I couldn’t get out of the car. I needed a loaf of bread, so that my son’s routine of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch would not be interrupted. I had made it to the store, a miracle in itself, but could not get out of the car. My son stared at me from the passenger seat, confused. “What are you waiting for?” But the thought of entering the store made my heart race like I had just jogged there from the next town, not driven half a mile in my SUV. you can do this you can do this I chanted in my head. everyone goes to the grocery store, and no one dies in the bread aisle. My stomach churned, I got dizzy at the thought of walking through the store. “I’m sorry, bud. I can’t do it. You have to go inside and buy the bread. I promise, you can handle it. I’m just… sick.”
And I WAS sick, with Anxiety. It had become a tangible, physical thing I carried around, and it had taken control of my life. Every minute of every day was spent thinking about my heart rate. Was it too fast? Was it leading me to a panic attack? Would it just stop beating? Ironically, Fitbits and Apple Watches scared the shit out of me. I did not want to KNOW my heart rate, because being aware of my heart every waking moment was bad enough. Assigning it a number confirming it’s out of control? Check, please. It’s like suddenly becoming aware of your eyes blinking. When you are thinking about it, the action speeds up and you can’t stop blinking until finally, finally, your brain is distracted by something shiny, and blinking once again becomes an unconscious function. Except, my brain could not forget about my heart.
Waking up was my favorite part of the day. I would slide into consciousness, hearing my ultra-slow heartbeat in my ear on the pillow. I was zen, I was relaxed, and my Anxiety was taking a smoke break. It was the most enjoyable, ‘normal’ 7 minutes of my 24 hours – until I opened my eyes. Then the first thought that popped into my head, more prompt (and certainly louder) than a fucking rooster, was do i have to leave the house today? I would roll through my schedule, think about what was waiting for me in the outside world. The outside world, which had somehow become my enemy. do i have to get in the car? do i have to see anyone? do i have to leave the house?
The best days were the days when the answer was no. A clean day. My bed would be available to me 100% of the time, in the event Anxiety wanted to earn some overtime pay. And the worst days? The worst days started with my turn in the carpool. Getting in the car to drive my son and his friend to school. On the freeway. In the rain. I once turned an 18 minute freeway ride into a 45 minute horror show due to a panic attack while driving, and the need to get off the freeway RIGHT THAT INSTANT or I was sure I would die.
People describe panic attacks in many different ways, and I believe they are truly different for everyone. For me, it would start slow. Sometimes there would be a trigger event, like going to a crowded school function. Other times, all it took was a fleeting thought of work or family, and Anxiety was locked and loaded. I would get queasy. Pop a Tums, hoping that would delay the inevitable. Put my hand over my heart, scratch at my chest. Start the inner monologue: you are fine. you are sitting in a chair. nothing is happening. this is a normal day. you are fine. fine. And then I felt it. Like Anxiety opened a door and crossed the threshold into my body. I could actually feel it take root and plant itself, and there was nothing I could do to remove it. My hands would start to tingle, that’s when I knew I had lost. All the blood was traveling to my heart, with nothing left for my limbs. Dizzy, heart racing. breathe. relax. you’re going to die.
I spent most of my days thinking I would die. My heart, how fast did it have to beat before it just got tired and quit? What percent of people under age 40 die from heart attacks? What would my son do if I didn’t wake up one morning? For those who do not dwell on their certain demise regularly, this may be interpreted as suicidal. In fact, it was the complete opposite. I was terrified of death. So terrified that, when I thought of death even as a vague concept, it made my heart race, my palms sweat, and my body temperature rise, to the point where I thought I WAS dying. You can see the endless circle I had created for myself. My own personal Catch 22 Hell.
Now, a cliche: things got bad. I couldn’t tell you the turning point, where I went from a happy, fully functioning adult, to an agoraphobic bedridden mental case. All I know is that eventually I stopped driving. I made excuses to friends, ordered household goods on Amazon, and had my boyfriend get the groceries. I made an effort to keep empty days on the calendar, no events planned, so that I could be in the house as much as possible. Actual ‘bedtime’ started at 5pm, the minute the work day ended. (Yes, I managed to maintain a job, but I worked from home. Occasionally I wonder if that was the beginning of it all, the sealing myself off from society, but that’s a whole different therapy appointment.)
Your brain can’t tell you when it’s sick. Every other part of your body, when it is ill, will scream and moan and annoy you until you take yourself to the doctor and fix it. I didn’t know I was broken. On paper, I was physically perfect. A little too skinny, but my bloodwork was great, cholesterol lower than a toddler’s, and a scan of my abdomen showed a tip-top digestive system. So why did I end up laying on the floor of the exam room, while a nurse monitored my 120 BPM heart rate (no! no! no numbers!) and the doctor held a fan to my face and frowned? if you die here they know how to revive you. you won’t die. you won’t. but you might.
Fast forward to the grocery store parking lot, ready to ask for help. I did not want my son to become my caretaker – I was only 37 years old, dammit, and yet my bed had become my security blanket. That day we needed bread, but I also needed a new life. What I was doing wasn’t living – it was waiting for death. So I made the call, I got the right medicine, and I waited. It was not an overnight fix, like taking Advil for a headache or an antibiotic for an infection. I like to think of it as being de-programmed. I needed my Anxiety put in a cage and locked up for good.
One day, after many weeks, I woke up… different. I did not listen to my heartbeat or scroll through my do-I-leave-the-house list. I made coffee, worked without incident, and asked my family if they wanted to go out to dinner. Anxiety was absent, like I forgot to open the door and let it in. It was still knocking – it will always be knocking – but it was locked out. We came home from dinner, and instead of going straight to bed, I turned on the radio as loud as it would go. I danced in the garage and I cried and I laughed and I remembered who I was Before Anxiety. My brain will always be a work in progress, but for now, I am learning how to live again.
© Calling All Cool Moms 2017