“Wow,” said Doctor Mike.
“Do you realize how many neurotransmitters you just burned up?”
Let me rewind the video just a coupla minutes to catch you up to speed…
I see a psychologist for autism-related difficulties. I had just asked him about a confusing conversation I’d had with a friend, trying to figure out where I’d gone wrong. I was looking for tips on how to do better next time.
“Well,” he said, “you know the drill. Give me some idea what happened. But more important, try to tell me what you felt.”
I saw the Gates of Hell yawn before me…
I tried to give him the shortest, simplest, least detailed explanation I could.
But as I began the wheres and whens, the scene flashed in my mind’s eye… the dark wooden room, what I was wearing, the traffic noise outside, the smell of cooking from the kitchen, the incomprehensible mini-grimaces on my friend’s face, the slow storm surge of competing emotions I felt…
Eagerness, disappointment, confusion, anxiety, anger, rage… tongue-tied, I’m-gonna-die PANIC.
I guess I talked louder, angrier, faster — finally stammering, stuttering…
“Are you okay??!” He stopped me. Seemed like almost right away. He looked… worried?
“Why?” I asked, instantly switching to my usual conversational voice.
I had not been loud or angry when I spoke with my friend.
But remembering my internal feelings I had suppressed back then, so I could tell my story, I gather I had gone from the Therapist-Approved,™ hushed tones of an “intellectually curious” client to raging, ranting, lunatic — loud enough to be heard from his waiting room — in just moments.
He sat forward in his chair.
“What was going on for you just now?”
I knew I had “done something wrong.” Been in therapy nearly 30 years. Gets so you just know.
Me, pretty meekly, “I was remembering what happened and trying to tell you.” I felt guilty, and suddenly so tired my eyes ached from trying to stay open.
“And now that you’re done remembering… you’re calm again.” He looked off a moment. “Are you telling me you were actually reliving that moment… so you could remember?”
“Um. Yeah,” I said. “How do you remember?”
Apparently, not that way…
Dr. Mike gave me a quick info-dump on dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, how neurotransmitters are precious, complex biochemical hormones that take our bodies tremendous effort and energy to create….
And to use.
And how I had just used up so much of them, my mind and body were falling into collapse. A mini-autistic burnout.
“How often does that happen for you?”
“You mean, like, how many times a day…?”
So, we went on to talk self-care.
But something ELSE was happening besides social anxiety. I realized why, so often, when I try to say something new, I get loud or passionate or angry.
I’m getting a fix of my favorite drug…
And it has side effects.
See, I’m not chasing the memory or awkward communication butterflies today. I’m chasing the elephant in the room. Anxiety.
So, please allow me to begin again…
Hello, I’m John. And I’m an anxiety junkie. And this is my story. Anxiety isn’t just something I suffer. I’ve come to realize it’s a drug I use. And abuse.
Sorta like caffeine… if caffeine were meth.
Like some autists, I have difficulty waking up. As in, I may not really understand what’s going on the first couple of hours after I get up.
I may be confused about where I am. I may not have enough energy to do… anything. I may find speaking very difficult, even in short sentences. Why use two syllables when one will do…
There are even names for this. Sleep drunkeness or confusional disorder. So I drink coffee. Caffeine helps.
But like any substance I use to alter my mood, it has a down side. Too much triggers edginess. And, unfortunately, it’s addictive. So I use more and more to chase the same high, right up to the point that I use too much.
I’ve come to believe I have always used the self-generated neurochemicals of anxiety in the same way. I first noticed it with procrastination.
Since junior high, I waited later and later to write term papers. In my early teens, hitting the encyclopedias (this predates Google, if you’re old school) less than a week before the due date.
By college, I was smashing a semester’s research and writing into 24 to 36 hours of sustained effort. At first, just every single waking hour over two days. By senior year, starting midnight Friday and finishing dawn, Sunday.
No meals. Only necessary pee breaks.
Grad school? Starting the day after it was due… handing a paper in a week late and taking the grade cut.
Eventually, just flunking out… not because I was lazy, stupid, disorganized, whatever. Because I needed ever greater doses of u adulterated FEAR coursing through my veins to have enough ENERGY to slog through details, make decisions, choose words, create topic sentences, order a logical flow…
Without fear… I could not think.
Late in life, I began to suspect that without anxiety, I can’t relate. Even with loved ones. A single case makes the point. I love being alone. And, G-d knows, I love being with my wife.
But, if I spend a long time alone, say when she visits family for a day or two, it’s as if my emotional and expressive centers power down. She returns home to a husband uncommonly quiet, unexpressive, uncommunicative, curt…
Until the anxiety of the awkwardness warms up my inner radio tubes, and suddenly I feel “friendliness” seeping into my brain and I’m back to “normal.”
In fact, at some point, I realized I need anxiety to have the strength to communicate much… at all. People who first meet me have the impression I talk a lot. And I do…
But a LARGE part of what I say is short memorized phrases, sayings, repeated jokes, pop references, quotes, canned bits of trivia, Jim Carrey-like cartoon voices.
This can be an autistic behavior. It would be more noticeable if I repeated, say, a few dozen phrases rather than the hundreds, even thousands, I use.
But anyone who actually begins to know me, eventually notices, like the thousand or so background music hits you hear in Walmart. My repetition can eventually tire you out.
The point is, to actually create more than one or two original sentences at a time is usually more than I can accomplish in conversation. Unless I’m pumped up… on anxiety, or its twin devil spawn, fear and anger.
It is true that sometimes, too rarely in the past, the experience of explosive autistic joy can get me where I need to go.
Also true, in the last few years since diagnosis, joy is coming more and more frequently…
But bottom line?
I have trouble doing the things I live for…
Loving and creating…
Without twisting the dragon’s tail of anxiety, permitting it, even encouraging it.
Anxiety was once something “bad” to me, to be avoided like the plague, but I’ve come to a value-neutral view of anxiety. Like most of my autistic traits, it can be a strength or a weakness in the right place or time.
So, like any junkie, I shut up and pay the price.