The laundry room is in the basement. For the last year, I have been terrified of going down there. It’s not because of spiders, and I don’t have an aversion to dirty socks. It’s because I once had a panic attack while standing in front of the washing machine. How can something as innocuous as loading the washer induce panic? Anxiety’s secret is this: there is sometimes no trigger.
My brain took snapshots of every place I had a panic attack. Laundry room. The interstate. Eye doctor. Pilates class. Grocery store. Everywhere became off limits, because even the thought of these places sped up my heart rate. My brain became an enemy of itself. For those of you who have never experienced severe anxiety, think of it this way: imagine you are in the dairy aisle of the grocery store. It’s late in the day, and the store is quiet. You are concentrating very hard on finding soy milk. Someone comes up behind you and covers your mouth and nose with their hands. You can’t see the person, you can’t breathe, and your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. You cannot breathe. You CANNOT BREATHE. No one is coming to help you, no one can see you struggling. Your heart rate is in the stratosphere. You know for a fact you will die in that aisle, right next to the sour cream.
And now, imagine this: you escape. Somehow, you do not die, and no one even notices your trauma. You go home, go to bed. The next day, you realize you never bought the milk. You picture the dairy aisle of the grocery store, which now equals a masked man and a near death experience. Your heart races. You can’t breathe. All from an image in your head.
My heart worked alongside my brain in terrorizing me. Two monsters, making me a prisoner of my own body. Any activity that increased my heart rate even the slightest bit pushed me over the anxiety cliff. Running upstairs because I forgot my purse? Forget it. Carrying the garbage to the curb? Never gonna happen. I used to love pilates and other exercise classes. Some people wear FitBIts to monitor their heart rate, and they love seeing the number on that little screen. My Hell is a FitBit that reads 144BPM.
I couldn’t eat. Did you know the brain and gut are connected? I saw the best specialists, all of whom were stumped. There was nothing physically wrong with me. One thing you should know: I love food. I once ate an entire Large pizza from Dominos. I could have eaten french fries 4 times a week. (I realize this is not an endorsement of heart-healthy eating, but let’s be honest – my heart is going to kill me from anxiety, not clogged arteries.) But eventually food became the enemy. People want to know why I’m so skinny. They want a diet trick or exercise tips. No one wants to hear that my body rejects food because my brain is an asshole. I used to go to bed with a growling stomach, just so I wouldn’t wake up drenched in sweat, heart racing, stomach bloated and cramping. I would say, every night like a prayer, “I wish I could eat food again. Please let me eat and enjoy it without getting sick.”
People suggest all kinds of things that will ‘help you get over it.’ Even my therapist once said that perhaps I could learn a breathing technique to lower my heart rate. Ha! Only if that breathing technique was to inhale a double dose of Ativan. I tried essential oils, prayer, meditative breathing, and in one less-than-sane moment, confronting my heart rate fears and jogging around the block. I made it 20 steps.
No one wants to rely on medication to function ‘normally’ in life. But I am here to tell you, if you are suffering from anxiety of ANY kind, do not be afraid to ask your doctor for help. I am not a doctor, and I am not giving medical advice. But I am here to tell you that my life has become unrecognizable – in the best possible way. Will medication shorten my life span? Maybe. But the damage done to my body from anxiety is far worse.
Last week I went to pilates without Xanax. I also drove the school car pool, on the highway, without a blip on my internal FitBit. These are ‘normal’ activities that paralyzed me with fear 6 months ago. The shock that went through me when I realized I was capable of doing laundry again (I even got winded on the stairs from the heavy basket and didn’t drop dead!) was like waking up from a year-long coma.
I can eat again. Three meals a day; five if I’m feeling frisky. I have a lot of making up to do with cheese. My son asked if it was weird for me, being on medicine every day to ‘change my brain.’ He said, “Getting panic attacks is who you are. Why would you want to change who you are?” I don’t want this to be my identity, and I certainly don’t want it to be my legacy. I can’t properly explain my anxiety to him or anyone else, but I heard this on the radio today and cried, just a little: No more monsters; I can breathe again.
© Calling All Cool Moms 2017
The only photo of me during a panic attack. Anxiety is invisible.