Note: This is a long read.
It all started with the anger.
My parents didn’t understand me. They were good kids when they were my age. They behaved and followed the rules and listened to authority figures.
I wasn’t like that. Authority bothered me. The unjust kind. Authority that used its power for the sake of using its power.
Which is why the anger started with my teachers.
I saw them as despots, evil dictators bent on using their power to control me to make dioramas and speeches about space.
That’s when the anger started. When it seethed inside.
I started by letting it out through small rebellions. No homework here. Not paying attention there.
Low grades soon.
And then the parents, they didn’t know what to do.
They tried to be sweet to me, they tried to coax me, but eventually they decided they had to be tough with me.
The poor things.
They didn’t realize that by doing that, they were making themselves into the despots. The evil dictators who did unjust things. How dare they protect the teachers who had abused me, who had tugged at my ear when they were upset with me, who yelled at me when I didn’t do exactly what they wanted?
How dare they?
And so the anger exploded every now and then, and now it wasn’t focused on my teachers, although they still had plenty coming, but it went towards my parents.
All that anger.
The truth is, if you know anything about anger, it’s that it comes from a place of pain. I’m a sensitive person, to say the least, and bipolar, and when my teachers (in my mind) mistreated me, I took it terribly hard. And so I acted out. When my parents disciplined me for what I saw as a justifiable rebellion, I felt so hurt, so pained. I felt that they were siding with evil, that they were hurting me, that they were ripping into my heart and tearing it out.
That’s how I felt, and that’s still how I feel when I feel like someone is mistreating me. That’s who I am. I feel pain like a knife in the heart, even for what the people in the world might consider “small” things. When someone speaks to me in the wrong tone, when I feel like I wrote something that may have hurt someone else, when someone close to me says something even slightly hurtful, when people don’t “get” my projects and creative ideas.
The pain… it’s overwhelming.
Anger was the way I transformed my pain into something controllable, into a distraction. When the anger flowed, I felt good in a certain part of myself. Satisfied. A release of emotion that used all the pain I felt, that gave it definition, and a place to be directed. Rather than feeling it, I could point it at someone and shoot it them with it.
Over time, my anger got worse. I would have huge arguments with my parents, unimaginably big. Scary arguments. I would blow up at them. I would get in trouble with my teachers more and more.
Interestingly, as the anger increased, the less effective it felt at solving my problems.
Anger only worked when there were other people around. When I was alone with my feelings, or when the anger had subsided and I realized how horribly I acted, I felt miserable. The pain was back, but now it was stronger. Anger didn’t solve pain, it just gave it a momentary release, the way drugs allow us to escape for a moment from the difficulties we face, but the difficulties come back when we come down from the high.
And so, alone, miserable, sad, full of pain, I needed an answer.
Since I was young, I was fascinated by video games. They were this beautiful escape from life. A world that you had complete control over, that made sense because they had rules that determined whether you did “well” or “badly”. They allowed you to progress at your own pace, they encouraged you to grow, but in a structured way.
And so, as my anger increased, so did my video game playing.
Soon, I was doing it when my parents wouldn’t allow it. I would do it during the week when they thought I was doing homework. I would do it at night.
And, of course, soon my parents caught on. And they saw that this was destructive, and they wanted to help me, but they didn’t understand why it was happening (just like the anger), so they just did their best and tried to take the games away.
And that led to more anger, anger that was even worse because of the withdrawals to the heroinic fix I was used to.
I needed that fix so bad. I would wait up all night until I knew for sure my parents were asleep, walk every so quietly to my computer, sit down, and play.
Every time I’d log on to those games (they were called MUDs, and they were text-based games that were the precursors to games like World of Warcraft) I’d be transported into a world where I was a warrior, a leader, a master.
It was the kind of game that forced you to act out the character you played. So I would be Elron the Paladin, enforcer of good and law.
I was a hero. I was in control. I was in a life that made sense, and that I could progress in as long as I trusted myself. And I could get angry or rebellious or upset without any consequences, no real ones anyway. If I was unhappy with how things were going, I would delete my character and start over.
I was safe.
Of course, like the anger, the video games were the symptom of that thing I was trying so desperately to avoid: pain and sadness. Pain and sadness from thinking about arguments I had had with my parents and teachers. Pain and sadness from my guilt over my rebellions. Pain and sadness from not being popular, from sometimes being bullied.
But the avoidance, again, like the anger, just made it all worse. The pain festered inside and became worse, became more alive, took on a life of its own. As my dependence on games got worse, when my parents took them away, I exploded. In a scary way. I exploded not exactly because I was angry but because my need for numbness was gone, and now all I had left was anger. I had nothing else.
This process progressed in college, as life got harder, independence became a burden, and friendships started to fray.
I needed something better, something more numbing and powerful, than anger and games. I needed to grow up.
And, luckily, pot in college happens to be quite available. How convenient.
Pot’s interesting. Most people don’t see pot as something so dangerous, and I guess it isn’t for most people. But I suppose anger isn’t really dangerous for most people either. Or video games.
But those things weren’t just distractions for me: they were addictions. They were “drugs” in the sense that I needed them to avoid that intense pain I would feel, my sensitivity. That’s why I overused them. That’s why they became dangerous for me.
And so pot, that was amazing at first. It was like being able to blow all that numbness I got from video games, all that escape from emotion that anger gave me, deep into my lungs, into my bloodstream, and finally to my brain.
It was beautiful. And it worked.
The cultural aspects of the stoner world made it even better, another way to control my existence, to put things in order, to have them make sense, just like the video game.
It stopped me from getting angry. I could use it with video games and truly escape. If I was feeling a strong emotion, I would take it and disappear again. Perfect. The perfect escape, the one I had always looked for.
I don’t know where the debate falls when it comes to these things but I know one thing: I was addicted to pot. I did it more and more. I did it until it became my life, until I took it almost every waking moment. Because as I smoked it, I got used to it, and as I got used to it, my emotions came back, and so just like the video games, just like the anger, it had to increase. I needed more and more.
And just like the anger, just like the video games, underneath it all was that pain. Bubbling, alive, living inside of me. Waiting to explode like a geyser.
The evidence of it came out every now and then. More scary arguments with my parents, ones I can’t even share with you because it would hurt them, it would hurt me to know that I had shared those details with the world. More video games, even while stoned. More stonage, of course. Grades slipping, eventually leading to dropping out of classes.
I think people like to try and find reasons for these things, they like to focus on the external. It’s easy to say that it’s anger or it’s video games or it’s marijuana or maybe just an “addictive” personality. Maybe you could say I hated myself.
I think it came down to one thing. I hated pain, and I hated feeling sad. I hated it and I was willing to destroy the rest of my life to make it go away. And eventually, that feeling became so strong that I think I wanted to eliminate all emotion. Some part of me realized that to feel pain, you need to have emotion, and so the truly best answer was to turn off emotion completely.
But there was also something else happening underneath: the bipolar. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was suffering from it, and it was getting worse and worse. And the worse it got, the stronger my emotions got, and the stronger the measures I took to not feel those emotions. And the stronger the measures I took, the worse my life got, and on and on.
Soon, it was gambling plus pot plus anything else I could grab hold of.
But the bipolar bubbled up and bubbled up. Anger got worse. I was thrown out of my parents’ home once, they called the cops on me once, for my anger. The anger was out of control, the emotions were out of control, the bipolar was at boiling point…
And then one summer, it went beyond it all. I had what’s called a “manic episode” which I can only describe as an explosion of uncontrollable energy. Energy that goes to crazy places. Energy that eventually convinced me I was Jesus and that I could figure out when the next terrorist attack would be. That motivated me to write notes for days and days, and that eventually caused me to feel like I was on a Truman Show situation, where the entire world was spying on me.
The explosion happened over the summer in Arizona. I didn’t eat or drink, unless I was around people who happened to be eating or drinking.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I lost 45 pounds during that time. I was dying simply because my energy hid me from the physical reality I was experiencing.
Long story short, I had a near death experience, my friends finally figured out something was wrong with me, and I was sent to a mental hospital for ten days.
Quitting my addictions
The next few years were spent in the ups and downs of recovery. I had to quit everything, and I did it with varying success, falling back into pot every now and then, but for the most part, getting cleaner and cleaner, in a slow process of detoxification. I had to get the addictions out.
Slowly, slowly, I worked on it. Slowly, slowly, it got better. Not perfect, not amazing, but better. No more pot, eventually. No more video games. No more gambling.
Soon, it seemed like my life was becoming normal, becoming clear, becoming stable.
The one thing that never seemed to quite completely disappear was that anger. Every now and then, I thought I had it under control, but then something would happen, and I’d explode, and I’d realize: I’m still not perfect, I’m still not under control. I told myself it was okay… and it was… but the anger was still there. Once a year or so it would emerge from its den, shielding me from whatever pain I had been building up over time. It was there.
I did all I could to turn it off, but it wouldn’t go away, it was just there. I worked harder and harder. But it stayed and stayed, and I couldn’t figure out why.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was still trying to turn off my emotions. I had no idea that without gambling, without pot, without video games, without distractions, it was much harder to hide from my emotions. I didn’t know that my body, inside, was desperately looking for away to escape the pain I was still feeling. And quietly, underneath it all, a new tactic was being built. It wasn’t until I got married that this tactic started to make itself obviously clear.
Marriage and escape
I spent a year in Israel to study. I came back. I got engaged. I got married.
What I didn’t realize about my wife at the time, and what it took me sadly too long to figure out, is just how much anger destroys her inside. How sensitive she is. How delicate, like a glass flower that shatters if it simply touches something hard.
She’s sensitive, like me, but in a different way, and she deals with it in different ways than I do.
Anger for her is like digging a flaming poker into her chest. The pain is overwhelming.
Slowly, I became aware that she was begging me, essentially, to work on my anger.
And so work I did. I tried and tried. Tried like I never had in my whole life. I did everything I could.
This was when the new tactic my body had been developing started to fully take hold.
That new tactic: anxiety.
I’m not sure how anxiety works for everyone. I’m sure most people with it can identify with the feeling of it. The way it makes your teeth grind or your arm hurt or your entire body tense, the way it makes your heart feel like it’s tight and hardly able to beat. The way it makes you turn inward, away from the world. The way it causes you to turn into a tightly coiled snake that can’t attack.
It’s one thing to describe the symptoms that people with anxiety or bipolar or whatever share. It’s a whole other thing to describe the reason for these things.
For example, right now I’m hopped up on anti-anxiety medications because I have a fear of flying and I happen to be on an airplane.
But I also recently started talking medication for anxiety for a different reason, one not as physical, not as “real”, not as concrete.
The anger that was hurting my wife, the more aware I became aware of how much it hurt her, how I was sticking daggers into her, the more I knew I had to stop the anger, I had to turn off the one final dam to my emotions I had left.
In addition, I was working at a job where I was succeeding beyond my wildest dreams but which was mismanaged even more than it was succeeding. I was getting paid late, I was getting mistreated. Not just mistreated… manipulated.
I felt like exploding with anger, but I couldn’t (in my mind) because of this “success” I was seeing in front of my eyes, this success that seemed to be so important for me.
But I was in pain. I was in pain because to be married, especially at the beginning, especially if you are bipolar, means to have to adapt to someone completely different than you. I was in pain because my wife and I had a lot of work to do before we could truly understand each other. I didn’t know it at the time, but there were things she said, or ways she acted (not purposefully), that pained me, that hurt me, that saddened me. Simply because we were different, simply because we didn’t know each other yet.
And the work, it was painful to. These were people who I had thrown a lot of trust into at the beginning. People who grew up religious, who I thought represented some special part of the community I joined.
I trusted them, and I believed in them, and I believed in the world I believed they represented.
And so me, the uber-sensitive, bipolar person that I was, when I watched them slowly betray me and mistreat me bit by bit, when I saw them hurt others, when I saw them betray the very community they came from by being (in my mind) its representatives and failing to live up to its standards of holiness, I felt… it was an incredible pain. It was beyond description the pain that evolved over that time.
But I couldn’t feel that anger, because I thought that job was all I had. And I couldn’t feel the anger with my wife because she was all I had, she was the love of my life, and to see her in pain like that, and to know it was my fault, I knew that my anger had to go. I had to quit my anger, just like every other way I used to avoid those feelings of pain. Cold turkey, it had to go. If not, my wife would continue in pain. I’d lose my job.
A new addiction
And so I stopped. And the anger went away. And the relationship with my wife got better at first. And my work, well, I was still being mistreated, but I didn’t lose it, and I kept doing success after success with it.
But there was one problem: that pain. It was there. I wasn’t aware of it, you understand, but it was there, it was living and alive, and eating me up.
Inside, I was dying. Inside, I was sad and miserable and feeling so hurt it’s impossible to describe.
The truth is, though, that I had no idea I was feeling this pain. It took me a long time to realize.
Towards the end, I’d look up at my wife, and I’d tell her, “I’m so miserable, I’m so sad. I hate my life.”
But that was when I realized that pain, in the moments when it became so strong that whatever was blocking it couldn’t block it anymore.
The reason I didn’t know about that pain, and the reason I was able to keep going with my job and my pain was because of that new tactic I had been developing: anxiety.
It seemed that the less angry I got, the more anxious I become. It seemed that the more my relationship with my wife got better, the more I succeeded with work, the more this anxiety began to overwhelm my life.
This all started about a year and a half ago. Since then, anxiety slowly seeped its way into every moment of my life. I sat at work, just doing my thing, and anxiety would hit me like a ton of bricks, and suddenly I couldn’t focus anymore.
I’d be praying, and suddenly my arm would tense up. Tense like I was having a heart attack or something.
Every now and then I had panic attacks. I freaked out before going into my synagogue in my wife and I’s hometown when we were visiting. I was worried about what I was wearing. I walked in and out of the lobby. I stood outside for twenty minutes agonizing over whether I should go back home. I did the same thing in the lobby. I finally went in, I said hi to the rabbi, but the anxiety was still going, the panic making me breathe quick, thoughts running a hundred miles an hour.
And so when I saw him I got scared, I wanted to leave, I had to leave. And so I left. Almost a minute after he shook my hand, I was out. But then I obsessed again, and I thought how embarrassing it all was, and I obsessed over that, and I finally went back in and I sat down and for some reason the panic attack was gone, just as quickly as it had come, like some bizarre localized storm.
But mostly it was that daily anxiety that got to me. The panic attacks were the signs of how bad it was, but it was the day to day anxiety that tortured my soul.
And while it is true that so much of that anxiety would happen at random times, it would also happen at very deliberate, very obvious times. The times I used to get angry. The times (when I was younger) when I used to escape into my room when I was upset and smoke pot or play video games or do any other addiction I could come up with.
It happened when I wanted to yell at my old bosses. Before I actually did yell at them, when I let anger be my drug again for that brief moment.
It happened when my wife did those painful things, those things that Mr. Bipolar, Mr. Sensitive, who couldn’t deal with small pains like a slightly angry voice, an argument, even things like a slightly messy house (the poor woman).
The anger was gone. But in its place was anxiety. I’d sit at work, anxious, full of painful anxiety. I’d be at home stressing about work. Then something happened with my poor wife, and it would get worse.
An entire body of tenseness. That snake who slid up my throat and gripped it so it could hardly let air in. The teeth grinding. Obsessive thoughts. Sometimes no thoughts, just the tenseness. My heart, my chest, feeling like it was having some sort of mild heart attack.
Anxiety was now my life, and every moment that used to be filled with anger or distractions or pot or video games was now full of anxiety. And it was unbearable.
I kept thinking it was temporary. That once I left my job it would get better. But I left my job, and it was just as bad. But then other stressful things happened: starting a new job. Leaving our apartment in a sudden moment because of lead, taking three months to find another permanent home, starting my new blogs.
Life was hard this last year and a half, and so I was sure that my anxiety would go away when these things went away. I was sure it was temporary. I was sure, although for a third of my life I’ve told everyone to go to a therapist when they need to, and even when they don’t, that I would survive this and didn’t need help or medication.
But things got better, and still the anxiety stayed. Job got better. Found a home. Settled in it. Life with wife was getting idyllic.
Life was good. But still… I didn’t want to go to a therapist. I didn’t want to deal with it. I was waiting. Somehow I still thought it would all go away.
But my wife, G-d bless her soul, started to see what was happening. She heard more and more about these panic fits, these anxious reactions to conflict, this way I was acting.
She finally started seeing behind my veil, especially in those moments when I would suddenly look at her and say those words I mentioned: “I’m so miserable, I’m so sad. I hate my life.”
Neither of us knew at the time that it was my new drug, my new way to distract myself from pain. We had now idea what was really going on.
It took my wife forcing me to get help to discover those things. To finally start going to a therapist again, to speak to a psychiatrist and get the drugs I needed. She saw the pain I was in, she saw how much anxiety was affecting me, and how I needed help. And she eventually demanded that I get it, bless her.
It’s amazing how quickly things can improve when we take these steps. Amazing how quickly a life we couldn’t imagine, a life where the ailments we saw as incurable by science or by talking!, a better life, slowly improved, could be realized.
I started talking to a therapist. Things got better, but the anxiety stayed. So I finally agreed to go to the psychiatrist, who gave me anti-anxiety meds and sent me on my way.
And soon, the anxiety was managed, I could focus at work, I didn’t disappear into oblivion every time something slightly painful happened. The chest became less tight, the teeth clenched less often.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was better. I was, I am, on the road.
Not the end
Just kidding. Not the end. The beginning of a discovery. The beginning of an understanding of all the undercurrents of reality I brought up earlier.
And the beginning of much more pain.
It happened when I started taking the medication.
Anxiety, as I described, had come to replace anger and pot and video games in my life. It seemed to always be there, always around, when pain would be happening under the surface.
When I started taking my anti-anxiety medication, something happened.
I got angry. Very angry.
It all happened to my poor wife, the woman who had just encouraged me to take that very medication.
I was so angry, angry like I hadn’t been since my fights with my parents. I yelled… I stormed out of rooms. I was out of control angry. Just like with my parents, just like before marriage, just like in college and high school.
I remember that feeling afterward, after the fights, that feeling that I had just had that anger from high school in me.
Even worse: this was anger not directed at my parents, who could take it, but to my wife, who wilts and falls apart at such violent verbosity.
The good news was that I was also in therapy. The good news is I was working on it. The good news was that I was no longer avoiding what was happening. The good news was that soon I found my answer.
I’m addicted to anxiety.
Why did I get anxious at the exact times that I used to get angry? Why did I get angry when I stopped getting anxious? Why did I get anxious at the exact same times I used to go run to pot or to video games?
Because to me, anxiety is how I avoid pain and sadness. Negative emotions. Anxiety, it is true, is its own form of pain. But it’s more of a physical pain than a mental one, at least for me. Anxiety exists, for me, for the same reason all the other addictions I’ve ever had existed: to distract me. To give me something else to do, to experience, besides the pain or sadness that my uber-sensitive, bipolar brain and heart and soul have trained themselves to believe are just the worst things ever.
And so that’s why I got angry at my wife at first: she hurt me in some way, some small way, and I’d explode because suddenly I had no backup plan. The medication wouldn’t let me take the drug I had relied on for a year and a half.
But I had to force myself to stop getting angry at my wife, I had to, you see. Again. Even with the medication. What choice did I have?
And so, soon, my anxiety returned. Less intense, due to the meds, but there it was, back in my life.
The problem with medication for mental issues is that, almost always, they do not cure an illness. They simply cover it up. That’s why we need therapy. That’s why medication is never enough.
And so now, as I sit here, on the plane, my anxiety medication covering up the anxiety that I’m surely feeling underneath about the occasional turbulence we hit, I’m painfully aware of just how true that is.
Because I’ve forced myself to stopped that anger, even on the meds, the anxiety is still there. I’m addicted to it, even as I work to quit it.
A few weeks ago, my therapist spoke to me about something very painful from my past, something that I hadn’t spoken about in ages, the kind of thing you don’t even write in self-revealing blog posts.
For a moment, as I described it, as he made me face up to it, to look at it… I was sad. Incredibly sad. This big swell came in my chest, the opposite of anxiety, this release, I could feel it coming. A tear formed in my eye.
And then… my body tensed. My arm started to hurt. My teeth began to grind. That release in my chest turned into tightness.
And the sadness was just… gone. Hidden, actually. Because I was anxious. Because my body wouldn’t let me feel that sadness. Wouldn’t let me feel what it considers dangerous to my safety.
It’s easy to quit pot when you realize just how bad it’s screwing you up. It may take a while, it may require outside help, but you can do it. Because it’s outside of you. You can follow certain tactics: you can remove yourself from the friends who do it. You can use pure willpower if you have to.
Same with video games.
Even anger, which is simply an external manifestation of inner turmoil.
These are things that can be controlled, quit. They are external, outside of you.
But this new addiction I’ve discovered: this anxiety… it’s not so simple.
It’s internal. It’s something my body subconsciously feeds me, as if it’s a drug dealer giving itself a fix of its own stash.
My body, I feel, in this instance, is imprisoning me. It won’t let me feel the emotions I need to feel to be human, even if I am uber-sensitive.
I realized something that day at the therapist’s office. I realized that moment of sadness… that second of real negative emotion… it was the most I had felt in ages. I mean, obviously, I’ve felt anger. And anxiety. But those were drugs, distractions from that sadness I was on the verge of totally immersing myself in.
The truth is, I miss that sadness. This drug, this anxiety, just like all drugs, it’s not worth it. It’s a feeling, but it’s not a feeling. It’s like (for me) sitting around smoking pot and playing video games: I come out of it feeling like nothing was accomplished, like I’m no better off than I was before, and, in fact, I’m much worse off. Because the pain and sadness that’s underneath is still festering, still very much alive and unreleased, and affecting me in some way I’m unaware of.
That’s what drugs and distractions in general do to us: they are simply covers.
And so that’s why this is just the beginning. The beginning of a new journey. A journey that involves finding a way to not just quit drugs (right now, the choice being anxiety), but to tap into my true inner emotional reality. To quit anxiety and not to expect myself to become magically whole and balanced.
And that’s why this isn’t meant to be a piece about anxiety or about anger or about drugs. It’s not about how trapped I feel right now, about the way I’m afraid I’ll always be addicted to something and never really looking at life.
This is a post about a journey. A post about my therapist, who has helped me start to pick the lock of the prison I feel I’m in in sometimes. A post about my wife, who has strongly, despite her delicacy, reminded me of my own philosophy, the one I keep having to remind myself of: that life is a process, a piece of art that’s always being evolving with more and more layers. And sometimes we need help building the life we imagined.
Because the truth is that since I started this process of emotional recovery, of quitting my drugs, and forcing myself to look in the mirror, it’s not that nothing’s changed: it’s gotten so much better, so much more beautiful. I’m able to do, feel, and experience so much more than I was able to than when I got out of that mental institution.
I’ve been able to make a life I’ve envisioned for myself. I’m married to an amazing woman, I have two little beauties in my life. And I feel so much better than those days, those dark days, when I smoked pot and thought about driving my car off the parking garage.
This is a reminder that no matter what we may hope or think, the journey never ends. Life improves (or gets worse, at times), but new challenges arise. We solve one problem, another comes.
Each challenge makes us stronger. Each addiction conquered makes us more powerful. Each level we dig deeper into ourselves makes us more in touch with who we are, and what our mission is. And all those combined allow us to live the life we dreamed of.
But we can’t stop following the path of the journey.
Anxiety is my current challenge. So is going even deeper and allowing myself to feel sadness and pain.
But my wife, when she sent me to that therapist, she reminded me that this was just another step on the path, on the process, that is life. That is fulfillment.
That is being truly, fully, myself.