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An Eternity In Heaven Or How To Give a Nine Year Old Control Freak A Panic Attack

Is there anything that you’re afraid of?

Who would have thought that answering this question (from an interview with my friend Karen) would completely change the mental landscape of my childhood and subsequent life up to this point? In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that I began suffering from occasional panic attacks after I left my wife. Until last month, I would have told you that the first time that the world darkened and blurred around the edges and compressed my chest until drawing a breath was nigh-impossible was when I was sitting on Britt‘s porch talking about adopting a cat.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Let’s go back to when I was a kid. To the years when I had to go to speech therapy to learn to slow down to speak because there were so many words I wanted (needed) to get out of my head all at once. When I was so hungry for knowledge that I read every single book in my house, including my mother’s Physician Desk Reference, the entire set of encyclopedia, my sister’s Sweet Valley High books, and even everything written by Stephen King. That age when I processed information better than my parents realized, figuring out that there was no Santa at the age of five, learning how to forge my mother’s signature at seven, understanding how to manipulate adults by eight. I still remember fighting with my teacher about telling time. Logically, it made sense that 1:00 could also be 13:00, but I was told that I was wrong, and it bothered me until I found out later that there was such a thing as military time and I was right. I had (and still have) this need to understand the whys – this overpowering urge to see all of the angles and possibilities, to control the world around me.

Adam Avitable in first grade, Grace Academy
Surprisingly, the anxiety did not come from this wardrobe choice.

At the small Christian school I attended for first through eighth grade, we would have a daily class dedicated to religion and Bible study. One day, we talked about the concepts of heaven and hell. I’m simplifying what we learned but, in essence, I was taught that heaven was a place of eternal bliss and hell was the place of eternal torment, and if I was a good person, I would go to heaven and enjoy happiness as my reward for all of eternity.

That night, my mind could not stop processing that concept. Eternity. Forever. Infinity. In bed, I stared at the ceiling, trying to grasp it. Eternity. Perpetual never-ending life. You die and if you’re a good person, you can go to heaven. You go to this beautiful white fluffy cloud place and see all the people you love and do happy things, and then you go to bed in heaven and wake up and do it all over again. And again. And again. And again. Forever. When you’re talking about eternity, there is no end in sight. No matter if your days are filled with joy and peace, they’re always going to be filled forever and ever and ever, with no end, at all. Infinite days of bliss.

It terrified (terrifies) me.

Laying there, my brain painted picture after picture of a perpetual cycle of mornings and evenings without ever being able to end or rest. Would it really never, ever be over? How do you even conceive of such a thing? My mind raced faster and faster until even trying to process the idea put the weight of the universe on my chest. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, couldn’t think of anything beyond this most terrifying of ideas.

My mother would hear me crying and come to my room. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she’d stroke my head and whisper to me. I still can hear her voice telling me to imagine my body relaxing and letting all of the tension flow out limb by limb, finger by finger, toe by toe, until I could breathe again and finally fall asleep. Even then, I would dream and cry out at the enormity of forever and the eerie similarity between complete nothingness and the whole of everything. When I died, I wanted to rest – no eternal bliss, no eternal punishment. Just. Rest. The end.

My entire life, I’ve needed to be in control. I try to plan for every eventuality and remain hyper observant and ever vigilant to changes in circumstances that may affect my control over a situation. This obsession with control, while having advantages, is my biggest weakness. It means that I never stop thinking and I’ve never had a second of my life where I was able to lose myself in the moment. I envy those who can let go, stop thinking, and enjoy what’s right in front of them without that need to control. Even during moments of intense passion, like when having the most amazing sex of my life, I’ll still be thinking about the time and that the fan looks dusty and that my hand hurts and that I know what I want to do next and next time and the next morning and if I changed the laundry and that picture looks crooked and I have to remember to tell her that story and did I pay that bill and, oh yeah, I’m really enjoying this but I need to change the sheets and make sure I wash the towels and call Faiqa and why do I only have one sock on and now that’s bothering me because I don’t want that sock on but I can’t take it off now.

These constant streams of thought result in imaginary scenarios that can take a million different forms.  I paint entire worlds in my head based on the information available to me, and not enough data can lead to crippling anxiety. I can process bad news and negative responses without a problem – tell me that you have a problem with me and here is a list of explicit reasons, and I’ll be okay with it. But if you’re vague? If you decide to be passive-aggressive or immature or unavailable or anything else that results in no response and no details and no data, it will drive me down right down that rabbit hole of panic.

If you offered the ability to read minds and know what everyone was thinking all the time to most people, I think that the majority of the world would say no. They’d think that knowing the darkest and deepest thoughts of the people around you would only hurt you. Not me. It’s one of the reasons I have trouble with boundaries and privacy – if I know what you really think about me, I can work with that. It’s the not knowing that kills me over and over again. How can I trust anyone unless I know everything?

A girlfriend not responding to a call and text after a while means that maybe she got in a car accident or did I say something that upset her and what if I never see her again and will never be able to tell her how I felt about her and can I really live my life without ever having her be a part of it and she knows how I feel and that this must be hurting me emotionally so why is she doing this to me and what do I do without being able to know what’s going on and why hasn’t she called and is her phone dead and maybe I should buy her an extra battery just to help and what is going on and why can’t I just be omniscient so I won’t worry?

Clonazepam Bottle (Klonopin) for Adam Avitable
The magic pills that make Avitable something something.

In July, I would have told you that my first panic attack was all about a cat and occurred in January 2010. Now, I can tell you that my first panic attack was all about an eternity in heaven  when I was eight or nine. And it all comes down to control, and my inability to deal with my lack thereof.

Can I let go of control? Can I live in the moment? I don’t know. That’s a step that’s too big to consider. But maybe I can try to be okay with not always having control, and maybe I can have faith that I don’t need to know everything about everyone to be happy with how I live my own life.

So what am I afraid of?

That’s easy. I’m not afraid of snakes or spiders or water or heights or clowns or anything tangible in the world. Ghosts and aliens and monsters and things that go bump in the night don’t bring a shiver to my spine.

What scares me has never changed. Even today, as a 35-year old man, nothing  – not the idea of never finding true love again, not the idea of dying alone, not the idea of being forgotten – nothing scares me more than that never-ending, perpetually existent, terrifying idea of eternity.

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49 Replies to “An Eternity In Heaven Or How To Give a Nine Year Old Control Freak A Panic Attack”

  1. Faiqa

    I know how you feel. I have a prescription, too. I thought I had my first anxiety attack about a year ago, but I remember crying the way you did, too, and being led through the emotion by my mom in the same way. This is one of the reasons that I generally avoid discussing the heaven and hell thing with my children unless I absolutely have to. I think it’s a distraction from principle based living and so fear inspiring that it undermines the point. I went to a religious school when I was child, too. Clearly, there’s a connection between anxiety attacks and this because two people make it a scientific fact. Beautifully written and expressed, by the way.

    Also, the fact that you think about calling me while you’re doing it disgusts me. You’re so going to hell.

  2. Karen

    I get this. All of it. The control, the never ending cycle of automatic negative thought, the crushing anxiety because of it, the inability to just relax, let go and enjoy the moments of your life… I get it. I won’t offer advice – we’re all different and if I had the answers, I would be better myself. Sometimes it’s nice to know you’re not alone, so there you go.

  3. Kyra

    I have panic attacks here and there and other anxiety issues, and I can’t get anyone to give me a prescription for anything or even a referral! Of course, I’d probably be too afraid to take anything anyway. I did the panic over what comes after as a kid too. And vampires, you know, before they were all sparkly and hunky. And germs. And dark closets…

    Anxiety sucks.

    • Avitable

      @Kyra, you need to go see a doctor somewhere other than Vermont. Any real doctor would listen to your problems and know that you could use an anti-anxiety.

      It is scary to take them, true, but I only take them when I’ve decided that I’m going to sleep, so I don’t have to try to function while on them.

  4. Loukia

    I’ve had panic attacks and anxiety attacks for a very, very long time. I think worst case scenario ALL the time. If I so much as see an ambulance drive past me I am convinced it’s a family member in trouble. I had my first ECG and chest x-ray at 18, because I could not breathe. The worry is awful. I’m supposed to see a therapist but I’m really good at burying my head in the sand. Now, when my children ask questions about death, it kills me, I have no good answers for them. Um… Life is hard… and when your brain can’t turn off, it’s even harder.

  5. Shellie

    This sounds exactly like me. The arguing with teachers and being right, religion-induced panic attacks, the endless stream of thoughts running through my head. And the inevitable klonopin that follows all that.

  6. Vicky

    This sounds just like my son. Well not the sex part, but how he obsesses over things and his thoughts go down this negative spiral. He had his first full blown panic attack in 3rd grade. Its hard for me to know what to do to help him.

    • Avitable

      @Vicky, what works for me, besides medication, is to have someone tell me that things are still going to be okay in the next moment and the next moment and the next one. That I am still me regardless of what happens and that there are plenty of positive things in the world to think about as well.

  7. Melissa

    Oh my friend, I can relate to all of this. I’ve had issues with anxiety for as long as I can remember (seriously, I was four. FOUR. WTF does a four year old have to angst about? If you’re me, EVERYTHING) “Chain-smoking, feeling stuffing and biting my nails down to the quick” was my coping mechanism for years. When I planned how I’d hang myself with the dog’s leash I knew I needed help. Four years of therapy, a stint on anti-depressants and a daily Xanax have me feeling like a real girl for the most part. I’d be a liar if I said things were perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

  8. B.E. Earl

    I’m pretty good at not obsessing over things in a destructive way. I was able to channel it into “collecting” for a while. Comic-books, baseball cards, whatever. I kept a collector’s journal and would obsess over where I was going to search that coming weekend to find that NM copy of Iron Fist #14 that I had when I was a kid. But, as I grew older, I became less and less obsessed with my hobbies. And I don’t think my mild compulsions ever led to panic attacks, but I understand what you mean when you describe your first fit when dealing with the concept of eternity.

    For me, eternity as a concept is just that. A concept. I’m not really sure what I believe as far as heaven and hell are concerned. Let’s just say they don’t concern me very much. Here’s something, however, that does make me a bit dizzy even if falling short of a panic attack. When I think about the place we live as a planet, swirling around a star and then zoom out even further as we hurtle through space in the galaxy, one of the millions of billions of galaxies in the universe. And what is beyond the edges of what we believe we know? Is there more? Where does it end? Does it end? How can we possibly be a part of something so large that seemingly goes on forever. And I’m sitting on a couch on that tiny blue speck of a planet as it rotates and orbits and flies through the universe at unimaginable speeds. And…

    And I just did it again. Made myself dizzy as hell just thinking about it. The vastness of it all is something I have a difficult time wrapping my brain around.

  9. the muskrat

    I don’t think our minds were ever meant to comprehend eternity, so I quit trying as a little kid and just accept that it might be possible for something like a soul to go on forever, but that I don’t need to understand the how/why/ramifications of it.

  10. Megan

    All hail Klonopin…

    Mack couldn’t sleep last night because he was thinking about being dead and in a hole forever and ever… like mother, like son. Endless life doesn’t freak me out, endless non-existence does. But life has taught me that holding tight only wears you out. It will be what it will be, and I have other things to do. I hope you learn to let go, at least a bit.

    Also? You think about calling Faiqa during sex?

    • Avitable

      @Megan, well, not just Faiqa, but I think about the people I need to call and want to talk to and other normal aspects of life. The sex is just one thing I’m focusing on while my brain is going a million miles an hour about everything else.

  11. Allyson

    I thought I was the only one who, as a child, couldn’t understand why people were so happy to be talking about eternity in heaven – or on Earth as the JW’s believe. All I could think of was, “But what will I do after the first twenty years?”

  12. PottyMouthMommy

    Welcome to my brain…

    I really should get my husband to read this, it would probably help him a lot since he tends to withdraw and become distant when he’s mad/sad/bored/breathing, which- soooooo not good for me.

    Thanks for putting the thought process into words I just can’t….

  13. Nuala Reilly

    My little candies that rest in my purse and are on my person at ALL TIMES just in case say Lorazepam on them.
    And that’s why if I send an email to someone, and I don’t hear back right away, or for like a week or so, I immediately assume they hate me and are freezing me out. Same thing with phone calls or texts. And yet ironically, I don’t mind when my mother doesn’t get back to me for a while…..
    Also why, even when I fuck up my relationships, I still secretly write the script in my head ALL THE TIME of what I will say to that person when I run into them again and I make up scenarios in my head about how to get that friendship or relationship back.
    Yes, I fuck up my relationships, because as well as needing to make sure that everyone loves me, I also self-sabotage.
    Can I just be five again?

  14. Lynda

    I don’t think I ever had a panic attack. Unless thinking about your sister’s cancer, and sobbing so uncontrollably you can’t stop on your way to a doctor’s appointment, then walking out with an anti-depressant and an anti-anxiety medication was a panic attack. Then I had one. Hated the anti-depressant, loved the anti-anxiety.

    I also can relate to the mind going a mile a minute, but writing usually is what I need to do to get that to stop.

    Oh, and Regina’s death, in the Sweet Valley High books, scared the heck out of me because of my heart condition, and if I had any curiosity about drugs, that pretty much squashed them.

  15. Dawn

    Maybe you need to be a little more self-centered. Now I know, that just sounds wrong, but it seems that you are often worried about making sure others are ok. Try focusing on your own body, AKA, what your mama used to talk you through. (It’s late and there’s bourbon in my glass, so maybe this isn’t making sense but I’m gonna leave it anyway. Please delete if it rambles incoherently.) It took me more than a few childhood years to figure out that “eternity” might just mean “my eternity”. As in, I would live all the happy days and night until I was finished living them.

    • Avitable

      @Dawn, have you seen this blog? I’m totally self-centered. I’m like the poster boy for egotism!

      I do worry a lot about others, it’s true, and I can be very “mother hen” about things. But I’ve been trying to learn to be a bit more selfish, and it has helped.

  16. Becky

    I’ve done enough therapy thanks to the crossed wires in my head that I get my own practice and degree after one more session.
    Anyway, here’s a practice question for you. What would be the absolute worst thing that could possibly happen if you didn’t control every day, every hour, every second, of absolutely every aspect of your life?
    And could you live with it?

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