Alive and Afraid: My Anxiety before Sobriety
Photo of Author: Justin Mckibben
Fear is a natural part of who we are. As human beings we have been granted instinct and awareness as a part of what protects us from the natural threats of the world. Consider the fear of falling, or even the fear of predators in our animalistic nature. Your perception may be different, but to me fear is a fragment of our genetics, our evolution, but in the end it is not who we are. So anxiety is natural, but how we face it can change us.
That being said, living in fear is not how I believe we are meant to exist. While I believe in natural healthy fear, I also believe in unnatural and self-inflicted dread. I actively abused drugs and alcohol for a long time, and throughout that period of my life I believe I developed what some may refer to as severe anxiety, with episodes of panic attacks and an almost isolating social disposition, and one of my greatest gifts in sobriety has been to change my perspective on my anxiety, and what it truly means to be afraid.
Actively Addicted to Anxiety
When I was using drugs and drinking, I experienced progression like most people who find themselves unable to stop. I believe I was socially awkward and fearful before that, as most kids are trying to figure out a way to fit in or at least get by in school, but drinking and using drugs made those small anxieties shrink away.
The cold tension I felt would be relieved when I drank. Like whiskey melted the nerves frozen in my chest, and it cleared the density from my lunges. Drugs and alcohol made it so I could run my mouth; say whatever I thought would make people think what I wanted them to think, and in my mind if I offended someone or sounded stupid the drugs would also be my excuse!
For a while my anxiety wore that mask of faux confidence, and with this kind of win-win delusion I stumbled through a few years of shady relationships with narcissism. But after years of riding the coat-tails of alcohol and drugs, my get-out-of-fear-free-card was exhausted. Instead my fears had just come wrapped in different packages and my ‘solution’ didn’t respond the same. Anxiety can affect people physically, emotionally and mentally, so sometimes I confused it for something else.
For a few years there were deaths of people close to me, different conflicts at home, and not knowing what I wanted to do with my life that struck cords of calamity and I chronically drank and used drugs to block out the feelings (good or bad) associated with my life, because I thought I was safer in a bottle. Depression and anxiety is a desperate and calculating cocktail when stirred into a bottle of booze or a plate of powder.
What was I afraid of? Everything!
I was afraid of having to wake up, hoping I wouldn’t. And I was afraid of not waking up, for my family.
Fear of economic insecurity and wasted potential. What will they think of me? Who will I disappoint?
Possibly the greatest fear was ‘will I ever know what’s wrong with me?’
Committing to loving others, and yet the fear of not being loved.
How was I going to get drunk/high today?
Why do I always feel this way? Will it ever change?
I had to have a plan, try and decide what my next move was, how can I re-arrange the world to best suit my design without looking miserable? How can I make it through another day feeling sorry for myself and hating myself all at once?
My sleep was miserable because I would lie there checking my own pulse, my hands shaking from the anxiety when they weren’t shaking from withdrawal. Panic attacks, at least one a day. Then during the day I was exhausted anyway, because stress takes a lot out of you. In my active alcoholism and addiction I was perpetually split between the anxieties of having to live, wanting to die, and (after one failed attempt) being too afraid to kill myself.
Then one day someone tricked me into treatment, and I heard stories that made me believe in something again. I was still riddled with the fear of not being able to drink or use anymore up until I got to detox, and I believe part of that was a healthy fear of knowing how close I was to never making it out alive. After being sober, relapsing, and coming back my anxiety went through that cycle again. But this time I was afraid coming back that it would not work for me a second time.
Someone told me a long time ago when I said I had severe anxiety, that instead I was probably just an alcoholic and an addict, and if I treated that disease then the symptoms would leave. He assured me that if I put faith in the work ahead of me, I would see how it felt to be truly free.
What a cop-out right?!
Well, no. That man was right. When I took the actions others suggested, and put faith in that process, I came to realize that my anxiety had been discarded from the forefront of my mind. Not that fear was absolutely removed, but that I have been able to let go of a lot, and my perspective has shifted. I’m not saying anxiety disorders aren’t real. My anxiety is still very real, but it does not rule my life.
I used to believe that the opposite of fear was courage and audacity. I know now I was wrong. Then I thought the opposite of fear was faith, but I’m not sure that’s true either. Faith is crucial, don’t get me wrong. Faith that things will be as they should; that I am worthy and capable of getting through this.
But now I know the opposite of fear… is love. Everyone lives with some fear. If I had absolutely no fear, I would be able to love EVERYONE unconditionally. I would love every person with the same respect and admiration, and as much as I wish I could say I do, I don’t. I am a human being, and I am not as enlightened as I like to imagine sometimes. When I am cold or selfish, when I judge others in any way, when I am aggressive- it is all out of fear. None of that comes from love.
Sobriety had me working a program of action I didn’t even expect to work; I have learned that faith doesn’t mean expecting an outcome I want from the universe, or other people. Faith means that whatever happens in my life, knowing that it will be OK, and I can find happiness. And beyond that, having enough love in myself to accept myself and the moments I live in as best I can. So now when anxiety or depression finds their way into the corner of my mind I am reminded that self-awareness can be worth a little healthy fear, as long as I can be present long enough to take action with love.
Anxiety is a reality. All of us experience fear our nerves in one form or another, and the symptoms can manifest in different ways. What many of us don’t realize is that putting drugs and alcohol into our body to quite these nerves, is only making them worse. Coping is a process, not a quick fix. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135