Don’t. TOUCH. ANYTHING! A Story of Anxiety, Obsession, and the Museum Police
by Matt Thomas
Matt Thomas is the creator of the new mental health web-series Katie and Shaun.
It’s been almost two years since I finally did the thing that I’d been avoiding for my entire life; walk into a therapist’s office. The first words out of my mouth were, “I’m sorry, I might be wasting your time.”
It turned out I was wrong. Apparently, the constant mental assault course I’d been putting myself through was neither normal, nor necessary. I’d been living with generalized anxiety disorder my entire life, and the only person’s time I’d been wasting was mine. I may also have OCD and depression – doctors don’t seem to be able to agree about that. I’m not convinced it matters that much because, whether I have three diagnoses or one; my brain gets in my way enough that it’s worth addressing.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m also someone who’s recently spent a lot of time thinking about these issues and trying to get actors to pretend to have them for a new web-series called Katie and Shaun. I’ll be shoehorning references to this project throughout this essay as I really need people to watch it and spread the word so that I can one day quit my demoralizing day job and do that sort of thing for a living. I’ll try not to let it get too obnoxious; but I’ve got to do what I got to do.
Essays like this are tough to start as you can probably guess from the fact that we’re on the fourth paragraph and I’m still talking about “starting.” Where do you start talking about something that’s been there—from the “start?”
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Some people think of their childhoods fondly, endless summers of carefree and giddy running around. I have some of that, but mostly, when I think of my childhood, I think about a string of loosely connected panics. I was a worried kid. I’d find something stupid to obsessively worry about then let that build to the point where it was literally making me sick. When one worry would fade, another one would be right there to take its place. Even in my happiest moments, there was something horrible just beneath the surface of my brain.
When I was eight or nine my school class went to the British Museum to see all the cool stuff that my forefathers had stolen from the rest of the world in the previous couple of centuries. Because this is the sort of school I went to, on the way there we were given an apocalyptic warning about how important it was that we “don’t.TOUCH. ANYTHING!” I internalized this message but I was still a kid and the first cool thing I saw in the museum I, of course, immediately touched.
It was a huge stone fist that had been sculpted by the Egyptians. The idea that I could have damaged this thing, even if I’d been given given a toolbox and an unsupervised afternoon, was laughable. However, having touched it lightly with an outstretched finger, I was immediately wracked with guilt. That’s not an overstatement. I couldn’t sleep, I felt sick. My mind made up elaborate disaster scenarios – my fingers had destructive oils that were steadily eating through the stone; there were already Museum Police on the hunt for me.
Now, even as a kid, I kind of knew that was crazy. But knowing something is not the same as believing it. This is maybe the toughest thing to explain to the mentally healthy. The reason was fake but the anxiety was real and it continued to be real over the thousands of iterations of worries throughout my life as I went from Museum Police to thinking I contracted AIDS from a gym shower, to many imagined cancers, to being sure that I’d killed people by passing them germs. My brain looked for any reason it could to trigger an anxiety response.
By my late twenties I had it down to an art. My anxiety was like a sore in my mouth that I couldn’t stop poking with my tongue. Conversations and interactions could feel like tight-rope-walks. I could say something dumb to someone and obsess about it for days, I could get tiny bits of criticism and brood about them for weeks or months.
I desperately wanted to make connections but it felt almost impossible. I would put up with bad treatment from some people because I didn’t want the confrontation involved in standing up for myself, or because I thought they were right to not value me. Other people would run into the arrogant, overcompensating version of me and draw the completely fair conclusion that I was just an asshole.
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Over time, I developed new and interesting ways to torture myself. I’d lie in bed and trigger mini panic attacks by imagining myself falling off a building or killing someone or microwaving a baby or whatever the worst possible thing I could Imagine was that week. Each thought would tighten my chest, quicken my breathing and raise my heart rate so much so that my wife would be genuinely concerned about what was going on next to her.
Even then, I didn’t think I needed help. More accurately, I didn’t think I deserved it. I was a middle-class white man with a job; what did I have to complain about? I was miserable a lot of the time, but isn’t everyone? Plus, I’d been dealing with this all my life. I wouldn’t say I was “managing it” but it was my normal and I was functional, as long as nothing else went wrong. Which, eventually, it always, always does. Always.
It took the loss of close friend, a major (and real) medical emergency, and my father’s death to lead me to the brink of destroying my life and finally get me into a therapist’s office.
Therapy has given me a lot, but one of the main things has been external validation from a professional that the problems my mind creates for me are real and worthy of being addressed. There’s a part in Katie and Shaun where a therapist explains to Katie that even though she wasn’t born into hell, she’s created one for herself. This is several of my own therapy sessions distilled into one sentence. It’s typical of the over-simplified melodrama that you have to indulge in when you make a show but the point is that your mind is pretty powerful — easily powerful enough to create ‘real’ problems that can be devastating.
These problems don’t necessarily manifest themselves in the way we’ve been trained to expect, either. I was conflicted about making a series about mental health because one of the things that kept me from seeking help for so long was that movies and TV had given me an excuse to not see myself as a person with mental illness. I didn’t think I was above it, I just didn’t think I deserved the title. My symptoms hadn’t risen to the level of the big dramatic moments that you see on TV. I’d never crashed my car because of a panic attack like Tony Soprano or never taken handfuls of pills then vomited them up at the last minute like Carrie from Homeland. I hadn’t earned the right to get help by being really sick.
A sad person who’s terrified to reach out to people and constantly distracted by the mental ass kicking he’s giving himself isn’t that cinematic and, dumb as it sounds, that’s how I gauged the severity of what I was going through.
It turns out that movies and TV are not the best barometers when evaluating your own mental health or making life decisions. TV shows need to show interesting stuff that gets the point across quickly, so obviously they gravitate towards the most visually interesting symptoms of diseases and the most extreme examples of mental illness. This shouldn’t have been a revelation for me, but it was.
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I put a lot of thought into how to make Katie and Shaun responsibly. I can defend every decision we made and the portrayal of anxiety and depression is true to my experience. That said, it is a web series, not a documentary – we were trying to make a piece of entertainment. If you’re affected by anxiety and depression, I hope you identify with the characters and that the story helps you feel a little less alone. However, please know that if you don’t, it doesn’t mean you don’t need or deserve help. Everyone’s experience is different.
If I could go back and change one thing about my life, it would be to get help earlier. Giving this much energy to managing my brain had consequences. When you devote this much attention to meaningless stuff, you tend to miss the bigger stuff.
Not dealing with my anxiety has led to me isolating myself. Over the years I’ve learned to project a confident face to the world. If you met me, you might never think of me as an anxious person as I’ve gotten so good at hiding it. I do things like improv and stand-up comedy; I have a career that requires a lot of fairly high-stakes public speaking mostly because there’s something thrilling to me about the artificial control and validation that a stage or a PowerPoint presentation gives.
Here’s the thing, though; it’s not the real me, and it means I have a hard time making real friends. People find me standoffish or arrogant when they first meet me. I either say nothing for fear of saying the wrong thing, or I get into ‘performer mode’, which is an equally good, if not better, tactic for trying to keep people at arm’s length. Over the years, some really amazing people have managed to burrow through and get to know the real me, but I’m sure that, for every one of those, I’ve successfully deflected several potential friends.
As well as making me a lot harder to like, anxiety is also exhausting. I’ve spent what should have been the most happy or fun moments of my life furiously obsessing about some tiny stupid thing or carefully thinking about how to behave, while everybody else just had fun in the moment.
I’m so much better now. My mind hasn’t changed, but a combination of therapy and medication has evened the playing field to the extent that I can usually silence my anxiety when it flares up and I’m working on undoing some of the unhelpful coping strategies I’ve developed. That said; there were a good thirty years there where I could have been having way more fun.
A person’s thoughts and fears are about the most personal thing they have so it can seem naïve or insulting to give advice. However, if you’ve gotten to this point in an essay like this, there’s a good chance that some of what I’ve been saying makes sense to you. If I’m right and you feel like your thoughts are getting in the way of your happiness, whether they’re making you not want to go to that party or think about shutting everything down forever, then that is real and you are not alone. Seek help. I don’t know you, or your life, I don’t know what your equivalent of the big stone fist is, but there are people who care. There are people who want to help you.