Shine On, Shame Out

The past 24 hours have been filled with heart-overflowing gratefulness.  I’m another year older and even more validated in who I am.  The responses to the blog have been more overwhelming than I could’ve ever imagined; so much support, love and encouragement from so, so many. It has been the best birthday gift ever.  AND I got to eat cake.

What was even more profound than the outpouring of support, were my friends who opened up and shared their own experiences with panic.  Some of these people I had known almost my entire life, and I never knew.  But it doesn’t surprise me.  Anxiety is not something that you are exactly proud of. Mental health issues aren’t something you want associated with your image, right? We all strive for love and acceptance, to feel like we are just “normal”.  In a world obsessed with labeling others, mental illness is one label you are not necessarily lining up for.

Here are some of the actual quotes I received after my blog went live:

“I never would have thought that. You always seem so happy and never stressed.”

“You fooled me. Had no idea.”

“Wow, someone who actually came forward.”

The element of surprise is so common here. If I had a dollar for every time someone has said to me, “but you seem so happy!” I would be a rich woman.  People who have anxiety issues are some of the nicest people you have ever met. You would never guess that they are struggling on the inside.  This is typical.  We are emotional masterminds; we have learned to stifle and hide our fear to the point where it breaks us.  We are people-pleasers that would never want to burden anyone else with our problems.  We are so worried about acceptance and love from others that we don’t want our negative issues to threaten that.  All of the hiding and burying of the terror we really feel feeds panic disorder.  Until we can break out of the shame spiral that it brings upon us, we will continue to suffer.

Tonight I had the privilege to listen to an amazing woman, Rachel Faulkner Brown, tell her story.  She has overcome some unimaginable loss in her life.  One of her talking points touched on “the fear of man”. Basically, what others think of you.  If we dwell too much on this, it will destroy the light meant to shine from within us.   I am so guilty of this.  I worry about what people think of me all the time.  Why? Some of us are more insecure than others.  I have always felt like the team mascot for insecurity.  People who struggle with insecurity tend to overcompensate  by burying their own emotions to please and accommodate others. This is a breeding ground for anxiety disorders.

I was 23 when I had my first full-blown panic attack.  But hiding behind a perma-smile was a life-long talent.  Sure, I am a genuinely happy, positive person.  But I have never been good at handling or channeling my stress for fear of upsetting others. It took many, many years after that first attack to even start to accept that this was happening to me, and even longer to share it with others.  But the simple truth is, the more open and vulnerable you are, the smaller the fear becomes.  Just simple acceptance makes a huge difference in starting the battle against the panic trick.

Why are we so afraid to speak out? Why is there such a stigma associated with this disorder? There doesn’t have to be.  In her talk tonight, Rachel mentioned that “we think about ourselves more than anyone else does”. We worry about “the fear of man” and what others will think if we speak out about what’s on our hearts and minds.  But realistically, everyone is too busy worrying about themselves and their own issues to really care.

I dare you to try it.  If you are just starting to feel the loneliness of panic disorder and hiding behind your fear, try telling one person.  If you are too afraid to talk, write it down.  Or, just start by talking to your fear.  Introduce yourself, and accept it for what it is.  Tell it you’re not here to fight with it, but to live with it, to learn from it, and to watch it eventually get bored with you when you aren’t putting up the good fight.  We all have those people in our lives who are looking to pick fights with everyone, who are constantly stirring up drama.  Fear and anxiety are those people.  The more drama you give them, the more they are going to get out of it.  They want you to fight back.  But guess what? There’s nothing a dramatic pot-stirrer hates more than someone who doesn’t give them any material to work with.

My fear-friend is still hanging out with me, but we are on much better terms.  I’m slowly learning to ignore his shenanigans. My hope for you is that you can stop hiding behind your shame and let your own light shine, whatever it is.  That light will cast a shadow over your fear.  And who knows, maybe it’s afraid of the dark and will choose to disappear for good.




Panic with Purpose

I did it…I finally published my blog! Geez Louise, that took forever.

If you are checking it out for the first time, I apologize for my lack of technical knowledge. I’ve been really trying to perfect my layout, website function, staying up way too late watching WordPress tutorials, blah blah blah. But my friend Kristen (who has been helping me navigate this blog world per her blog, Junk Drawer Diaries) reminded me to drop my perfectionist tendencies and just do it already.

“The message is the most important part.”

Yes!!!! Sometimes you just need someone else to remind you of what you already know.

I mentioned panic with purpose on my Facebook post, and I just wanted to elaborate. For those of you who have panic disorder, it is not only terrifying, life-altering and miserable, but the panic attacks seem to serve no purpose whatsoever. Which is absolutely maddening. But I don’t believe that anymore. Now I panic with purpose.

Here’s a brief neurological explanation of a panic attack. So most of you are familiar with the fight or flight response. So, if there is a tiger chasing you, your brain sends signals to your nervous system to either fight or flee from the event. Your adrenaline gets going, your heartbeat and breath quicken, your body tingles, your senses become more acute. When you have panic disorder, your fight or flight response is a bit off. It can be triggered by a traumatic event, or in my case comes out of the blue, usually during a period of life change (positive or negative). My first panic attack happened in the bedding department at Macy’s. No tigers to be found.

Anyway, you pretty much feel like you are dying or going crazy, without a clear reason.  You tend to avoid places in which you have panicked before, which starts a lifestyle of avoidance, and avoidance only fuels the disorder. Phobias can develop over time. Pretty soon your kids are wondering why you had to turn around while in line for the Gran Fiesta Tour with Donald Duck at Epcot so you could escape the fear of a dark confined space and just sit on a bench and take a Xanax since you nearly panicked just anticipating that nightmare. Trust me people, this is no way to live.

Through exposure therapy, every time I panic, I see it as an opportunity to learn. It is a time to practice, to manage, to heal. It doesn’t feel like it at the time, of course. But the more I chip away at this monster of fear the more progress I am making. I am truly panicking with purpose, and that purpose is to eventually not panic.

This is a slow, grueling process. But I’ve already gained so much ground. Short-term struggle for long-term gain. There are so many days where I’m not up for it- the practice of exposure therapy. But the show must go on. 12 years of letting fear run my life is just too long.

My other purpose is just as motivating as recovery, and that’s the purpose of helping others. If there’s one thing I pride myself on, it’s my empathetic heart. I know how awful this journey can be. If I can help one person get through it, my heart will be happy. I believe in others more than myself sometimes, and this is half the reason I am blogging in the first place. To connect with others who need to be understood, who feel isolated and alone. It took years for me to accept this disorder and I remember feeling like no one understood what I was going through. The loneliness is unbearable.

So, I choose to panic with purpose from now on. No more wasting energy and anger. It does not serve me anymore. The more I learn to let it go, to lean into the panic, the more progress I make. My purpose is now crystal clear. It’s a scary and vulnerable place, but I’m staying in line for this ride.

Dizzy Days

imageThe day is still young, but it has already surprised me.

I went to bed too late (as a result of still navigating this blog thing!) and woke up feeling dizzy.  A few days a month, I will have these “dizzy days”.  Whether it’s from lack of sleep or a side-effect of medication, they generally set you up for a “bad” day.  If you suffer from panic disorder, I don’t need to explain this.  I know everyone has bad days, but when you have frequent panic attacks, the bad days just set you up for failure; at least in your head, anyway.  Just your a-hole brain playing tricks on you again.

What a little prankster.

It was off to school as usual, 7:30am for Jack and 8:45am for Allie.  I really, really didn’t want to face the day.  Feeling vulnerable, uncomfortable, and generally out of control.  The a-hole brain feeds on this negative feedback.  I almost just kept Allie home so I could chill.  Sometimes we do that just for fun…we are both home bodies, and after all it’s just preschool.  But I was looking for more of an excuse; a reason not to face the day with this heightened sensitivity.  Then I remembered what I had recently read in good old Dr. David’s workbook.  If you want to make progress, you have to practice. Even on the “bad” days. So on we went.

While buckling my sweet, smiling girl into her car seat, a pang of profound sadness came over me.  This happens sometimes when I look at my happy, joyfully fearless children.  Especially Allie.  She has an extra dose of fearless.  It sounds contradictory to how one should feel when realizing your children are happy.  But I instantly mourn for my joy.  I miss the childlike joy that comes so easily to them.  I try to let that go as I keep talking to my silly girl, trying to siphon her joy instead of mourning my own.  The a-hole brain loves when you get self-absorbed.

So I sat through an extra-long carpool line (an occasional panic trigger) with flying colors. Kissed my sweet girl good-bye, and then knew what I needed to do.  I had 3 hours to kill.  It was time to practice.

Dr. David recommended an hour every day, so I would shoot for that.  Time to take to the highway.

I didn’t fully go into my first full panic attack on the highway, but I will brief you.  I had been experiencing waves of panic while driving on the interstate, but nothing full-blown.  Enough to start the ball rolling.  I had full-blown panic in other areas, but highway driving was relatively minor.  I had always loved driving.  It gave me such a sense of freedom.  I would usually offer to drive on road trips with friends, and have even driven cross-country multiple times.  These are some of my best memories.

I had been nervous off and on driving until I became pregnant with my first, Jack.  My anxiety completely disappeared for the entire pregnancy. Blame it on hormones or first-pregnancy excitement, but it was great.  It was postpartum that put me into a tailspin.

I think I was struggling for a while and just didn’t accept it.  Don’t get me wrong, having a newborn is wonderful.  But stir in an overwhelming sense of responsibility, navigating work/motherhood, and total lack of sleep, and you have a recipe for disaster. At least if you are susceptible to anxiety and panic.

When Jack was about 7 months, I was heading to Lake Oconee to my in-laws house for Labor Day weekend.  We were going with a bunch of our friends, and I was excited. Granted, I was the only one with a baby, but we could still have fun, right? I drove up early to help get the place ready.  Me, Jack in his infant seat, and Bear, our sweet little dog, who loves riding in the car. Friday afternoon traffic on a holiday weekend in Atlanta is never a walk in the park, but it was never an issue for me. Until that afternoon.  Traffic on 285 was at a standstill, and I was smack in the middle lane.  I’ll never forget how beautiful of a day it was; blue sky and abundant sunshine. Sadly, driving on days like this triggers my anxiety now, thanks to this memory. All of a sudden, I feel the wave coming on.  I struggle to calm myself, grasping mentally for something to stop it.  My breath quickens, my heart races, my body tenses up and tingles.  I start to leave my body.  Besides feeling like I’m suffocating, the disassociation  is always the scariest for me.  You literally feel like you aren’t in control of yourself anymore, like you are literally going crazy.  When you have your precious baby boy in the backseat, this is only more agonizing.  You are his mother and his protector.  You feel scared not only of the attack but for not keeping your child safe.  Looking back as an observer, you realize that your a-hole brain is just telling you stories.  But in the moment, especially when you are unaware of the panic trick, it is absolutely horrifying.

So I call my husband, bless his heart.  He is a tough love kind of guy.  So he just tells me, “Babe, you can’t freak out! You’re on the highway!”.  Thanks my love.  My thoughts precisely.  He does the best he can with me, and has learned along with me in my journey.  But I think men hate when they can’t do anything to fix the problem.  It’s against their “manliness” code. So I quickly say good-bye, continue freaking out, but can’t exit anywhere, so I just bear it until I reach the next exit.  I pull over in a Wal-Mart parking lot and eventually calm down.  My mother-in-law (who has obviously heard from my hubby) calls and I just start to cry.  I do remember that the crying felt so good. Most people who suffer from panic disorder try to hold in their emotions, instead of letting it go.  But in my mind, I was traumatized.  Driving has never been the same since.

Well, that wasn’t nearly as brief as I meant it to be. I did make it to the lake. The rest of the trip is a blur, but I surely didn’t die because of the attack.  But my emotions were so strong that the experience was tattooed on my brain and started years of avoidance in multiple driving situations. But I won’t go into all those now.

Back to this morning. Yes, I was having a bad day. Yes, I was scared.  I was twitching, rolling the window down, up again, changing the music, the AC…grasping for control.  The anticipatory worry was starting to sink in, but I remembered what the book said about it. Ignore the “what if” statements, and if they do enter your brain, try to humor them.  Basically make fun of them.  Whatever it takes to take away their power. The anticipation is way worse the the actual deed. Waiting at the stoplight to get on the ramp just plain sucks. No way around it. But it turns as all lights do, and I’m in it. No turning back.

My new friend Dr. David, in Panic Attack Workbook, stresses the idea of just letting the panic come. All your instincts tell you to fight it.  I’ve been fighting it for 12 years.  Until now. You are so used to fighting when a challenge arises in life, but the opposite rule applies with panic. Fighting it will make it worse.  So the panic comes.  I try to let it come.  My sensitivity is at a level 11, but I just let it float.  He talks about the AWARE method in his book, so I do that. I will post a link soon explaining this useful method. I practice my belly breathing, also something a learned in the book.  I have always heard to concentrate on my breathing to calm me, but I never knew the right way to breathe. Just like that, I’m driving on the highway. It’s a momentary relief, as I realize the challenge is to maintain this for AN HOUR. I’ve always struggled with not getting off at every exit (panic sufferers tend to feel “trapped” in situations where they cannot flee) but I push past the first exit. Then another. And another. My body feels like it’s on fire, buzzing with nerves. I’m crawling out of my skin. But I’m doing it. I’m practicing. I hate it, but I have accepted it.

If you drive far enough up I-575 on a clear day, you can see the silhouette of the Blue Ridge mountains. I decide this is my goal.  I float through the panic, still buzzing with awareness. But I press on.  At one point I start singing and roll the window down.  Positive driving memories come to mind…for a moment I’m back in high-school/college on a road trip. Relaxed and carefree.  I drive a particularly long stretch of highway and actually forget to panic about how far the exits are from each other. Progress.

I round a corner, and I am almost the only one on the road. Then I see the mountains. They are more beautiful that I remember. A wave of emotion comes over me, but not panic. It’s joy.   I can hardly remember the feeling of joy while driving.  I revel in it.

Having reached my goal, it’s time to head back.  I’ll have to pick Allie up soon. I turn around and go back, and then I remember the road construction. There are cement barriers, narrow lanes, traffic ahead. Waves of panic return.  I try to remember what to do, how to let it go. It’s harder on the way back. I’m mentally grasping for control.   I almost exit several times. But then I remember another tidbit from the book, when you are scared to do something, do it. There’s a super slow truck in front of me, but I am more scared in the left lane. Without thinking too much, I just do it. I switch lanes. It takes away the anticipation and gives me a much needed confidence boost.  Once I am there, I challenge myself to stay there. I stay there for several miles, until I finally reach the exit leading home.

So that’s it, right? I’m cured! Hardly. This was my first day of practice, and only with driving on the highway. Yes, I’m super proud of myself, (and I even had coffee this morning!!!) and I hope the confidence will help in other situations. But I have many, many more challenges ahead.

I know many of you are just sick at your stomach even thinking about facing your fears when it comes to panic. I still am. I have so much work to do.  Again, it has taken me 12 years to accept the idea of practicing.  I still take meds and will need more time to think of practicing without them. Today I did it without Xanax, which was huge.  I even dug into my purse for the bottle at one point. But I’m trying to teach myself that these things are just like Dumbo’s feather. He thought he needed the feather to fly, but turns out he did just fine without it.

I know you will be fine too. Good days, bad days, dizzy days…be thankful just for another day.






Do you ever feel like you’re on a ferris wheel? Like you are constantly spinning around not accomplishing anything? That’s the phase I’m currently in.  I know I haven’t posted in a while, mainly since I haven’t quite figured out how to be a blogger and also since I can barely make it through the kid’s bedtime without falling asleep tucked up next to their soft blankies and stuffed-animals.

My sweet friend Kristen, who just launched her own blog (here is where I would insert a link to her blog if knew anything about blogging) sent me a tutorial, which I am yet to read, and I still can’t manage to drag myself down to my desktop in the basement without being intercepted by my couch and a blanket. I am currently accepting laptop donations to fix this issue. So there is my explanation on lack of blogging.

But a lot is going on for sure. Hit a rough patch of anxiety which peaked and resulted in adding to my current anti-depressant, which I have since decided to go back to my original dose. Playing ping-pong with the old brain again. Poor thing. Have dabbled with paleo dieting and possibly changing medications all together as advised by friends/doctors/health coaches. Lots of possibility brewing. But my favorite little tool in my anxiety tool kit at the moment is my current book, Panic Attack Workbook, by David Carbonell, Ph.D.

A brief synopsis of the book…it basically says that to truly beat “the panic trick”, you have to practice the exposure theory. Which is pretty much letting yourself panic in phobic situations and working with the panic instead of fighting it. Which personally, I’ve known about for years but have never really been ready to face. After 12 years with this mess, however, you start to say enough is enough. 

It’s a great, practical, pro-active read. I’m pretty sure he named every single panic situation/thought I’ve ever had, along with offering non-complicated advice. Well, non-complicated until you actually start practicing with panic. Easier said than done. And bless you, Dr. Carbonell, I would love to practice for your recommended hour a day/five days a week, but I have two small children and a husband that is gone half the month usually. I’m practicing most days keeping little people alive and functional. Finding time to go to the bathroom, let alone “practice” with my anxiety, is a luxury. So I would have maybe added a chapter, like: Panic and the Tired Mom. Or, Practicing with Panic While Your Kids are Screaming in the Background. But hey, maybe in the next edition.

Just to illustrate my point, here’s a brief overview of my evening. Hubby is out of town (for 10 days!!!) and I’ve just finished miraculously putting some kind of food on the table. My kids start yelling at each other because Allie’s chair is touching Jack’s and she won’t move it and then she bumped it hard “on purpose”. So we flee the crime scene and start the bath/shower process, where Allie is fussing because she has her arm stuck in the shirt she is taking off by herself because “she can do it”, meanwhile Jack has clogged the toilet because he uses about half the roll to wipe himself. So, I help Allie with her shirt and then go into the bathroom to find poop ON THE WALL. It’s a trace amount, mind you. But no amount of poop on a wall is acceptable. So I clean that up while the dog starts going crazy at the door because the TruGreen guy is here to ask if I need lawn services even though somehow they have missed that they have been treating our lawn for 2 years. All is quiet momentarily so I go to clean up from dinner when I hear screaming from the bathroom because Allie has splashed Jack because “Jack was being mean” and he is splashing back because “she splashed me first”.  But man, are they sweet when they’re sleeping.

I love my children dearly, I do. My mom bought me a sweet little sign that says, “Being a mom makes me so tired and so happy”. I love that. Being a mom is a labor of love, and being a mom with panic disorder adds a hint of spice to the dish. Which makes me think, maybe I shouldn’t beat myself up for relying on medication for anxiety in these early childhood years. Maybe that book was meant for moms with kids off to college. Certainly they don’t want you to do it during the teenage years either. So when is the right time to suck it up and start exposure therapy? I’ll sleep on that one.

Seriously, I do want to start soon. I have so much hope in my fearful little heart. I think once you loose hope, you’re in a far tougher spot. So I’m thankful for hope. I can’t say I’m thankful for anxiety, but I am accepting of it and it’s the journey I’ve been given. My hope is to overcome it and to help others on their journey as well. So cheers to starting practice… one of these days.