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the awakening

My anxiety began to reach its peak towards the end of the month of May, 2011. I had just returned from a business trip to northern and southern California. Things went extremely well during that visit. I welcomed the change of scenery, and the beauty of the west coast provided the perfect sanctuary for me at a time when I needed it most. I had suffered through several ups and downs prior to boarding the initial flight to San Jose, and I left Philadelphia feeling a bit overwhelmed with apprehension about the week to follow…I wasn’t sure how my psyche would react to the trip…I was feeling very fragile. But almost immediately upon arrival, I completely pulled it together. I felt confident about my ability to stand tall in the face of adversity, and I gained strength from knowing that I was challenging my anxiety, and truly meeting it head on.

The next several days were filled with some great meetings. I started in Northern California and then moved my way south to LA and the San Diego coastal area. I felt at home and at peace, which was strange considering I was 3,000 miles away and operating within an arm’s reach of the birthplace of my disorder nearly 9 years earlier. But California just overwhelmed me with positive reinforcement. The weather was perfect – 75 degrees and barely a cloud in the sky each day. The coastline was pristine…I felt completely content. It was as if the weight of the stress from previous months had temporarily been lifted from my chest.

As the week went on, I began to feel as though this visit could truly be my turning point. Perhaps God had brought me back to California to face my demons where they first presented themselves in my life. Maybe there was a deeper meaning to this business trip altogether? I did my best to embrace every minute of it. I didn’t spend a single free evening back at the hotel…instead I went out and watched the sunset over the water. I even visited my old apartment complex in Huntington Beach – wow did that bring back memories! I was on a constant search for positives. I would not allow myself to sit around and worry…I continually forced myself to press on. Anxiety would not and could not beat me…I was on a roll. And at night when I laid in bed, I found myself having the best sleep I’d had in weeks. Everything was going so well…I didn’t want to leave.

And then on Saturday afternoon, I boarded my flight home. I began to have anxiety unexpectedly as we were descending through the clouds on our approach to Philadelphia. And as I peered out the window, I noticed that dreary, rainy weather was awaiting my arrival. My mood began to change dramatically. I found myself feeling sick about returning home.

It was about 11:30 PM when my flight reached the gate. I picked up my bag and headed out to the front of the terminal to wait for the shuttle to the long term parking lot. I waited for nearly an hour for the driver to arrive. All the while I was slowly crumbling in my mind…negative energy was setting in everywhere. The rain began to pelt my windshield as I left south Philadelphia. I called a friend on the drive, and I could hear in my voice that I sounded completely miserable and negative as I spoke to her. This was not the same person that she had talked to earlier in the week. That was “upbeat and excited about life” Matt…in a few short hours I had transformed back into “sad and defeated” Matt.

As I drove up the turnpike heading west towards Reading, I hit an extremely powerful thunderstorm. I had to end my call with my friend, because I was having trouble seeing the road altogether. It was absolutely pouring. I was actually becoming fearful of proceeding any further until the storm subsided. I couldn’t tell you the last time that I encountered something like that while on the road. It was relentless and seemingly never ending. I was thrilled when it finally passed and I made it back to my apartment.

When I got home that night, I felt overcome by feelings of uncertainty and fear. It was very strange…I had such a positive trip and I should have been excited to be back in my comfort zone. But I wasn’t. Something was wrong. I fell asleep about 2 or 3 AM, and shortly after, the demons of my vicious disorder made themselves known again. I woke up in a complete panic…another nocturnal attack. I was terrified. It was one of the worst ever. I ended up calling my father to talk me down. It was 6:30 AM until I was able to rest…only as a result sheer exhaustion. The evening that followed was not much better…I was faced again with attacks in the night and was awake until 5 AM. I was quickly deteriorating. Were the events of my return home that Saturday night a precursor to the breakdown that would soon follow? I couldn’t help but feel like it was perhaps a warning sign from God.

The next week was extremely difficult. I had to fight through sleepless nights and continue to maintain a level head and steady performance at work. In my personal life and in my mind I was lost and collapsing quickly. A week earlier I felt as though I was on the verge of a knockout punch with my anxiety, but since my return I had only fallen deeper into the deep abyss that was beckoning me. I was almost immediately stripped of the strength and confidence that I had worked so hard to achieve in California. My mind was weak again. And as it continued to rain for about the next 11 or 12 days straight, I realized that the beautiful light which had so gracefully presented itself only days earlier had once again quickly vanished.

I knew that I had to make an effort to do something. If I allowed myself to completely surrender, I would end up in a hospital or an institution. This was serious. I began to look at it as a life or death situation. It was time to save what was left of me…

In the midst of a horrible day with intense panic, I decided to make my way downstairs to the gym at our complex and get on the treadmill. I was so exhausted that I could not find the strength to run, so I walked two miles. It seemed simple, but the reward was tremendous. I gained a lot of confidence by taking that first step…and I felt better physically that evening. The next day, I turned that walk into a jog, two more miles…

For the next 22 days that followed, I ran every day. I began to gain back my endurance and I found myself heading on the right track. I was not free of anxiety at all, but I was fighting it, and that felt good. I faced a constant mental battle every day that I attempted to return to the treadmill, but as time passed it slowly got easier because I was winning consistently. I began to distance myself a bit from everything going on around me. I knew that I needed to zero in on myself and give this a 100% effort if I was ever going to fully recover. I was working hard to cleanse my mind, body, and spirit. Getting well needed to be my first priority.

One of the issues that I knew I had to face was my new found fear of being alone in my apartment. I wanted to be comfortable standing up to my anxiety without developing a constant reliance on others, so I almost forced myself into isolation. I didn’t want to run from the things that made me uncomfortable. I decided instead that I needed to change my perception of things so that I could take control of how they affected me in the future. I work from a remote office and I spend a lot of time alone…it’s very important for me to maintain my self reliance.

With that isolation came a bit of loneliness. I wasn’t lonely from the standpoint that I needed company…I just needed something to occupy my mind. I found that I was only learning to survive while constantly being busy or on the move fighting. When I attempted to relax, I couldn’t…my mind raced and it led me back to the darkness, back to the vulnerability.

I knew that whenever I gambled, I could lose myself in the moment completely. As I mentioned before, I used my addiction to hide from reality at times…as an escape. I had made a promise to my family about moving forward from related setbacks nearly two years earlier. Regrettably, that commitment was broken after about a year’s time. I gave in to feelings of financial pressure during the Spring of 2010 and began wagering online, hopeful that I would be able to earn more money to support a planned vacation that summer…of course that didn’t work out as planned and I was only left with a bigger hole in the end. And then in the fall, I gambled on football. By November, I owed a bookmaker a large sum of money and I cut back slowly, agreeing to pay him off over time. It was not until this Spring that I evened up with him. My ex girlfriend was aware of everything since I was always up front with her about it. I accepted the poor financial decisions of her past, and she willingly accepted mine in the present. I’m sure that it was not healthy for our relationship…it never is with gambling. It pains me to repeat this again…but I’m truly sorry to those who put their trust in me and continually found themselves affected by my poor decision making.

During a moment of weakness on a Saturday night in July, I turned back to that old “friend” for comfort…I contemplated visiting a local casino for a few hours, and then decided against it. I didn’t feel like making the hour drive. So instead I funded my online wagering account and placed a couple of bets on baseball and gambled in the casino. I wasn’t going to spend a lot of money…what could it hurt, right? At least I’d be free of my racing mind for a few hours…

Over the course of the next few days, I made about fifteen times my initial investment. I couldn’t lose. I had always been good at winning, but the problem was that I never knew when to quit. Eventually, it would all catch up to me. Initially I attempted to cash out a large sum of money, but after a loss, I canceled the withdrawal and continued to play. I knew where this was heading…I would end up losing it all. But I was too wrapped up in it now to stop, and inside I was completely aware that I’d have to see it through.

While I gambled, I continued to run and make my best effort to strive for progress with my anxiety. I continued to pray, and I even thanked the Lord for my winnings – I was such a hypocrite. I knew what I was doing was wrong. But my well being mentally, physically, psychologically, and spiritually was quickly taking a backseat to my addiction. I was contradicting the purpose of the past several weeks. I wasn’t promoting a healthier lifestyle for myself, I was throwing all of my progress into the trash and setting it on fire.

The final wager that I placed was on the FIFA Women’s World Cup Semi Finals. I parlayed two matches, the US over France and Sweden over Japan. I remember checking the score and seeing that Japan was leading Sweden. The US had already won their match…Japan was going to break it for me. Immediately my mind started producing horribly negative thoughts. I was angry and frustrated and I reflected on seeing the Japanese team compete and in my head I chuckled to myself, thinking they resembled something from Planet of the Apes. It was a cruel and vicious observation. Somehow it made me feel better to put them down in my head when I should have only been disgusted with myself and my own actions.

That evening I went to Best Buy to pick up a new a personal laptop. I had ruined the two previous ones I owned over the past four years when I smacked their screens in anger while wagering. Pretty sad to throw an investment of that value away as a result of addiction. Now I found myself back at the store picking up another with the intention of continuing down the same dark path of my past. I was very anxious as I waited in line for the clerk to ring up my purchase. It was in that moment that I realized what my habit had been doing to me. I was beginning to feel like a wreck physically and mentally. My body felt as though it was trembling inside.

When I headed out to the parking lot, I noticed an older Asian man getting out of his car. He had parked next to me. As he walked from his vehicle he stared at me, so I continued to look right back at him, and I sort of laughed to myself. What was he staring at? And then, something truly extraordinary and unthinkable happened…He first said “is there a problem sir?” to which I replied “No, not at all, you’ve been staring at me…” Then he got very angry and said “Do I look funny to you!? Do I look like a monkey!?” I was completely caught off guard. I just said “what?? no…” and then got in my car and drove away.

At first, I was angered and a bit panicked by the situation. What was his problem? Why had he reacted that way? And then I reflected about my thoughts on the Japanese women’s soccer team, and it all hit me like a ton of bricks. This was God speaking to me. It had to be…there was no logical explanation for the man’s explosion.

I went home, turned on my new laptop, and proceeded to lose the rest of my winnings in the online casino . But I didn’t find myself feeling distressed about it at all. Instead I remained very calm…as if it needed to happen…it was supposed to happen.

I got in the shower and I thought back to the events of that day and my experience at Best Buy. Something was happening. The Lord had decided to present himself in my life. It was time for me to listen. And as I stood with the hot water beating against my back, it all became clear to me. I wanted to be forgiven and I wanted peace and comfort in my life…I wanted to be freed of my demons. I fully believed in everything that I was reading in the Bible, but I needed to act on it. I was 100% a believer but only 50% a do-er. It was time to put it all together. That was the secret…I had found the truth.

I remember feeling overwhelmed with joy in that moment. It was like being given a map to all of life’s treasures. I couldn’t wait to take action. And I knew the first thing that I needed to do was to find a way to acknowledge and take responsibility for my actions. I understood that I had a very painful and somewhat tragic story to tell, but I needed to accept my role in its development and refrain from placing the blame solely on external factors or on others. The one constant had always been me.

The next evening after my run, I joined WordPress, created my site, and began writing my first blog. Thanks to God, I had found my calling…