White Knuckle Ride: The Anxiety Roller Coaster

Photo by 2Photo Pots on Unsplash

I’ve always thought roller coasters were a lazy analogy. The ups and downs, undulations of life are hardly laid out in front of you in full view to anticipate. But for me roller coasters have a weird significance of their own through which I can see the progression of my relationship with anxiety — but only if I look back, not ahead.

When you end up having some kind of mental illness be it depression or anxiety you are usually able to see some small signs of it in your past. Most of the signs are insignificant enough to mean nothing in the moment.

I can clearly remember the time anxiety broke me but the signs were all there before, as small as they were.

As a kid I loved roller coasters — the faster, the better. I remember the first upside down coaster I ever went on at Six Flags with my uncle. I was in third grade and took a 24 hour train ride there with my Nana to meet my new cousin. I remember the hesitation as I saw the riders zip by in a blur but I don’t remember apprehension. I was just excited.

The safety bar was loose on my 9 year-old frame but I didn’t think too much about it. The coaster climbed higher and higher but I didn’t think about what kind of heap my body would make on the pavement if I fell. The adrenaline the short ride produced filled me with excitement instead of dread. My heart rate increased but my mind didn’t race.

Over the next seven years those feelings of exuberance would slowly dwindle ride after ride. Worried thoughts and anxiety slowly seeped in until the experience no longer held any joy.

Do the tracks look rusted? Are the safety rails secure? What if the car comes off the track?

I’ve always been impressed with the creative scenarios my brain invents when I’m anxious. A perfectly safe 30-second ride can turn into an imaginary bloodbath with the tiniest squeak of the wheels or crack in the paint.

As a teenager that anxiety often conquered me. I would get in the long line with friends and family, inventing stories of carnage and devastation in my mind picturing our bodies bloodied and mangled below.

For the entirety of the wait I would stand silent, locked in a battle with myself trying to find the courage to continue. “No one else is worried why are you?”

I would tell myself maybe if I was able to go on this time I wouldn’t worry so much the next time. That never worked. I was trapped in a cycle that would take a lot more than just one ride to break free.

Sometimes I feared the judgement from others more than the grizzly death scenarios, waiting until the last second to fake a stomach ache or getting on the ride and pretending my tears were from the wind.

“People will think you are crazy!” I would tell myself. And to me, I was.

The roller coaster conundrum only came up once or twice a year at most so I never gave it too much thought. But soon what paralyzed me in those lines seeped out and into every other aspect of my life. At 16 I would have that same conversation with myself just to get in the car. The tears would come when the wind couldn’t be an excuse.

The anxiety finally hit in full force culminating in my first panic attack, which I remember with unusual clarity. My heart beat like a hummingbird, my breath was miles ahead. As my fingers and toes began to tingle and my vision tunnel I felt an overwhelming sense of dread. This was it, this was the end.

After years and hundreds of panic attacks I can look back and see what was coming with uneasy clarity. Would I have spent so many years trying to outrun my own mind if the nervous 12 year-old recognized her own growing fear? Maybe someone would have seen it if I went on more roller coasters.

I’m not even sure these observations tell me anything useful now. I don’t think my issues with anxiety could have ever been avoided just as my brown eyes couldn’t have been avoided.

To me now, looking back I see the pattern. I can see my progression on the tracks laid out ahead of me. Like the car the only path to the end cannot be changed. Maybe I was always meant to endure the highs and lows of the journey. But I was always meant to make it to the end.

So maybe that analogy isn’t so lazy after all.

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