I have lived with anxiety attacks for almost my whole life. The first one happened when I was about 8-10 years old. The situation, circumstances, the sensations remain so vivid. There was a feeling of being cold, and a feeling of rising far above my body, looking down on myself in the situation. I remember suddenly becoming aware of the sound of my own breathing in my ears, and how the voices and noises around me were muted, distant, separated from me.
Subsequent attacks – often at bedtime as I was trying to fall asleep – were accompanied by a rush of sick fear that would leave me dry-mouthed and feeling totally vulnerable, like nothing in the world was safe.
For years – and I mean years – I told no one what was happening. I thought I was losing my mind. I feared I was dying. Late one night, my mother and I were talking, and I hesitatingly brought it up, “Has this ever happened to you?” She said no, not exactly like that, but she understood. She said, “I’m afraid you’ve inherited it.”
The anxiety attacks came and went, seemingly arbitrarily. I’d go months and months without an attack; sometimes a year, and then boom, I was suddenly back in it, hit by gray, cold waves of terror.
It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I learned what was happening in my body/mind. I was living far away from home, in L.A. with friends. Everything was new and strange, and sad. I’d lost my beloved aunt Caroline to cancer. Mark and I – our college romance – had broken up after he moved to Dallas and I went west. (Long-distance relationship couldn’t go the distance.)
That night – one of the most meaningful of my life – I couldn’t rest. I felt antsy and miserable, on the verge of panic. I went for a drive, and then stopped at a book store. I was doing more pacing than looking, trying to distract myself from the waves of dread and fear, and shame. So much shame, “What is WRONG with me?!”
Finally, I got so miserable, I prayed for help. And immediately, I glanced down and there on the very bottom shelf was a book titled “Anxiety & Panic Attacks: Their Cause & Cure.”
I picked up the book, opened to a random page and read. Oh my god! The relief of finally knowing, of making sense of it – finally understanding that no, I wasn’t crazy or headed towards crazy. The book introduced me to the concept of “the rain barrel effect.” When you’re prone towards anxiety – and doing nothing to alleviate it – stressors build up, like raindrops filling a rain barrel. When the barrel is full, even one small plink! might cause it to overflow. The same goes for anxiety. Fears, concerns, worry build up over time and then something happens – maybe even something minor, like temporarily losing your keys or realizing you forgot to buy milk for the kids’ breakfast – and then you’re treading water.
The barrel overflows and overflows and overflows, until it’s empty, and then finally you have relief. It’s that in-between time that’s the bitch – riding the waves.
Another analogy. A friend of mine was accidentally overdosed on morphine in the hospital, and was given a drug to stop the effects of the opiate. As the doctors administered the life-saving drug, they warned her that she would feel absolutely miserable afterward, that while the opiate enhanced the pleasure centers in her brain, the antidote drug blocked them and would strip away all sense of well-being until it passed through her system. The drug did save her life, and it did cause her to feel horrible. She told me later, “Nothing felt safe, nothing felt right, even the lighting in the room seemed omnious. Everything felt like a threat.”
I started crying as she was speaking. She had just described my mental and physical state when I was in the midst of anxiety attacks. I finally had a frame of reference to help me explain it to my loved ones who were, frankly, sick of me being a mess.
Nothing feels right, nothing feels safe, everything feels like a threat. There is no pleasure. There is no comfort. I can’t “straighten up and fly right.” I can’t “just get over it.”
Exercise helps prevent anxiety. So does breathing exercises, and yoga. Do I do them with any regularity? No, I do not. Why? I do not know.
For years, I resisted medications. Why? Anxiety! I now carry two prescriptions in my purse – one for maintenance (when I remember to take it), and the big-gun pill that I try hard not to take because it can be habit-forming. And really, really, the last thing that I want to deal with now is a prescription drug addiction. But, as I have the same bottle that I’ve had for over a year, and it hasn’t been refilled, I think I’m okay. I refer to it as my “In case of emergency, break glass” drug.
I’ve shared this before, that for most of the time that Mark was ill, I didn’t deal much with anxiety. Reality was enough – my mind didn’t need to invent “F.E.A.R.” or “False Evidence Appearing Real.” (Favorite friends have suggested an alternative: “F*** Everything And Run!”) From that horrible day of “Vicki, they think I have cancer” to the weeks just after Mark’s death, the anxiety motor might have switched on, but it didn’t run away with me.
But nowadays? Different story. It’s on, baby. Sometimes idling, sometimes revving and threatening to go full-throttle.
The small challenges and worries, mixed in with the bigger stuff, is taking its toll on me. So is the summer heat. Stress and poor self-care during the past two years have caused aches and pains that inhibit my ability to exercise. To the best of my ability, I’m doing what I’ve been instructed to do to help myself.
One of my greatest fears, then, now and always is that the anxiety motor will switch on and refuse to turn off. It’s happened a couple of times through the years, long days and long-long miserable nights of feeling out of control, that there is no comfort left anywhere in the world. It’s called hell-on-Earth, and I don’t wish it on anyone, ever.
And did I mention that my primary “safe person” died three months ago?
Fear of fear. Fear of death. Fear of failure. Fear of ridicule. Fear of loss. Fear of abandonment. Fear of fear.
I am doing what I know to do to take care of myself. I have two appointments coming up, a follow-up with a medical doctor, and an appointment with my therapist.
Slowly, slowly, slowly I am turning this aircraft carrier around, and if one person reading this is enlightened or helped, then maybe it’s worthwhile living through it.
Okay, that sounded way too noble. Screw you: I just want to feel better.
There. That’s more like it.
(Sense of humor returning. See? Writing helps.)