Project Me

*I wrote this post back in early January and never ended up posting it. I felt like time had passed and it was irrelevant after a couple of weeks.  It has been a busy, but positive couple of months since. But I still feel like it’s important to share where I’ve been. Plus, I haven’t posted in forever! So here you go!

I skipped my coffee today.

When it gets to the point that I fear even the mild effects of a cup of half-caff, I know its time to come to terms with my mental state.

Here I am again, my fear and me.  Funny how sometimes it creeps in so slowly that it seems to come out of nowhere are knock the wind out of you. At least that’s what happened to me a few days ago.

I was taking Jack home from school one day, driving the short journey home, when it struck.  The panic.  There was no warning.  It hit me like a bolt of lightning.  Quick, sharp, terrifying. As quickly as it came, it proceeded to disappear.  But the damage was done.  The aftershocks of fear shook me to the core, alerted me to a bigger problem.  What just happened? Why did this happen? How did I get here?

I continued on as usual, the day to day routine unfolding before me. But my mind circled anxiously.

Hello there, a-hole brain.  I was hoping we wouldn’t have to meet again on these terms. 

One of the most frustrating and complicated aspects of anxiety and depression is its ability to seep into your life ever so slowly, camouflaging itself in a variety of reactions and emotions, until all of a sudden you find yourself grasping and reaching to steady yourself, already far below the surface of stability.  I am so thankful for the ability to recognize my symptoms early, before descending too far into the dark.  But it is a complex puzzle.  Unlike the obvious clues of a sickness; a sore throat, a cough, a fever, mental illness has no such clues.  They are subtle, invisible discrepancies, slowly chipping away at our soul without much notice.  What’s even tougher to realize is that the people closest to us hardly notice either.

When you struggle with anxiety and depression, you learn that there is no cure. There is only management. In managing anything, there is a risk of unraveling, of finding ourselves back in a situation that needs some tweaking and reworking. Accepting this reality is a must.  I’ve spent too much time pouring useless anger and energy into my inability to have a perfect life.  I know now, that it does little to serve me.  Sure, I have a period of mourning, I have myself a few days of a big ol’ pity-party, but then its time to buck up and get to work.  It’s what a good manager must do.

I have made so many notable gains in the past year. I can’t discount my accomplishments.  In fact, it’s almost been an entire year since I have started this blog.  Last year around this same time, I found myself in a similar place mentally.  I was at a low place, searching for answers everywhere but within.  But then I let the words loose, and out they poured, and through this release began the most healing and progressive year I’ve had since starting this journey.  Which is why it is harder to find myself back at this place.  The higher you climb, the harder you fall. On the contrary, I’m better equipped to cushion the landing.  I have more knowledge, more experience, more support.  But still, getting back to work will be difficult.

Let me lead you through a typical cycle of hitting a low point when it comes to my mental state (since I’ve been through more than several now):

  1. Leading up to the “panic event” (let’s call it the awakening) there are subtle mood changes.  I may be more critical of myself or those close to me.  I find myself frustrated more, able to concentrate less, my mind obsesses more about little fears, about what others think.  I am drained of energy more often, I am in a general funk, and unable to pinpoint why.
  2. There is usually a change, whether it’s an event, a change in routine, or even a change of season. Sometimes just the quiet, meandering days post-holiday, when we find ourselves enjoying the quiet but also realizing we are stuck in the house for days on end, trying to dig ourselves out of old and new clutter, probably surrounded by restless children who’s routine is also upended, can be enough to break us.  It’s also January, and maybe you haven’t seen the sun in days, or you are buried under a blanket of snow and it hasn’t been above freezing in a week.  The third week of January is the week associated with the biggest rise in depression and suicide. It is a tough season for many.
  3. After the awakening event occurs, I go through the typical shame cycle. I am scared, I am confused, I am discouraged, I am angry, I am sad. This is when the pity-party ensues.  I mope around, wondering why me, and try to figure out how I’m going to live like this.
  4. I start looking for answers.  I obsess over small ailments and wonder if there’s a bigger problem.  I’ve been dizzy lately…am I getting vertigo? Maybe it’s just my sinuses? What if it’s a brain tumor? Is my eye-sight getting worse?
  5. I realize I am being paranoid and start working on a management plan.  I start carving out some more me time.  I go to yoga.  I go for a run.  I start my nightly meditations and prayers.  I make time to write.  I force myself to spend time on my hobbies; I write poetry, play the piano and the guitar (even if it messes up my nails!).
  6. I make an appointment to see my PA at the psychiatrist’s office.  I need to pay attention to my medication management and stay on top of it.
  7. I slowly feel the cloud start to dissapate. Hope always remains.

I have to remain patient during this process.  I have to come to grips with the fact that I may find myself in this difficult place many more times in my lifetime.  Most importantly, I have to be okay with this.  I must embrace it.  My stubborn personality despises this, but that will not change things.  As I explained in an earlier post, I must lean into change. 

I have started up poetry again for the first time in over 15 years, and have decided to publish it (much to my initial resistance), mostly because it is usually written in the most raw, emotional moments.  Sometimes the words come so quickly, it’s alarming. But this is a coping mechanism, and I feel like I need to share it. If even one person can connect to my words, my job is done. The purpose is worth the risk and vulnerability.  I wrote this poem in the parking lot of Publix, sitting in my car, feeling as if I were wrapped in thick, grey clouds. The only way I felt I could get out of my funk was to write right then, in that moment. The words aren’t always pretty, but they help take the weight off. It’s a wonderful gift. You can check this particular poem out (yikes!!!) at the end of this post. Ugh, being transparent is soooo scary! 

So if I seem off these days, I apologize.  I’m grappling with a big project right now, and it seems that I need to put in a little extra work.  Most likely, I will present to you a version of myself that shows little to no struggle, which is just how I operate. I try hard to always share my light, even when I am shadowed within. My pain is often encased in a shiny, sparkling shell. Which I why I am thankful for the opportunity to share these words, to share my heart of truth with you, even if you can’t see it on my face.

We are all works in progress; continual projects in need of proper managment and often times restructuring. Don’t be afraid to call an emergency meeting with yourself.  Open the door and have that hard conversation. Sometimes a little performance review can motivate and move you in a new, better direction. And don’t forget, you’re not allowed to quit. You are the most important job you will ever have.

Now, off to work I go.

What if You Fly?

The last time I flew in an airplane, I wrote my heart out for two hours straight. But when I failed to realize that my phone coverage didn’t extend beyond my home country, consequently, all was lost.  

What I did realize, however, is that despite my loss, the benefit from the process still remained. The process, markedly, was the expoltion of my emotions in the way that best serves me; by writing them out. 

When you are a writer, or any kind of creator, really, it’s like having an imaginary portal that bypasses the normal means of communication. Where as one may cry when upset or scream out when scared or verbally speak what’s on their mind, some of us need the portal of words to get our feelings out. Others may feel compelled to paint or draw or feverishly bang away on a piano. The pathway to emotional freedom is like that for me. The emotions stir within, churning and expanding, trapped without an escape route, until…the words come.  But seemingly for me, the words must be written or typed to be best understood. Verbalization of words becomes an extra hurdle of which I always stumble over.  Writing is the medium that makes the most sense to me; it has repeatedly proven to be the most authentic expression of myself. 

So, seeing that I must rely on the writing process to efficiently shed my overflowing emotions, here I sit on the airport runway, heart pounding and breath seizing, fingers typing feverishly, my two precious babies beside me, preparing for take off. My nerves are raw and my mind grasps to steady itself. 

Jack, being an overthinker much like myself, has been barraging us with questions for the past month. 

Are the engines loud? How loud are they? How does the plane lift off? How high will we go? 

He has flown before, but he was only 3 at the time. At 7, his ideas are big and the questions are bigger. He wants to know everything that’s going to happen before it happens. He yearns for control. He wants nothing to do with unpredictability. He is my child, no doubt. 

Then there is my little Allie. This is her first flight. At age 4, and being the second, more fearless child, she is gung-ho and ready. She woke up exclaiming, I’m so excited! Ahhh…the adventurous spirit of a young, uninhibited mind. 

Ready for takeoff!

We start down the runway, and Allie squeals with delight. I can sense Jack’s nervousness; he is watching the plane’s every move, internally analyzing. As for myself, I know too much. I am a mess of worry and fear and catastrophic thinking. I close my eyes and squeeze their soft little hands and say my most earnest prayer. 

The wheels lift and we are propelled upwards with a rush of air. I am forced to raise the white flag of surrender as I begin to accept my current situation. Soon enough, fear and anticipation quickly turn into wonder and amazement as the world below us shrinks. 

Look at the tiny trees! The tiny cars! Everything’s so tiny! 

I love how children are little sponges for joy. How they focus in on the positive in an instant, like a dog that has suddenly picked up a scent, is brilliant.  They hone in and live in the moment. It is an admirable trait. 

I had been anxiously anticipating this day of travel for months. I do not like to fly (despite a love affair with flying in my pre-panic disorder life), and doing so with my two smallish children in tow had not been high on my list of upcoming fun activities. Talk about a recipe for a panic attack. But there I sat, in the moment, the normal fears tangled up and swollen with the mom fears, but through it I must go. Exposure therapy, here I come! 

Okay. So it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined it. My kids actually had a blast. They got to color, play their iPads, gaze out the window at the tiny houses and puffy white clouds, and they were so excited that they got mini cups of Sprite. Oh, AND they each got 3 bags of peanuts. I mean, how could one not be having fun?

We did get the dreaded buckle up for turbulance announcement. As soon as that seatbelt sign lights up and the ding!!! goes off, I prepare for the worst. My stomach sinks and my body goes numb in preparation for this event to occur. What is it about the turbulance??? Me no likey. 

Allie, however, sees this moment as a huge adventure. As we are tossed about on invisible waves of air, she is flat-out laughing. 

Wheeee!!!! This is like a roller coaster!

Oh, sweet Allie. To have your zest for life, your fearless zeal. I long for even a tiny taste. 

Taking this flight was a huge hurdle for me. The first flight, EVER, with both of my children. Not only did I have my usual flying anxieties to deal with, but I would also have to manage the unpredictable nature of little ones. I also felt the crushing pressure to be strong for them, to keep it together. I was the adult here. 

As I’ve mentioned before (especially in my previous post, Mama Bears (and Papa Issues)), as a mother, your deepest, purest desire is to keep your children safe.  On the contrary, in the midst of a panic attack, you feel total endangerment and loss of control. Nothing could seem farther from feeling safe and secure. This is why the fear of fear is that much heavier; I feel like I cannot keep my children safe while I, myself, am a panicky mess. It is a helpless,  depressing and extremely maddening feeling. 

Of course, this is a distorted thought, causing unnecessary worry and doubt. I am able to recognize these fraudulent thoughts now. Still, their roots run deep; it will take time to dig them up and uncover their many crooked pathways. It is a slow process. 

Thankfulky, we had an amazing Thanksgiving trip. Lots of quality time with family, beautiful scenery, and so many memories made. What a shame it would’ve been to miss it all because of fear. To think back on all the things I have already missed out on over the years is heartbreaking. 

Our view from our lodge in Cambridge, MD.
Jack is seriously a bass master.
The amazing Thanksgiving feast.

I’m declaring this trip a huge victory. The confidence gained just by checking off this box has been profound.  Not to say there won’t be nerves and doubts the next time we have to fly the “friendly” skies, but the first time is always the hardest. It’s even opened up a whole new pathway of thinking. One that asks, Where shall we fly to next? What family adventures await? 

It’s remarkably refreshing. 

I can’t explain how good it feels to be able to even think simple thoughts like this, thoughts that didn’t exist a few weeks ago. Thankfully, the framework of the mind is not made of cement. It is flexible, malleable; like the birch tree that bends without breaking, the mind can always be persuaded to lean just a little bit more each time. We can stretch ourselves in ways we never thought possible. We can claim even the smallest victories when it comes to fear. 

What will your little victory be today? Or perhaps you will decide to conquer one of your bigger fears? How can you bend your mind just a little bit more? What box do you need to check in your life? 

Just do it. 

You are stronger than you think. 

We are the champions, my friend.

Whatever cliche sports metaphor you want to insert here, it’s better than telling yourself you are a failure. It’s better than not even trying. Even if you have to motivate yourself just to think about trying, it’s better than succumbing to the debilitating chains of fear. 

Don’t listen to the naysayers in your head. Words can be beautiful and words can be downright destructive. You can choose which words will be heard the loudest; you can choose the conversation you want to have with yourself. When you hear words that praise you, that build you up and cheer you on, grab hold of them tight. Hold them steadfast to your heart and tattoo them on with the darkest of ink. Or maybe use a gold glitter sharpie. Whatever. But don’t let them go, those beautiful, life-saving words. 

I can think of so many words, whether it be a single word, a phrase or a quote, that have carried me to where I am today. These words sing to me when my heart is lonely and afraid. Sometimes they are my own words and often they are the words of others, but the source doesn’t matter as much as the substance. 

Wherever they come from, cherish them. Speak them to yourself with care and kindness. Words of praise will pull you forward and propel you upwards. They can carry you high above the dark depths of fear. 

The next thing you know, you’ll look around and see the clouds below you. 

And all at once, there you are. 

You’re flying. 

These Dreams (and Realities)

We say it every time we travel. 

We can totally make this dish at home!

We can decorate our backyard like this!

We need to remember to carve out time like this for each other at home!

And then we go home. We fall back into the same routine, get hit with the same everyday stress, figure out that finding fresh octopus and passion fruit for ceviche and tropical drinks is not a practical option from our local Publix. Life continues as we left off, and our vacation memories are put on a shelf. 

As we shared our last lunch of our vacation to Tulum, Mexico, we acknowledged that fact. 

Okay, so there’s no way we will be able to recreate this at home. 

The view from our room. Seriously…you cannot recreate this.

But then we acknowledge that that’s okay. That’s the reason why vacations exist. To get away from your everyday life, to appreciate a different place and culture, to bridge the gap between the foreign and familiar. 

Still my husband threw out lofty ideas. 

We can get a place down here! We could come down a few months a year and rent it out the rest of the time! It would be amazing!!

I love my husband and his big ideas. I love his grandeur and his spontaneous, contagious excitement. But I am the practical one. The one who keeps us down to earth. The yin to his yang. Sure, internally I’m a dreamer. But in reality, I am a humble creature who enjoys the safety of her comfort zone. I love small snippets of adventure, but I love the joy of coming home even more. 

This guy. He dreams big. That’s why I love him.

So I let him dream out loud, listening to his outlandish thoughts while I quietly smile and stare out at the ocean, knowing that tonight we will be home and the dreams will be hung back up, put away with the suitcases, maybe to be revisited later when they are one day repacked. 

I’m not saying that you can’t have dreams, people. How unmotivating is that? I’m just saying when you get to a place in your life, when you are a family with kids and a home and pets and school and sports and all that circles around that lifestyle, you can’t just hit pause. Of course, I guess you could. But there will be some obvious obstacles and daunting tasks to get to that pause. 

I think one of the best things about our trip down here were the people. Most notable, the people at our resort. Sure, we are paying customers; we are expected to be treated well I guess. But these people went above and beyond. They treated us like friends, almost like family. It made all the difference. 

The staff set up a surprise anniversary dinner for us on the rooftop. Such a special night.

One of our friends was a bartender named Eduardo. We spent lots of time at the bar (it was a beach vacation with no kids, so of course), and got to know him pretty well. He is ten years younger than me. Single, a charming guy with big dreams. He wants to run his own beach bar one day. He also wants to travel. 

Eduardo, one of our favorite bartenders.

Do it now! I tell him. 

Before life gets serious. Ties you down. But be smart about it. Jason interjects with sound business advice. Make smart decisions. Save some money first. Don’t burn any bridges along the way. 

I love how life is a series of decisions, sometimes circumstantial, sometimes intentional. There will be paths to take and paths to leave untraveled. Some paths are attempted but blocked along the way, and occasionally we are able to traverse them later. We can even revisit a path; we can stumble upon paths we thought were lost forever, only to find them wide open and ready for another chance.  I love looking at my life right now, appreciating it for what it is, and admiring the tangled mess of roads that got me here. 

Eduardo has many more miles to travel. I remember that me, ten years ago, fresh off of the I do’s and ready for this next chapter. Then like the blink of an eye, here it is. My husband, my precious two children, our sweet stinky dog, our dream home, our friends and family. A decade behind me, a new chapter before me. 

I smile as I listen to Eduardo talk about his dreams. I smile because I know he will be okay, whatever path he ends up going down. When he gets there he will realize it, too. But it is a long journey. And there will be more roads ahead. 

So who knows…maybe one day I’ll be writing from our thatch-hut villa on the Mexican coast, chopping up fresh fruit and grilling our catch of the day. Maybe one day we will be able to visit our friend Eduardo for some fish tacos at his new restaurant. Or maybe we won’t have the luxury of ever returning to this magical place, and fond memories will be all that we have.

The sunrise from our bedroom each morning. What a view.

 Whatever the future holds, our path has been enlightened, thanks to this amazing trip. There are new avenues and ideas to explore. We have intersected and merged with others along their paths and been fortunate enough to join them for a few steps of their journey. 

Traveling gives you the gift of experience, of a broader world-view, of lasting memories. You are a better person for it. Even if it’s not a vacation, there is always something to gain.  It may terrify you, sadden you, or exhaust you,  but travel will always impact you in some way. It will lead you to a richer, fuller life. You may end up feeling smaller out in this big world, but you will appreciate bigger. 

Well, time to fly. Literally, I’m about to get back on the airplane to head home. And as always, I’m a jumbled mess of mixed emotions. 

Oh, the fearful anticipation. Oh, the knowing that I will have to look those demons of fear in the face in a few short moments. Oh, the fact that the gift of travel is not without it’s moments of discomfort. Oh, the idea that in order to live our fullest lives we must also embrace the risks. 

But oh, the living I have done. 

And then there’s the dream. The dream that is about to come true, God-willing.  Bigger than the dreams of travel and grandeur and possibility. Bigger than anything I could’ve ever dreamed up myself. 

The dream that awaits at home. 

Okay, so maybe minus the laundry. Laundry is never a part of anyone’s dream.

But I’ll still take it. 

Pardon My French

I hesitated to write this post at first, but as I shuffled around speed-cleaning the house, the thoughts kept bubbling up, the words wanting to burst out of my head. So here I am, typing away instead of weeding through my children’s clothes to find the things they’ve outgrown (like I had planned). But as I’ve learned in my renewed love affair with writing, you can’t ignore a surge of inspiration. Poor Jack may end up sporting a crop top when he goes to put on that 4T shirt later, but at least I managed to purge my thoughts.

I’d been thinking about a phrase I’ve used lately, and frankly, too infrequently in the past. It’s a bit off the cuff, especially for me (a generally straight-laced, mild-mannered individual), but if something works for you, you go with it.

My husband had an outpatient procedure the other day that I had to accompany him to, and was also required to drive him home from.  The hospital is a good distance from us, so I anticipated having to take the interstate home.  I tried to avoid circling my thoughts around this too much, reminding myself that I’ve been successful lately with my highway driving, so this would be no different, right?

Someone else was nervous too!

Two things that worried me, however; it was 8:30 am, smack in the middle of morning rush hour in metro Atlanta, and I had an adult passenger. Sure, it was just my husband. But much of my driving anxiety started with him as a passenger, so there are some pretty deep associations present when he’s in the car. Poor guy, he thinks it’s all his fault. Anyway, I briefly toyed with the idea of taking the back roads, but we had been up since 5 am, and we were ready to get home. So I put myself on auto pilot and headed for the highway.

I haven’t touched much on my social anxiety, but it plays a big factor in how my other anxieties and phobias are affected. As a people-pleaser and chronic “nice” person, you constantly worry about what other people think of you.  You would rather die than ever burden anyone with your issues, so you bury your emotions. You constantly crave acceptance, so you only want to show the most acceptable side of yourself. All of this “acting” and pressure to be perfect can further contribute to anxiety by blocking any and all outlets of stress relived by showing genuine emotion.  I am constantly putting pressure on myself not to fail (although I’ve drastically improved at this lately) by avoiding my real feelings and hiding behind this perception of having it all together. The “fear of man”, that I have referenced in an earlier post, carries an uneven, unhealthy amount of weight in my life.

When I’m worried about trying to drive without having a panic attack, and then you throw the social anxiety on top of it, you end up with a Double Stuff Oreo of anxiety. Not sure if this is the best metaphor, as I love me some Double Stuff Oreos. So maybe an over-flowing trash can of anxiety? Whatever works here.

Anyway, I’m driving along for a bit, while my husband is in a post-anesthetic coma but managing to make work calls, and all of a sudden, I start to feel my chest tightening up. When you start to panic, you can feel as if you don’t have enough air (this can eventually lead to hyperventilating, which ironically, is the effect of taking in too much air), and I falsely sense the oxygen thinning.  I deepen my breaths and try to let the calm wash over me. I start to notice the alarming amount of cars around me, and my body stiffens at the thought of being trapped. I hang out in the far right lane for a while, giving myself an exit strategy just in case I need to pull over. I don’t worry much anymore about having to pull over with my husband in the car, as I’ve done it many times with him in the past and he has learned to be understanding. But I still have my pride, and I force myself to push through this impulse, knowing that I’ve faced this challenge before.  Still, with every approaching exit sign I have the urge to give up, to take the comfortable route. My thoughts are circling again, the doubt is surfacing. My body is stiff, my chest is tight, I struggle to get enough air in, or so it feels.

Am I going too slow? Are people getting annoyed with me? Can I pass this person or will I panic if I’m in the middle lane? Will my husband be disappointed if I exit now? Will I be disappointed? Can I make it home? 

Worry. Doubt. Fear.

I feel the words in my head causing physical symptoms in my body. The pressure to please. The lies of fear. The dialogue with my a-hole brain that has held me back from a full life…from freedom.

Then I remember; have the power. It’s within me. I can talk back to my a-hole brain. It will not control me. So I fire back at it.

Who gives a shit? 

You laugh, I know. This is not how I usually talk. But this is how I should talk to my a-hole brain.  I mentioned in an earlier post that I needed to talk to myself more like a friend, but my a-hole brain is not my friend. It is an intruder, an annoying, trouble making creep who’s taken up residence in my brain. I spend so much energy being nice to everyone around me, but I cannot keep being nice to the a-hole. I can’t keep entertaining its thoughts and resume a passive stance.

I say this phrase silently, in my head. As soon as the words take over, the fear melts away, almost instantly.

I’m driving too slow and this might annoy people. So what?

I might panic if I switch lanes. Who cares?

I might disappoint others or myself. Who gives a shit?!!

I hardly ever curse. Not that I’m against people who do, it’s just not my thing. Unless I’m trying to learn a new sport. Then you might happen to hear a few choice words. The first time I tried to ski with my husband (who is one if those natural athlete-type people and therefore infuriating to the athletically challenged, like myself) I cursed like a sailor and at one point proceeded to throw a ski pole.  But cursing at fear and doubt can be incredibly powerful, not to mention therapeutic. 

This is not me, but its pretty much what I look like on a ski slope.

I know some of you are like, this is how I think all the time, no big deal.  To you I say, more power to you. Way to be resilient and confident and unaffected by the messiness of life. Not that you don’t care, but you know when to say when. You know when to stand up for yourself. For those of you like me, who care too much, who worry about everything, who can’t imagine upsetting anyone, we need some more curse words in our lives.  Just stick them in your back pocket and pull them out when the too much is starting to paralyze you. Don’t feel bad about it. Don’t think you are disappointing anyone by using the power of a word. Okay, so do use your best judgment here, of course, but when talking to yourself, let it go. No one is in your head but you. You won’t offend a soul by silently cussing out the thoughts that shouldn’t be there in the first place. Go to town, my friend.

It’s truly amazing, the power of words. Words can knock you down, but just as quickly build you back up. They can hurt but they can heal.  When weakness envelopes you and  fear tries to trick you into imminent failure, reach into that back pocket and pull out the words that will fight back.  It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic, of course. You may simply shout NO!!! STOP! when defeating thoughts begin to surface. Whatever works for you.

Of course, one of the most important things I’ve learned on my journey with anxiety and panic, is that you don’t want to stop the actual attack.  When panic is coming on, it’s important to let it come, and not try to stop the actual event of a panic attack.  Thinking you can stop a panic attack, and desperately trying to stop it, has the counter-effect of making it worse and more intense.  But changing our thoughts in the moment is the key here.

For example, if I’m riding along worrying about a handful of things while driving on the highway in a heightened state of sensitivity, there’s a huge difference in saying “No, I cannot panic. Please don’t panic.  I’m so scared that I will have a panic attack. Oh no, here it comes!!” and “Who cares if I panic? Here comes a wave of panic now. I will be just fine. It will be uncomfortable and I don’t like it, but who gives a shit? It will pass and life will go on. No one cares if I panic.” Can you pick out the better way to talk to yourself in an anxious situation? Which one is more forgiving? Which one gives you room to breathe and let go?

In the past when I would start to panic and freak out in front of my husband, he would tell me to “ride the wave”.  Of course, at the time I would just get mad at him and tell him he didn’t understand.  As it turns out, however, he was right (cue eye-roll).  The wave of panic will come, and like any wave, you cannot stop it.  It has to gradually grow, crest, and break.  To prepare for this, we must learn the best way to ride the wave of panic. It will be uncomfortable, unpredictable and hard to control, but we can do our best to steady our boards and ride it out until the water eventually becomes smooth again. More waves will come, yes, and some will be bigger than others.  We may be scared and unsure. But we become better riders with practice.  We learn to lean into the waves and our ride becomes smoother. We are better prepared if we get tossed into the surf. We ride it out and know that eventually we will reach the safety of the shore. 

It takes so much practice. That’s the scary part, starting the practice. But it can make all the difference. Don’t give your fears too much material to work with.  Belittle them and they will slowly fade away. If you don’t care about them, they won’t care either. Neglect your fears and they will not survive.  Don’t let them back you into a corner; just walk right past those fears and don’t give them a second glance.

I hope you care enough about yourself to not give a shit. Not when it comes to believing the lies fear throws at us. Not when our thoughts make us think less of who we are. You are too important to put up with that.

What will you say to your fear? I hope whatever it is, it’s not very nice. Frankly, I hope it has something to do with going to hell.

Okay, you can wash my mouth out now.

The soap may taste bad, but the freedom tastes oh so good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Longest Drive

I’m doing it again.

I’m waiting for perfection.

I haven’t blogged as near as much as I’ve wanted to, and besides lack of time (or reaching for the glass and wine and a blanket instead of the laptop) there’s really no good reason not to be writing more frequently. I’m beginning to think, however, that this pesky little perfectionist in me may have something to do with it.

I keep waiting for the perfect thing to write about, edit it a hundred times, and then finally put it out there. When it’s perfect.  Didn’t I promise transparency, though? Didn’t I tell you to give yourself grace and embrace your imperfections? Looks like I need to start taking my own advice.

I started following a blog recently, and the author posted a new goal of trying to blog everyday. Everyday! I can barely put make-up on everyday. Today I didn’t even get dressed until almost 11am (not that I wasn’t super productive though…it’s amazing how many household chores you can get done in your pj’s! And thank goodness no one can see my glorious outfits in morning carpool line!!).

I’ve accomplished some pretty noteworthy things in the past few months, and I have hardly written a thing about them. Why?! Part of me thinks no one really wants to read about it. That’s the other pesky friend in my head, the low self-worth one. She’s just hanging out up there with little Miss Perfect, having a cocktail and scheming away and how to rob me of a full, content life. Sorry ladies, time for last call.

In the spirit of celebrating my accomplishments, I am determined to write about my drive yesterday. I took the longest drive with the kids I’ve ever done…7 hours from Destin to Kennesaw by myself. BY MYSELF!!!!! As I traversed those long, seemingly endless stretches of highway, I thought, I need to blog about this!  Yet those snarky frenemies in my head started inflicting doubt. It’s just a boring drive. Why would people want to read about that? People drive all the time. They don’t want to read about it. 

So I didn’t take to the keyboard, although I was fresh off reaching this huge goal and teeming with disbelief and pride.  It was partially out of pure exhaustion that I failed to capture the moment in words…I’d driven the farthest I had been in about 10 years, and I still had to unpack and put the kids to bed without a husband. The wine and cozy blanket were the clear winners.

Here I am though. I’m going to write about this, damn it! Sure, my kids are yelling at me from downstairs and I should be starting dinner, but they will survive a few more measly minutes. I can at least get started and stop if they start beating each other up. Clock is ticking.

While I ruminated on whether anyone would want to read about a boring drive home from the beach, I had a thought. When I first started grappling with this anxious driving business, I was desperate for answers, advice…anything to proove that I wasn’t alone in this. Enter the smart phone. I Googled driving anxiety, then searched and searched for someone with a similar story. There were some forums here and there, some technical psychology sites, links to this and that; I did read some snip-its of similar experiences, but nothing that I could really connect with. I ended up finding an anxiety Facebook group, so I put a couple of posts out there and waited. I needed support and reassurance. The most poignant response I received was from a woman who had just started driving on the highway again, after 20 years. In my reply, I remember asking her how she did it? She mentioned that it took a great support group and lots of courage. That’s one of the trickiest parts of recovering from the grips of paralyzing fear…there’s no clear answer. No one size fits all. But we crave a sense of community, a support group of our own, for whatever we may need. We cannot do it alone.

This is why I write. Because maybe there’s that one person, who was like me 6 or 7 years ago, desperately searching for a common thread, for a link to a glimmer of hope. Someone out there needs me. More than likely, it’s several someones.

Back to the drive. I have said for years, one day I want to be able to drive my kids to the beach. It has been a goal for so, so long. I really am still in disbelief that I actually did it. I’m like that though, slow to react; I kind of go into shock until reality sets in. Anyway, the opportunity kind of just presented itself unexpectedly.

We took a family trip down to Ft. Walton Beach, right outside of Destin, FL. I was so excited that Jason could finally join us; he is so hard to pin down with his work schedule. When we arrived I realized that it was booked until Monday, and we had planned to come back Sunday. By the time Saturday evening rolled around, Jason made a suggestion; what if he flew home (he had an international flight he had to catch the next day) and I drove the kids home? Then we could stay an extra day.

Could you do it? he asked.

Pause.

This is where the fear wants to control you. You hesitate, you start to make excuses, you try to find every reason not to face your fear. Jack has school. I really miss my bed. I don’t know if the kids can ingest another meal of popcorn shrimp. But I knew better.  Here was an opportunity. Not only to extend our wonderful, priceless family time, but to practice. To take the fear head on. I did not pause for long this time.

Yes. 

Yes! Challenge accepted. Was I really going to do it? Then Jason went ahead and booked his flight. It was done. I was in.

Yes. This is why we needed another day.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t even that worried. Usually, the anticipatory anxiety would fester and build until I was a hot mess of nerves. But we just enjoyed our last day of glorious beach vacation time, sipped frozen drinks while our kids played in the pool (side note: the day when both your children can swim unassisted in a pool is AH-MAZING!!!), Jason flew out, I enjoyed another frozen pool drink, we watched the sunset from the beach, swam until dark, ordered a pizza, and called it a day. I even slept like a rock. It wasn’t until the next day that my nerves started acting up on me.

Looking back, I think that packing the entire condo up into the truck while you are alone with two kids and a dog was maybe more annoying than the entire drive, but thanks to the trusty old iPads, I got the job done.  So we all strapped into the F150 (Jason’s car, since mine was at home) and I started taking deep breaths. This is it. I have to do this. 

I find necessity to be a very helpful motivator. There was only one way home, and I was it. But I was nervous. I adjusted my seat belt. I entered the address in Google Maps and dissected each possible route.  I ate a protein bar. Mom, I’m ready to go! My son was clearly not in the mood for stall tactics. Time to go.

I decided to take a different way then how we came in, really only for old time’s sake. Back in high school and college I could drive to Destin with my eyes closed, we came down so many times. I can still see myself, driving in my white ’88 Honda Accord, windows down, music blasting, usually a best friend or two riding along. I used to put the car in cruise control and drive Indian-style, for goodness sakes. Please Lord don’t let my kids ever do that. There were no smart phones, no navigation systems; it was just me, a road atlas and a Sony Walkman CD player that would play through the stereo via cassette tape. Free as a bird (and probably listening to Free Bird).

So I started on the route, reminiscing over familiar sights and smells, noticing changes here and there, but mostly enjoying the scenery.

Until I came to the bridge.

The Mid-Bay Bridge seemed familiar, I’m pretty sure this was the route we used to take into Destin back in the day. These days, however, bridges are not my friend. As part of my anxiety I suffer from agoraphobia, which is a fear of being trapped or stuck in an enclosed space. A bridge leaves no room for error. I must maintain complete control and competence on a bridge.

There was a girl in college with me that was deathly afraid of bridges. I was with her once when she had to cross a bridge, and people had to literally hold her hand to help her across. I remember thinking that was crazy. How could you be scared of a bridge? I know now. I think of her all the time. Crazy how things can change.

I glance at the navigation map…wow, that’s a long bridge. I must maintain myself for how long? The impulsive thoughts come quickly…should I turn around? Should I reroute? Can I pull over if I need to? Can I do this?!

Yes. I can do this.

It is not a walk in the park. I take deep breaths. I try to control the AC so that it’s just perfect. I prepare to be uncomfortable. And then…I’m driving over the bridge. Guess what? I just go with it. Then, I turn the moment from dread into complete wonderment.

Look at the water guys! (They are engrossed in the iPads at this point) Put your iPads down!!! Look at the sailboat! Look at that pelican on the pole! Say goodbye to the ocean, guys!

This is the good stuff. The good that is happening in the moment. I declare the goodness out loud, and flush away the negative. Then, just like that, we are over the bridge.

Getting over that bridge seemed to be the push I needed to make it through the rest of the trip. After that, it was smooth sailing. The small highways didn’t look all that familiar; I’m pretty sure there were some new ones built in the 15 years since I’d driven down here. There were some pretty sketchy, remote areas (at one point the road didn’t even register on the map), but most of the route was straightforward. In the past I never had anxiety about being lost; I always considered myself having a decent sense of direction. We drove through a couple of rain storms, had to let the dog out to pee on the side of the road, then Jack had to go (which resulted in stepping in an ant hill, which he was quick to brush off, but then decided he would stick it to the ants by peeing on them). We hit up two Love’s truck stops (which were eerily similar and packed with way too many tempting kids toys), stuffed our faces with McDonalds and Pringles. We listened to Katy Perry on repeat (per Allie’s request) and laughed at Bear when he got his head stuck in the Happy Meal box scavenging for rogue french fries. Jack had a timer set on his phone to track how long it would take us to get home, but he still kept asking.

Mama, how many minutes are in 2 1/2 hours?? After many appeasing answers, I finally responded with, I can’t do math in the car. 

On I-10
Off the map!
She wore this the whole way home. My hero.

We actually had a decent time. The kids were great. Again, thank you Apple. We had a lot of laughs. I had a lot of time to think. I sang a lot of Katy Perry. But what I didn’t have a lot of, was fear.

Every mile, every second, every hour, was another step. A step towards freedom. I was building on this experience and coming out stronger because of it.

I did stall again, however, as I approached I-85. What had been simple, two lane divided highways for most of the trip were bound to end once we inched closer to downtown Atlanta. I stopped at the end of the smaller route 185 to get gas, clean out the car, let the dog pee…putting off the inevitable. Unless I wanted to add an extra couple of hours to the trip, I had to push on.

So on I went. The kids were getting a bit antsy into hour 6, and I couldn’t blame them. More motivation to take the fastest route…and the most intimidating. Three lanes turned into four, five, and finally I was in the middle of the eight lane connector. This was the stuff I had only reserved for my nightmares, and all of a sudden I was slap in the middle of it. But I was calm. I had to work at it, but I remained that way. As I hit rush-hour traffic in downtown (fabulous timing, I know), I realized that I could hop over to the HOV lane (yes, I Googled it and kids do count), but it was all the way over to the left. Much like the bridge I had feared earlier, the left lane is not my friend either. But I was ready to get through this as fast as I could if it meant getting home quicker. So over I went.

The big, scary connector up ahead.
At least Bear is relaxed!

I got some dirty looks (at one point I rolled the windows down so the kids were a bit more visible), but the HOV lane sped my commute up immensely. Next thing you know, I’m on 75 north, cruising with the rush hour crowd like it’s no big deal. I got this. I pull in the driveway and want to kiss the ground. Home. I’m exhausted. The car smells like stinky dog, sweaty kids and chicken nuggets. But we made it. I did it.

If the me from 6 years ago could read this, I’d be in shock. I wouldn’t believe it. It would be impossible to fast-forward through years of crippling fear and doubt to realize that a moment like this could exist. But what that younger, more fearful, broken me would see, is that there is hope. That fear does not win in the end. The the steps are small and painfully slow. Sometimes there will even be steps backwards, but there is hope in the end. There is always hope. No one can get you there but yourself, but you also cannot do it alone.

I met with a friend not long ago who specializes in natural healing and helps patients with anxiety, and had overcome it herself. As I explained the many outlets and paths I had been taking to find an answer somewhere out in the universe, she said something that will always resonate with me.

The answer is in YOU. You have everything you need right there, inside you. 

I finally believe her. I knew she was right, even then, but like all things in life, sometimes it takes the gift of time and wisdom to see what’s right in front of us…what’s been within reach the entire time. One day, I promise, you will be able to just reach up and grab it. And when you do, hold on. Hold on tight.

And by all means, freaking celebrate it.

 

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This Friend I Know

Starting a post at 11:30pm is never a good idea, but inspiration is not known for being timely. So here I go.

I’ve been thinking all day about this friend I know.

It’s not a new friend, but it’s someone I haven’t treated like a friend lately. Or ever, perhaps. I started thinking about her this morning.

We had some family in town, and I was doing my best to be a gracious and put-together hostess (even though these were probably the easiest-going house guests one could ever have).  So, of course I was worried about the normal hostess things like my house being a mess and what do I offer them to drink and shoot, sorry I’m out of regular coffee, now you won’t be able to function thanks to me. I do love having people in my house, don’t get me wrong. But I have major performance anxiety about it.  I’m always second guessing myself in this situation. Am I entertaining them enough? Am I leaving them alone enough? Do my towels smell clean?  I’m so judgemental of myself in this position.

I have always felt that although I love having people over, I despise hosting. I’m not sure if this makes sense, but the only way I can untangle this thought is by guessing that since I like helping people and doing things for others, welcoming people into your home is a positive, people-pleasing move.  That same people-pleasing tendency, however, can get wound up so tightly in perfection that you feel the responsibility of this pleasing business squeezing all the air right out of you.

I relayed this insecure perspective to someone the other day, while I was going on about how excited I was to have everyone over to our house in a couple of weeks for a party, but how I was already starting to get crazy-eyed over all the crap I have to do to get my house looking absolutely perfect. You’re home is so warm and welcoming! You have nothing to worry about! I went on to explain my theory of “house anorexia”: that I have a distorted image of how my house looks and it will never look good enough. This is obviously not as serious of a disorder, but it’s still disheartening. Such a shallow, first-world problem, I know. I hate even wasting thoughts on this as I read it back. But sadly, I know I’m not alone in this shallow trap of superficial suburban comparison. There’s so much good in my life, and I’m worried about my role as a domestic goddess? Tisk, tisk. 

Anyway, this was all brought to light this morning as I was apologizing again to my house guest about the mess. I was in the laundry room making sure she was able to switch over her laundry okay.

Sorry it’s such a mess! I grumbled with a bit of an eye-roll.

Don’t worry about it! It’s just a laundry room! She smiled at me.

It’s just a laundry room. 

I went back to put a smidge of make-up on, and ruminated over all the times I had apologized about stupid things that morning. Apologized about the coffee. Apologized about the kids being loud. About having not enough variety of breakfast food. About being a mess. About being a terrible mom for not making my kids lunches the night before (ok, so this happens pretty much every morning).

Pretty much everything I did was followed by an apology.

Why am I doing this? What am I apologizing for?! I stared at myself in the mirror for a minute. Then I stopped.  I started over.

Hi there, I said to myself, silently. How are you? You look nice today! And what a great house you have! So warm and welcoming. You are so gracious to have people stay with you. You are doing a great job. 

Just like that, the weight lifted. I was as light as air. I felt a pang of confidence and reassurance in my veins. Simply by being a good friend…to myself. 

I know I mentioned in my last post about how thought distortions can really shape who we are in our daily lives. Our thoughts can be so deeply hidden in our subconscious, however, that it can be difficult to unmask them. But this morning they were loud and clear.

I’m not good enough. Im a failure. Im not worthy. 

I didn’t just hear the words as I moped around apologizing, I felt them, heavy like a lead blanket, crushing me under it’s weight. That is, until I made my new friend.

The way we talk to ourselves is so harsh sometimes. Would you ever talk to a friend that way? Of course not! When you stop and change the perspective around a bit, it can be shockingly profound. We worry so much about pleasing others, about being a good friend, yet we go around talking to ourselves like the scum of the earth.

Take care how you speak to yourself, because you are listening. 

How can such a simple concept be so difficult? No wonder I have anxiety issues; look how I talk to myself. I’m my own worst enemy, my harshest critic, bound by the chains of perfection. All the while, I’m missing out on the good. Fretting about trivial imperfections while this beautiful life is happening right in front of me.
That’s why I’m trying something new. I’m going to be a good friend…to myself. This sounds so corny, I know. But I’m not sure if I’ve ever been a friend to myself. And this is the most important friendship I think I could ever have. It’s way, way overdue.

It will take some time to build our friendship. We have a lot of ground to cover, and lots of catching up to do. But it’s time to make an effort.

This special friend is so, so worth it.

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We’ve Trained for This

I can’t believe the summer is over.

It was a great one. We soaked up the sun, swam our hearts out, and ate our weight in popsicles. We had a blast at the beach, made memories in the mountains and out on the lake. We hit the water parks, museums and movies. The summer was hot, fast and magical.

I also can’t believe that I only blogged ONE time all summer.

Although as I mentioned in my last post, I take that as a pretty good sign. Instead of blogging away at night, drenched in fear, I was pretty relaxed. I was doing things I hadn’t done in forever, like actually reading whole books and watching TV (seriously y’all, I hardly ever watch TV anymore. It’s a steady diet of smart phone news and Facebook). It was a nice break. Of course, I’m obsessed with the summer Olympics, so now there’s more TV. I can’t think of a bigger oxymoron than watching the best athletes in the world sweat it out while I lay completely still and horizontal under my blanket on the couch. If only they gave gold medals for best blanket-wearer. I’d definitely be on the podium.

Anyway, I did accomplish some big things over the summer in terms of anxiety. I drove up to Cashiers, NC with the kids and my sister in the car, which was huge for me. Granted, it wasn’t a ginormous interstate, rather a series of small highways and crazy mountain roads. It was super uncomfortable and mentally exhausting, but I made it. The more I pushed through the discomfort and just maintained, the better I felt. Although having an adult passenger in the car makes driving harder, since the social anxiety kicks in and amplifies everything.

What if I start panicking in front of this person? Or have to pull over to calm down? What will they think of me?! How embarrassing! 

It helped so much that my sister knows all about my issues, but it’s still not something that I’m comfortable with. And I was following my mom and grandmother in their car, which added even more pressure.  I did have to finally pull over on the side of that curvy mountain road (at the ever convenient scenic lookout) to take a stretch and a brain break, something my first counselor taught me. Sometimes it helps to just stop and hit the reset button. Although when you’re driving it’s not practical to stop very often, especially when you have passengers. But eventually I made it, and had an incredible vacation, so mission accomplished. Another tiny taste of freedom.

Lately, I’ve been driving on the interstates more frequently, and have been able to stay on for an extended amount of time. This hasn’t happened in years. If I ever did get up the nerve to get on the highway, I’d usually only make it one exit.  Going for more than one exit was such a scary idea; as soon as I passed the first exit I would automatically panic at the idea of being trapped until the next exit.  If there was more than a mile between exits, it was game over. I became flooded with panic. Looking back I can’t believe how catastrophic this idea seemed. There is still a small impulse to pull off when I see an exit approaching, but it’s nowhere near the level of doom that I previously felt.

One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed when I practice highway driving is the decreased level of anticipatory anxiety. Back in April, when I really started tackling this thing head-on, just thinking about having to get on the highway made me shutter. I would work myself into a total frenzy from the time I left my house until I reached the entrance ramp. My nerves would just fester and burn until they were about to explode.  I anticipated the worst scenarios possible; having a panic attack on the highway, losing control and crashing, injuring my children. Because of these twisted thoughts my brain totally rejected the idea of getting onto the highway at all, and this also caused physical sensations that would worsen the more I worried. Trying to control a car when your skin is crawling with discomfort and you feel like you’re having a heart attack is not exactly a good time. But after numerous practice sessions, the nerves are starting to settle. The purpose of exposure practice is to desensitize the brain and to re-train the thought patterns of fear. Ever so slowly, I’m beginning to regain control over my a-hole brain by proving it wrong.

Hey a-hole brain? Look at me! I’m driving on the highway and I’m not crashing. You were wrong. Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah! 

Fear is such a liar. 

So now when I choose to practice highway driving, I just get on and go without much of a thought. There’s still lots of discomfort and doubt, but the voice of fear isn’t quite as loud. Sure, the actual decision to practice is still a tough one, and maintaining a calm journey is extremely difficult, but I’m taking it nice and slow. Baby steps. Plenty of grace. I’m not ready to head down I-75 with the kids to the beach, but it’s on my to-do list.

Although the voice of fear was relatively quiet this summer, today it decided to turn itself up a notch. Up there with that fear was an equal amount of self doubt. I always try to pinpoint reasons for an increase in my doubts, but the truth is my self esteem issues run deep. I’ve always struggled with my self worth, to the point that it’s shaped much of who I am. Again, I can’t point to a specific cause of this generalization, but I recognize it as a lie. It’s just a lie that I have a hard time unbelieving.

The way we talk to ourselves is so automatic that it’s hard to tune into, let alone change.  For different reasons, our genes and our environment shape our subconscious thoughts from the moment we are born. I’ve spent many years in talk therapy and I’ve come to the realization that I will never be able to trace back to a specific reason that I talk to myself the way I do, and there’s no one thing in my past to blame for the onset of panic disorder.  Mental health is so, so complicated and such a conglomerate of factors, that the search to pinpoint a cause or find a cure is enough to drive you mad.  In fact, I will never be completely cured. Similar to a recovering alcoholic, there’s always a chance that I will fall back into my old ways.  It’s something that I will have to manage for the rest of my life.

Most people who suffer with anxiety or depression tend to have distorted thought patterns that end up leading them down this road.  David D. Burns, author of The Feeling Good Handbook, uses the idea of cognitive distortions to treat his patients. Psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck was the originator of this idea, and Dr. Burns continued to research the concept and has even developed methods to alleviate negative thought patterns.

Cognitive Distortions are exaggerated or irrational thought patterns that are believed to perpetuate the effects of psychopathological states, especially depression and anxiety.

I tried to read Feeling Good.  I really did. Heck, I may even pick it up tonight and try to get back into it.  It’s a great resource. But it’s long and technical; there are charts and daily assignments and at some point my ADD kicks in and tells me to put it down and see what everyone is up to on Facebook.

He does, however, have a great method for getting rid of thought distortions. You have to chart your daily thoughts (specifically during anxious or depressive episodes) and trace them back to categories of thought distortion. It’s kind of like untying a knot in your negative thoughts by figuring out what distortions makes you think a certain way. Once you can straighten out your thoughts by disproving the distortion, you can recreate the thought in a positive, more constructive manner. This takes a lot of work, mind you. But if you really want to get down to the root of your problem, this is a highly successful way to do it.

I want to at least give you the list of cognitive distortions for reference purposes. I love this version of it:

When I first saw this list, I realized how many of my thoughts were distorted. It had become second nature to me to think like this for most of my life. I’ve been handed this list by many a therapist and psychologist, but I appreciate how this one includes pictures to help you remember easier. It’s like Cognitive Distortions for Dummies. There are many other lists online; feel free to search for the one that is easiest for you to understand.

Dr. Burns suggests that the way to “untwist” your negative thoughts is by keeping a Daily Mood Log, to track your thought patterns and assign them to one or more of the cognitive distortions. I also like this list of simple ways to examine negative thoughts:

The power of thought is amazing. The notion that a simple thought can shape your mood, your behavior, and your entire life is not to be taken for granted. The longer you’ve lived with distorted thoughts, the harder it is to unravel them.  But it is possible.  I am seeing the results ever so slowly.

In other news, I did make a few more noteworthy accomplishments this summer.  I made it to the top of the lighthouse while on vacation in Saint Simons Island…man, if that wasn’t a hot, seemingly endless, claustrophobic journey.  I drove up I-75 to the Tellus museum, and again on the way home, with my daughter in the car. And just today, I crawled through the penguin tunnel at the Georgia Aquarium.  THE FREAKING PENGUIN TUNNEL! Have you been in that thing? It’s like two feet tall in there! But the smile on Allie’s face when I lifted her up and she saw herself surrounded by all those adorable little penguins, that just made the extra flutter of fear in my heart transform into joy. Okay, so I was also a little distracted by the two penguins that decided to mount one another right in front of me. Thank goodness Allie just found it funny that the one penguin was “jumping” on the other one. Good gravy.

To the “normal-brained” person, this list seems silly, but to me it is everything. To me it is proof that my work is paying off. Every little accomplishment gives me hope. I have so much more work in front of me, but I’m motivated. I have built up quite a collection of tools to help me, and hopefully I can help a few others along the way by sharing them along with my story.

The other night I was watching (guess what?) the Olympics, and the runners were getting ready to take their marks at the starting line. I said to my husband, Can you imagine the nerves they are feeling right now? I would never be able to do that! I would pass out!

They are trained for that, he says.  They spend their whole lives training for that moment. This is their moment. 

No matter what the goal is, there’s a way to get there. We are all running our own race. We train for it. We practice. We put in the work, the sweat, the tears. My race does not involve gold medals or world records, but it is a race towards my freedom. Freedom from the chains of fear. I don’t need to win, necessarily, I just want to finish strong. To be able to look back, with clear, non-distorted thoughts and know that I did my best. That the fear did not break me, but propelled me forward.

I will finish this. 

 

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Leaning In

I was talking to a friend the other day about how I haven’t blogged in while. Her response was, “Well, maybe that’s a good thing?” Good meaning I haven’t had any issues with anxiety to write about lately. I was like, yeah, good point! Then she said, “I guess it’s there when you need it, right?”

Well, here I am. I need it.  

This summer I’ve actually been pretty content. Besides the normal end-of-summer laziness kicking in, I’ve been in a pretty good place. I was nervous about the change in medication, but optimistic. Things were a little bumpy right after the switch; the typical withdrawal symptoms ensued, but they were a bit milder than I expected. I pushed on through and followed my schedule of introducing the new meds, weaning on as slowly as possible. I didn’t notice too many negative side-effects, and seemed to have made the transition successfully. This week, however, (week 3 since the change) has been a different story. To put it simply, my mood has turned pretty sour. In fact, today I hit the lowest of my moods in a long, long time.

I remember the last time I went through a big medication change, about 3 or 4 years ago. I was folding laundry while watching Kathie Lee and Hoda, and all I could think about was how badly I wanted to jump through the screen punch them in the face. If you know me, I’m pretty sure you know I don’t ever feel like punching anyone in the face, let alone random talk-show hosts. It was so overwhelmingly irritating, and alarmed me so much so, that I ended up calling my doctor to ask if this was normal. I proceeded to tell her all of this and she laughed. “You’re probably not the only one who wants to punch them in the face.” Good point. Although, I kind of like sweet Kathie Lee and Hoda (I mean, who can’t appreciate women who get to chat and drink wine at 10am everyday? They had rainbow sangrias last time I watched them. Cheers, ladies!). Humor aside, (although I do still crack up when I think about that moment) I knew this wasn’t a normal feeling for me. Sure, I have my ups and downs, but this was borderline rage. 

So I can’t completely rush to judgment after a day like today, knowing I’ve been through times like these before, but I know it needs a closer look. It’s just not typical for me to have raging mood swings. Unless you’ve threatened my children or I’m about to give birth. Please grant me a free pass there.  Anyway, I’m thankful that now I can recognize when something needs to change without waiting it out too long.

Looking back on this day, I should’ve been in a glorious mood. I mean, I had 4 hours to myself today while my mother-in-law came to stay with the kids. I leisurely shopped at Banana Republic, ate lunch by myself, and got a freaking frappuccino with the whipped cream.  Tough day, I know. All that and STILL I felt like I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.

Red flags were waving everywhere.

I came home to my sweet babies and found that just the amount of noise they were making made me want to walk right back out the door. Just the thought of cooking dinner made me want to poke my eyeballs out. My only reprieve came in the event of slicing up a pablano pepper for dreaded dinner prep, scratching my nose, ending up with flaring, burning nostrils, and having to stick milk-soaked paper towels up them for 15 minutes. One cannot help but laugh at that scenario (in-between muffled curse words), even though it burned so badly I almost called poison control. Thank goodness for Google.

Thankfully, my hubby took over dinner duty while the kids stared at me wondering what on earth had possessed their mommy. While I mentally decided to quit and call it a day, (knowing realistically there was still a good bit of day left so sadly I could not quit) I realized that I was not having a normal response. Ok, so the burning nose called for an appropriate amount of drama. But the ungratefulness? The irritability? The hopeless sadness and emptiness I felt? No. Good. Reason.

I apologized to my husband when I finally sat down to dinner (which turned out quite tasty, even though I was still mad at those peppers) for being such a mess. He was such a sweetheart.

“I know you’re going through this medication change, babe. It may be time to recognize that it may not be working. You’ve got to make that call for yourself, though. It’s okay.”

Bless him. He has learned how to handle me and my issues so much better over the years. It’s funny, because he’s usually the moody one, and I’m usually the one that helps calm him with my steady, positive outlook and extra dose of patience. Tonight, I appreciate his ability to return the favor. He smiles at me.

Peace out, babe. I’ve got the kids. 

So here I am, soaking in the bath tub, trying to cheer up. I’ve already watched a plethora of funny cat videos, but have barely cracked a smile. I mean, if funny cat videos don’t do the trick, there’s a problem. RED. FLAG.

I see you, a-hole brain. Don’t think I’m giving up without a fight. 

The interesting thing is, this time it’s not so much a feeling of fear, but more of a sadness. In technical terms, it’s called depression. Although this diagnosis falls onto a spectrum. Catching it at the top end, however, is the tricky part.

I felt like the new medication was doing pretty good in terms of anxiety. I’ve noticed a little trouble catching my breath here and there, (a typical anxiety symptom) but not much in the way of panic. Feeling pretty darn calm, actually. I’ve driven on the interstate in small amounts without much of a flinch. I’ve been in social situations and haven’t noticed the usual nerves. But, I have noticed a bit more sleepiness, more of a lack of focus and motivation, and overall just feeling more drugged. Fun. But, like all changes in medication, it takes a few weeks for the effects to “kick in”. Well, this is week 3, so time to analyze. I’m thinking, no bueno. 

But how frustrating is that? I spent all this time worrying about changing medications, fill 3 different prescriptions, finally muster up the courage to try one, and now I sit here in a bubble bath on a beautiful blue-sky sunny day after shopping and Starbucks and I’m still not in a good mood?? Snarl, boo, hiss, pout. I guess this is the part of the journey that just plain stinks, the part where you try something on and it just doesn’t fit. If only I could squeeze into that glass slipper and end up with the Prince Charming of mental stability. If only life was such a fairy tale.

So what do I do now? Do I go back on my old meds, that I felt trapped on, but seemed to be working ok? Do I try something new? Do I give it another week and see if anything changes ? I really, really don’t want to go through another month being a science experiment, but is there any other choice? Am I looking for answers in all the wrong places?

Looks like I’ll have some extra praying to do tonight.

On a positive note, my dark mood has given birth to newfound inspiration. I’ve been feeling uninspired in the writing department lately, and I have been pretty bummed about it. Part of my Starbucks journey was meant to be spent blogging away, happily sipping on java-chip goodness while letting the creativity flow, but it just wasn’t happening. Ok, so I was a little distracted by the teens at the next table debating politics; I mean, that was just too entertaining not to eavesdrop upon. But, I spent the good part of an hour in front of the screen with nothing to show for it. Then I left feeling so damn ungrateful and selfish for being so frustrated over nothing more than a lack of inspiration. I mean, there are people in this world dealing with grief, loss, war, trauma, poverty- real problems. And I’m sitting here drinking a $5 coffee beverage whining about feeling uninspired??  Puh-lease. If that’s the only thing I have to complain about, I should be elated.

But today, I realize that validation is less important than recognition; recognizing the warning signs of a need for change. Seeing the subtle way your feelings and emotions can slowly start to sabotage your well-being. It’s not an easy thing to see; it’s sneaky and unintentional, but having more than a decade of experience with the monsters of anxiety and depression can prep you for such an uprising. It’s tricky to find the fine line between giving yourself the grace to be in a bad mood and realizing that the mood is taking over your life. I am so, so thankful for the sense and the ability to know the difference.

And who knows, tomorrow I may wake up all smiles and giggles, and look back on today as a complete fluke. That’s the funny thing about life, we aren’t quite sure what each day will bring. We know there will be good days and bad. We are all on this roller coaster just riding it out, not sure when it will come to an end, but hoping we can say that it was the best ride we’ve ever been on. Even though there were parts that scared us to death. Even though there were parts that shook us to the core, that made us want to get off, that made us dizzy and uncomfortable.

We aren’t in control of our ride, but we can grease the squeaky wheels a bit. We can ease up on the seat belt and enjoy the breeze in our hair. We will get turned upside down, but we can enjoy the feeling when we find ourselves back upright. It’s a long ride, and sometimes the turns come out of nowhere, but sometimes we can see them coming a mile away.

There’s a turn up ahead for me. I just have to find the strength to lean on in.

 

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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.