As we took off through a barricade of storms in Atlanta, the plane once again bobbed and weaved through the turbulence, sending me once again to the edge. Zero visibility blinded my view and brought on panic.
Meanwhile, my brave daughter next to me could hardly contain her excitement. “We’re in the clouds!” she exclaimed. Unfazed by the bumps, she smiled and carried on without a care. Her joy was contagious, parting the clouds of my fear.
As we journeyed on to Denver and started making memories on the first leg of our trip, I realized just how grateful I am that I can persist through my fears. I could’ve crumbled and said no to flying at all. I could’ve foregone the excitement and anticipation of this time with my family. I could’ve just stayed in the safety of my home and never experienced a day like today, watching my children take in this beautiful scenery for the first time, their eyes wide with amazement.
I could’ve said “no”.
I could’ve said “I can’t”.
But I said YES.
Go, see, do.
The yes is not always easy. It’s not graceful or without pain or embarrassment or doubt.
But I’ll take a yes over a no any day when it comes to facing my fears.
*Fear of flying continues to be one of the most common anxieties today. I wrote this post a couple of months ago while flying home to Atlanta from Jacksonville, FL. I know that all you fearful flyers will be able to relate! I’m working on it…and I know you are too! With every flight I try to practice leaning in to my anxiety, which gets me one step closer to actually being able to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight!
Another day, another flight. I have flown more lately than I have in years, and its a bit of a paradox for me. I can’t think of a place more terrifying and yet more utterly exhilarating than up above the clouds in an airplane. It’s truly one of the few places where I can almost completely surrender control, simply due to the fact that I have no other choice. For this challenge and opportunity I am thankful, but still uncomfortable.
One thing I’ve learned on my anxiety journey is that the hard things not only make us stronger, they bring us one step closer to healing . When I choose to lean in and deal with the discomfort of turbulence; when I ride the surges of panic that try to take over, I can begin to relax into my role. I can pleasantly sink into the fact that my only responsibility is to sit, watch a movie and have a drink or two (even if it is only ginger ale, nonetheless). No one needs me to fly the plane. No one needs me to explain turbulence to them to get through it. I have realized that what I thought was so hard may only be so due to my negative way of thinking. I can groom my thoughts, train them up, turn lemons into lemonade. I am in control of that choice. I can continue to battle with this invisible monster of fear (which, in turn, feeds it), or I can turn my back to it, and move forward.
Sure enough, there’s good reason for my self-pep talk. As I cling to these words of encouragement, I feel myself slipping back into the spiral of dread as we fly into impending storm clouds ahead. Visibility goes from clear to zero. This is the place I hate. The place where I have to trust without seeing. The place that tests my deepest level of faith. The bumps come; the invisible, unpredictable roller coaster of air shakes me to my core.
I realize this is why I’m so scared of total darkness; I want to see what’s ahead, what surrounds me. Dark water slides, roller coasters, I even freaked out once on the People Mover at the Magic Kingdom it was so dark. Don’t even think about putting me on Space Mountain. No, ma’am.
Although it’s not dark during our flight, the concept of fear is the same; I have no control over what’s in front of me. This seems to only occur physically and spatially; conceptual control of things in my life are usually less anxiety provoking. Recently I’ve found that watching YouTube videos of amusement park rides helps me mentally prepare myself for what to expect, (really, I think I’ve watched every Disney ride ever made. Yes I’m a dork.) but there is no such life-hack when it comes to airplane trips. You are simply a slave to the wind and weather.
As we fly onward towards huge grey storm clouds, I grasp to remember my own words…Give. Up. Control. Turn my back to fear. Why is it so much harder to do in the moment? The answer, of course, is due to the discomfort that the physical symptoms of panic bring in my body’s quick response to stressful situations (again, in people with panic disorder, the fight or flight response is a bit disabled). But I persist, because this hellish place is where the magic happens. Where you become tolerant and patient. Where you look fear in the eye and say…I see you. I acknowledge your existence. But I don’t need you. You will not help me in this situation. So thank you for visiting, but you are not welcome here today.
A friend told me recently that she loves turbulence. I looked at her like she had three heads. She also loves roller coasters, so I guess that makes sense. This is a totally foreign idea to me. You love turbulence? To me that’s like saying you love jumping off buildings. But the more I thought about it, the more I started to see it for what it was; the same event viewed in two different perspectives. The same definition, simply experienced a different way.
You mean the same thing that terrifies me is same thing people love?!! Yes, the event is exactly the same, it is only the perception of the event that is different. What a shift in thought.
Yes, my heart is racing and I’m starting to get some hot flashes. This is not relaxing by any degree. But turbulence, which is just weather-related changes in air flow (a.k.a, invisible roller coaster that I loathe) is not out to get me. The event has no more risk to it because of the way I view it than the person next to me. I’m pretty darn sure a plane has never crashed from turbulence (okay, so knock on wood just in case) just like the doctor tells you that no baby will die from crying it out when you’re trying to sleep train, although your motherly instincts make you feel otherwise. I try to see the turbulence for the event that it is, rather than emotionally analyzing and constantly worrying about the discomfort it brings. This is easier said than done, but each time I practice, it gets a little bit better.
We are emotionally driven beings, complex in nature and sensitive to the world around us, some more than others. Certain things frighten and unnerve us that others don’t even blink at. But that’s a beautiful thing; it’s what makes us human, it’s what make us want to work together to find common ground. It’s what motivates us to seek community and support when we need it. If we all walked around with perfect, needless lives, how could we achieve purpose and meaning? We were not meant to live that way. Our struggles drive connection and enable empathy.
Just like that, we are through the storm and making our way closer to home. One thing to remember about moments of panic, rest assured, is that they will always, always END. With the threatening clouds behind us now, I gaze down onto the ground below. I notice a field filled with tiny glimmering specks, what are those? I stare closer.
Headstones. It’s a cemetery.
It screams up at me, not in a morbid, dark way but an enlightening one. The sun illuminates each marble slab, creating a sparkling, enchanting display from the ground below.
You up there! Yes, you! You’re doing it! You’re living! You are alive! Don’t take this life for granted. This is your one chance. Don’t let fear steal your joy and hold you captive. Don’t waste your time on the enemy of fear. Keep moving forward. Live your life. Right. Now.
That’s all we can do. Whether we’re up in the air or down on the ground, we journey on.
Okay, I just looked out the airplane window and no lie, there’s a rainbow below me. I can’t make this stuff up, people.
You can’t have the rainbow without the rain.
I see the runway ahead of me. This was not an easy ride, but it wasn’t meant to be. We are not guaranteed a smooth ride through this life. But we press on, we do the work, and if we’re lucky (or perhaps just a little insightful), we will find rainbows behind the rain.
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.
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.
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, Whereshall 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I wrote the most soulful, harrowing, genuine, clarity-filled post I had ever written.
And then I lost it.
As we prepared for our upcoming anniversary trip down here to Tulum, Mexico (where I sit at this very moment, absorbed in a tropical beach-dream come true), I had been planning to write this particular post. I meant to put aside time writing it way before we boarded the plane, as my anticipatory fear of flying often starts months in advance. Yet the busyness of life intercepted, and it wasn’t until we were strapped into our seats on the plane that the words began to breach the dam.
I took my raw fear, that had moved suddenly from anticipation to staring me straight in the eye, and I began. With my phone and my two small but mighty thumbs, the words billowed out, filling the tiny screen.
From the startling moment of the jet-engine’s deafening start, to the pure surrender of the moment of lift-off. From when I closed my eyes and said my most earnest prayer for safety and the ability to be able to hug my children again. From the moment when peace triumphantly emerged as I was taken back by the beauty that was displayed out my window at 30,000 feet…I captured it all in my complete narrative. For the entire two hours of the flight, I wrote.
I described in gritty detail, the effects of panic that my body feels when I am traveling in an airplane. The moment when the doors close and the white flag is waved. When the pilot announces that there will be turbulance and my breathing seizes up. When I am in the midst of turbulance and my nerves catch fire and my body is frozen with fear and lack of control, and the epiphany and relief that I have when I surrender to that control. When I let my role be one of traveler and leave the flying and controlling up to the pilot. When I realize that maybe the fact that I have gotten to have a tiny snack and a ginger ale while writing and listening to Band of Horses all while simultaneously not having to move a damn muscle can actually be seen as relaxing instead of terrifying. When I realize that my husband, who is snoring hard next to me after two margaritas and a couple episodes of Portlandia, handles this flying business way better than me, so why aren’t I doing that??
Whatever I said, it was good. I felt it. It was raw and in the moment; a front row-seat inside the inner workings of my brain when faced with one of my biggest fears. I felt the landing-gear machinery opening, and I quickly gave the writing a once-over. It didn’t even need more than a word or two of editing. It was good.
I had known the title for months. Learning to Fly. Flying has played such a big part in the story of my anxiety. It was time to give it the spotlight.
Done. Title ready, photo of a plane, easy. Effortless and satisfying. Like a good meal at a restaurant. Only thing left to do is pay the bill.
When you spend time searching for moments of creative inspiration and then suddenly it happens, where everything falls in to place, when an idea lands in your hand with ease and grace, waiting for you to make it your own, you treasure it. It is a special thing. Like a creative birth of sorts. A thing of beauty. If you fail to grab onto the idea, however, it is gone; it will flutter on until it lands on another willing soul, ready to give it a life of its own. It’s a delicate, fleeting process.
We will be deboarding soon. I have to hurry to tidy up and make sure I haven’t left anything on the plane. So, I hit publish.
An important thing to remember when you are traveling to a foreign country, is that the internet is not a given. And when you choose to do your writing exclusively on an internet-based blogging site, you most certainly need an internet connection, of which I did not have. But in a hasty, hurried moment, I hit publish. And although I missed the entire message that was given next, I know that it most definitely contained the word error.
And then all was lost.
When you create something, anything of originality, you realize the inability to duplicate it, at least without its original copy, that is. There will always be a first creation of something, and you need that evidence as a blueprint before it can be copied. A re-creation can be attempted, of course, but it will never be the same as the original.
As I walked through the Cancun airport, excited about vacation and yet sick to my stomach with the loss of my words, I thought about trying to re-write it from memory. We did have a 90 minute shuttle ride, plenty of time to start over, right? But the moment was clearly lost. The ideas, the words, the emotions, had clearly passed. I had to move on, let it go.
It was hard. It sounds so silly, to be so upset about the loss of something so seemingly trivial. But to me, it was important. When you feel that you can better explain your life in words, when you can shine a bit of your soul this way, it is a piece of you. You cherish it. For some, it is how you best show your true self to others. It is a genuine piece of your heart.
A piece of my heart that will never be recovered.
But then I started to think (as I often try to spin things into the positive), maybe those words weren’t meant to be read. Maybe those words were just for me. I had documented every moment of my journey through my fear of flying, and had come through with flying colors (hehe). The words had served as a catalyst, as a trusted guide, holding my hand, leading me through the thick cloud of fear. My words gave meaning to my emotions, laid them out, exposed them to the light. And we all know that fear cannot survive beyond the shadows.
My words carried me through one of my most feared moments. Although I had wanted to share them with others, to bridge a connection for others who share a fear of flying, it was apparently just not the right time. There will be other times, though.
At least I can rest in the fact that my words were there for me when I needed them. They guided me through a difficult time and remain forever in that moment. A moment no longer captured in words, but in memory. A moment where fear came and went like a passing cloud outside the jet window. A moment not meant for anyone but me, as I triumphed over my fear in quiet victory.
The words are gone, never to be captured again, but the experience, the progress, it remains. Every single step taken towards freedom from fear leaves a lasting impression in my mind, a footprint in concrete.
For this reason, I know that I have lost nothing, but gained everything.
Okay. I think I’ve made my peace. Time to get back to some vacation time. And cross your fingers that I don’t lose this post too; I don’t think I could take it. At least I still have Mexico. It’s not such a bad consolation prize.
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?
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; I 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.
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.
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 stillhad 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.
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! Challenge accepted. Was I really going to do it? Then Jason went ahead and booked his flight. It was done. I was in.
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.
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.
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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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 trappeduntil 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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I did it…I finally published my blog! Geez Louise, that took forever.
If you are checking it out for the first time, I apologize for my lack of technical knowledge. I’ve been really trying to perfect my layout, website function, staying up way too late watching WordPress tutorials, blah blah blah. But my friend Kristen (who has been helping me navigate this blog world per her blog, Junk Drawer Diaries) reminded me to drop my perfectionist tendencies and just do it already.
“The message is the most important part.”
Yes!!!! Sometimes you just need someone else to remind you of what you already know.
I mentioned panic with purpose on my Facebook post, and I just wanted to elaborate. For those of you who have panic disorder, it is not only terrifying, life-altering and miserable, but the panic attacks seem to serve no purpose whatsoever. Which is absolutely maddening. But I don’t believe that anymore. Now I panic with purpose.
Here’s a brief neurological explanation of a panic attack. So most of you are familiar with the fight or flight response. So, if there is a tiger chasing you, your brain sends signals to your nervous system to either fight or flee from the event. Your adrenaline gets going, your heartbeat and breath quicken, your body tingles, your senses become more acute. When you have panic disorder, your fight or flight response is a bit off. It can be triggered by a traumatic event, or in my case comes out of the blue, usually during a period of life change (positive or negative). My first panic attack happened in the bedding department at Macy’s. No tigers to be found.
Anyway, you pretty much feel like you are dying or going crazy, without a clear reason. You tend to avoid places in which you have panicked before, which starts a lifestyle of avoidance, and avoidance only fuels the disorder. Phobias can develop over time. Pretty soon your kids are wondering why you had to turn around while in line for the Gran Fiesta Tour with Donald Duck at Epcot so you could escape the fear of a dark confined space and just sit on a bench and take a Xanax since you nearly panicked just anticipating that nightmare. Trust me people, this is no way to live.
Through exposure therapy, every time I panic, I see it as an opportunity to learn. It is a time to practice, to manage, to heal. It doesn’t feel like it at the time, of course. But the more I chip away at this monster of fear the more progress I am making. I am truly panicking with purpose, and that purpose is to eventually not panic.
This is a slow, grueling process. But I’ve already gained so much ground. Short-term struggle for long-term gain. There are so many days where I’m not up for it- the practice of exposure therapy. But the show must go on. 12 years of letting fear run my life is just too long.
My other purpose is just as motivating as recovery, and that’s the purpose of helping others. If there’s one thing I pride myself on, it’s my empathetic heart. I know how awful this journey can be. If I can help one person get through it, my heart will be happy. I believe in others more than myself sometimes, and this is half the reason I am blogging in the first place. To connect with others who need to be understood, who feel isolated and alone. It took years for me to accept this disorder and I remember feeling like no one understood what I was going through. The loneliness is unbearable.
So, I choose to panic with purpose from now on. No more wasting energy and anger. It does not serve me anymore. The more I learn to let it go, to lean into the panic, the more progress I make. My purpose is now crystal clear. It’s a scary and vulnerable place, but I’m staying in line for this ride.
The day is still young, but it has already surprised me.
I went to bed too late (as a result of still navigating this blog thing!) and woke up feeling dizzy. A few days a month, I will have these “dizzy days”. Whether it’s from lack of sleep or a side-effect of medication, they generally set you up for a “bad” day. If you suffer from panic disorder, I don’t need to explain this. I know everyone has bad days, but when you have frequent panic attacks, the bad days just set you up for failure; at least in your head, anyway. Just your a-hole brain playing tricks on you again.
What a little prankster.
It was off to school as usual, 7:30am for Jack and 8:45am for Allie. I really, really didn’t want to face the day. Feeling vulnerable, uncomfortable, and generally out of control. The a-hole brain feeds on this negative feedback. I almost just kept Allie home so I could chill. Sometimes we do that just for fun…we are both home bodies, and after all it’s just preschool. But I was looking for more of an excuse; a reason not to face the day with this heightened sensitivity. Then I remembered what I had recently read in good old Dr. David’s workbook. If you want to make progress, you have to practice. Even on the “bad” days. So on we went.
While buckling my sweet, smiling girl into her car seat, a pang of profound sadness came over me. This happens sometimes when I look at my happy, joyfully fearless children. Especially Allie. She has an extra dose of fearless. It sounds contradictory to how one should feel when realizing your children are happy. But I instantly mourn for my joy. I miss the childlike joy that comes so easily to them. I try to let that go as I keep talking to my silly girl, trying to siphon her joy instead of mourning my own. The a-hole brain loves when you get self-absorbed.
So I sat through an extra-long carpool line (an occasional panic trigger) with flying colors. Kissed my sweet girl good-bye, and then knew what I needed to do. I had 3 hours to kill. It was time to practice.
Dr. David recommended an hour every day, so I would shoot for that. Time to take to the highway.
I didn’t fully go into my first full panic attack on the highway, but I will brief you. I had been experiencing waves of panic while driving on the interstate, but nothing full-blown. Enough to start the ball rolling. I had full-blown panic in other areas, but highway driving was relatively minor. I had always loved driving. It gave me such a sense of freedom. I would usually offer to drive on road trips with friends, and have even driven cross-country multiple times. These are some of my best memories.
I had been nervous off and on driving until I became pregnant with my first, Jack. My anxiety completely disappeared for the entire pregnancy. Blame it on hormones or first-pregnancy excitement, but it was great. It was postpartum that put me into a tailspin.
I think I was struggling for a while and just didn’t accept it. Don’t get me wrong, having a newborn is wonderful. But stir in an overwhelming sense of responsibility, navigating work/motherhood, and total lack of sleep, and you have a recipe for disaster. At least if you are susceptible to anxiety and panic.
When Jack was about 7 months, I was heading to Lake Oconee to my in-laws house for Labor Day weekend. We were going with a bunch of our friends, and I was excited. Granted, I was the only one with a baby, but we could still have fun, right? I drove up early to help get the place ready. Me, Jack in his infant seat, and Bear, our sweet little dog, who loves riding in the car. Friday afternoon traffic on a holiday weekend in Atlanta is never a walk in the park, but it was never an issue for me. Until that afternoon. Traffic on 285 was at a standstill, and I was smack in the middle lane. I’ll never forget how beautiful of a day it was; blue sky and abundant sunshine. Sadly, driving on days like this triggers my anxiety now, thanks to this memory. All of a sudden, I feel the wave coming on. I struggle to calm myself, grasping mentally for something to stop it. My breath quickens, my heart races, my body tenses up and tingles. I start to leave my body. Besides feeling like I’m suffocating, the disassociation is always the scariest for me. You literally feel like you aren’t in control of yourself anymore, like you are literally going crazy. When you have your precious baby boy in the backseat, this is only more agonizing. You are his mother and his protector. You feel scared not only of the attack but for not keeping your child safe. Looking back as an observer, you realize that your a-hole brain is just telling you stories. But in the moment, especially when you are unaware of the panic trick, it is absolutely horrifying.
So I call my husband, bless his heart. He is a tough love kind of guy. So he just tells me, “Babe, you can’t freak out! You’re on the highway!”. Thanks my love. My thoughts precisely. He does the best he can with me, and has learned along with me in my journey. But I think men hate when they can’t do anything to fix the problem. It’s against their “manliness” code. So I quickly say good-bye, continue freaking out, but can’t exit anywhere, so I just bear it until I reach the next exit. I pull over in a Wal-Mart parking lot and eventually calm down. My mother-in-law (who has obviously heard from my hubby) calls and I just start to cry. I do remember that the crying felt so good. Most people who suffer from panic disorder try to hold in their emotions, instead of letting it go. But in my mind, I was traumatized. Driving has never been the same since.
Well, that wasn’t nearly as brief as I meant it to be. I did make it to the lake. The rest of the trip is a blur, but I surely didn’t die because of the attack. But my emotions were so strong that the experience was tattooed on my brain and started years of avoidance in multiple driving situations. But I won’t go into all those now.
Back to this morning. Yes, I was having a bad day. Yes, I was scared. I was twitching, rolling the window down, up again, changing the music, the AC…grasping for control. The anticipatory worry was starting to sink in, but I remembered what the book said about it. Ignore the “what if” statements, and if they do enter your brain, try to humor them. Basically make fun of them. Whatever it takes to take away their power. The anticipation is way worse the the actual deed. Waiting at the stoplight to get on the ramp just plain sucks. No way around it. But it turns as all lights do, and I’m in it. No turning back.
My new friend Dr. David, in Panic Attack Workbook, stresses the idea of just letting the panic come. All your instincts tell you to fight it. I’ve been fighting it for 12 years. Until now. You are so used to fighting when a challenge arises in life, but the opposite rule applies with panic. Fighting it will make it worse. So the panic comes. I try to let it come. My sensitivity is at a level 11, but I just let it float. He talks about the AWARE method in his book, so I do that. I will post a link soon explaining this useful method. I practice my belly breathing, also something a learned in the book. I have always heard to concentrate on my breathing to calm me, but I never knew the right way to breathe. Just like that, I’m driving on the highway. It’s a momentary relief, as I realize the challenge is to maintain this for AN HOUR. I’ve always struggled with not getting off at every exit (panic sufferers tend to feel “trapped” in situations where they cannot flee) but I push past the first exit. Then another. And another. My body feels like it’s on fire, buzzing with nerves. I’m crawling out of my skin. But I’m doing it. I’m practicing. I hate it, but I have accepted it.
If you drive far enough up I-575 on a clear day, you can see the silhouette of the Blue Ridge mountains. I decide this is my goal. I float through the panic, still buzzing with awareness. But I press on. At one point I start singing and roll the window down. Positive driving memories come to mind…for a moment I’m back in high-school/college on a road trip. Relaxed and carefree. I drive a particularly long stretch of highway and actually forget to panic about how far the exits are from each other. Progress.
I round a corner, and I am almost the only one on the road. Then I see the mountains. They are more beautiful that I remember. A wave of emotion comes over me, but not panic. It’s joy. I can hardly remember the feeling of joy while driving. I revel in it.
Having reached my goal, it’s time to head back. I’ll have to pick Allie up soon. I turn around and go back, and then I remember the road construction. There are cement barriers, narrow lanes, traffic ahead. Waves of panic return. I try to remember what to do, how to let it go. It’s harder on the way back. I’m mentally grasping for control. I almost exit several times. But then I remember another tidbit from the book, when you are scared to do something, do it. There’s a super slow truck in front of me, but I am more scared in the left lane. Without thinking too much, I just do it. I switch lanes. It takes away the anticipation and gives me a much needed confidence boost. Once I am there, I challenge myself to stay there. I stay there for several miles, until I finally reach the exit leading home.
So that’s it, right? I’m cured! Hardly. This was my first day of practice, and only with driving on the highway. Yes, I’m super proud of myself, (and I even had coffee this morning!!!) and I hope the confidence will help in other situations. But I have many, many more challenges ahead.
I know many of you are just sick at your stomach even thinking about facing your fears when it comes to panic. I still am. I have so much work to do. Again, it has taken me 12 years to accept the idea of practicing. I still take meds and will need more time to think of practicing without them. Today I did it without Xanax, which was huge. I even dug into my purse for the bottle at one point. But I’m trying to teach myself that these things are just like Dumbo’s feather. He thought he needed the feather to fly, but turns out he did just fine without it.
I know you will be fine too. Good days, bad days, dizzy days…be thankful just for another day.