My name is Ryan Gerstenbuhler and I have an anxiety disorder, which leaves me terrified sometimes.
In the first part of this series, we introduced Ryan and he talked about growing up in Picture Butte and how his illness has prevented him from living his life the way he has wanted too.
Growing up in a small town, Ryan had little choice but to try and be normal, as normal as he could be. Ryan is now 36 years old, and has suffered from spastic cerebral palsy most of his life. Despite consistent threats of fear and panic attacks overcoming him, his hometown surroundings kept him subdued, and restricted him from exploring the extent of his illness.
Upon high school graduation, Ryan moved out of his family’s house and into an apartment in Lethbridge. Ryan suffered a crippling panic attack upon this change, and throughout much of the 1990’s Ryan became increasingly more fearful, even to the point where he was afraid of his own wheelchair. As he describes, “I felt like my life was over, I was waiting to expire.”
However, things are now very different for Ryan, he has begun to take steps to push himself out of the cocoon of fear he has been so long wrapped up in. “Over the past ten years, I have been trying to make use of the present, and the future and learn from the past, without living in the past,” explains Ryan. “The message is, if there’s anything you want to do for yourself, if there’s anything you want to achieve, you have to do it now, because time is running out. It seems like opportunities are still there, but things are being taken away, not granted.”
If Ryan looks familiar to you in the halls, or in the streets of Lethbridge, it is because of his advocacy work on behalf of the physically challenged in Lethbridge. “I’ve been very good about fighting for what I thought I needed. If I need a higher standard of home care, and if the powers that be didn’t want to corporate for whatever reason, budget constraints or standards or what have you… I’ve been very good at beating through opposition and getting what I need that way.”
Outside of fighting for his own personal needs, Ryan has also taken on the city regarding Access – A – Ride and its lack of comprehensive service. Ryan admits the gains he has made have been small due to the bureaucracy of local government.
Despite Ryan’s success in meeting his physical needs and advocating for greater services for all challenged individuals in Southern Alberta, he has struggled to find the motivation to achieve success in his personal life. Ryan has questioned his ability to make friends, and find personal fulfillment both on a friendship and on a romantic level. His only answer is that he has had to deal with crippling self-esteem and self-worth, which has only served to aggravate his agoraphobia.
Throughout his childhood, Ryan was made to feel as if fear is controllable, and to show fear is a sign of weakness, and because of his disability, weakness will only make his situation worse.
“I was taught that I had to be better than other people I had to be something other than human. I know that sounds extreme. It sounds unreasonable because it is unreasonable, because of the fact of the matter is, I am a man.”
Throughout his life, Ryan has tried to grapple with how he, as a man who wishes for companionship with a woman, can achieve that given his physical condition and his battle with agoraphobia. Ryan is trying to change that though, “I need to put myself out there, and really advertise myself.” This is something he is actively working on by speaking to The Meliorist, by getting more involved with the University Community.
“It seems to me that this could be a form of catharsis, me saying to people: look here’s my problem, here what might happen, and then I don’t have to worry about hiding it. That’s a real trick with my type of fear. The real trap that someone can fall into when dealing with panic attacks or agoraphobia, in my estimation, is trying to control it.”
Don’t try and control, just let it do what it’s going to do, and eventually the adrenaline will drain out of your system and you will be ok.
This change didn’t happen suddenly, but the catalyst for Ryan was signature for it occurred in little more than a moment. “My life changed on July 23rd, 2001 at about 6:35pm. That was the evening I had to do a presentation before Lethbridge City Council and I was in full panic attack mode. There was so many people there to hear what I had to say about the issue I was going to speak on, I couldn’t let them down and have any kind of credulity left as an advocate, so I had to do this. For the first time since my big collapse in 1992, I controlled the fear, the fear did not control me.”
The road to getting to a place of confidence, where the closing of a classroom door is no longer a threat, and making conversation no longer seems impossible has been difficult. But Ryan has developed his own form of self-esteem therapy.
“I didn’t feel that I could handle life. I wasn’t hiding from other people, or myself, so much as I was hiding from life. What I started doing is, I started using this Stewart Smalley methods. Stewart Smalley was a character on Saturday Night Live played by Al Franken, and he was this over the top personal councilor. The end of every Stuart Smalley bit he would look in the mirror and say something like: I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, something like that. He would do it in a way that everyone would laugh, but I looked at that and I thought to myself while I was laughing, why don’t I do that for myself?
So, Ryan imagined a mirror, and he imagined himself saying: “I’m good enough.” I’m good enough evolved into: “I’m the best.”
Ryan explains, “At first I was faking it, I could act the part but I didn’t really believe it.” However as time passed, and this practice became a fundamental part of his life, Ryan experienced a change. “Then one day it was like a light bulb, from spark to full glow, it blossomed and I realized I honestly and sincerely believed that I was every bit as good as I thought I was.”
Ryan takes issue through the way children take social cues from our environment to form relationships. As he looks back at his past, the word he would use to describe it is “isolated”. Feeling as if he was pushed to the back, and pushed aside, Ryan received very conflicting message from his family where he was told to push himself harder than anyone else while being told he was going to have to be dependent on others for his well being.
This lead to a lot of confusion, and then to the biggest deterrent to getting healthy: Ryan’s self-imposed isolation. Although he recognizes that he is likely not alone in feeling this way, he still asters that, “from a personal perspective, you do feel like you’re the only one. I do feel like I’m the only one who has never had a girlfriend, and if I’m not the only one, what’s our problem?”
Ryan’s experience has led him to question, “How can we keep developing as a species with everyone being so isolated?” His desire for physical social interaction means that new social communication devies hold little appeal for Ryan.
“We have YouTube, and we have FaceBook and we have Twitter, and people think this is social networking. In a way they’re right, your reaching out and you’re communicating, but you’re not communicating. Communication and being social is not interacting with a computer screen, or interacting with a video camera. That isn’t interacting in any kind of intimate or advanced way.”
Throughout this journey, Ryan has discovered something critical, something that every person needs to accept. “I spent a lot of time running from whatever issues I used to put myself into this emotional prison. The truth is, you cannot out run what’s eating it. It will keep up with you no matter how far or how fast you run.”
For more about Ryan, please visit themeliorist.ca and look under the Features section for the full audio of Ryan’s interview.