Four in the afternoon is what I like to call white-knuckling time. Right around four is when both children get really tired (that’ll happen when you wake up at 5:00 AM and refuse to take a nap — go figure) and one of two things happen. One, they either get inexplicably hyper and run/crawl back and forth from the kitchen to the living room, demanding graham crackers, or they get crying-angry. Crangry. Everything upsets them — they want peanut butter toast instead of the delicious organic dinner and probiotic-laced chocolate milk I prepared for them. Henry wants to take the knives out of the dishwasher and crawl around with them. June wants to watch Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood but NOT THAT EPISODE YOU DUMB BITCH, and cue the screeching, art-supply-throwing meltdown in the middle of the living room floor. From about 4:00 onward Lou and I start white-knuckling it and counting down the minutes until we can throw them in bed and enjoy some motherfucking SILENCE, REAL TALK.
I have this horrible habit of staying up long after I should have gone to bed (like ten thirty, you guys) because I love the feeling of not being hounded by two demanding little tyrants. I’m really tired every morning but oh, the freedom of eating peanut butter toast and watching Netflix for hours and hours is the only thing that keeps me going some days. So immediately after we put them down for bed, I head straight to loft with my laptop and a bag full of those honey-mustard pretzels and nobody is allowed to talk to me or ask me to do anything for the rest of the night. My husband joins me in the loft eventually and sits in his reclining chair and draws awesome comics while he watches old episodes of 30 Rock. And that is romance, y’all. That is why we’re happily married and have been best friends for seven years now. Deep conversations? Candle-lit dinners? Take that noise somewhere else. After a full day of toddler tantrums, I just want to be left alone to eat pretzels and scroll mindlessly through a bunch of hilarious gifs.
Inevitably, every single night, I end up on facebook scrolling mindlessly through pictures of my own children, because I am addicted to them like crack. I cannot get away from them. The first hour or two after they fall asleep I’m like, yes, I am going to stay right here with my netflix and pretzels and I’m not getting out of bed unless there’s a fire, and even then probably not. After a couple hours, though, I pull the earbuds out of my ears and start telling Lou about the hilarious things June said during the day. “Oh! I forgot to tell you what Henry did!” is how most of my sentences start after 8:00. By 8:30 I’m wandering in their room “just to check” on them, hovering over them like a crazy ex-girlfriend, because they are just so breathtakingly beautiful with such pillowy cheeks. You can’t not kiss them. And then maybe you kiss the baby and he wakes up and starts whimpering because he wants to nurse but that’s okay because you missed him anyway.
Maybe it’s because I have a panic disorder but I have this weird anxiety that I’m not “bonded enough” with either of them. I don’t know how much more love it’s possible to feel for these people, but I always have this nagging fear that if I’m not constantly enjoying them, it means I haven’t bonded with them enough and they’re going to develop Reactive Attachment Disorder and turn out to be stabbers.
God knows I didn’t get to hold either one of them right after they were born. Not that I’m bitter — it was a decision borne out of choice and necessity, and with both of them I remember feeling very zen about it at the time, and even now. I have years and years of getting-to-know them ahead of me, I thought, as the nurses wrapped up June and brought her over to my husband. But then a few weeks later, in the hormonal, sweaty hell that was post-partum anxiety, I cried as I wiped off my back-sweat with a towel: What if I hadn’t bonded with her enough?! What if I didn’t really love her?!
June’s birth was relatively easy, as births go. Not even a day of labor, just a few hours of really hard labor (mitigated by the epidural, thank you Jesus), less than an hour of pushing, and she was here. Afterward, however, was when it all fell apart — already anemic, I retained my placenta and hemorrhaged everywhere. Two hours later I woke up — weak from blood loss, loopy from the drugs, exhausted from the delivery. I was still half-awake when my husband handed me the baby — swaddled and sleeping, not the screaming newborn I had pictured squirming naked on my chest post-birth. I didn’t feel a rush of love — relief, maybe, that we had survived. Contentedness, knowing that the hard part was over and I was free to enjoy my baby. But mostly I just felt like going back to sleep. I had been awake for 36 hours at that point and was on the verge of needing a blood transfusion; sue me.
Three days later, we were home and I still felt like I had been run over by a truck — shaky, aching, and overwhelmed with that new-mom exhaustion you can feel all the way down to the marrow of your bones. At one point, my mom scooped the baby out of my arms and shooed me into my room to take a nap. Wide-awake but nauseous with exhaustion, I burrowed under the covers, closed my eyes — and nothing. I waited — ten minutes, fifteen, twenty — on the verge of sleep but unable to fall all the way under. My heart started to race. Dear God, I thought, if I don’t sleep now, June will wake up and need to eat, and I won’t have another chance to nap for who knows how long. Until night-time, at least. Oh wait, she doesn’t sleep then, either. Go to sleep, dummy! Sleep NOW! Amazingly, this didn’t help me sleep. I pulled a sleep mask over my eyes. Put headphones in my ears. Waited, waited. Nothing. My heart started beating faster. I started whimpering, then full-out sobbing. I was never going to sleep again. I started dreading the baby, fearing the baby. I never wanted to see the baby again. I just wanted to sleep and sleep and sleep. Oh God, I begged, please don’t let her walk in here with the baby.
Right on cue, Mom walked in with the baby. I was crying so hard I could barely see them through my tears. And then I did see them — my baby — and my heart soared. “Hiiiiii!” I screeched, probably too loud, suddenly feeling the weirdest mixture of miserable and elated. My baby! She was here! I was still tired, terrified, and every muscle in my body ached, but now, as a consolation prize, I got to hold my precious, pink little baby girl and smell her fuzzy head as she nursed. I was the poster child for post-partum anxiety — sweating, unable to sleep, overwhelmed — and sick with love for my little baby. Yay! I thought, holding out my arms and making gimme-gimme-gimme hands at her feverishly. The baby’s here, the baby’s here!
At some point in the first few days, completely unbeknownst to me, June had gone from a mewling stranger that I tolerated nervously to a snuggly, precious little creature whom I loved — genuinely loved, conventional “bonding” be damned. We didn’t do skin-to-skin with either of them right after birth — the hemorrhage got in the way of that for June, obviously, and Henry had to be whisked off for his myelomeningocele surgery — so that fabled rush of post-birth oxytocin is something we all missed out on. But we bonded. I started loving her. I don’t know when it happened, but it did. It felt like crazy, hungry, desperate fear for her safety until I got my antidepressants straightened out, but it was love, it was attachment, whatever you want to call it, and it was there.
I still feel it at four in the morning, when Henry wakes and shrieks like a falcon until I stumble over to his crib and thrust a sippy-cup under his nose. God I’m so tired please go back to sleep oh hiiiiii sweet baby boy, look at those precious little lips! When I crawl back in bed there’s a lump taking up most of the space on my pillow, and I remember that June crawled into bed with me last night at midnight. I yuv you my snuggly girl she tells me, so I let her climb up into my bed, but just this once (yeah right.) And I think, They’re here, they’re here, my babies, they’re here.
Sheesh, are you tired of hearing about Frozen yet? I know I am. My three year old isn’t as obsessed as most three-year-olds are, but, well, she’s three, so I’ve seen this movie like fourteen times. Somewhere around viewing twelve or thirteen, it occurred to me that Elsa and I have a lot in common.
Ever since my trip to India and my descent into a bona fide panic disorder, I’ve struggled off and on with some pretty severe agoraphobia. When I first started researching the term, I was skeptical. I can’t possibly have agoraphobia, I thought. Doesn’t agoraphobia mean you’re afraid of wide open spaces? It’s the opposite of claustrophobia, right? Not at all, actually. I had no idea what agoraphobia was when I was experiencing all its debilitating symptoms — but if Frozen had been around circa 2009, I would have definitely had a better understanding. The similarities between struggling with agoraphobia and Elsa’s struggle with her magical ice powers is stunning.
If you’re one of the two dozen people on this planet who hasn’t seen Frozen, the basic premise is this: Elsa and Anna are sister-princesses who live in a castle (real original, Disney). Elsa, for whatever reason, has magical powers where she can conjure up snow and shoot it out of her fingertips (think Spiderman and his ability to shoot spidey-webs). Elsa can control this power to an extent, but accidentally blasts Anna in the head with a snowball, almost killing her. After that, she’s (understandably) reluctant to use her powers at all, and isolates herself from her sister by hiding in her room. As she gets older, her snow-powers become harder to manage and are triggered by stress. She resigns herself to a life inside her castle in an attempt to control her powers.
In so many ways, Elsa’s snow powers are similar to anxiety attacks. Agoraphobics suffer from debilitating panic attacks, which are sometimes so severe that they become incapacitating — heaving, sobbing, hyperventilating attacks of pure terror. Agoraphobia in so many ways is really just a fear of having a huge, embarrassing panic attack in public — Hence why a lot of agoraphobics are notorious for never leaving the house. Myself, I had a paralyzing fear of travel. After the kidney stone debacle, I became obsessed with the prospect of having to pee and not being able to get to a toilet in time. This resulted in frequent anxiety attacks, especially when I had to travel long distances. Riding the el or the metra? Forget it. Traveling passenger on a long car ride on the highway? I would rather chew my arm off. What if I had to pee and we couldn’t immediately stop??? It consumed my thoughts. When I did have to travel, I’d routinely have to pull into a nearby CVS and quietly cry — I was so sure I’d either pee my pants, or be so anxious about peeing my pants I’d have a humiliating freak-out and humiliate myself in front of everyone. Eventually, it became easier to just never leave the house. I could always make it to the bathroom in time when all I did was sit on the couch all day. I didn’t have to worry about losing my shit in front of a stranger (figuratively and literally) and bawling in public. Home was comfortable; home was safe.
Like Elsa’s powers, my panic attacks were triggered by stress, difficult to control, and extremely public. So when Elsa cowered in her room while her sister crooned “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?” through her bedroom door, my heart ached. Yes, Anna, she wants to build a snowman with you. She really does. She doesn’t stay in her room because she wants to — she stays in there because she can’t control herself anywhere else. She’s being held hostage, and she hates it — but it’s the only way she can control something that’s so painfully uncontrollable.
Anna represents our non-mentally-ill society writ large — confused, trying to be understanding, but painfully oblivious. Throughout the movie, Anna peppers her sister with obnoxious questions that belie her ignorance of Elsa’s struggle: Can’t you just fix Arrendale? Can’t you stop the snow? Why do you shut the world out? What are you hiding from? Isn’t it obvious, Anna? She’s afraid that if she goes outside she’ll shart snow everywhere and humiliate herself. And she does.
I avoided most social interaction when I was in the throes of my PTSD. One of the hardest things to endure were comments from well-meaning people who didn’t understand what it was like to have a crippling anxiety disorder. My favorite gem? Just don’t think about it. Why do you think about things that make you anxious? If you know someone with horrible anxiety and you’re tempted to ask them this question, do me a favor. Stop eating. Don’t eat for an entire day. Then when you’re scavenging the fridge for something to gorge, just don’t be hungry. Stop thinking about it. Why are you thinking about sandwiches? Doesn’t that just make it worse? Knock it off!
I don’t blame anybody for not knowing what panic disorders feel like, by the way. Why would they? I sure didn’t, until I was plunged into one. But sometimes the best thing to say is nothing. Or, in some cases, how can I help?
Or, in all cases, would you like some wine? Yes. Yes I would. A lot of it.
Shame was another huge component of my agoraphobia. There are combat veterans who react with more composure than I did. Had I been in combat? No. Had I survived a rape? Hell no. I had gotten a kidney stone and hadn’t peed for 72 hours — and now I was a sobbing, hysterical mess at the thought of it. Obviously, this was not something I was excited to admit. I imagined having a panic attack in public and having people rush up to me — oh my gosh, what’s the matter?! — and having to explain to them, nonsensically, about being afraid of peeing my pants, about all the shiz that had gone down in India. Nobody would even remotely understand. They would think I was nuts. Maybe they would even laugh at me, who knew? That was more than I could bear. So, I kept my anxiety attacks a secret. Can you imagine a worse pain? Struggling in silence for months and months — and then having someone laugh at you?
So I would go through stretches of time where I would convince myself that I didn’t have a problem. Panic attacks? What are those? I’m good. I’m fine. No anxiety here. Of course, this never ended well. And telling myself I didn’t have anxiety didn’t make it so.
I feel awful for Elsa when I watch this movie. Her struggles must have been a thousand times more terrible than mine — after all, my panic attacks only ever hurt myself. But the social isolation? The embarrassment? The shame of not being able to control your body? The well-meaning confusion of everyone around you? Oh man. I get that. I get it.
Okay, this isn’t a perfect analogy. Elsa’s ice powers start off as a gift, of sorts, a talent — definitely a fun party trick, until it gets out of control and starts hurting people. That obviously doesn’t apply to panic attacks or agoraphobia. There’s nothing fun about hyperventilating in a Chicago gas station because you couldn’t get the bathroom key fast enough.
Agoraphobia is a curse — something unwanted and thrust upon you. Something that affects you every minute of the day. But after months and months of therapy, doctors visits, and medications, I think — at least for the moment — that I’ve gotten a hold on it. Agoraphobia still rears its ugly head often, but I haven’t had a bona fide panic attack in a few years. To extend the Frozen metaphor just a little further, I’m harnessing this curse, finding a way to use it and make it work for me — I’m writing about my panic, instead of letting it envelop my life.
It will always, always be here.
But I’m not a prisoner anymore.
Back in January, I auditioned for a thing. And I got cast in the thing, to my great surprise. I wrote something like an introductory essay for them, and finally, I performed another original essay on stage at the Atheneum Theatre in May. The video is here.
(And yeah, I dropped the F bomb. Did you expect anything else? Thankfully, June had fallen asleep by that point.)
I won’t ever stop raving about how much fun I had participating in this show, and what an incredible honor it was to share the stage with such awesome women. Not only was it the most fun to meet and befriend a bunch of crazy-smart local women, but unexpectedly, it has kickstarted my love of writing back into full gear. You know when you’re watching basketball (or, you know, whatever sport, I can’t really relate because I could give a shit about sports) and you just want to get out there and play basketball so badly? Your legs start itching and you start visualizing yourself dribbling the ball, and before you know it every part of you is on fire to get out on that court and play some ball? That’s what LTYM did for me. Writing an essay, hanging out with some incredible writer-women, and being so sweetly encouraged by all of them has lit a fire under my ass to start writing, blogging, and reaching out to other writers again. And now after bed, my husband and I eat toast in our loft and I write my blog and query magazines. It is the most fun, and a hobby just for myself.
Listen To Your Mother is such an incredible program, and I highly encourage you to seek out your local chapter, write your own piece, and audition.
I also encourage you to watch the entire Chicago show. I got goosebumps at Lea’s piece. I fist-pumped in agreement with Andrea’s piece. I cried like a straight-up bitch at Meggan’s, Andrea’s, and Hyacinth’s (and Sheila Quirke’s piece, from the 2013 show). I cracked up at Keely’s and Saya’s (and I have to give a shout-out for my absolute favorite from a previous year — Marrianne is hilarious and the title of her piece made me literally LOL). And I listened in amazement at Sarah’s piece from the Arkansas show (a fellow Spina Bifida mom, what up!). You know what? Just watch the entire show. Of all the cities. Do it. I saw the entire Chicago show straight through at least three times during rehearsals and never got sick of it. Every story is unique, and amazing, and triumphant.
What a cool thing to be a part of.
I was diagnosed with a bona fide panic disorder when I was 22, but I didn’t realize until I went to therapy that anxiety had been following me around my entire childhood.
I was highly anxious as a kid and a teenager, but I honestly thought I just read too many horror stories. My favorite author was Stephen King, and I positively devoured his books from age eleven onward. I wanted to write horror stories, so not only did I read every book of his I could get my hands on, but I wrote my own horror stories too. It was the most fun, and it’s a riot to look back at the stuff I wrote as a kid — but I paid a price for it. Almost every single night, after reading or writing scary stories, I would lie awake with all the lights on (like, all the lights on. In the entire house) and replay all these ghastly scenarios inside of my head: Killer clowns. Murder. Creepy-ass ghosts. Abduction. Plagues. King was the best storyteller, but also probably the reason I hardly slept from age eleven onward.
One of the most illuminating quotes about anxiety actually came from Stephen King himself. I can’t quote it verbatim, but he talks about having a vivid imagination, and how his wife and kids think it’s like having a nice little movie in your head to entertain yourself when you get bored (which it is). But, he says, it can also turn on you. It has fangs. And it bites.
Unlike my anxiety in adulthood, my kid anxiety never really interfered with my life. Sure, I stayed up sometimes the entire night because I thought if I closed my eyes a monster would crawl out from inside my closet and drag me out of the bed, but other than that, I functioned day-to-day. But I also slept with the lights on every night. I had nightmares. I would often crawl into bed with my parents or, when I was younger than eleven, one of my brothers. Believe it or not, this still affects me, even in adulthood. I binge-watched the entire first season of True Detective in like six hours (so, so good) and then went, okay, I’m off to bed, goodnight! Except sleep never came. Every time I closed my eyes I would replay one of many (many) creepy scenes and my eyes would pop back open.
In some ways, it’s even worse after you have children. Because I don’t really give a crap about killer clowns and swamp monsters anymore, but start talking about child abductions and home invasions? Remind me that any number of horrors could happen to my precious babies? I’m sleeping with all the lights on again. In my kids’ room. With a baseball bat.
Amazingly, finding the right medication does wonders for this kind of thing. But like all medications, you get the best results if you combine it with certain tools. I’m pretty sure, from my brief stint as a social work student, that this is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. If I was writing this on Cracked.com, I would call it a “life hack.” But in my brain, it’s How to Train Your Anxiety. My brain might be a fanged monster that bites, but here’s how I put a leash and a muzzle on it:
1. Aaaand … CUT! – I learned this in Girl Scouts, of all places, and it’s been surprisingly very effective. When I disclosed to my Brownie troop that I had crazy anxiety brain and couldn’t sleep because of it, one of the girls suggested that I replay the scary scene in my head, but keep the scene going after the scary part had ended. That was revelatory.
So picture Pennywise stalking toward you with his yellow cat eyes (ughh…). Then picture a bell ringing, a director yelling “CUT!”, the boom mike drooping down, an assistant hurrying over with a tray of scones, makeup artists touching up the white clown makeup on his face, lighting technicians adjusting the lighting. More importantly, picture Pennywise talking, and preferably being a huge whiner, complaining about his working conditions, because that’s hilarious.
This humanizes the monster (which I’ll talk about in a minute), but it also interrupts the spookiness and surrealism of the surrounding scene. Kind of like picturing somebody in his underwear to make him less intimidating. And, I guess, picturing everything else in their underwear too.
2. Deconstruct and disassemble – For some reason I watched a lot of Are You Afraid of the Dark? when I was younger, and holy crap was that a bad idea. One of their favorite tropes was scary ghost children that just stare menacingly, and it terrified me; not only did I sleep with all the lights on, but I would jump at every strange noise or shadow, even in the middle of the day. (That was actually one of the least scary things on that show, come to think of it: there were also these aliens without faces that scared the life out of me — and side note, what the actual fuck, Nickelodeon?!)
One way to make this a little less scary is to look at the scene critically and deconstruct it. Okay, so there’s a ghost kid standing on your front lawn just staring through your windows (shudder). But why is he just standing there? I mean, he’s a ghost, so presumably he can be anywhere, can’t he? And why, if you’re a ghost and you have a really important message from the other side to deliver, would you be just standing and staring? Wouldn’t you be, like, knocking down doors and rattling chains or whatever? No? You’d just be wasting all your ghost-time standing and staring? THAT MAKES NO SENSE, GHOST.
Once you get past how scary the ghost is, you realize pretty much nothing they do makes logical sense. And then it’s kind of funny.
3. Humanize the horror. I read a fascinating memoir once about an ex-coroner who lived in New Orleans. (Okay, it’s becoming more obvious as I write this that maybe I need to stop reading so much scary stuff…maybe my anxiety will take care of itself, if I do…) Someone had asked him how he dealt with the smell of decomposing bodies — bodies that had died weeks or months before they got to his office. The author said he did his best to power through it, but it was much easier if he imagined them as still-human, with feelings and opinions. They probably didn’t want to smell so bad, he reasoned. In fact, they’d probably be incredibly embarrassed by how bad they smelled. How humiliating! So in the back of his mind, whenever he came across a particularly smelly body, he’d keep in the back of his mind that person’s probable embarrassment. I guess that helped him ignore the smell. Or at least forgive it.
In the same way, if your kid is scared of ghosts (or yourself, even? Not that I know any full-grown adults who get scared of ghosts and have to sleep with the lights on still, no sir), have him strike up a conversation with whatever scares him. What’s the ghost’s name? What kind of TV shows does he like to watch? Does he like being a ghost? What kind of fun things can he do? Float through walls and shit? Because that would be fun. Make up a dialogue between you and the ghost and see if he has any interests other than just being creepy as shit.
All of these have been tried successfully by yours truly, because I definitely wasn’t going to give up reading Dean Koontz or Stephen King. So if your kid (or yourself, who knows, whatever, I’m not judging) is still sleeping with the lights on after watching an episode of Cold Case Files, maybe try one of these techniques on for size. They just might help.
You’ll thank me after a good night’s sleep.