Friday, February 23, 2018

Dealing With Anxiety

In high school, I started having these little episodes where I felt like my heart was racing or skipping beats. I chalked this up to genetics because when I was younger, my mother had experienced some minor heart issues.

I asked her if we could go to the doctor because I was pretty sure I was experiencing the same thing she had experienced.

Much to my surprise, my heart ended up being healthy. Instead, I was diagnosed with panic attacks.

Wait, what?

The "attack" verbiage sounded a little too intense for what I was feeling. Sure, I was hiding an eating disorder and was constantly measuring myself up to the people around me. And yes, I was extremely temperamental with my family members. And my life sure didn't feel easy at the time.

But I didn't feel like my chest pains felt like an attack.

In fact, most of the time, these "attacks" would happen when I was doing something I loved like in the middle of a dance class or during choir or just hanging out with my friends. They would last a minute or so and as I breathed through them, the feeling would go away.

Luckily, they were few and far between. And as time went on, I got used to them. Anxiety became a part of me and quite frankly, it didn't bother me that much. I never labeled myself as an anxious person or really gave much thought to these little episodes because they were just that---little.

Fast-forward to today. 

Anxiety has become a stronger and more prominent struggle in my life. 

The things I've experience in the past 12 years as an adult have been pretty difficult and have come with many big decisions and changes.

I lost a baby three months into my marriage. After my son was born, I was diagnosed with infertility. My marriage was filled with challenges and lies. My husband left me 'out of the blue'. I struggled with my eating disorder. I lost friends. My children were hurt by someone I thought was safe. I lost my faith. I had to go to trial to fight a change in child custody.

My brain tells me I keep losing things and that things keep shifting no matter what I do to try and stop them.

So based on that logic, I'm often MORE anxious when things in my life are going well---because I'm just waiting for another bomb to drop.
And surely this is not a productive way to live my life.

And to most, it wouldn't even seem like I live my life this way. I try to keep things real while also keeping things positive.

In fact, as I went back to counseling recently, my therapist asked how my life was going and I replied, "It's fabulous! On paper, everything is going great right now! I am an empowered, badass single mom. I graduated this past year from ASU. I just reopened my foster availability. My faith is stronger than it has been in a long time. I love my job. I love my kids. I love my coworkers. BUT---I am having trouble controlling my anxiety." {And yes, I really did refer to myself as a badass multiple times during our conversation.}

I don't show it often. But the reason I talk about the reality of my anxiety is because I know I am not alone. And I know that there are a lot of people who don't speak up because they think they will be perceived differently---more negatively. And I know I am still a stable mother who is capable of doing great things.


A lot of my days move like this:

The second I drop my kids off to school, my chest feels a little heavier. And to deal with this, I start speaking out loud to myself in the car. "Suzanne, they are going to be fine. You can leave them. Breathe. Life is good. Everything is good right now. Nothing bad has happened."

I then get to work and have a hard time focusing because I'll zero in on my pen not writing evenly or I'll obsess over how I'm going to tackle everything that needs to be done after work/school or I'll get anxious that I haven't been a good enough friend lately and what if my friends desert me? Chest tightening. Heart pounding. Sweaty palms. So then I'll pep talk myself again but this time, in my mind. "Suzanne, you are doing great. Nothing catastrophic has happened. Your pen is fine. You will get everything done that you need to. The kids are safely at school. The school would call if they needed you. Trust your friends. Nothing bad has happened."

When my doorbell rings---instant anxiety.
When I get a text message from certain people---instant anxiety.
If an email comes through that has to do with the trial I just went through---instant anxiety.
When I sign into my bank account---instant anxiety.
When I walk into the chaos that is currently my house---instant anxiety.

And although I could keep painting you a picture, I think you get the point.

My brain often feels like it's working overtime just for me to act normally in every day situations. It is absolutely exhausting. And yet, for the most part, it is invisible.

When I was first diagnosed with an actual anxiety disorder, I was a married, stay-at-home mom. I had been in marriage counseling with my husband for a few months when my brain started sending panic signals for little things.

At the grocery store, I would become anxious over picking the right brand or spending the right amount of money. I would struggle when I knew I could not justify buying an even number of a certain food. My 'even numbers' obsession got pretty strong and I had no idea why. {As I've mentioned before, I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.} 

I was afraid of my husband but not because he physically abused me. (He NEVER did.) I was afraid of his mood swings. His disbelief in God was painful for me. I didn't feel like I knew him anymore.

But I didn't believe those things were capable of causing anxiety when making a decision as menial as what brand of food to buy.

My struggle with anxiety at this time was pretty invisible to anyone other than myself, my husband, and my therapist.

In fact, during a marriage counseling session, my husband brought up my OCD (which was his way of deflecting the topic off of him) and although at first, I was hurt that he was blaming me, I am really glad he did that because it opened up a topic that had been making me feel crazy. Our marriage therapist warned me that OCD is often heightened after a traumatic event. And maybe she had accepted that our marriage was on the rocks more than I had at the time. That made it so that I felt safe talking about how my OCD really was becoming harder to control and was taking on some unusual habits, including anxiety over germs, something I had never dealt with before.

I poured myself into being a better homemaker, a more patient wife, and I took on the majority of our parental responsibilities on my own. I wanted this to fix my husband, to fix our relationship.

I tried being submissive. I tried standing up for myself more. I tried to lose weight. I tried to leave him alone more.

And when he left me, I had this sudden realization that I could not control this situation. Nothing I said or did would've changed his mind at that time.

This is when the anxiety hit hardest. 

I felt so out of control, realizing that I could not fix the very thing I was trying to fix. I worried about how my kids would grow up and whether anybody could ever love post-pregnancy-body Suzanne.

I was stoic. I pretended to be strong. And maybe just the mere fact that I was able to put on a brave face was actually brave.

But on the inside, my anxiety was controlling me. 

What were people going to think of me? Whether they knew he chose to leave or heard "the other story" of how I kicked him out, were they going to hate me? Would they look at my body and blame it as the root of the problem? Would they find flaws in my character? Would I ever get remarried? Would my kids be ok? Would I actually make it financially and emotionally and physically on my own?

It took me a few months to adjust to this new adult life where I made decisions on my own and slept alone and paid bills alone.

And since that horrible day four and a half years ago, I have learned a lot about my anxiety. Most of the time, I have done incredibly well at not letting it control me. But sometimes, there seems to be nothing I can do short of surrendering to God and begging him to help me stay calm.

And sometimes even that doesn't take my anxiety away.

It's pretty hard to control right now. Probably harder than it has been in years. When I lay in my bed at the end of the day or let my mind wander at work or while driving, I start to feel the weight pressing down on my chest. It isn't always easy to talk myself through it but I've been trying new techniques like music, meditation, and extra prayers in those difficult moments.

And something HUGE that I've learned is that when my anxiety hits and I'm in a situation where I can remove myself, I do it.

If there is contention that I can walk away from or if I need to take a short walk around the building at work or if I need to turn on The Office when I wake up in the middle of the night, I do it.

I am so grateful that 'life is good' right now and that this is usually just a phase that comes on strong after a really traumatic event has passed. Because as I said above, life being good is sometimes my biggest trigger because I fear the unknown of what bomb could drop next.

Anxiety does not define me but it is a part of me. 

I might sound crazy to you or I might be describing something you deal with. Either one of those is ok with me. I am comfortable speaking about my anxiety because I know I am a good person and that I have good intentions and am doing amazing things with the life I've been given.

If you've been around me lately, you've probably seen the more anxious side of me and I want you to know how thankful I am for your patience. Because when anxiety hits me hard, I know that I have to let certain things go. I know I need space. I know I won't answer texts as fast or answer my phone as often. I know I need to walk away and ask for help more often.

And if you have anxiety and you need a safe space to talk about it, please don't hesitate to reach out to me. Because if helping others is the one good thing that comes from this, I'm ok with that. :)