To support NaNoWriMo this month, I’m finishing the 30+ odd drafts laying about and posting them through the month of November.
But I’ll maintain it was for the sake of good copy. The realization to write about my family is not something that came to me in an instant but something that I’ve been struggling with for months. My panic attacks and anxiety levels, which have been fairly dormant these last few years, have come aggressively to the surface with the move to Grand Rapids. My precious supply of Klonopin, when before I used so sparingly and only when under extreme need, I’m now eating like TicTacs.
On the surface, things are falling into place for TheHusband and me after months and years of sacrifice and financial starvation. Things are not absolutely perfect (I work part-time as opposed to full-time, as an example), but when are they ever? We are starting to build a lovely life – so why all the goddamned almost crippling anxiety? Again? The conclusion: If after ruling out everything else that could be detrimental to my mental health and the only thing left is my family, therefore they must be the cause of this unwarranted stress. It is also equally important, I feel, that in order to continue on discussing my familial relationships, it is also equally important to lay out the history of my anxiety.
I had my first panic attack when I was barely a teenager. What I can recall is that I was walking with a girlfriend from one class to the next when my heart started racing a million miles per minute. I can also remember looking down and seeing the fabric of my shirt move ever so slightly to the tune of my heart beat. I do not remember the eventual underlying cause for the attack but it was, in my living memory, the first real physical experience of being physically anxious. The heart racing went on for a few moments before settling back down to its normal rhythm. And as it happened, just like that!, it also ended. I must have, at the time, reported the incident to my mother who took me to the family GP who announced I had mitral valve prolapse. Stress, fear or anxiety were never mentioned in my diagnosis though much later, I would find out it is those things that triggered it.
(For many years I told people I had a literal broken heart. It sounded much more dramatic and romantic while fueling my ever active imagination.)
As I age, the anxiety comes and goes in ebbs and tides. Sometimes, symptoms are minute and barely noticeable when I know I am under extreme stress and others, it would have me convinced that I was having a heart attack, dying or riddled with cancer when I felt I had no stress in my life. Sometimes still, the more frightened, cornered, or helpless I feel, the more intense the symptoms would manifest. Others, I would be conscious that I was anxious or upset which easily could explain the flight or fight feeling while others, I could be at an event having a good time when the symptoms would begin to manifest themselves for no apparent reason.
With me, there is no straight path with anxiety, and almost always, if it happened one way before it would not necessarily happen the same way again. The symptoms would almost never repeat themselves. Sometimes it would be a racing heartbeat for a few minutes, other times it would be traveling aches/pains that would appear and disappear with no introduction or farewell. Once I had hair randomly fall out for months and then stop. This past winter, after TheHusband and I moved to Grand Rapids, I got something in my eye when I was getting ready for bed. Most normal people wash their eyes out and continue on with their life, but instead, I became ultra-hysterical and belligerent. I was convinced I had cancer, I was going to lose my eye and thus was going to die in five minutes! After washing my eye out with water AND saline a million times, on top of crying hysterically; TheHusband could not find the offending piece of whatever that was driving me insane. The only way he could calm me down was by drugging me up. Within minutes I was asleep and was incredibly sheepish about the whole incident the following day.1
To be fair, the anxiety of my youth paled to that which would come in my 20s and 30s as illustrated by the examples above. By 1997, I was desperately unhappy with my life and under the wooing of a man-boy, I sold all my worldly possession and ran to the Bay Area to start my life anew. The man-boy promised fame and fortune, but instead left me in an illegal apartment culled out of a walk-out basement, in a house controlled by a dominatrix. Within several months of my move, he and I were over and I was working for a small tech firm in San Francisco. Within a year, TheHusband (then as TheBoyfriend part i) and I were living together in Oakland. According to TheHusband, I spent most of our relationship during that time on wild bouts of alcohol infused desperation. I don’t remember much of our time together during that period other than I drank a lot, we were dirt poor, and it seemed no matter what I did to improve my life, I was still so desperately unhappy.
By the summer of 1999, TheHusband and I were broken up but still living together. I was restless and always on the lookout for an escape route to get out of California2. I found the escape by applying for and being offered a position at UUNet, located a million miles away.3 For the move, I was driving across the country alone with the most precious of my worldly belongings in my car and the rest shipped to my final destination. To make the move even more bittersweet, the day I went to hand in my resignation, I was made redundant from my current job.
While all of this was going on over the course of the summer (breaking up, drinking binges, concocting wild & desperate plans to escape), I started getting intense physical pains in my right arm – eventually to the point that it would not bend or move as it was meant to bend or move. Soon, I needed to have TheHusband’s help to get clothes on or off. This was in addition to the minute symptoms of stress also occurring, such as the rapid heart rate, clammy skin and random aches and pains. Convinced I was dying, I headed to the emergency room, where after battery of tests I was informed nothing was wrong with me. As soon as the diagnosis came, the pain vanished. I was as healthy as a horse, except for the tiny, picky little thing called stress. The ER docs did warn me, however, that if I did not do something about it soon, I may find myself slightly dead.
Sometime shortly thereafter that announcement, I bade TheHusband goodbye, climbed into my car and left San Francisco and all of my California problems behind, forever. From San Francisco to Virginia, with a pit stop in Atlanta, my drive was the 5->10->20 and then north, cutting across the lower part of the U.S. and across the widest part of Texas.
I felt fine in LA and in Phoenix (no minute or heavy stress attacks) as I drove but somewhere around Las Cruces, NM I began to have a major panic attack. It was late at night, I was stuck between two semis and the 10 had turned into single, each way lanes coupled with high cement shoulders due to construction. To top this wondrous night off, it was raining and raining hard. I began to panic. I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t breathe and I was freaked out of my wits. This stepped up the racing thoughts that any second I was going to careen into the cement shoulder, hit a semi or get run over by the semi behind me. After what seemed like hours but was probably only mere minutes, I pulled off the road when I found the first mom and pop motel where I grabbed a room for the night. Even by taking myself out of what I thought was a dangerous situation, my heart wouldn’t stop racing. I made deals, bets, begged, cajoled, pleaded and bargained with whatever deity was above me to make this end. Nothing happened. I paced my room, smoked a million cigarettes and did everything I thought of in my power but I could not calm down.
The situation was made more intense that while I was no longer freaking out about my impending death on the 10, new thoughts would appear about my situation. I was in the wilds of New Mexico! Alone! With hardly any money! No one I know for hundreds of miles! With a crap cell phone!4I was literally thousands of miles from my destination, alone, nearly broke, and frightened and scared.
Common sense roused its stately head and forced me to go wake mom and pop up to explain in very poor pidgin Spanish that I felt like I was unable to breathe because that was the first thing I could think of to tell them. I could hear the crackling of Spanish on the radio in the make-shift lobby as I spoke. I remember how warm the night felt against my skin and the air hung with wetness from the recent downpour. I must have looked like a crazy person, standing there, begging for help in a reasonable voice while my heart raged on and clearly, able to breathe.
EMTs shortly arrived thereafter and gave me oxygen, which upon my first inhale I immediately calmed down. They found, just as the ER docs found a few weeks before, nothing wrong with me. Healthy as a horse. It is like once the attack has been fully addressed in some manner, it decides to leave as quickly as it sprang up. Instead of being thankful to the EMTs for the reassurance, I remember feeling chastened. Slightly ridiculous that I called them out in the middle of the night for a panic attack. Also a little stupid, a little insane and a whole lot of embarrassed.
Moments of lucidness during my attacks, when I knew I was fine and I knew I was not in harms way were always felt to be made like disappearing bread crumbs along a well worn road by the panic. It is a struggle, still in the now and sometimes almost daily, to differentiate between the world colored by anxiety and the world in which is real. It is an exhausting struggle within my brain to fight for what could be potentially destructive behavior as compared as to what is termed normal behavior.
Intensive bouts of therapy over the years has taught me how to work with and for the anxiety, to control it, subdue it and to live a fairly normal life. In 2003, in addition to being diagnosed with anxiety, I was further diagnosed as a high functioning Borderline Personality Disorder. Treatment via talk therapy (I had a regular shrink) coupled with techniques learned from dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
1. We laugh about this incident now and anytime one of us has a something in their eye, it’s automatically termed the problem is cancer.
2. Which I would later swore I would never return nor step foot west of the Mississippi. That too turned to be false when I would go visit a friend of mine in Sacramento in 2003. So much for big threatening gestures.
3. Northern Virginia.
4. Back in ye olde times when cell phones were bricks, on analog service and you paid by the minute.