Mama Bears (and Papa Issues)

It’s been a tough week.

First, this senseless, incomprehensible shooting in Orlando. Then a two-year-old is drowned by an alligator at Disney World, of all places. My heart can’t take all this madness. And the social media circus that has followed is just as frightening. But I am like a moth to a flame; I get sucked in with the best of them. And it ain’t pretty.

There have been many posts defending the poor parents of this sweet 2-year-old boy, who have been judged and attacked for their “negligence”. So I guess this could count as another one. Although I’m going to take the long road to get to the point. So bear with me.

When I was pregnant for the first time, with Jack, I had a peace and calm I had never felt before. I was creating a miracle, a sweet baby boy who would love me unconditionally and make me whole. I mentioned before that my anxiety pretty much disappeared during my pregnancy. I was filled with a joy and a purpose that patched up any previous holes in my heart. I finally had someone to call my own, who promised to stay forever. Which was a huge relief for me, because I’ve lived through the opposite.

In my darkest days, while in therapy with Wendy and right before I started medication, I had a breakdown. In, fact, this was the session when, after a year of lots of talking and digging but little progress, she suggested I seek help from a psychiatrist. I really did try, I tell you.

My anxiety was so bad then that I could barely sit in her office without feeling terrified. I think I mentioned that we had to meet downstairs in a restaurant a few times just so I didn’t have to sit in there. This time, she suggested sitting in the office next to her, and maybe the different environment wouldn’t trigger any panic. Again, I really did try. I was laid out on a couch (like you would totally picture in a therapy session) trying to relax, but I was so anxious that I was shaking in my boots. Literally, I had my cowboy boots on that day. So at least I looked cute. But I was an anxious, panicky mess.

I can’t even remember what we were talking about, but somehow we got on the subject of my dad. I have an incredible, loving step-dad that I refer to as my dad, but my biological father has been estranged for about 11 years now. The last time I talked to him was on the phone, when I asked him if I could mail him an invite to my wedding. We’ll see, honey. We’ll see. And that was it.

Of course, I kind of expected that answer. After all, he had failed to produce any child support for his fourth child (from his third marriage) and he was trying to stay as low profile as possible. We always joked that if he had ended up coming to our wedding, it would have been like an episode of COPS. So of course, he was a no-show. I mean, he’s only the Father of the Bride. Sure, it was to be expected, given the circumstances. But it still hurt.

I remember getting upset about my dad when Jason and I were engaged. I was excited about marriage, but also terrified that one day he would leave. Because that’s what the men I love in my life do. They leave. There were a few nights I remember the flood gates opening up during our pillow talk (usually after a night of binge-drinking at the local bar) when I would ramble on about my fears of loving him with my whole heart and then being left in the dust. This has always been hard for me, to trust someone with my whole heart. To know that they won’t leave me. It’s easier to put my guard up and not get too close than to risk being heart broken.

Then I had a child. My resentment towards my dad really ramped up after that. How can a father leave his child? The question became even more infuriating after I became a parent. For that is probably my greatest fear of all; losing a child. But to just give up on one? To abandon them voluntarily? I was hurt and confused more than ever.

Back to Wendy’s office. Shaking in my boots. And somehow, we get on the subject of my dad. And I finally let it all go. I just don’t understand how he could leave me! I cried a terrible, organic, ugly cry right then.   And I’m not much of a crier. The hurt was deep, and it finally came to the surface. Slowly, eventually, the tears dried.  I stopped shaking, I calmed down, and I actually felt better. It was like an emotional cleansing.

She looked at me, with a comforting but bewildered smile. I think it would be best to refer you to a psychiatrist. Yeah, time to throw in the towel. Sweet Wendy. We tried, girl.

When you have a child, there is such overwhelming joy in your heart. You automatically love with your whole heart, no questions asked. There are no trust issues, no drama, it just IS. It is full-throttle LOVE. It is yours to keep, to cherish, to grow. But then, as big as the love comes, comes the WORRY. The realization that there are no guarantees. That it is your job to keep your child safe. The world becomes a threat. You adopt a whole new set of fears, and the stakes are higher than ever. The responsibility is stifling. You have finally given your whole-heart, and now you must be its protector.

They say when you have a child it’s like your heart has left your body and goes out into the world. That’s a pretty accurate way to describe how big your love is for your children. You would do anything for them.

You become a mama bear. 

My anxiety took a turn for the worse after my little hearts were outside my body out there in the open. I was responsible for keeping these precious loves safe at all cost. No pressure. 

Losing my children. 

When I worry about crashing on the highway. When I travel without them. When I feel like I am dying in the middle of a panic attack. I worry about my children. 

This is most likely fear number one.

And the sweet mom of the boy at Disney, I’m pretty sure it was hers too. 

And of course the father, the papa bear, trying to wrestle an alligator to save his child. I can’t bear to think of what it was like for those poor parents, to watch their worst fear unfold before them. I can’t.

I also can’t believe this family has to be defended. Of course this is a living nightmare for them. We owe them our complete support and compassion and those who dare think otherwise do not know what it’s like to have your heart out there in this big world, at risk of being swallowed up at any moment. Things can happen in the blink of an eye. We do our best to keep our children safe, but there’s only so much control we have. It is the heart-breaking, terrifying truth of parenting. We as parents, as humans, should be lifting this poor family up instead of judging and criticizing. It makes me sad to think I even have to say that.  Come on, people! Where is the LOVE?

Not too long ago, I was talking about my “real” dad, taking the usual bitter tone about how he doesn’t even know he has grandkids, yada yada, when my mom chimed in.

Poor Pete. He was always so down on himself. He never felt like he was good enough. 

My heart opened up right then. All of a sudden, I felt like I knew him, like our hearts shared a moment. Maybe we’re more alike than I realize. Maybe instead of harboring this bitterness and hurt, I should realize that he may be hurting just as much. Maybe I should practice compassion and forgiveness instead of anger and resentment. After all, he’s living out my worst fear. He’s lost his children. 

He needs love, too. 

Of course, we are not completely lost. We are very much here, carrying on our beautiful, messy lives, open to reconnecting at any moment. It just takes a little bit of effort, and a whole lot of courage.

Another Father’s Day has come and gone. I celebrated my wonderful step-dad and loving husband, and had an amazing weekend with my family. Of course, I also thought of my “real” dad today. I wondered how he feels on a day like today. I can’t imagine it’s warm and fuzzy. I assume he feels loss and regret, but I only assume that because I am a parent now. And if he and I are related, I trust that he has a compassionate heart like I do. A heart that loves deep and yet doesn’t know how to show it. A heart that feels like it’s not good enough and therefore may be reluctant to try. A heart that is only human.

One of the phrase I tell my kids often is: I’m doing the best that I can. I feel that it’s important to teach them that life is hard and complicated, and all we can do is try our best. We are not perfect. We will make mistakes. But we must give ourselves grace. And more importantly, we must give it to others, too.

Unless you’re a terrorist or an alligator. In that case, the mama bears are coming after you.

Hierarchy of Fears

Here it is! I’ve finally committed to writing about the hierarchy of fear. Let’s define a few things before we dive right in.

When you have lived with panic/anxiety disorder for while, you develop a pattern of avoidance called agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is defined as “fear of places and situations that might cause panic, helplessness, or embarrassment”. So essentially, this is the fear of fear I keep talking about.

It starts out so subtly that you don’t even realize that it’s developing, but the avoidance of fears can only last for so long. It starts to affect the way you live your life in a very limiting way. There are people who’s agoraphobia is so extreme that they become housebound. I met a lady once after college, when I was living in Florida, that had this condition, and it was the first time I had ever heard of such a thing.

What a miserable way to live! How could you be afraid to leave your house? 

Little did I know that one day I would be so close to knowing that feeling. It has never been that bad for me; yes, I do prefer the comforts of home, but I like to get out of the house. There was a time when things were really bad that leaving the house was starting to feel like a threat, but luckily I interviened with medication.

When I first read about common fears that can induce panic and anxiety, I felt instantly understood.

You mean there are other people who feel like they are going to die if they sit in the middle seat in a movie theater? I’m not the only one who panics when the door closes in a meeting? Wait, I feel like I’m suffocating on the subway too! 

When you develop these fears and hide them from the world, you feel like no one understands. You feel ridiculous, embarrassed, inferior. It’s terribly isolating. But you may be surprised to find that most of your fears and phobias are common and are understood by millions.

Approximately 3.2 million American adults ages 18 to 54, or about 2.2 percent of people in this age group in a given year, have agoraphobia. Specific phobia involves marked and persistent fear and avoidance of a specific object or situation.

Statistics | Mental Illness Research Association

Still feel alone? Sure you do. Better maybe, but where are all these people when you need them? It’s not like everyone’s open and understanding about it. Most people I know try to hide it or are unaware of what is actually happening to them. It took me 5 years to figure out and accept my issues. That’s a lot of time for people to walk around feeling scared and confused.

If you are one of the just plain scared and confused, you need to be proactive about treatment. There’s a difference in just being scared of something versus developing an actual phobia that changes your behavior and thought patterns. For some, a trip to a doctor/therapist  is a good place to start. Maybe a tweak in your diet and exercise regiment will make a world of difference. Meditation/prayer and getting enough sleep works wonders. But we are all different, and in different stages of the game. Since I was uneducated on how to heal myself naturally, I had little success and sought medication to get a jump start on my therapy. But if you catch it early enough, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Exposure Therapy can be very successful in treating panic. It’s considered the gold standard among psychologists for the treatment of anxiety disorders.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment that takes a hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving. Its goal is to change patterns of thinking or behavior that are behind people’s difficulties, and so change the way they feel.

In-Depth: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy | Psych Central

Of course, the way we think influences the way we feel. Our feelings and emotions influence our perspective on fear. Changing these thought patterns can be extremely helpful. Of course, if you are deep in the emotional pit of thinking, (which is where I tend to find myself often) logical thought training can be a challenge. For me, it made more sense to start CBT after finding a helpful medication to stabilize things a bit.

Exposure Therapy is a derivative of this theory; it’s also the most challenging since it involves directly facing your fears in order to overcome them. As scary as this sounds, for me it’s proven the most successful, that is, when I can muster up the courage to practice it.

Every time I get onto the highway, I’m using the exposure therapy technique. There is a big difference in the mindset that you use when exposing yourself to your fears. When you are actively practicing exposure therapy, you voluntarily put yourself in a position to become anxious and panicky, but you are prepared to let it happen instead of resist the fear. The resistance and avoidance is what essentially feeds the panic. Letting go of resistance is key. However, you must be prepared with the right tools before you practice.

So back to your list of fears. This is one of the first steps you must take before you begin any kind of therapy. You can simply jot them down on scratch paper or use a template like the one here:

There are different types of templates, and they vary slightly; play around with them until you find one you like.

You start with a general category. For me the big ones are driving, flying, confined spaces (this is very broad), darkness and crowds. Every one of these general categories that for me, has multiple sub-categories. For example, Fear of Confined Spaces could have the subcategories subways, tunnels, movie theaters, elevators, church, meetings, etc.

Once you decide which fear to start with, list each varying situation and rate them according to the scale you are using. Then, put them in order from least scariest to most. Now you have your starting point. Each baby step you take in conquering your fears is a step of success. It may feel painfully slow and cumbersome, but be patient with the process.

Again, it is important to know before you start practicing with panic that you need access to tools that will help you cope with the fearful situation. The AWARE steps I mentioned before are essential tools for riding out a panic attack. Of course there are various other tools that can help you with your anxiety in general, and I will cover those later. But for now, listing out and organizing your fears is a great start.

As you write out your fears, you may notice some of their powers instantly fading. Simply getting these thoughts out of your head and on to paper can be extremely therapeutic. Why do you think I started this here blog, people?!

You are a powerful voice in your own life. As hopeless as you may feel, you can change the way you react to your fears. Once you learn and truly start to believe that fear is a liar, that power is given back to you. It’s been there all along, you just have to learn to trust and believe it.

So write out your list. Your list of lies. I can’t wait for you to start crossing them off one by one. Cross them off and tell them to go where the sun don’t shine and never come back. Seats taken, fear. You’re not welcome here. 

The Happy List- Week 2

Summer is here! There’s a whole new list of favorite things to be appreciated. Here’s the top 10 things that made me smile this week. 

1. The start of summer. Y’all know that summer is my jam. I love how life slows down and warms up. We sleep later, we stay up longer, we permanently smell like sunscreen and bug spray. Will I be this in love with summer in a couple of months? Probably not. But for now, Yes!!! 

2. Elastic-waist loose shorts. Sure, my hubby thinks they look like pajamas. Heck, they are pretty darn close. But not only are they in style, they don’t squeeze my thighs until they are bursting at the seams. My current faves are $5 at the Wal-Mart. You’re welcome. 

3. The baseball field. Whether you’re at your child’s little league game or the professional stadium, nothing says American summer like being at a ball field. Grab a hot dog and a cold drink and you’re set. 

4. Watermelon. This red, juicy, heavenly fruit is on my favorites list for life. I ate so much watermelon when I was pregnant I thought I just might give birth to one. I especially love buying them whole and slicing them up. $5.99 at Costco people. The life span of a whole watermelon in my house is about 3 days. We are addicts. 

5. Hummingbirds. Every late spring/summer, we fill up the old feeder and they come for a visit. This spring, we actually had one stuck in our garage. The poor thing was exhausted and perfectly still, which I had never seen. We managed to set it free, and it was fascinating. We love to watch them from our sitting room as they fight over the feeder, those fiesty little guys. 

6. The pool. I know it can be high-maintenance with kids, (although this is finally the year no one is in a puddle jumper or a swim diaper) but when you’ve finished out the day with worn-out little ones wreaking of chlorine, it’s a darn good feeling. 

7. Good neighbors. You can’t pick your neighbors, much like you can’t pick your family. So when you have good ones, it’s like winning the lottery. Friday night we lost our dog (we scared him off while shooting fireworks) and so many neighbors grabbed their flashlights and took to the streets. My one sweet dog-loving neighbor drove around with me for hours. Bear did make it back (ever so non-challantly) around 3am that morning. We are so grateful for that furry little stinker and that we are surrounded by awesomeness. 

8. The Bachelorette.  I know, you’re rolling your eyes. But it’s so much mindless fun. Now you know where to find me on Monday nights. 

9. I feel like I haven’t mentioned enough food! How about vanilla bean ice cream? How good is it?! And what is it about those tiny bean specks?!! Delish. 

10. Memorial Day. Not necessarily a happy day, given the circumstances. But a day of celebration. A day of patriotism, which always makes me tear up a bit. A day to recognize the sacrifices that have been made for our freedom. I am forever grateful.