037: The Bigger they are, the Harder they Fall

Content Warning: This post contains information about depression and anxiety, which may be triggering to some survivors.

“The Bigger they are, the Harder they Fall, “Torry Bruce

My entire life I have been seen as “the big guy.” I wear it like a badge of honor and do all that I can to not let people down who bestow that rank upon me. It comes with a lot of responsibility that I don’t take for granted. For many, it means I am the one they can count on who will make things happen.

When the chips are down, “the big guy will take care of it.”
When something needs to get done, “the big guy will take care of it.”
When the shit hits the fan, “the big guy will take care of it.”

A lot of my personal and professional reputation is built upon this platform. What people don’t realize is that this platform isn’t always as stable as it appears. In fact, until I had my first panic attack nearly three years ago, I had no reason to question the strength or stability. For some reason I thought I was invincible. I thought that someone who is so infallible and has everything under control could not be so frail and have a panic attack. 

When the first attack hit, I had no idea what was happening. My vision blurred, my heart pounded through my chest, my lips tingled, and I felt as if I were in the arctic even though it was during the peak of the mid-afternoon summer sun. My wife was an hour and a half away so I asked one of my staff members to take me to the hospital because in my mind – and thanks to WebMD – I thought I was having the big one. For someone as strong and sturdy as I was, it was even worse to have to have a staff member take me to the hospital. I’m the one that needs to be strong for them. I’m the one that they should be able to rely upon. The doctors ran some tests and concluded that it had nothing to do with my heart but that it appeared to be a mild panic attack. A lot of change and uncertainty was happening at work during that time, but I thought I had nothing to panic about – after all, I was the big guy. 

The second panic attack hit even harder. It was a few weeks later and I was hanging out at winery, of all places. I remember getting light-headed and clammy. I told my wife we needed to go home so I could lie down and relax, but that actuality made it worse. When someone with generalized anxiety has something to fixate and worry about then it tends to magnify the situation. This attack resulted in a trip to the ER. Some IV drugs took me to happy land and helped my nerves calm down enough to be discharged. I walked away with a prescription for Lorazepam, a scheduled appointment with a therapist, and fear of what was next. Just the questions running through my head nearly put me back in the hospital as soon as I got home.

How will this impact the work that I do? How will people perceive me? What if people start withholding the badge of honor I carried with such high esteem?

I feared disclosing my issues to my supervisor as I thought he might take responsibilities away from me. My sense of self-esteem and value were built upon being trusted to get work done. To have that taken away seemed worse than the panic attacks themselves. 

The meeting I had with the therapist was enlightening. It helped me put into perspective a lot of things that happened in the past that I had just shrugged away. Though I’m a self-described optimist, I can now see that much of that is a front to overcompensate for what turns out to be generalized anxiety. I could look back and see some of the irritability and mood issues I had in the workplace and at home and knew it wasn’t me. It turns out it was just me not knowing how to handle the generalized anxiety that I now realize has always been there. I determined to not depend on drugs to control the challenges I was faced with.

That is not to say I don’t support the use of drugs for mental health related struggles; I personally opted to approach this without the reliance upon them. I have had to take a pill now and again when I feel a panic attack creeping at the door, but as I’ve used other measures to control the anxiety, the time span between attacks has grown wider and wider. I initially attended group therapy sessions and that helped me learn how to identify and manage the anxiety and the resulting panic attacks.

Instead of using medicine to control my anxiousness, I decided to cut caffeine out of my diet. If I feel a panic attack coming on, I will stop and do some deep breathing exercises before I consider taking a pill. I have started doing mindful meditation in my office once or twice a week during a break period. 

Little by little, the understanding of my anxiety and panic issues has helped me take back control. I’m not saying I’ve cured myself; in fact, I’m admitting that I’ll never be cured. It has helped me to understand that I can still be the big guy, but I have to be comfortable with limits. I had built myself up so much as the strong one who could take care of it all that when I fell it really took its toll on me. I guess I can say I have experienced it first hand – the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

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About the art:

This painting is for Torry. Torry picked this quote as one that he lives by. I thought it was a perfect quote reflecting his story and his struggle with his panic attacks.

Torry also grew up in a mountainous area specifically around Mt. Baker, so the mountain in the painting is modeled after the general shape of Mt. Baker.

I used blue, turquoise, and navy  as my primary colors in this painting because blues tend to have a very calming affect on the viewer. Some other associations with the color blue are relaxation, peacefulness, and serenity. Torry chooses to meditate to help treat his condition instead of relying on the assistance of prescription medications and that is very admirable.

I hope this painting helps him pull strength from inside to make it through the difficult times. I am honored to do this painting for Torry.

- Emily Lopez