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Me VS Myself On And Off The Court
Who is the Anxious Athlete?
I was warned by my dad that life throws you a lot of curveballs, but this roller coaster ride I was not ready for. Living with GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), Panic Disorder, Hypochondria and Depression diagnosed by many different doctors, is definitely something that takes its toll on you and can beat you down worse than any opposition you will ever meet. It’s sort of a mix of twenty Mike Tyson right hooks, a gigantic wave crashing down on you and brushing you to shore, and The Riddler taunting you mercilessly in any way he can all day wrapped up in a tightly tied box ready for you to open each morning. My morning routine was usually the same each day: wake up and feel relief that I was still alive. Check if the pounding feeling and pain in my chest was still there… which it was. Stagger to the bathroom by holding on to something due to the dizziness to look in the mirror and notice how God-awful I looked and wonder what the hell my fiancée saw in me. This followed by the morning shower, thinking about how I would ever get through the day, working on my fake smile and attitude so I could stay positive enough to keep my tennis coaching position. Then I would go over how much I hated every aspect of everyone I would come into contact with that day and finally the worry and fear process would be going full speed ahead.
My biggest fan and the person who started it all for me was my dad. To give you a mental picture of my dad, imagine this: a 9 year old has just reached the final of his first tennis tournament, comes off the court with a proud smile being hugged by his loving mom, only to be on the way home and told to throw the trophy out of a moving car with the kind of scream a lion would be proud of. The reason? Apparently I hadn’t given a hundred and ten percent on the court, and this was followed up by being sent to my room and the door slammed behind me. Yep, my dad had a dream for me and that was to be the next Andre Agassi and whether I wanted this dream or not didn’t matter. 6 am practices followed by being home schooled followed by more tennis in the afternoon followed by fitness was my daily life. All the while I just wanted to be a regular kid having fun on the playground and meeting kids my own age. The worst part about my situation as a kid growing up in Vancouver, BC as a junior tennis star was that in this sport you had no partners to shoulder the blame with – unlike team sports where you can blame your goalie or your linebacker. Nope, tennis is two gladiators going head to head and there can only be one winner… and one loser. It’s even tougher to bring out your best game when you have the father from hell staring you down on the sidelines, ready to verbally give it to you if you lost the match.
Now I am 32 years old and have suffered from extreme anxiety for the past six years and have lived to tell the story (barely). As I look back on my junior years I realize how early my Anxiety started and how year after year I just found different things to attach myself to so that my anxiety would continue to grow. If deep down I had the tools I knew would work and if I just had the patience to stay with them for a long period, why couldn’t I push through and detach myself from the prison I was feeling each day? I’ll tell you why – because from a young age my mind had been programmed to fight everything even if that thing had a positive side to it. That just wasn’t good enough, and my mind would find the threatening part only and the Anxiety cycle would begin. Over and over I basically treated everything in my life like it was a tennis match and I needed to do what I could to be the victor. A simple walk in the park where someone would look at me a second too long and the Anxiety cycle would begin, all of a sudden I would start looking out for people that stared too long from the fear of being judged for something like my clothes or my walk or whatever. Being at a shopping mall where a sales clerk would ask, ‘Can I help you with something?’ – A normal person would realize this is her job and she gets paid to help customers. I would say, ‘No thank you, I’m just looking’, but really I would be thinking ‘Why am I being pressured to buy something – if I needed her help I would ask for it! Geez I hate pushy people!’ This usually started the cycle that people with Anxiety and Panic Disorder deal with and what usually followed was either a slight cough, my usual spitting routine, cracking my knuckles, and the most popular one of them all – nail biting. Quickly thoughts became negative and fearful, which manifested into some kind of physical symptom – extreme dizziness, heart palpitations, and migraines in my case – which leads to leaving the mall asap. Oh yes, then comes the shortness of breath which is followed by feeling like you are dying which is actually the worst feeling I’ve ever felt in my life and wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. I will cover later on in the book what comes after all that which is usually a stranger calling emergency and landing me in a bed next to people I was starting to know quite well. Hmmm I wonder why I avoided shopping malls for the next few years?
Agoraphobia is avoiding places that can cause unusual panic and anxiety for a person and boy did I have a long list of places to avoid from my mid 20’s to early 30’s. Not only would certain places trigger these emotional reactions that led to more panic attacks and chronic Anxiety, but it was also food, drinks, people, pets, and even music. To a person that doesn’t suffer from GAD or Panic Disorder, having a beer on a warm day on the patio is as relaxing as lying next to the ocean listening to the sound of the waves. However for me, having a glass of beer would bring up memories of another incident where I would find myself in the ER or shaking in uncontrollable fear in bed at home. So I avoided it, but being a tennis coach it was difficult to say no to a client who wanted to share a few beers after a tennis lesson or a group inviting me to their usual weekend tennis social. Of course, thinking it would be rude to say no, I would go to these get-togethers and have a few beers. Sometimes people would ask me if I was alright after my first beer, because I would be so stricken with fear that another deadly scenario would happen that night and my panic would set in. Next thing I knew the physical sensations would come back, I would be extremely dizzy again and around and around and around I would go. For years this was my daily struggle. I had nights where I would cry and ask ‘why me?’ and surf the web trying to find solutions to the evil thing that had taken over my life. In my early 20’s I remember being free from negative thoughts and having an anxiety level that would match the rest of the world. If someone stepped on my foot on the bus, I would brush it off in a few seconds and move on. But in my late 20’s, if the same thing happened it would ruin my whole day. Not only that, if the person who had stepped on my foot was a woman, for example, I would hate all women because of their lack of awareness and therefore generalized women.
See how this all works? What I really hope is as we get deeper and deeper through this book, you readers can find similarities with what I have dealt with. I also hope you will use the suggestions I give through the chapters as well as the main steps that I outline at the end to help you get on the right track again and slowly turn these fearful thoughts, feelings, and reactions around. Over the six years of my struggle with GAD and Panic Disorder I’ve read many self- help books that describe so-called ‘miracle techniques’ that would get rid of my Anxiety in an instant. I have also had a cabinet totally full of pills and remedies that Doctors and websites recommended that would really help me. I’ll tell you something, though – none of those books or websites has been from the perspective of someone who has gone through the levels of Anxiety first-hand and for as long as I have and come out of it in the end better than they were before like I have. I am a brand new man, and I hope this will motivate you and if you have the patience to stick to my suggestions, then you will also come through this and be able to look back at the man or woman you once were a few months ago and realize what a waste of time and energy that cycle of Anxiety was.
I remember one day, walking around on my day off from work on a beautiful weekend, feeling absolutely exhausted, even though I had a good eight hours of sleep and a healthy breakfast. I was thinking to myself that something was terribly wrong, why was I feeling as if the world was like a dream? That day I realized that I had been hit with the experience of depersonalization, the sense that the world had become less real and lacking in significance. I dragged myself around in a sort of daze, almost like being on a street drug. People were walking past me but it felt as if I was in a dream and this wasn’t real. This off-balance, unreal feeling had kicked in so badly that I would act in ways that I never thought I would. My thoughts spiraled out of control and that day I knew that if I didn’t make some drastic changes in my life in every aspect then I was headed down a road that deep down I didn’t want to be on. But I was comfortable, GAD was my comfort zone. My mind said if I didn’t worry about these things and didn’t take care of these threats around me that I would lose control, and if I lost control that would lead to the ultimate fear that being a hypochondriac brings, which is an early death. My mind was in full on fight or flight mode from the minute I woke up to the minute I went to sleep, and on top of all the physical manifestations that Anxiety brought, now I was also stuck in this dreamlike trance all day. Sometimes my fiancée Robyn would be talking to me and mention something that would be important for me to remember, but of course it didn’t register because I was too busy keeping an eye on my physical symptoms and how I was feeling. It must have been so frustrating for someone that close to me trying to understand what was really going on and have a regular conversation with and instead this man, this love of your life, has turned into a mute who is clearly miserable and with no end in sight.
Yes, those were dark days and I am glad they are over. Do I still experience some dizziness and fatigue? Yes, but compared to the man I used to be I’ve made a complete turnaround and have regained control of my thoughts and my life, and have stopped the fear from rushing in and overtaking me. If there was a funny part to all of this it was this: how I could be feeling like I was on my deathbed before going into the ER, and then after being checked out feeling amazing with a sense of being born again? In fact, there was one instance that I can remember when one of my good friends Eric, whom I was living with at the time, took me to the ER around midnight due to the shortness of breath I was feeling. He must have been so confused to see his friend and roommate suffering this panic like this and not knowing what to say or do he dropped me off there and I came out as the sun was rising feeling great again. Only to notice immense chest pains and dizziness later that day, so this time I went to my family doctor to figure out the situation. Through all of these years, I’ve realized that Anxiety is a very tricky thing. Our ancestors needed this fight or flight response in case of danger like some kind of creature chasing after them and becoming their dinner. They needed to be quick and react in an instant, the mind needed to recognize a threat and the body needed to be ready to do battle or run. My mind and body were reacting as if there were a sabre-toothed tiger around every corner, but of course there wasn’t. Why couldn’t I realize that these physical sensations were just a way for my body to prepare itself to fight a threat and they weren’t some life threatening illness or heart attack? Especially after doctors of all kinds reassuring me that I was completely healthy and had nothing to worry about? Because I continued to fear the unknown, my mind kept saying ‘this is it’, ‘this time it will end me’, or ‘maybe the doctor missed something because he hesitated a little when he was explaining something to me’. There was always that ‘what if’ and that was enough to continue to add fuel to my fear and anxiety cycle. During prize money tennis tournaments I remember always getting sick or injured before a match and having to default the match (not play due to an injury). My fearful thoughts of a potential panic attack, and how deep those amazingly fearful physical symptoms of ultra-high levels of anxiety were rooted in me, many times forced me to not even walk on the tennis court
even if I was a real underdog with nothing to lose.
Of course, during those dark years there were things that helped me get by and made life enjoyable, for example I didn’t have my dad breathing down my neck during tennis practices and matches anymore. I really started to enjoy training and competing in tournaments again in my early 30’s. I also enjoyed lifting weights if the fatigue and dizziness I felt on a daily basis took a few hours off during the day. Another thing I absolutely loved to do was to DJ. In fact this was the greatest release for me, because for a few hours my thoughts were directed towards synching beautiful music for people to dance and enjoy themselves to instead of indulging in my usual negative and worrisome thinking. It gave me so much freedom whether it was DJing in my own home or in a bar I was hooked to that feeling – no thoughts, just pure positive energy all around me. Eventually I would start my own mobile DJ company, Sev Productions, and would do weddings, private parties, graduations, and pretty much any event I could get. I really don’t know how I was able to do something I had never done before and run with it the way I did with DJing. I wasn’t in the right place mentally to just pick something up like that because I was already so busy trying to find a diagnosis and eventually a cure for what I was dealing with. I remember House Music being one of the biggest triggers to my Anxiety, but shortly after getting my DJ equipment I decided to spin some. I think House Music was a trigger because of the fast tempo that electronic music brings with it – sort of like when you’re at the peak of your panic and everything is going out of control. This was the beginning of what was to be a real solution to my Anxiety problems. I remember a song being played loudly in my place from one turntable and another song about to be mixed in on the other one and I was listening to it through my earphones. I could just feel my body go into the fight or flight mode and that sent my thoughts into a frenzy again, and for the first time I didn’t run. I actually withstood the feeling of losing control of my mind and body and stayed right where I was, sweating profusely, I continued to mix song after song and for some reason at the top of my lungs I yelled, “Go to hell Anxiety!!!” I was worried and scared to death but I kept going and going, feeling horrible but awesome at the same time, kind of like Mel Gibson in Braveheart at the end of the movie yelling “Freedom!!!”
After another twenty minutes of mixing music and yelling, I was absolutely exhausted but surprisingly alive and for the first time I felt some retreat from my physical sensations. My negative thoughts were still there, but I was too tired to care anymore. How come I didn’t collapse? How come I didn’t run away this time?
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