Ashe Elton Parker

A Writer of LGBTQ+ Characters in Speculative Fiction

Tag: anxiety

Sounds

I like to control the sounds in my environment as much as possible. This is because it’s a stressor for me to be out, particularly in transit. If I don’t have a friend with me, I want to have something to make a noise, some sort of sound for me to focus on. This does a couple things. It enables me to deal with the stress of being out by helping me focus on something besides the fact I have to interact with other people, and it helps me interact with other people in a polite and respectful manner so my bipolar hypomania doesn’t drive me into being excessively rude and inconsiderate because of the stress.

I can be rather rude and inconsiderate at times, even with something to distract myself with, but the vast majority of the time, it helps me slow down and think before I go off the deep end. The more stressed I am, the more rude and inconsiderate I become, so I really need something to distract me from the anxiety which drives up my stress.

Most of the time, this sound is music. I have two mp3 players. One I wear at all times; the other is a backup. On each of these, I have playlists and songs I listen to on repeat, because having one song on repeat tends to help me best; random songs aggravate my anxiety. Mostly, I listen to a song I see as being related to a story I’m writing, but sometimes not; for instance, right now, I have a number of Christmas songs ready to play on my main mp3 player right now.

For times I can’t listen to my music—as when I’m waiting for an appointment to commence after checking in—I have other methods of introducing sounds, and thus stress relief.

My earlobes have been pierced three times. On days when I expect to be spending a lot of time without my headphones and music, I wear dangly earrings arranged in such a way they’ll ring together whenever I move my head. When I get to the place where I can’t have music, I shake my head to make the earrings tinkle. Sometimes I’ll also wear a charm bracelet my mother gave me. It’s an entirely girly thing, but I enjoy the way I can make it tinkle to a beat by sharply twisting my left forearm; it doesn’t get much use, mainly because I’ve found a combination of earrings that tinkle and don’t also cause my ears to hurt.

And then, for the holiday season from US Thanksgiving through New Year’s, I wear an actual bell.

I have no idea why I’m like this. All I do know is that I’ve been like this for as long as I can remember. I’ve listened to music to go to sleep with, and usually had some sort of music playing whenever I’ve gone out on my own. One of the best Chrismases I had when I was a child was the year I got a Sony Walkman cassette tape player, and when the Discman came out, I was thrilled. I’m even happier with mp3 players, because of the variety and amount of music they hold. I’ve just always wanted to have music, and it’s always kept me from going off the deep end and turning into a total ass whenever I’m out.

Learning Disability or Not?

A concern I’ve had since being discharged from the Navy is that I no longer have the ability to take tests with equanimity. The last time I tried one was a few years ago when I first decided to go to school (without knowing precisely what to do while in school). I recall little about that test aside from the fact that I went in very nervous and spent longer at it than two or three other people who arrived after me and left before me. I know this happened because I chose a testing station in the back of the room, because I was still rather afflicted with a paranoia about people peering over my shoulder at things I was doing—an sort of social anxiety where I worried about people judging me. But I took that entry test and a few days later received my score.

I didn’t end up going to college at that time. I let other things get in the way. But I’ve never forgotten my feeling of inferiority as I realized those people who’d entered after me were, one by one, leaving before I’d finished. And I felt certain it wasn’t just because I tend to struggle with certain aspects of mathematics—most especially fractions—and didn’t recognize some of the problems given me at all so spent some time sitting there wondering just which level of mathematics they were from that I had never reached. I let myself get far too distracted on that test—with all aspects of the test, not just the mathematics—and I’ve always wondered if that was just a result of my anxiety, or if I was right about my suspicions about my whole history as a student.

I wondered—have wondered since high school—if I have some sort of learning disability. Sure, given the right teacher, who could teach at my level, I can learn anything up to algebra. But I’ve always wondered if there was some sort of block in my mind with regards to education. If I applied myself—and I tell you, it took quite a bit of application—I could learn anything and get fairly decent grades, sometimes even As. But I struggled, to my mind, an awful lot.

And this has basis in my elementary school history. For most of my fourth grade year, I took lessons in a kind of Special Ed classroom called the Resource Room, where students who had difficulty with regular classes went for one-on-one assistance with their schooling. And by “took lessons” I mean I spent all day in that classroom. Two or three times a week, as a reward for working well, I was allowed to go down to the kindergarten classroom in the afternoon, where they had a special afternoon kindergarten for the real Special Ed students. But aside from those hours, which I wouldn’t be permitted to go if I did not put forth the amount of effort my Resource Room teacher thought appropriate, I was in the Resource Room.

So I’ve always wondered if there wasn’t a little something wrong with my learning ability.

I mean, I’ve heard from friends of mine who have documented learning disabilities, and read various blogs online by people who have learning disabilities that were documented in adulthood how, before their disabilities were documented, they struggled, much like I’ve always felt I have, and how they did what they could to cover up their struggles. It wouldn’t have been difficult for me to slip through the cracks. From fifth through eighth grades—middle school, for the most part—I moved from one school to another. Not due to Mom marrying some military guy, but because of family issues. In sixth grade alone I went to four or five different schools in at least three different states. The other years weren’t nearly as bad, but they weren’t the best either. At least two schools each year, and I had two years of seventh grade, both broken into a few different schools.

By the time I hit ninth grade—the first year of High School in most of the US—I was good at covering up all kinds of facts about my life, including the fact I wasn’t really picking up on something. Luckily, my ninth grade year put me in a variety of classes where the teachers taught at my level–I will be forever grateful to Mrs. Laughenberg (sp?) for being the brilliant, kind, and understanding pre-algebra teacher she was, or I would not have survived that class, because I was not ready for it, and she (and a number of my other instructors) taught me I have the right to ask them any questions I have and for all the help I needed. And that is how I made it through high school. I took that lesson of “ask anything, anytime, and get as much help as you need” from my ninth grade teachers and took it to tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades in North Carolina. There were times I felt deeply stupid (say, during every single moment in Mrs. Jordan’s class—thank God I got out of those ones before I failed), but every single teacher throughout my high school education (even Mrs. Jordan) welcomed my questions and requests for help.

And to this day, I still feel like I’ve struggled a lot with school. When I was taking Aviation Electronics Engineering courses in the Navy, it amazed me that I could do this complicated math. I think that’s part of what broke me in that school. I could not believe what I was doing, no matter how much I proved to myself that I could. And, again, I have my instructors to thank. Without any of them, I’d have failed out of that A School within the first few weeks of lessons beyond the Navy basics everyone got. All my Aviation Electronics Engineering instructors taught at my level, every single one of them.

So, in preparation for going to college next spring (in January), I decided I needed to do some aptitude testing to determine whether or not I can put this specter of a learning disability to rest. I explained to my therapist what I wanted to do, and she introduced me to someone at the VA who gave me a contact number to call at Salt Lake Community College. Someone who works with Veterans. This person put me in touch with the testers at the VA, who called me and arranged an appointment for my testing.

I went in on the 28th of last month. The testing didn’t take very long—maybe four hours, if that. The tester, Ellen, interviewed me for my educational background and looked up all the primary and secondary schools I could remember for my school records before giving me the tests. I got to play with some blocks, match some patterns, and do a lot of math, as that was something I wanted a good, hard look at since I’ve always struggled with it. At the end, Ellen sent me home with the promise they’d have something to tell me in three weeks after she evaluated my responses on the tests and got my school records.

Even if it turns out all my difficulties are simply anxiety-driven, that’ll give me something to work with, because even with that, at least I can deal with it in therapy. If it’s more complicated, an actual learning disability, then I’ll be able to figure out ways to deal with it so it doesn’t interfere too much in school. By my calculations, I should get the results around the 18th—next week.

Anxiety

I’ve mentioned my bipolar before. I may have mentioned my unspecified anxiety disorder as well. Though I am on medication for the bipolar, and I have mindfulness and theraputic methods I can use to control the anxiety without medication, these both affect my life adversely, and neither has proven completely conquerable.

Most of the time, thanks to my medications, my bipolar remains relatively stable. I can’t recall if my bipolar is considered to be rapid or slow cycling, but it is consistently mixed-state, meaning I present and endure symptoms of both hypomania and depression at the same time. Only occasionally do I notice one, the other, or, sometimes, both become more prominent.

The unspecified anxiety is a bit more difficult to endure. I can’t predict what will trigger it and have known anything from filling in forms, to cooking something, to meeting new people to come with a palpitating heart and inability to perform the challenge I face. Last week, I quit the coffee-and-donuts hour following the church service after eating my donut and drinking my juice because I couldn’t find the courage and confidence necessary for approaching any of the groups of people I saw at a few of the tables through my anxiety. Most of the people seemed to be in family groups, and that intimidated me to the point where I couldn’t even force myself to ask if I could share their table, never mind talk to them.

To be honest, facing people has long been a major difficulty for me, and socializing with people I don’t know or haven’t yet met is one of my demons. Sometimes I can do this with ease, and I’ll strike up an unimportant conversation with someone at the grocery store; generally speaking, the fewer people I have to talk to, the more confident I am, the more capable I feel, and the easier it is for me to convince myself to approach someone. It also helps, particularly when I’m meeting a group, if we all have some sort of activity, besides holding conversations, to do. When I first joined the square dance club I’m secretary for, I found it easy to get involved because we spent most of the evening learning to dance, and I felt reasonably confident that I wasn’t required to socialize between tips, so I felt free to go sit by myself until the next lesson.

I don’t tend to reach pure panic-attack heights with my anxiety, which I’m glad for. However, I have noticed that the more social stress—that’s purely just social (without other activities) stress—that I experience, the greater my anxiety becomes. I tend to avoid parties. I have been known to have to retreat to bed after intensive social interaction with people I know, never mind people I don’t know well or at all. Usually, spending a little time laying in bed, listening to a favorite song on repeat, with my eyes closed in a state similar to meditation sets me right again, because sometimes, after interacting with people, if I come home and try to do other stuff, even though I’m now alone again, I have difficulty concentrating and thinking clearly. I don’t feel calm unless I take the time to lay down, close my eyes, and let music flow into my brain for a while.

My anxiety is also the primary reason why I wear headphones almost all the time outside. I have to have some sort of upbeat song going when I’m out most of the time in order to distract myself from my nervousness. Silence is another thing that tends to drive up my anxiety, unless I’m about ready to drop off to sleep, so I usually have music playing all the time when I’m up (unless there’s a thunderstorm or heavy rain on the windows), and when I first go to bed. I even play music when I shower—which, oddly, tends to drive my anxiety up into greater heights if all I hear is the water, and no, I can’t explain why this is necessary; it’s just one of my little anxiety tics.

I think, sometimes, to some small extent, my bipolar disorder drives my anxiety. Usually at times when I’m feeling more manic, I’ll suffer stronger anxiety, and that tends to drive me to retreat. I avoid going out, I talk to only a few select people on the phone, I lay down daily to recover from the stress of socializing online. Going out can aggravate the moody, bitchy temperament I develop when my mania is up (I’m not a bipolar person graced with the happy, confident, I-can-do-ANYTHING manic phases, which I’m actually kind of grateful for; I can only imagine what stupid crap I’d do with that kind of mania influencing me), and that in turn can drive my anxiety up, because not only am I dealing with general being-out-among-people anxiety, I’m also suffering I-don’t-want-them-all-to-realize-I’m-a-bitch-right-now anxiety.

And, there’s even times I’ll get anxious just reading a book. And I don’t mean the average anxiety everyone feels for the character. I have known myself to put down a book when it reaches an intense situation, or one which I fear is dangerous for the MC, and not pick the book up again for up to several months, because the thought of reading through that situation or danger frightens me so much. I think I do this because, unlike with watching a movie, I’m able to more deeply immerse myself in a book, so I tend to “feel” the danger or intensity more deeply than I do when watching a movie. I have to mentally prepare myself for such depth of intensity.

Overall, I consider myself pretty lucky. I may have some anxiety, but it’s not severe. It’s manageable without medication, and there are so many others who aren’t so blessed. Though it may not be predictable, it’s also not so debilitating that I’m unable to come back to something that previously caused anxiety and do it again later. A little mindfulness about my anxiety and what’s causing it and some meditation and self-coaching generally take care of my anxiety.

How Music Helps Me

I’ve always loved listening to music. I’ve even played/sang it on occasion, mostly to do with school activities like band and chorus. But I’ve always loved music.

Throughout my life, once I realized my love of listening to music, I’ve always done my best to have it with me. Beginning in the 1980’s, when the Walkman came out all the way up to present day with mp3 players, I’ve habitually had some sort of music playing. I listen to music before I go to sleep, used to sleep with it on when I didn’t wear headphones in bed, and am happiest when I can have some sort of soundtrack playing, even if it’s only one song on repeat and all I’m doing is sitting at my computer in my apartment.

After my breakdown, music became even more important to me. It became a buffer between me and the rest of the world. It protected me, kept me distracted from things when I went out. It still serves this purpose to this day. It’s something I need, sometimes a great deal, in order to face the world outside my home with confidence and at least the appearance of calm.

I have unspecified anxiety, and focusing on the music playing in my headphones keeps me from losing my mind and going nuts when I’m in public. Particularly in new places. Like grocery stores. Or at the mall. Places where there are lots of people who just might find something to say to me. I can’t explain just what it is about such situations which drives my anxiety up, but I do know that music helps me stay calm and reasonable. I’m able to, if I must talk to someone, move one muff aside so I can understand what the other person is saying; the music playing in my other ear keeps me calm.

Music keeps me balanced and grounded when I’m feeling desperate to get away. It relaxes me so I don’t get too tense or irritable with those around me. I can handle silence if I must, and I can be without music if I need to be, but I prefer not to.

I concentrate on different things at different times when I have music playing in my ears. This is to rein in my impatience when I’m doing something new or going someplace I’m unfamiliar with. Doesn’t always work perfectly, but I’ve found if I concentrate on some aspect of a song on repeat, say the beat, or the lyrics, I’m able to endure the situation I’ve put myself in better. Concentrating on the bass notes from piano/keyboard or synthesizer helps a lot, too, especially if those notes come at a slower tempo or less predictably than the song’s drumbeat.

I habitually step to the beat of the music I’m listening to if I’m on my way somewhere afoot. This actually helps in square dancing, because walking to the beat helps with the dancing. When I was a kid and went to roller skating rinks, I skated to the beat. While waiting for the light to change so I can cross streets, I’ll frequently end up sort-of-dancing if the change takes long enough.

I don’t know what I’d do without music to help me through my anxiety. Even though it isn’t very pronounced much of the time (I don’t require medication to control it, thank goodness), it does affect my life, and I’m glad I’ve found a safe, healthy, cheap way to keep it under control. There are so many other ways I could have chosen to deal with my anxiety—and most of them are in some way detrimental to my overall health and/or safety. It’s nice to know I have something to turn to if I get to feeling like doing something or going somewhere is too daunting.

© 2017 Ashe Elton Parker

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