. You can see the mountains for miles.”
“Do you think the sky is falling?
“Yes, absolutely. And I cannot stop thinking about it.”
The next fifteen minutes I spent answering a series of questions that confirmed I was indeed suffering from an anxiety disorder. Like every other test I have written in this life, I passed with flying colours.
“Alright Doc, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t feel like I might be in some kind of serious trouble. I never planned to be cast in this life as Fox Little, but this is where the chips have fallen and so here I am. I feel like I just got my entire life back … and now I am afraid I am going to be too scared to live it.”
“Well, the good news is that there are several roads we can go from here,” he said.
“Go on,” I muttered.
“Number one, you quit caffeine, nicotine and alcohol.”
“You do realize you are asking me to give up breakfast, lunch and dinner?” I sat up straight, feeling my heartbeat spike again. "What is behind door number two?"
“Your second option is to start CBT, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It has proven to be quite effective for patients suffering anxiety. You seem to be a bright enough guy that you could probably complete the exercises on your own.”
“And the final option?” I inquired. I never liked workbooks.
At the time, I was unwilling to start taking any kind of pill because I knew just as well as everyone else, that in terms of mental health, I hadn’t done myself any favours in years. My diet was deplorable, my sleep was red wine induced and my gym membership went out to the recycling bin with the frozen pizza boxes.
“I will take door number two” I informed the Doctor. Then I drove to Chapters in Burnaby to pick up my prescription.
For the next three months, the only writing I completed was in a workbook. I treated each anxious thought as it arose like a land mine that needed to be defused. Focusing on self-care as my number one priority, I gave up my favourite dark roast in exchange for a decaf americano and returned to the treadmill at the gym. Acting as my own Richter scale, I measured each thought, mood and behaviour that caused my heart rate to rise. Each night before I left for work, my daily goal became to check the stove “one less time” to see if it was off.
In the months that have passed since then, I have learned to fear anxiety less and pay closer attention to the message it is trying to deliver me whenever it comes to call. I don’t view it as a bogeyman anymore as much as a reminder to slow down and breathe. Nowadays, I have developed a greater appreciation for mindfulness as a required course in life as opposed to an elective.
I don’t ever envision a life without anxiety or depression because that would be a life without the most cataclysmic change. And then I would have nothing to write about.