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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The Darkest Day (A Love Letter to my Medication)

I promise that my blog won’t be this intense and heavy all the time! But I feel like I cannot truly move forward without sharing this story with you. If it helps one person with their decision, than it was worth it.

This is pretty much the story of why I decided to start taking antidepressants. I know some of you probably just got on them without thinking about it, which is fine and dandy. But I am an overthinker and an overanalizer, and this was a tough decision for me. It scares me to think about where I would be had I made a different choice. So I don’t really go there. But if you or someone you love is struggling with treatment options, this may be a good read. I’m going to start a series called My Toolbox (coming soon!) with all sorts of helpful tools for helping manage your panic disorder. But I do need to get the medication part out of the way first.

I have numerous favorite books that have helped me through all of this, but some of them spend quite a bit of time disproving the idea that anxiety/depression medications even work. They stress that you can be cured without medication. By all means, you can, and if you can, more power to you! But please don’t put pressure on yourself if you are a complete failure without them. I tried so hard not to take medication, to the point where I almost broke. Sometimes you just have to give in already.

So back to my story. I had my first big panic attack, and many others in the years following. 7 years to be exact (with the exception of my first pregnancy, when I was totally symptom-free) before starting medication. Wow, writing that out makes me realize how long I actually suffered.  I wasn’t miserable all of the time, but when it was bad, I didn’t have the tools to help me in the right ways, so it just steadily got worse.

I was a preschool teacher for most of those years, and I can remember  days when I could barely drive to work. I would try to take different routes that wouldn’t trigger the panic, but there are only so many ways you can go. Little did I know, the avoidance was just feeding the panic. I was just winging it. I would panic in silence while reading a book to the class. I would panic during meetings and conferences, but nobody could tell.  I burried it deep inside and carried on with my perma-smile. I remember my jaw being constantly sore from the stress taking its toll. I would wake up at night with my teeth just chattering with anxiety.

I finally mentioned some of these things to a coworker, and I’ll never forget what she told me, that the other day she had to just “get up and run out of the room.” She was having a panic attack. I think this was the first person that I had really ever talked to about it, outside of my best friend and my spouse. She went to her doctor and he started her on Lexapro. I got his number and booked an appointment as soon as humanly possible.

I went to see this doctor, who talked to me for all of five minutes before giving me a sample pack of Lexapro. Although I was excited, something still didn’t sit right. Was this the right decision? How can he diagnose me so quickly?Does this guy even know what he’s doing?

I went home and took one pill. I remember tying my shoes and all of a sudden feeling like everything was in fast-forward. I started to freak out. Now I know a little trick called weaning on and off medication to help lesson their negative effects. Something Doctor What’s-His-Face forgot to mention during our short encounter. So I started calling people. My husband, my family, a friend or two. Most of them shared the same thought:

“You are the happiest person I know. You do not need to be on medication.”

So that was it. I believed in them more than myself. I decided to ditch the medication route and start talk therapy.

But then I got pregnant, and I felt great. Anxious, but in a good way. I was so overwhelmed with love and purpose for the little life inside me, that most of my fears melted away. I had a great pregnancy, and delivered a beautiful, healthy baby boy.

For the first few months of motherhood, I was in the total baby-euphoria stage. Sure, it was a total life change, and not a walk in the park by any means, but I was still so fufilled in my new role. My sweet Jack filled the gaping hole of love and acceptance I had yearned for my whole life. My bucket was full.

But as happy as I was, slowly things started to settle in. I went back to work when Jack was 8 weeks. I was juggling parenting, working, breastfeeding and pumping, lack of sleep, and the realization that I was totally committed to being a parent forever.  All things I expected, sure, but you can never be fully prepared for the challenges this new reality brings. Before I knew it, my a-hole brain started emerging from the shadows. Sometimes I wish he would just announce himself with some grand gesture instead of slowly creeping back in. He would be so much easier to recognize. But he is just sneaky and mean like that. That a-hole.

Things were getting pretty bad and I could barely even see it. I did finally start talk therapy, but my claustrophobia had gotten so bad that I couldn’t even make it up to the office for my sessions. I remember the terror I felt in the elevator, the hallway, and in the waiting room. I felt like I was gasping for air, the walls closing in, so anxious to escape.  Sweet Wendy would meet me downstairs in a restaurant nearby instead. We had some great talks, uncovered some past issues that couldve contributed to my anxiety; she even gave me some desensitization techniques. But our goal was to fight this without medication. I was insistant that I didn’t need it.

I had my big panic attack on the highway during this time. This propelled me towards rock bottom. Even though I had a sweet, happy baby that I loved to the moon and back, I was deeply saddened that he had a mother with these issues. My most important job as a mother was to keep my child safe and happy, and I felt like my fear was putting him at risk. Such a helpless, helpless feeling. The sadness became depression. I didn’t even know this until later, looking back. Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand, and usually one is a precursor to the other. In this case my anxiety had led to my depression.

I started having trouble sleeping I was so anxious. I had terrible, horrific nightmares. I’m still shocked at how bad these dreams were. All symptoms of my anxious state of mind. I could barely drive to work without being in a constant state of panic, and having my precious child in the car with me constantly only magnified my hopelessness. At one point, I was standing up teaching a lesson to my class, and I almost fainted. I was at my breaking point.

I woke up one morning after a bad night of awful dreams and little sleep, and I felt like I was on pins and needles. I was jumping out of my skin with fear. I had to wake up at 4:30am to feed Jack and then get ready for work. I’ll never forget walking into the bathroom, turning on the light, and looking in the mirror. I didn’t recognize myself. I know people say this casually all the time, but this was the scariest, darkest moment of my life. It was like I was looking at a different person. This was not me.  I then had the most life-changing thought I’ve ever had: This person has to go. 

I’m not sure if this counts as a suicidal tendency, and it pains me to even write down those words. I genuinely love my life and the people in it. I love being a mother, a spouse, a daughter, a friend and a good-hearted person. That person in the mirror, however, that person wasn’t any of those things. That person wasn’t me.   I knew at that moment that I needed serious help. I needed to change my life ASAP.

My counselor got me an appointment with a psychologist the next day. She started me on Zoloft and gave me Xanax to “nibble on” in case the Zoloft caused more anxiety, which it did at first. I do remember going back into that fast-forward feeling, and I had some tightness in my chest. But for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t scared. I drove to work without worrying about it. I started sleeping again with no nightmares. Slowly life started getting back on track. The medication was helping me. It was what I needed at the time.

I know medication is controversial. You hear about Big Pharma, doctors getting paid off to write prescriptions, people giving ADHD medication to 2-year-olds. I know this is an abused and very subjective issue. There are risks and benefits associated with anything you do in life. Your circumstances may not lead you down the same road. Everyone has a different story. I’m just sharing my particular story of why I’m thankful that the medication was there when I needed it.

Starting medication for anxiety or depression isn’t something to take lightly. I’m glad I went to someone who was a trained expert, but I also wish I wouldn’t have waited so long. But, to quote one of my favorite songs by the Indigo Girls:

“With every lesson learned a line upon your beautiful face.”

I learned many great lessons on that bumpy ride. I’m learning more and more everyday. It’s a beautiful thing.

If you feel like starting medication is necessary to your healing process, do your research. Be your own advocate. Be vocal with your doctors about what’s working and what’s not. If they don’t listen, find another one who will. If I could give my two cents about picking a medication, find one that’s easy to wean on and off of. Also be patient. You may have to try on a few different medications before you find the one that works best for you.

True, I dislike being dependent on my medicine, and there are withdrawls issues if I switch or forget to take it. I will get off of it one day. But for now, I know I’m doing the best I can, and I am in a good place.  A humble, joyful, grateful place.

If you didn’t hear anything else in this story, hear this: don’t wait until you are staring back at a stranger. Love who you are enough to get the help you need. Do not sit back and suffer in silence. You are worth more than that. Don’t let your fears distort your own reflection. You deserve to wake up, look into the mirror and love who you see.

Dizzy Days

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

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

What a little prankster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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