People think I'm crazy because I have anxiety
If you've ever found yourself in the throes of a panic attack, I know you relate to the title of this blog.
In 2014, right when Confessions of a Mediocre Widow was published, I developed a crippling panic disorder. To clarify, the anxiety didn't just happen overnight - it had been building for a while - but the life-changing "I can't leave my house because I'm going to have a heart attack if I do" seemed to happen within a few weeks.
Like a lot of people out there, my panic disorder started when I would fly. I don't have a fear of flying and I never have. I'm not afraid of heights. It took me years to figure out WHY this was happening and I'll get into that in a minute. But to give you an idea of just how much I WASN'T aware that this was panic, I spent months thinking I had an inner ear problem that was giving me vertigo. I would suddenly get dizzy and that would send me into a panic thinking I was going to be sick in front of hundreds of people.
But that dizziness was panic. And then it would expand into other physical symptoms:
Sweating (I get POOLS of sweat in my shoes when I'm panicking and then my feet freeze.)
The uncontrolable need to scream (I have had so many flights when I've just wanted to scream, "Get me OFF!" and it's hard to control.)
The best way I can describe that time in my life is I felt like my body got addicted to that feeling and it started creeping into other areas: I couldn't sit in a crowd at my kids' choir concerts or the movies. I started panicking if I got stuck in traffic. Sitting across the table from someone at a restaurant and trying to focus on them made me dizzy.
It was then that I realized that it wasn't the flying that set me off - it was the idea that I was trapped. If I didn't have an exit strategy wherever I was, I would panic - even in line at Barnes & Noble. (That was the year I did all my Christmas shopping online so I didn't have to stand in line.)
It was life-altering.
Again, this didn't happen overnight. I've come to realize, as I've isolated that feeling and the triggers, that I've had anxiety my entire life. When I was a child, it showed up as "homesickness." I had a hard time going back to school after breaks because I felt homesick. I had a hard time going to camp because I felt homesick. And, yes, I do think homesickness is a real thing - but what it really is is anxiety.
When you have anxiety and/or a panic disorder, you start telling yourself lots of stories about what others are thinking. If I'm being honest, I think some of them ARE thinking this, but some of it is just another symptom of the anxiety we carry about anxiety.
I'm high maintenance
When you start telling people, "I have to sit on the aisle at the play/on the plane/at a sporting event" they often don't get it unless they've been through this - and I'm extremely understanding of the fact that this does make me a little high maintenance. I don't like it, but I am.
I'm much better off if I can be the one making the plan because I don't want to have to ask someone to find seats that make me more comfortable. When someone else makes the plan, I'm so riddled with anxiety about it that I will research where my seat is so that I can prepare myself for the event. If it's in the center of hundreds of people, I'll worry about it for weeks before I go. If it's on the aisle, I can relax and have a good time.
For years when I would fly, I would take the aisle seat in the very last row of the plane. There's a very rational explanation for that: if I felt like I was going to throw up, I could quickly get up and slip into the bathroom with minimal people noticing. The irrational part of this is that I've never in my life thrown up on a plane. Again, panic disorders don't make sense to anyone - especially the people who have them.
The problem is that I think most people feel like this is a choice. It's not. It's miserable. To get tickets to a play and spend the entire time fighting a panic attack is one of the worst feelings you can possibly imagine. To get on a plane to take a trip you've been looking forward to only to suddenly wish you could get off and go home is crushing.
I wish everyone in the world could experience this JUST ONCE so they would know what it's like. I have tricks to help get me under control (more about that below), but it takes everything I have to come back from a panic attack once it's started.
So, here's the problem - I'm not going to tell you you're not high maintenance because in a way you are. A lot of us are because we struggle with the same problem. Again, where it gets frustrating is feeling like others think this is all in your head (okay, it is, but it goes deeper than that) and that you're just requesting things your way because that's how you want it. I have no solution to this problem except to say that the more people you talk to about this, the more you'll know that a LOT of people want that aisle seat.
And screw everyone else.
No one understands/I'm the only one going through this
Yeah - this simply isn't true. It's estimated that 264 million people around the world have anxiety disorders. You'll find this out if you're upfront with people about it.
When mine got really bad, I would tell anyone who would stand still long enough that I had this issue. I did this for two reasons:
It gave them permission to share.
Almost everyone I told either suffered from it or knew someone who had and had a suggestion about what to do about it.
Sharing this with others led me to restorative yoga, meditation, and essential oils. I went back to therapy. I went to seminars about breathing techniques. Eventually, after a year of trying to treat this myself, I did get on medication and that changed my daily struggle a lot. I still have problems in specific situations, but it did get better.
It wasn't until years later that I actually appreciated it a little. My youngest daughter started to make comments about "my legs won't rest" or I would notice her breathing off a little bit. As she started to describe her symptoms, I realized that she was having issues with anxiety - something I wouldn't have known if I hadn't experienced it myself.
We worked on techniques together, but I feel like one of the most important things I did as a parent was telling her, as she was getting ready for school and not feeling "herself" that if she didn't feel better, I would come and get her.
She never called.
I believe that validating her and giving her that exit strategy made all the difference. I don't see that anxiety in her now, but it could come back. And she knows she's not crazy. She knows this is real. And someone else gets it.
It will never get better
When I locked myself in my house in 2014, I thought my life was over. All the plans I had to travel once I reached the empty nest were gone. I thought I could never go to work in an office (just thinking about that gave me HUGE moments of anxiety). No more concerts. No more plays. No more sitting in a restaurant. Really no more doing anything I wanted to do.
That year came a close second to the worst year of my life (the year my husband died will always be first). When I finally allowed myself to get put on medication, I was terrified. What if it didn't work???
Robin Williams died that year and for the first time I really understood how someone could get so desperate they felt like they could no longer go on. If, at the age of 38, I was staring at decades of living in panic without any hope of relief...I don't know if I could have done it. People who haven't faced mental illness don't truly understand what it's like to never be able to escape your own mind. It's there with you 24/7. You can't turn it off. It can trigger physical responses you have no control over. It is exhausting after weeks, never mind months and years.
In my case, I was fortunate that the medication did work and it worked on the first try. I know so many people who take medication for mental issues that they've found through trial and error and then - worst of all - the medication stops working and they have to start all over again. You have my deepest sympathy if that's something you're going through.
But there were things that medication didn't completely fix and I had to find tools to help. Here is some of what I've figured out.
Medication + Therapy
You can't take medication without therapy and anyone who is allowing you to do that shouldn't. There is a reason this is happening. Yes, some of it might be chemical, but you need to have someone you trust to talk through it. I had stopped going to therapy before this happened. I will never stop going again. I need someone in my life to always validate that this is happening and that I'm not crazy.
When you're in the throes of anxiety, you're not living in the present. This is perhaps one of the hardest tools to implement, but it can be one of the most effective. I realized that when I was starting to panic, I was either thinking about what had happened before or the shitty thing that could happen; I wasn't thinking about now. If I'm sitting at a play, I make myself watch the actor and pay attention to EVERY SINGLE WORD they're saying (that was most challenging during Hamilton). If I'm on a plane, I have a checklist that goes something like...
Find 5 red things.
Feel the seat beneath you.
Count something around you.
Put all your attention on the music that's playing.
To expand on number four, I have found that music helps me a TON. I have a playlist that I listen to of classical music when I take a bath. Because this is something I've done over and over again, my body knows that when that music plays, it's time to relax. I've found that if I play that music as I'm getting on the plane it immediately calms my body. It's crazy how it works.
I also tap my feet/toes back and forth in my shoes (which are now filled with sweat and freezing). I've been through EMDR and I think it's kind of like that. That small rocking motion comforts me and no one else can see I'm doing it. It gives me something else to concentrate on for a moment.
Okay - I thought this was crap for years. I tried it and it never worked...until it did.
Here's what I figured out. What throws me into a panic is an interruption in my breathing. For example, let's say the plane feels a little turbulence. Our body's natural response is to kind of catch our breath, right? We're surprised so it interrupts the natural cadence we had going on before that. If I don't pay attention to that, my breathing becomes irregular and that's what sends me into a panic. When I notice it has happened, I breathe in slowly for four, hold for a moment and breathe out slowly for four. This immediately stops the crazy breathing.
Doing this has done more for me than any medication. My doctor used to prescribe heavy medication for flying which never really worked. It just made me feel sluggish and hungover for days ( just what you want when you're traveling) but never really stopped the panic. Regulating my breathing has gotten me through a lot of situations.
Don't give up
Possibly one of the most pivotal moments in my battle was when my oldest daughter decided to go to college out of state. My NIGHTMARE. This meant that I had to get on a plane any time I wanted to visit her.
But my pull to be with my kid was stronger than my anxiety. I wanted to be with her more than I was afraid to get on that plane. Because of this, I had to fly more - so this was like my version of immersion therapy. I think you have to put yourself in those scary situations in order to create positive experiences where you know you came out okay.
Saying that, be kind to yourself. Do these things with people who understand what's going on and who won't be offended if you decide to duck out of a play at intermission. Just knowing that you have that "out" can make a big difference.
You're not crazy
This is perhaps the most powerful tool of all. You're not nuts. This is REAL. This is mental AND physical. This is not something you brought on yourself or that you could have seen coming so you could fix it.
If you have people in your life who make you feel like "this is all in your head" it's time to set some boundaries. You don't have to be rude about it, but your mental safety comes first.
It's important to remember that they just don't know. They don't know what this is like. They might find out someday and, boy, won't that be a wake-up call. Until then, remember that in some weird way you've been given a gift - the gift of knowing. If someone should tell you about their own struggle you come from a deep place of understanding - which will likely make a life-changing difference to someone else who feels alone and crazy, too.