It’s been a good week. A lot of work is complete, check boxes ticked. Four kids are happy and healthy. I’m spending the weekend with my Mom helping her “slow move” into her new lake house.
But not every week is this good.
I have a good idea of where I want this blog to go, of the adventures I am excited to share. I hope most of my posts will be positive, uplifting. Perhaps I will inspire others to try new recipes or DIY projects. Maybe I can offer my experience to a younger mother on her trying day. I would love to make meaningful, lasting connections in this space. I hope, soon, to inspire with photographs. But today is different. You see, it would be dishonest of me if I did not share this part of myself with you.
Yesterday I had an encouraging visit with a new therapist, and on the tail end of my good week this post truly comes to you from a place of hope. I live, and I choose my words deliberately here, with anxiety and panic disorder. I say “live” because I work very hard to make sure that this disorder does not stop me from truly living. I felt my first flash of this demon mere days after my first son was born. Okay, no big deal, I decided. What new mother doesn’t check the bassinet a few too many times before bed? What new mother doesn’t suddenly feel, too acutely, her own mortality? It seemed pretty normal and I accepted it. Over the years it waned, but it would return after each pregnancy stronger than before. Now, fourteen years after my first experience walking into the doctor’s office, wobbly kneed, tiny baby in arms, begging for reassurance, for the guarantee of safety he couldn’t provide, it has morphed into panic disorder with a touch of OCD.
I write this post today partly in the hope that someone out there will read it and feel less alone. The statistics tell us that one in ten people struggle with some form of anxiety disorder. On my bad days I find this impossible to believe. Are there other moms in the school pickup line fighting back panic, smiling despite desperate fear? Could the pretty and confident Whole Foods cashier, or the nurse attending to my sick child also be living with this?
There you have it. My life is beautiful and I experience so much joy. People tell me that I am “laid back”. You wouldn’t know it to meet me on the street, but I have raging, debilitating bouts of panic that can sometimes block out that joy.
I used to hide it. For years I excused myself from get togethers and I would often feign illness. I even turned down a free trip to Singapore. I was ashamed and embarrassed. I felt weak and I squelched it down, shut it up until finally I couldn’t anymore. When I eventually opened up and shared my story, asked for help, read, learned, and began the work of recovery I realized something important. Something I want to share with you especially if you are a fellow panic sufferer. If you have anxiety or panic disorder you are far from weak. You are brave. You may, in fact, be one of the bravest people you’ve ever met. You get up every day knowing you are likely to experience intense fear. It’s the kind of fear most people will only experience a handful of times. Perhaps in the moments before a car accident or in the midst of a heart attack. People liken the sensations to those you might experience were you being chased down by a bear. The fear may be sustained or repeated throughout your day. You do it anyway. You face it down and you push through. Maybe you can only make it as far as your own front yard, but still, you do it every day. Even the impossible ones.
Not everyone has been understanding. I have had doctors treat me with disdain when I have gone to them with my fears. As if I wished to waste their time. As if I haven’t yearned every day to stop the the obsessive thoughts. As if it was within my power to slow my heart, dry my palms, still my mind. I know now that I looked to them for tools and knowledge that they didn’t possess. Anxiety is often misunderstood even by those we go to for help.
People though are mostly good. I believe this completely. They won’t always know how, but they want to help. When you are direct about what you need people will show up.
My family seem mostly bewildered, but they are compassionate. On good days (and there are many) we laugh about it all. My sister jokes about “The Great Panic Attack of 2012”. The kids were dressed beautifully. The girls wore sparkly tutus and fall sweaters with little fox hats and tights to match. The boys were smartly dressed, and I was dashing around preparing the pies and cranberry sauce we would contribute to the Thanksgiving feast. Expectations were set, plans made. In my world this means a panic attack is all but inevitable.
This particular panic started with some pain in my left arm. Most people I imagine would barely have noticed it, but in a flash my mind latched on to a sliver of a thought, a tiny what if? And BOOM we were off. With adrenaline released my heart rate exploded to around 170 beats per minute, my entire body was soaked with sweat and with my pupils dilated the world seemed harsh and unreal. The air felt thick and breathing seemed difficult. I just couldn’t get a deep breath. I shook violently, my poor mind racing, trying in vain to identify the threat. Outside of me the world looked far away, dreamlike. The terrifying sensation of derealization was setting in. My stomach lurched as I endured waves of nausea. I fought to maintain balance, afraid I might pass out.
At the hospital I could barely tell them what was wrong. “I’m afraid I’m having a heart attack” I explained. They wanted specifics. As always, I was upfront about my panic disorder. They wanted to know how this felt different. I had no answers. This is the nature of panic. Nothing is wrong, but everything feels wrong.
Hours later, discharge papers in hand, I felt embarrassed, guilty until I learned that my kids enjoyed their hodge podge Thanksgiving immensely, and were cuddled together on my sister’s couch watching a movie. A plate of food was warmed for me and, while I knew it wasn’t over, with the adrenaline spent I found relief for a few hours.
It doesn’t always play out like this. The sensations vary enough to add more confusion, more doubt to the experience. A handful of times I have sought out medical help. Mostly though I am able to ride it out at home.
It’s been a long journey, and I have learned a great deal along the way. I have made steady progress on my own, but after a difficult experience last month I have decided to enlist the help of a therapist who specializes in anxiety and panic disorders. I had my first visit with her on Friday and I am excited! She employs the cognitive behavioral therapy method which is proven to significantly reduce or cure anxiety in the great majority of cases. Apparently my mind and body are going to duke this thing out once and for all. Wish me luck. I’ll keep you posted.
I highly recommend anything by Dr. Claire Weekes. If you are struggling her words will bring immediate clarity.
The DARE Method taught by Barry McDonough has also been immensely helpful.