Anxiety From Afar: An OCD Response to Tragedy

I barely functioned today.  I kept the tiny humans alive, fed, and safe.  They did watch an unusual amount of TV today, though, because I just couldn’t focus on keeping track of them and keeping them entertained.  I just couldn’t today.

Why was today any different than every other day?  Today was the deadliest mass shooting in US History.  Today was Las Vegas.

For those of you who don’t know, I live nowhere near Las Vegas.  I live in quiet little Green Bay, Wisconsin.  We don’t have mass shootings; we have masses of melted cheese on everything we eat.

It didn’t happen anywhere near me.  No one I loved (or even knew) was there.  So why was I so affected by it?

I have OCD.  To most people, I just say I’m “a bit of a worrier,” because of the stigma around OCD (but that’s for another post).  I don’t just worry about something, calm myself down by thinking through it, and move on.  I can’t stop worrying.  Thoughts, fears, worries, cycle endlessly through my head.  They interrupt my normal train of thought.  They intrude in my quiet moments of rest.  They can’t be reasoned away.  When my OCD is particularly bad, I’m absolutely crippled by the anxiety and intrusive thoughts.  I can’t maintain a normal, functioning train of thought.

So today, my OCD latched on to the Las Vegas shooting.  My brain was shocked by this “vicarious trauma” and I couldn’t stop worrying about it.  I couldn’t stop thinking about how a person could do such a thing.  I couldn’t stop picturing the horror of seeing loved ones gunned down out of nowhere.  I couldn’t stop hearing screams of people as they ran.

These thoughts invariably spiral into, “What if”s.  What if I was there with my husband?  What if one of us was hit?  Would he stay with me or run?  Would I stay with him or run?  I don’t want my kids to be orphaned.  What if I was somewhere with my kids and there was a shooting?  Binnybeans doesn’t run fast.  Budgie doesn’t run.  Could I run fast enough holding two kids?  Could I hide?  Would the kids stay quiet?  No, Budgie would be crying.  We’re going to die.  I can’t leave the house with the kids; I can’t save them both if something happened.

I could barely focus on driving to my daughter’s school today.  Each intersection was a barrage of What if the other cars don’t stop?  What if I cut someone off and they road rage gun me and my baby down? What if?  What if? What if?  And I only live a mile from her school.

And it’s not just mass shootings that send the OCD-induced agoraphobia into hyperdrive.  Some careless driver plows through a plate glass storefront?  I can’t stop worrying about taking my kids to the Dollar Store.  If I force myself to take them, I spend the whole time in the clutches of an anxiety attack, constantly looking out the window for an out of control Camry.

I only live a mile from Lambeau Field.  It’s a major sporting venue, even if the town itself is pretty tiny.  What if there was a bombing or shooting at Lambeau?  Could a bomb hit my house?  The fleeing crowd would rush around my house; would I help them?  Could I help them?  What if something happened on the rare instance when I get to go?

Right now, I’m nauseated from the compulsive worrying.  I have a migraine from my heart racing for, more or less, the whole day.  I have anxiety-induced heartburn so bad my ears hurt.

But what’s worse than all of that is my fear of telling anyone about what’s going on in my head.  I’m afraid that this will sound stupid or silly to others.  I mean, I wasn’t there; why am I so freaked out?  I feel like I need to justify my mental illness, but I wouldn’t ask someone to justify their physical illness.  Your cancer doesn’t make any sense; you weren’t even a smoker.  It’s so stupid that you have cancer.  You’ve just gotta get some fresh air and you’ll be fine.

Vicarious trauma is real.  Mental illness is real.  They’re just as real as physical pain, and they can even cause physical pain (see above).

Yes, the people at the event need help, and are suffering greatly.  I am in no way trying to diminish any of their pain, suffering, trauma, or recovery.  My thoughts and prayers are clearly with them.  I am not trying to make this “all about me” or take anything from them.  What I am doing is speaking up for those of us who are suffering from afar.  For the agoraphobics to whom this is yet another reason to stay inside.  For the highly empathetic who feel like they’ve lost someone.  For the Obsessive-Compulsives who can’t cope with their anxiety over events like this.

If you’re suffering like me, knowledge helps.  Know how to protect yourself and your kids if you’re ever — God forbid — caught in this kind of horrible situation.  If you know how to respond, it takes some power from the fear.  When I start spiraling, I can (try to) break the loop by saying that I know to run, hide, fight.  That soon my kids will be old enough to follow instructions and run fast enough to (hopefully) get away.

If you’re not suffering, be there for your loved one who is shaken up by this.  Don’t judge; don’t try to fix them.  Just be there for them.  Give them an emotionally safe place for a few minutes.  You can’t stop the thoughts, but you can give them comfort.  If you know someone who is prone to such anxiety, reach out to them when something like this happens.  Offer to take the kids or bring their kid home from school for them.  You can help someone who is suffering because of this event even if you’re nowhere near it.  And that is good for your mental health, too.

We all need some good, some calm, some peace.  It’s not so easy to come by anymore.

One thought on “Anxiety From Afar: An OCD Response to Tragedy

  1. I am also from WI and love my Packers!!

    I totally understand about the worrying! This was such a terrible tragedy that could happen anywhere!

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