Tuesday, November 10, 2009

                        Mr. Scary

With everyone it’s a little different. In my case it basically starts in the pit of my stomach and starts making its way up my spine. Once it hits the central nervous system, the party really starts. It can range from a coughing jag to the utter conviction that I’m going to drop dead any moment. But it’s all the same thing, anxiety, jitters, panic, call it what you will. It’s the fear.

Everybody gets it. The degree varies. For some it’s a mild irritation. For others it’s paralyzing nightmare that controls everything they do. Unfortunately mine tends towards the latter category. Sometimes the simplest things require a major effort.

I’ve been dealing with this since early adolescence. Around the time I moved from downtown to the suburbs, it started to kick in, and in really odd ways. I was dealing with a number of issues at the time. My mom was remarrying so I was demoted from my position of “man of the house”. I didn’t know anybody in the new neighborhood and I’m not the most gregarious person on Earth. I was getting my own room, which was a good thing, but also gave me a sense of isolation. Let’s face it; I was easy pickings for the right disorder.

You know those ads with Digger the Happy Yellow Foot Fungus? He struts around looking for fertile feet to move into and multiply. I picture something like that for panic and anxiety disorder (I don’t really differentiate between the two). Mr. Scary. He’s a Disneyesque skeletal figure, has fangs, and for some reason wears a top hat and tails, with spats on bare bony feet. I have no idea why. I’ve always liked Fred Astaire, so it’s not about that. It’s probably an intimidation/status thing. Mr. Scary dresses better than I do.

Anyway it was about that time I had my first encounters with Mr. Scary. I remember the first one specifically. In the days before I slept with the television on all night I slept with the radio on all night. I had a pillow phone plugged into my transistor radio. By the way if you were born in the 70’s or later and you’re reading this, this is at the dawn of cable TV so there weren’t many stations that went all night, no VCRs, or the Internet. Insomniacs had fewer options, and I’ve always had trouble sleeping. Actually, in retrospect, when we moved was when all that started.

So I was in bed listening to the radio. I preferred the sound of a human voice to music for sleeping, so at 12 I started listening to the CBC. Everything was fine until I came across this show that was on Mondays after midnight called “Gotcha!”

“Gotcha” was possibly the easiest show the CBC ever produced. It consisted of a well-voiced actor reading macabre short stories with weird music and the occasional sound effect in the background. I searched the net for a sample of the show but couldn’t find one. Apparently the show has vanished. Normally the stories were lightweight but not always.

So one night I was in bed with the radio on and the Voice started reading “The Premature Burial” by Edgar Allan Poe and it scared the living crap out of me. I’m not talking about giving me the willies or the wiggins. It struck some primal in me that I had never felt before. Bear in mind that I had been raised to this point on a steady diet of monster movies, novels and records, and they never scared me. Famous Monsters of Filmland was my favorite magazine. Nothing ever frightened me as much as that story did on that night.

“The Premature Burial” is Poe at his paranoid best. It starts out with several documentary examples of people having been pronounced dead, only to wake up in a coffin. One particularly nasty example is of somebody waking up on an autopsy table screaming, “I am alive!”

The protagonist of the story suffers from a form of catalepsy that causes him to fall into a state so closely resembling death that only a doctor can tell the difference, and even they sometime miss it. Our hero is so frightened of being buried alive that he goes through elaborate precautions in his funeral preparation, having a custom made coffin equipped with a bell that rings above ground, in case the worst happens. Of course the worst happens, but happens nowhere near his funeral and he wakes up in what he thinks is a plain wooden coffin terrified.

I don’t know why the story affected me so much; I only know that it planted some thoughts that previously hadn’t been there. My mortality was suddenly a totally viable concept. Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Scary has entered the building. He has yet to leave it.

From that point it escalated. This totally irrational all-encompassing dread would hit me at any given moment without warning, and I couldn’t tell anyone because it would sound crazy.

Mortality was just the beginning. After many years of watching Vampire movies, I suddenly became convinced, not only of their existence, but that I was about to become their victim. I would get uneasy when the sun went down. The windows in my room had to be closed and locked. This went on until I came to the realization that Vampires didn’t go for religious people, so I started wearing a cross and reading the Bible. This was all well and good until I got to The Book of Revelations, which tipped me over the edge. I became obsessed with the end of days and that it was happening right then.

If I didn’t actually have a nervous breakdown then it was damn close. On dark days I would hide in my house awaiting the inevitable. One day when the weather abruptly went from sunny to stormy very quickly, I went home at recess and didn’t come back. I cowered in my room knowing that the end was nigh.

This went on for over a year.
Then Mr. Scary abruptly left and it was suddenly over…

At least that episode was. I came to the realization that this was not a good way to live, and that when the end came there wasn’t much I could do about it so I might as well get on with whatever was left. Gradually there was clarity and I could function, but I was never quite the same after that.

When it came again, it was just as unexpected. It was also 15 years later.

At this point I should also mention that I also have depression issues. Have had since I was a kid, and they pre-date the first anxiety/panic attacks. Yeah, I know. It never rains, but it pours.

I was in the middle of directing “A Streetcar named Desire” when Mr. Scary made his a return appearance. I would not recommend directing a Tennessee Williams play about the descent into madness, when one is descending into madness of a sort. I certainly didn’t enjoy it.

There were no Vampires or End of the World scenarios this time, just an overwhelming sense of impending doom. I hid out in the apartment a lot because I knew going out was just asking for trouble.

This was about the time that depression kicked in about the same time, forming something of a mental one-two punch. At a certain point the constant bombardment of “Life Sucks” and “You’re going to die” is not the World’s Greatest Affirmation. It tends to make one question whether continuing on this plane of existence is all that it’s cracked up to be, and I did begin to wonder about that.

Then, in a rare moment of lucidity, I came to the realization that I was contemplating suicide over a “community theatre production”. This epiphany sent me to get help.

The thing about help, though, is if its wrong it hurts or, worse, it does nothing. The initial diagnosis was incomplete because it didn’t address the panic issues. Apparently anti-depressants are supposed to deal with anxiety, but sometimes it just doesn’t work, so you have to add to the cocktail. So initially Mr. Scary went away for a little while. But he was liable to come back any time without notice. The first and (so far) last time I did summer stock, I became paralyzed with an anxiety attack that just wouldn’t quit. It was like good-old-fashioned-8-year-old homesickness multiplied 10 times. I walked around like a zombie for a day or so ‘til I could get back home. The kicker was I was on meds at the time. They just weren’t enough.

I’ve lost jobs because of Mr. Scary. I couldn’t get a driver’s license because of it. It’s hurt relationships. It gets in the way of my creative work. It affects my life everyday. During the early part of rehearsals for “Chorus” I was going through a major dual-tiered episode, where it became, despite the presence of the best cast and crew in the World, a struggle just to get to rehearsals. The pills help, but he still lurks. I know the warning signs now so, I can usually head it off.

I’m not a coward. It’s something of a point of principle that I try to face my fears. This is a chemical thing that I control with a prescription. I function in the real world, but sometimes it’s still a struggle. I suppose it always will be.

So why am I writing this? I’m trolling for sympathy? True confessions time? I’m trying to over come writer’s block? I had nothing better to do?

I don’t know. I guess I’m trying to make sense of something I don’t quite understand, and seeing it in writing helps. If somebody else reads it and can identify I hope it can help them look for what they need. And sometimes I just sit here typing and go with whatever happens to come out.

But mostly I wrote it ‘cause Mr. Scary didn’t want me to.

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