This is a post I've been thinking about writing for a long time. In the sewing community, I've found so much love and support. I tend to keep things upbeat and positive on this blog. And mostly sewing related, which is why I popped in a picture of my Hour Basket. But in my experience, a little vulnerability goes a long way in allowing somebody to relate.
My Journey with AnxietyA decade ago, I had my first panic attack. I was driving to a friend's bachelorette party when suddenly I felt trapped. My heart skipped, then raced. I had hot flashes, and needed air. I desperately struggled with the windows and A/C while trying to drive toward the nearest interstate exit. I had no category for these feelings.
Thankfully, my longtime friend Christie was with me that night. She took me to get dinner. (I didn't eat.) Then she drove me home. I don't remember much of that car ride, except for laying in the backseat thinking that my heart was going to stop beating. The initial panic attack had spurred a series of physical symptoms (racing heartbeat, tightness in my chest, etc.) that lasted all night. I was sure this was it, and I was dying.
The years following my first panic attack were filled with confusion and self-doubt.
Anxiety has been a major theme in my life, tainting even the nicest memories. The first time I went to Quilt Market, I was thrilled to get to meet many of my blogging friends in person for the first time. On night one in Kansas City, I walked to a Mexican restaurant with two of the sweetest girls ever. Sitting at the table, I felt faint, spacey and oddly disconnected from reality. I couldn’t eat more than a couple tortilla chips, and excused myself to the restroom. Was it that weird dessert I ate earlier? I apologized to my new friends, and called a taxi to take me back to the hotel early.
I honestly don’t know if I had some kind of food poisoning, or if it was the panic attack alone that made me feel so off. Granted, I had a lot on mind at the time. The book publisher I worked for was going through major layoffs, so I would likely lose my job. I had just gone through three interviews for a new position with a company I loved, and I was now in Kansas City for the final interview. While it’s not totally surprising that I spent most of the weekend feeling anxious, I look back at that trip with some regrets. Most of all, I wish that I had spent less time in my hotel room feeling ill and more time being present, enjoying my time with people.
It wasn’t just driving or traveling someplace new that made me anxious. Sometimes normal things like shopping or going out to dinner made me feel uneasy. I’d go over scenarios in my head, preparing myself for how I'll react if I panic. On one occasion, my husband bought us tickets to the ballet on Valentine’s Day. Instead of looking forward to a new experience, I spent the days leading up to our date researching the theater, wondering where our seats would be, and planning a possible escape route. I mean… who does this?
So often, I've blamed myself because I can't hold it together. Sometimes I keep it bottled up inside, so ashamed and worried sick that activities I used to enjoy become a lot of work. I wonder how long I can keep up a facade of calm, collectedness before the inevitable happens and my cover is blown. Hey, look at me. I'm anxious!
One day, I felt such an intense panic while driving that I pulled off the Interstate. I was used to taking abrupt exits like this, if I felt panicky and needed to escape. Letting my heart rate slowly return back to normal, I sipped some water and bit into a granola bar, just as I saw the cop car.
“M’am, this is a very unsafe place to pull over. Are you having car trouble?”
“No,” I sheepishly replied. “I’m just having a little panic attack,” and smiled.
“Well…. Do you have a medical condition that requires you to stop and eat?”
“I’m pregnant.” This was true. But not the real reason I pulled over.
After scolding me for poor judgment (“You could get yourself killed”), the cop sent me on my way. My emotions soared from fear to intense anger… at the officer… at myself. I turned my keys in the ignition and immediately merged back onto the freeway. With the cop car out of sight, I sped toward my exit. Just a couple quick turns from home, shame over the whole situation welled up inside of me, and I sobbed. Tears blurred everything. I dried my eyes with my shirt sleeve and continued home.
Matt was in our room folding clothes. He saw my smeary face and asked what was wrong. I didn't have the energy to go into it, but I also couldn’t hide. So I recounted the entire story about the panic attack and the cop.
“I’m so … tired… of this,” I said. With a baby on the way, I had deeper fears about caring for a little one while trying to hold it together myself.
I started therapy just weeks later. My counselor introduced me to guided visualization, and I was driving on the Interstate again. He taught me how I could imagine myself driving successfully, and then enter a situation with confidence instead of fear. It was one way to fight back against the negativity that my mind pitted against me.
Counseling helped a lot. While I gained control of my life to the point where I resumed normal activities, I always felt the looming threat of anxiety coming back, this time stronger and debilitating. Despite my fears, however, I wrote my first book. I traveled to conferences. I kept going.
Mid- to late last year, I felt free from anxiety for the first time in a decade. I was living my life fully, confident that I could accomplish anything I set out to do. I suspect a lot of this was connected to the elation I felt in overcoming my very real fears in becoming a mom.
So, this is how normal people feel . . .
I felt so free! I felt so myself. I had true hope that this anxiety journey was over.
Around January this year, the panic attacks returned. Sitting at a red light, I felt trapped by the cars around me. I started to feel faint. I fanned myself, fiddled with the radio, grabbed for my phone.
Anxiety was a part of my life once again. And I felt defeated.
This time around, I've taken a proactive approach to tackling my anxiety. I started going to counseling (again). Adjusted my medication. I read so many books. I journaled every night before bed about my day, citing possible anxious triggers. I also wrote things I was grateful for each day to inject some forced positivity into a dismal situation. I joined a women's group at church and asked for their prayers and friendship. Despite my sense of embarrassment over the whole situation, I left the house every day and did the very things that scared me.
With practice, I have learned to cope with panic attacks so they happen a lot less often. Today, I'd describe them more as passing thoughts... or manageable worries. Even if I felt a hint of anxiety, I still push forward and do the very thing that scares me. I keep driving rather than pull off the road. I breathe deeply and take new experiences one step at a time. This is not easy, by any means, but it has gotten so much easier with practice.
Most days are fine. But I'm not so far removed from the struggle of anxiety that I can forget its very real pull on me. Those days that left me feeling raw, disappointed, and exhausted from the fight... there were so many! I was disappointed in myself, and the whole situation. I was ashamed that I had to work so hard in the first place at things that come so naturally to others.
But for today, I've found peace. I've realized that although I may still be living with anxiety... I'm still living. Truly living.
I'm proud of myself for what I've accomplished in spite of this giant, scary unknown. I can accept myself, and love the person God created me to be. And I'm eternally thankful for my support system… the people who can remind me who I am.
If you are living with anxiety or depression, please know that you are not alone. If every day takes a lot of effort, I get it. And I'm right here with you.
If you have never experienced this kind of anxiety, I bet you know someone who does. If your friend, spouse, parent, or child is battling mental illness, I've put together a few stats and explanations here to help you understand.
Thanks for reading, and for being a part of my journey! I also recommend this excellent post today by Grace Bonney at Design Sponge called "Things that Scare Me."