The 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.