Brain Shoots the Hostage

Last night I was sure I had COVID again, which marks the three-hundredth time this year that I’ve been incorrect about predicting my own death and it’s only been six days. I’ve tried to write about my anxiety on several occasions, but I never like what comes out. In light of the recent state of the world, I thought it was a good time to give it another go. So, let’s have a good laugh at what’s inside my brain, because it’s the only way I know to shut it up.

I can’t remember a day where I wasn’t worried about something killing me. Even in my happiest memories, there’s the tinge of ‘shouldn’t have spent that much time in the sun, you’re going to get skin cancer’ or, ‘wow that tree is very close to falling on you, you should probably just avoid the woods’. Unsurprisingly, I have not been crushed to death on a hike, and several appointments with annoyed dermatologists have confirmed that, yes, while I have freckles, no, they are not cancer. These temporary confirmations feel wonderful for a moment, and then my brain moves on.  

            Even sitting here, trying to put my anxiety to words, I’m wondering if my house is going to collapse on top of me. I’m sitting on the bottom floor of three, and I’m wondering what my odds of survival would be if it did. Probably minimal, so time to move on to the tickle that’s developed at the back of my throat. Probably COVID, right? If it’s not COVID, it’s probably the black mold that is secretly growing in the condensation-filled window. The cycle would go on forever if there were not small, blessed things to interrupt it like a damned fine cup of coffee. I’m drinking one of those right now, and it’s temporarily halted the slow spiral to insanity.

            I live with these mortal threats cooked up by my own mind constantly, and for the most part, they’ve become a part of the mix. I can see a telephone wire, picture it cutting me in half, and then move on to enjoy an ice cream cone without panic. Life wasn’t always that way, and it took a great many therapists, moments of self-reflection (read: crying in a closet), and strategies to get to the tentative truce I have with my own brain today. Sure, the truce is renegotiated daily, and my brain loves to take hostages, but when the trading partner lives inside your skull, you work with what you’ve got.

            So, ever hear of a little year called 2020? Let’s just say my brain decided one hostage wasn’t enough and we should do the negotiations on a conveyer over a lava pit. It was a real power move. I started last year worried about turning thirty and the host of medical problems I would begin having at the stroke of midnight on December 15th. Brain already had the high ground in those negotiations, but holy hell did last year have other plans. Over the last ten years, most of my anxiety has focused around medical conditions. I’ve watched members of my close family struggle with cancer, the beautiful shitstorm that is alcoholism, and a host of other surprising diseases. Many of them died, some did not, but from a young age, it instilled in me that I was never safe from my own body.

            The result? I ended up paying attention to every signal my body gave me like it was the word of a deity. Every chill became a sign of cancer, every bout of disorientation was a tumor, and anytime I felt my own heartbeat, it was a sign I was eating too much sodium. Hell, I once spent an entire summer feeling lightheaded, convinced I had developed brain cancer, only to find out that low-grade anxiety actually elevates cortisol levels and can cause lightheadedness. The solution? A psychiatrist prescribed me medication that lowered my already low resting heartrate and made me lightheaded for three years before I found someone willing to help me do self-work (read: crying in a therapist’s office instead of a closet) rather than pushing pills.

            But, back to 2020. See a reason any of the intricacies of my mental disorder might be an issue? I brought muffins to the trade negotiations with my brain, and it brought nerve gas. We’ve almost been in the throes of this pandemic for a year. Every week since the first mention of COVID-19 making landfall in the United States, I have been convinced to some degree I have it. For context, I haven’t really been anywhere since March. Here’s my google maps trend of ‘shops I visited’ to prove it.

            The chances of me catching COVID when all my groceries are delivered, the only time I go out is to walk the dogs, and my fiancée works in an N95-using laboratory, are very slim. Regardless, once a week, usually when I think I’m starting to figure all this out, one small symptom pops up and throws a wrench in all of it. Cue negotiations with brain so that it doesn’t try and kill itself with fear.

            Me: What if it’s just a sore throat because I slept with my mouth open?

            Brain: Nah, COVID. *shoots a hostage*

            Me: Alright, easy buddy, but what if it wasn’t COVID.

            Brain: *shoots all the hostages*. Nah bro, you’re def dying.

            As Qui Gon said, the negotiations were short. I’ve been tested three times now for COVID and several times for antibodies while donating blood. Why? Because the advice says if you have the symptoms, do it. Unfortunately for me, my brain manufactures the symptoms for me. That’s one of Anxiety’s specialties. Worried about getting a disease? Anxiety can fabricate almost all the early indicators for you. Worried about a disease for a year straight? Anxiety can be a real bear and bring almost every aspect of your life to a standstill.

            The past year has been hard for me as it has for everyone. I’ve had it much easier than most, but through my time, I’ve learned you don’t compare trauma, because it’s a losing game. There will always be someone who has it worse than you. Convincing yourself that your feelings are too extreme because people who have it worse are doing better is a false equivalency. I know that my brain chemistry is uniquely suited to being a pain in the ass during this time. It’s been impacting my writing, my ability to focus at work, getting good sleep, and worst of all, it’s sidelined my project for translating my cats’ meows to speech.

            Ok, but what’s the point? Because this is a long god damned post, there has to be a point, right? I don’t know, maybe. To the outside observer, I accomplished quite a bit last year. I had two books and a short story published, I got engaged, and adopted this goofy-ass dog:

But all of that for me has been underlined by the constant negotiations I have to make every day. I wake up, get a cup of coffee, sit down to write, and my brain walks in with a machine gun wanting to ‘talk’. On the days when I can’t talk myself off the ledge, it feels like failure. Plenty of therapists have said it’s not, but brain bought a megaphone for Prime Day, and therapists tend to be a soft-spoken bunch. I guess all that is to say, I’m still struggling, and it’s ok. Some days, brain is going to shoot the hostage, that’s what happens in these strangely violent, metaphorical negotiations, but looking at it on paper helps. On paper, I can see the humor in the struggle and the absurdity of what feels like a crushing vice most days.

Laughing at the garbage my brain cooks up has been my best strategy for survival. It’s what drives me to write, even if sometimes it’s long blog posts that may never get read instead of books. Yes, the post is lengthy, yes, brain isn’t happy with the way I’ve portrayed it, but for one foggy morning, writing this post made it shut up.

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