May 1st. A day to be brave.
This is a post for my Self.
It is also a heartfelt hug for the tens of millions of people, adults and children, who live with anxiety, panic disorder, and OCD. I am sending a huge good-energy filled squeeze to my big sister who knows all about what I’m talking about, and also to Claire at The Ascent Blog for lending a big dose of bravery mojo. I’d had this in the drafts folder for weeks when I read her post. A little push in the right direction… let’s begin.
I was born into this world with my hardwiring all jacked up, and I have suffered from anxiety, panic attacks, and OCD since I was a very small child. Back in the early 70’s and 80’s, this kind of thing wasn’t really acknowledged yet, certainly not in children. I was just a “worrier”… and a fair share of weird. Although my childhood was full of love and laughter, looking back on it now, I know that this child-me still desperately needed understanding and help, and I sometimes allow myself to wonder how I would be different if I’d had help. Hindsight and all that.
It’s funny. All through my childhood, I knew that my worrying made me different, that not everybody fixated on problems like I did. That it was something to hide. But I had no idea that my other behaviors were of any concern, so seamlessly did I meld them with my intrinsic creative and imaginary world. It was not until my 20’s, that I learned that what I thought was “normal” was not, and I will always be thankful to the remarkably observant person who very matter-of-factly, and yet very gently, told me that what I was doing without even thinking about it (counting, rechecking, ordering, turning circles, making things ‘even’, etc) was more than just a “quirk”, and that no, not everybody did that. It was a much needed signpost, one that would help me as my anxiety escalated into my late 20’s.
Just before I turned 30, after a crazy-long, majorly bad episode which resulted in me finally seeking professional help for the first time, I learned that all of this—and I—in fact had a very real diagnosis for a very real problem. Most alarmingly, I was also told that what I considered my baseline level of anxiety, what I lived with on a day-to-day basis, was ridiculously high. Worryingly high. (See what I did there?) That provided much needed perspective re: what one should feel capable of tolerating. I thought suffering through my anxiety made me strong. It did in some ways. It also broke me down. Everyone needs relief at some point. Admitting that need is not a sign of weakness. It is the first step to getting better.
My brass-knuckles rumble with and eventual reprieve from anxiety/OCD is a long story for another time. Suffice it to say, therapy and I did not make good dance partners, and I was far too anxious about the possible consequences of taking medications to even consider trying. I chose instead, for better or worse, to stumble down a different path. All that need be said now is that I thought that I’d left that fight behind—a year ago, I found some profound answers, used them to heal, and lived this last year completely and utterly anxiety free.
For the first time in my life.
The human brain is a beautiful thing, and when it functions well, it is a marvel to behold. This last year, I experienced the brilliance and lightness of engaging the world with clarity: without the heavy tread of irrational, dark, or harmful thoughts wearing ruts through my mind; without the overwhelming mental fatigue from trying to maintain a facade of control and normalcy, just trying to get through the next day, the next hour, the next minute, holding my shit together; without the sheer physical exhaustion of repeated panic attacks and the embarrassment of the controlling OCD behaviors that inevitably accompany the whole mess. It was like being born again, only this time not broken.
But you know, just when you get comfortable, just when you think you’ve got everything figured out, the Cosmos likes to come kick the shit out of you and remind you that there are lessons still to be learned. And in January, I got my ass handed to me with knobs on.
I haven’t yet been at a place where I could examine too closely what happened. All I know is that one moment I was fine, and the next, I wasn’t. The timing was horrible—the panic attacks started halfway into the first day of my new job. Out of the blue. After over a year of not having any anxiety at all. And yet, the anxiety had nothing to do with the new job. It started before the job. It was just there. There are no words for how stunned I was, for how low this laid me. I am still struggling, and though I hate to admit it, have been doing a terrible job of dealing with depression because of it. I mean, I thought I’d figured out my anxiety thing. I thought I was healed. It was like coming out of remission. It was devastating. But there was no time to even catch my breath—I had a new job to do.
I’ve had years of practice perfecting the art of functioning through anxiety. It sucks, but it is doable. When my kids were born, I learned really fast that life and responsibility do not stop for anxiety. Change a diaper while feeling like you’re having a heart attack? Yes, you can. Make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while your brain is wreck over your latest irrational fear? You bet. And because I never wanted my children (or anyone else) to know what I was going through, I put a lot of energy into hiding my anxiety. Ignore the racing heart, breathe through the shakes, tension, and nausea, tamp down the alternating hot and cold flashes. Focus on being in control. Focus on calming down. Breathe. Smile. Keep it all inside.
Focus on appearing ok. Focus on appearing ok. Focus on appearing ok.
It is an endless cycle of fear, control, relief, fear… and the anxious thoughts loop over and over in your mind like a record skipping. Over and over and over. It. Just. Won’t. Stop. With enough practice, however, you can eventually become somewhat detached from the anxiety and the panic. You can observe it as a foreign thing, set it to the side, and do what needs to be done—whether that’s making the kids lunch, running errands, or trying to succeed at your new corporate job. I’d done it for years, and I thought I could do it again. So, I panicked the whole drive to the office. I panicked during the ride up the elevator. And then when I walked through the door, I put my solar plexus on lock-down, pasted on a smile, and didn’t panic. I did my job. At the end of the day, I had a brief moment of relief as I walked out the door… and then the panic attacks started right back where they left off. I even woke up with attacks during my sleep. It was fun times, let me tell you.
The thing about coping strategies is that they do only that—they help you get through something—but they don’t fix the problem. They don’t even really make anything better, and you can only go for so long just coping before you burn out altogether. Ask me how I know.
The new job was surprisingly stressful in it’s own right, and though I was doing well, it was not a good fit for a few key reasons. Otherwise though, it was a pretty damn good gig—super nice co-workers, good hours, great pay. But I wanted so hard to believe that it was the source of my panic attacks, because then I would have an answer—and relief. So. Even though I knew in my heart of hearts that my new job was not to blame for my sudden resurgence of anxiety, I gave my notice anyway. It was the right thing to do because of the “not a good fit” thing, but still. I wish it had been different. I did experience a day or so of relief. A day or so. That’s the insidious part about anxiety—you can think that you take away all the triggers, but it will find new ones. It is like the body becomes habituated to the roller coaster-like ups and downs of the crazyass neurochemical cocktails that accompany both the anxious phase and the relief phase of a cycle. And even when you are able to get a grip, break through the fear, and think rationally about what is happening, it is often not enough to stop the physical response to the episode. You just have to ride it out.
I’ve been riding this out since January. And I’m ready for it to stop. For realz.
Luckily, I finally realized that there were probably some very real physiological reasons why the anxiety might be occurring. A) I stopped working out regularly during the holidays. Lack of physical activity has been a co-trigger before. Also, B) my prescription for Vitamin D ran out. During the winter. Duh. Without it, my levels are off-the-charts low. As soon as I realized that, I started taking it again, and have slowly seen improvement. It’s amazing how much a low Vit. D level will affect. And then there are two major dietary things: 1) I’ve been cheating on my paleo diet with peanuts. A lot of peanuts. Because peanut butter is freaking delicious all of a sudden, now that I can’t have it. Lol. And 2) I had a month or so where I didn’t eat much kale, which, as you know, is full of EVERY GOOD THING. And lots of vitamins. Could that have effected me? Maybe. I know that it effected my digestive health—and a ton of serotonin receptors are in the gut. So, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Aside from that, your guess is as good as mine.
It’s interesting to me that the anxiety that I’ve been experiencing only compares to what was once my “normal panic attack” level, but since it’s been a year since I’ve had any, it has felt a lot worse than that. Harder to handle. I think part of that is because I really thought I’d never have to “handle” it again. Now I know. One of the hardest parts of dealing with this is my disappointment in how I’m dealing with this. I just kind of shut off. I haven’t wanted to do anything other than get through the day and go to sleep. It’s been rough, and I’m trying to dig my way out. Luckily, I have amazing support at home. I’m very thankful for my wonderful, brilliant husband who has been so understanding during all of this. As hard as it is to live with anxiety, I think it must be at least as hard living with someone who has it. It is not something that is easy for others to understand. There is no switching it on or off. It takes an amazing amount of understanding and compassion to deal with the irrationality and lack of control with kindness and support. I am blessed to have this support now.
So, I’m working on this. Sometimes we get knocked for a loop, and it’s takes us a minute to shake it off and get going again. That’s ok, right? That’s part of life. We joke that it’s one step forward and two steps back, but I try really hard to see that as a sexy dance. The merengue of life. Who wants to walk in a straight line anyway? When the ocd kicks in, sometimes I do. Lol. Just joking.