After Alexander was born, I struggled with anxiety and panic attacks for a couple of years, to the point where it was interfering with my daily life - my choices, my actions, my future plans. I did talk with my doctor about it, got some medication to have "in my pocket" which made me feel better, but tried to change small things in my lifestyle before jumping on the daily medication bandwagon. I didn't want to reach that point, and luckily my anxiety wasn't severe enough to warrant it. I've slowly been able to mostly overcome it, thanks be to God, in baby steps with small lessons learned along the way. So this is a tale of my journey to finding my chill again. (Should I include a disclaimer about how mental health issues are a real struggle, as much as any physical health issue, and anyone who finds themselves feeling depressed or anxious should consult a doctor, which I am not? Or do you all already know that? You do. Great! Moving on...)
Part One: Type A for Anxious
When everything first started, what really helped me deal with my anxiety was knowing that this was normal. For some reason, I was really embarrassed about it and even talking about it made me feel panicky. I remember wishing I had a broken leg or some other visible ailment so everyone would understand how I felt. I started online, researching what anxiety was, what causes it, how people handled it, and though I felt overwhelmed with all the stories and different reasons for anxiety, I also felt virtually hugged because I knew I was not alone, and this seemed sooooo common. Guys, an estimated 44 million American adults suffer from it. Wow!
Once I had the courage to talk about it a little, I told my doctor, got my thyroid checked (blood test and ultrasound - all normal), and got a prescription for something to take if I ever felt really panicky or was put in a situation I thought would cause a panic attack. At the time, long car rides made me feel like I was on the verge of hyperventilating. Not fun. My doctor gave me the name of a therapist to talk to that he said had helped him deal with some issues and I took it but never called her, because, you guessed it, talking to a professional gave me anxiety. Instead, I started talking to other people about it, which felt so freeing and greatly normalized this weird phenomenon.
I heard from my Dad a story about how he was driving in his truck one stressful day and had to pull over because he thought he was having a heart attack. It just so happened that a family friend, a doctor, was in the car behind him, and pulled over and took him to the ER. My Dad's heart was fine, he had just had a panic attack. (I also went to the ER after having a panic attack in the car and not knowing what was happening). My brother Sean also shared with me that he had a panic attack one day after hearing some shocking news, and how scared he was, but that it never happened again. Neither my brother nor my Dad had ever told me their stories before, and just knowing we had such similar experiences (and personalities) made me feel like maybe this could be just a blip in my life story. Like in the future, I would be able to tell the story to my kids about the period in my life when I had a panic attack(s) but it wasn't going to be a forever occurrence. This gave me so much hope.
I also learned that my anxiety was sort of always there. I was always an overachiever -so competitive, especially with academics. I think most people who knew me growing up would say that I was a "nervous" person or easily stressed out. I needed to make lists of everything I had to do or I would become overwhelmed. I had to check off each item on that list or it didn't actually feel completed. I had tendencies toward being obsessive and often felt my heart race and chest tighten from having too much on my plate. I was never someone who would be described as "chill". Nope, not I. I had zero chill. But, the secret is that I sort of thrived on it. I almost enjoyed the adrenaline rush of being busy and accomplishing it all. I did not like being bored or lazy (still don't). I would never have realized that I was "anxious" back then, just Type A. Now I'm realizing that perhaps the A actually stands for Anxious.
I also realized that I had a few panic attacks in the past, not knowing what they were...everyone said I was hyperventilating and handed me a bag to breathe into. It happened during a basketball game. It happened in the pew at church. It happened listening to the news of an approaching hurricane. Sometimes it was the result of stressful situations, but usually it was apropos of nothing. Which is exactly how I felt about this adult onset anxiety - it wasn't a particular stressful event that was causing it, it didn't even feel like I was worrying about anything at all. It just felt like I couldn't breathe without thinking about breathing. It was like my body forgot how to just be. Every experience was tainted with a feeling of not being able to go through it. Every bodily sensation was heightened with an awareness that a panic attack could start at any moment. I would question everything in my head and plan escape routes from whatever situation I was in. I never felt at peace, even getting into bed at night was a struggle because I would become hyperaware of my breathing as I tried to turn off my brain. The anxiety was just an underlying condition in all areas of my life, and something that I couldn't stop thinking about.
But, the good news is that all that thinking helped me to slowly figure things out that finally helped.
Stay tuned for Finding My Chill, Part Two: Falling on Sidewalks.