How To Train Your Anxiety

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 houseand 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.

Nothing like some creepy, old-timey photos to keep you awake the ENTIRE NIGHT. Thanks, True Detective.

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.

Um, Mildred? I asked for a scone? And this tea is EARL GREY, NOT ENGLISH BREAKFAST, GOD DAMN YOU. I’LL BE IN MY TRAILER.

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.

Okay, but really? You’re gonna write “help me” all over the walls for some damn reason (backwards??) but you’re not gonna tell me how to help? No? Anything? Just gonna stare blankly? Alrighty then. Also, you look like Parker Posey. Seriously, is that Parker Posey?

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.

Girl, Imma let you finish, but your makeup is jacked and we need to talk about it. Have a seat.

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.

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Childbirth sucks balls but it cured my PTSD

My precious baby girl turned three years old on Monday. We celebrated over the weekend (with a small family party, some chocolate cake, and a late-night bonfire), so her actual day of birth was pretty low-key. We woke up, watched Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, cleaned downstairs, folded some clothes, drove up to Park Ridge to cast Henry’s feet, and took a nap (June did, not me. Alas).

Three years ago I was sitting upright on my hospital bed, eyes closed, paralyzed with absolute terror. I was in the middle of labor. Strangely enough, I wasn’t even feeling my contractions. My water had broken (partially — apparently your water can “leak” and not fully break. Who knew?) so I was admitted and contracting and leaking (gross) — but not dilating. I was stuck at 4 centimeters. And I was so, so terrified. The contractions were nothing — mild cramps and stomach tightening — but my heart was racing so fast that the nurses kept coming in to check on me and asking if I had a heart defect of some type. My heart was defect-free — but I did have a major case of PTSD to contend with.

If you’ve followed my blog at all in the past year, you know that I studied abroad in India, and it was an absolute disaster. Not only did I develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, my PTSD was triggered by about a zillion different things, including having to pee, any kind of loud or sudden noise, doctors, hospitals, any mention of India, and being in a moving vehicle. Any of the aforementioned things would cause an immediate and irreversible anxiety attack, eventually culminating in a full-blown nervous breakdown. It was … not the best couple years of my life.

So you can guess, perhaps, that being in a hospital, surrounded by doctors, with a c-section looming (I thought), was not the most calming place for me to be. I had envisioned my labor to be done mostly out of bed, walking around to ease the contractions, bouncing on my yoga ball — but as soon as I stepped into the hospital, that desire completely vanished. All I wanted to do was hide like an animal in a cave and hiss at whoever approached. I turned off all the lights. I lay curled up on my hospital bed, unable to sleep. My heart rate skyrocketed whenever a nurse came in the room. One of the triage nurses brushed up against my leg and I burst out crying. (“Umm … I haven’t even checked your cervix yet,” she said, totally perplexed. I know, dear. I know. I’m crazy. Just ignore me.)

It wasn’t even the thought of a section that scared me. It was simply being in a hospital, where my previous trauma had taken place. It was simply being around doctors. It was simply laying on my back, in pain. That’s all it took. It was like my body remembered what had happened in India and it was screaming Danger! Danger, Will Robinson! Run away! With every passing second, I had to will myself not to run screaming from the room in terror. Not an exaggeration.

I’ll be totally fine as long as nobody comes near me or talks to me or touches me in any way, and I don’t have any contractions or feel any pain.

So for twelve hours I was wide awake, with my eyes closed, listening to my Hypnobabies CD on repeat. Contracting, leaking, and not dilating. At one point I thought to myself, hey, this Hypnobabies stuff really works! I’m not feeling any pain at all! I’m doing it! I’M HYPNOBIRTHING! 

And then the nurse came in. “Um, you haven’t had any contractions for twenty minutes now.” Well, shit.

Finally, the OB came in and asked to break my water completely to move things along. I agreed readily (meaning, I nodded vigorously, in silence). I was terrified of having this baby, but I wanted to push this sucker out and just be done already. So she broke my water. And I felt nothing for a minute. And then:

“Fuuuuuuuuck this!”

It was the kidney stone pain all over again, except that the intensity fell and peaked instead of just relentlessly stabbing me in the back like the stone had done. It was bone-crunching, soul-twisting agony, and the fact that it was very very similar to kidney stone pain racheted up my anxiety ten-fold. Oh my dear sweet baby Jesus, I thought, this cannot be happening. No, no, no. I need the epidural. NOW.

“Epidural!” I screamed. My eyes were still squeezed shut. This was the first word I spoken to my OB since being admitted.

“Are you sure?” She said. “I wouldn’t want to impose –”

“SWEET JESUS,” I gasped. “Need! Drugs! Go! Run!”

My OB scurried out of the room, bless her. And thus began the longest hour of my life — the hour between requesting an epidural and actually getting it. This part is hazy. I remember twisting from side to side, wrenching my earbuds out of my ears (those hypnobabies flutes weren’t doing shit at that point), and screaming at my husband to apply counter-pressure to my back. “HARDER!” I kept screaming. “AH, JESUS! GOD, IT HURTS! PUSH HARDER! FUCK!”

And then the anesthesiologist came. He was pushing sixty, probably three hundred pounds, and looked exactly like the dude in those diabeetus commercials. But he was the most gorgeous vision I had ever beheld.

“OH THANK GOD,” I yelled. “YOU’RE HERE. YOU BEAUTIFUL MAN. PUT YOUR MAGIC JUICE INSIDE OF ME!!!!”

He obliged.

This right here is why I sing endless praises to the heavens about the miracle that is the epidural. I know the epidural gets a lot of flack sometimes, but it was an absolute Godsend for me during my PTSD-related anxiety freakout. Knowing that there was an end in sight to the excruciating pain kept my anxiety from spinning wildly out of control. It showed me that I wasn’t at the mercy of whatever my body was doing — unlike the kidney stone pain, the labor pain could be corralled and controlled. That wimp-juice saved my life. Or at least my sanity.

After the epidural I dozed blissfully for three hours. I was still completely terrified, and I refused to open my eyes or talk with any of the nurses or staff, but my anxiety had gone from an 11 to about a 6 — a considerable improvement. I took deep breaths and dozed, my heart still pounding.

After a couple hours of this, a horde of nurses flocked into the room. I was fully dilated. Tons of nurses and doctors (and a male student EMT, fun times!) all up in my biznatch was pretty much the last thing I wanted, but I was terrified that if I said anything, or moved even the slightest bit, my heart rate would skyrocket and I would spiral into a panic attack. I kept my mouth shut, except for when I heard the ceiling open and a huge mirror descended.

“Oh, God,” I moaned. “I don’t have to watch this, do I?”

“Uh…” the nurses said, and exchanged looks. “No, of course not.” The mirror went back up.

I pushed for one hour. Every time I flopped back down after a contraction, I thought, I’m going to barf, immediately followed by, you can barf when you’re dead! June was born at 1:55 pm. Sit up and look what you did! My OB exclaimed. I used every last bit of energy to hoist myself up on my elbows. I caught a flash of her pink, squalling face (huge cheeks! I thought to myself. Just like my husband! Just like I wanted!) and then collapsed, my eyes squeezed shut, sobbing. It was over. She was out. We were safe.

Well, June was safe, anyway. As soon as I collapsed back into the bed I started hemorrhaging. The OB removed my placenta manually, reaching inside until she was elbow deep in my uterus. It was … not pleasant. The drugs they gave to numb me knocked me out for two hours, but strangely I was conscious, though I had my eyes closed and was unable to move. I heard every word my mother and mother-in-law said when they came to visit the baby. But I couldn’t open my eyes or respond. That was … also unpleasant.

For some people, this would be the epitome of birth trauma. For me, it was healing. Perspective, I guess. I had done it. I had survived. I had actually pushed a seven-pound baby out of my vajayjay and I lived to tell about it. I did it without succumbing to panic. I did it without hyperventilating and sobbing hysterically (for the most part). WE DID IT. It was done, over, accomplished. We were safe.

Hours later, in the recovery room, my husband and I watched Goldfinger (the only thing on TV besides the don’t-shake-your-baby video that we both refused to watch) and laughed way, way too hard at all the jokes. For what seemed like forever, we yelled “I LOVE GOOLLLLLD” at the TV screen and laughed until tears came out of our eyes. We held the baby and enjoyed her, soaked her in.

It was finished; we were safe.

I haven’t had a panic attack since.

 

Looking for Shangri-La when you’re stuck in Toddler Land

It occurred to me lately that I’m trying to find Nirvana and it just doesn’t exist.

Every morning I wake up and rush around, trying to find it. Here is how my crazy-anxiety-brain works: If the house is perfectly clean and the children are fed and the laundry is put away and the dishwasher is emptied and nobody is crying or fighting, then my anxiety will go away. My heart will stop pounding. My skin will stop crawling. My head will stop buzzing. That’s the idea anyway. I have no idea where this idea came from because this has literally never happened. Shangri-La doesn’t exist. I mean, that’s the point, right? Once you find it, it means your journey is over. And the journey with two toddlers is never, never, never over. There is always more to clean. There is always someone whining, screaming, or peeing on the floor. And yet I keep cleaning.

My anxiety lately has been through the roof. I don’t know why. Maybe my hippie best friend is right and I need to cut out the gluten. Maybe I need to increase my zoloft. Maybe I have OCD? Maybe I have a progesterone problem. But I think searching for Shangri-La is a symptom, not a cause.

Anxiety is such a heavy cross when you’ve got two small children. As much as I love them, they make it exponentially worse. Their tiny, squeaky voices (which I adore) are just relentless. June never stops talking. Everything she says I find impossibly cute and nerve-destroying all at once. Her two thousand constant questions. Her acting out. I’ll be frantically trying to vacuum (because if I just get all the crumbs off the floor, then maybe I won’t feel like running out the door. No crumbs will mean that all order has been restored and my anxiety will magically dissipate. Right?) and June will dump a bucket full of glue and glitter right in front of my vacuum ON PURPOSE and oh my gosh, the restraint it takes for me not to scream and pitch everything out the window (including the toddler) and light myself on fire and run down the street screaming is just heroic. Instead I just scream at her and fight back the urge to cry.

Parenting: I nailed it!

I’ve had anxiety before, but I’ve never had this weird, panicky-anger, which is throwing me for a loop and making life with two small children almost unbearable. Part of me hates writing posts like this because it makes me sound like Complainey McWhiner and I definitely love my life. But I definitely do not love this anxiety that creeps up on me like a rising tide and overpowers me before I even realize that it’s there. I don’t even realize how stressed I am until mornings like this, when my heart is pounding and I’ve literally vacuumed and mopped the entire downstairs before 7 am, and I’m yelling at Henry to just STOP SHRIEKING, for the love of God, because I don’t know why he’s upset and seemingly nothing I’m doing is helping. Maybe hand-washing and rearranging all the dishes in the cupboards will help?

(Spoiler: it doesn’t.)

What’s frustrating is that I know it’s futile. It’s impossible to have a perfectly clean house AND two well-behaved, expertly-groomed toddlers. But I still keep trying. And it just rachets up my anxiety even further. Just as soon as I load all the dishes in the dishwasher, Henry will empty all of the tupperware out of the tupperware drawer, giving me something else to put away. The more I clean, the more mess they’ll make. And the less attention I give them, the more they act out. But for whatever reason, I just can’t get out of this weird OCD cleaning loop. I have to clean, and I get panicked when I don’t.

What do you do with all this weird stress-anger? How can you keep from snapping angrily at your baby when he’s upended an entire sippy cup of milk on your freshly-mopped floor? Why is a clean house even important to me right now?

Aaaand June just shit her pants. For the third time this morning. That’s three times before 8 am.

 

Calgon, get me the hell outta here.

 

Hold On

One of the most trying things about toddler-wrangling is their neediness. Their urgency.

You think you leave it behind when you finally crawl out of the newborn stage, but you don’t. Not really. It just changes shape. They still have immediate, urgent needs, and so much more of them, it seems. As an infant, they would wail for food. Wail for comfort. Wail for a diaper change. That was mostly it. And then they’d sleep the rest of the day. With toddlers, there are so many more things to wail about. So many more. And they never sleep.

I just! I need! I have! A red marker! And I need! A green marker! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! MOMMY HELP

Apparently, when you’re two, everything is an emergency, and everything needs to be treated with the immediacy of a level-red terrorist alert. As a result, the most commonly-used phrase in our house is hold on. I must say it to June twenty-five times before noon:

Yes, I know you need help pulling up your undies; please hold on, I have cookie batter on my hands.

Yes, I know you can’t get the cap off your marker, I heard you the first four times; please hold on while I catheterize your brother.

Please stop climbing on me, I know there’s a spider on the wall, I’ll kill it in like, two seconds, just hold on. HOLD ON.

I KNOW the Netflix stopped working, but I’m giving Henry a bath; just hold on for five minutes. HOLD ON. STOP SHRIEKING. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.

I will pour you some cereal WHEN I’M DONE BREASTFEEDING COULD YOU NOT.

Unlike June, Henry doesn’t have five million requests for stupid shit, but he makes up for it with his god-awful whine. On a good day, he sounds like Beaker. But if I don’t get him what he wants quickly enough, it escalates into just straight-up screaming.

Not even crying. Literally just one shrill note.

Obviously, my anxiety goes through the roof when they’re like this. One of my old PTSD triggers, for whatever reason, is a shrill, unrelenting, loud, or repetitive noise. Thanks to modern medicine and therapy, I’m no longer thrown into an endless panic spiral. But it still grates on my nerves probably more than it should, and after thirty seconds of high-pitched screaming and whining and begging, my heart starts to pound pretty quickly. It’s one of nature’s greatest ironies — children, with their whining and their incessant needs, can trigger your “fight or flight” mechanism unlike any other. Yet raising children is one situation you can’t just flee from on a whim. Not without legal repercussions, anyway.

Oh you need dinner? BRB never coming back

And there’s an existential anxiety there, too, when they need something and they screech super loudly and I have to tell them to just hold on, hold on! When you’ve got two baby birds screeching for food, you start to feel inadequate when you can’t feed them fast enough. Because, you know, feeding them is your job. It’s like, a basic requirement of living. They’re HUNGRY, for God’s sake — listen to them! They’re starving! What kind of a mother lets her children STARVE??

Oh God, they’re gonna starve! I’m the worst!

And let’s not kid ourselves — there’s an anxiety there that no matter how many spiders I kill and markers I un-cap, I can’t give them everything they need, at all times, all at once. It’s anxiety that I’m not enough. That I just can’t do it. That I just can’t meet their needs.

Anxiety that maybe I’m just not very good at this motherhood thang.

What other job can you say you’ve waited your whole life for, and have now done for years, and still you have no idea what you’re doing? Are there any other jobs where you can mess up every single day, irrevocably, and not be fired?

I know they won’t always be like this — I know. And I’m not doing a horrible job, I get it. It’s just an anxiety I have to learn to deal with. Story of my life.

And I know that I’ll miss this some day. I know. I will miss this urgency, this constant screaming excitement. It’s overwhelming, but it’s the same thing that makes her scream with delight when she sees soap bubbles. It’s the same thing urgency that makes her run into my arms and scream mommy mommy mommy! when I get back from the grocery store. It’s not all terrible.

It’s one more two-year-old thing I’ll have to say goodbye to. Yesterday I told June to “JUST HOLD ON” maybe sixty times. Not an exaggeration. Yesterday I was more than ready to say goodbye to this particular stage of being two.

And then we went to preschool. And now I’m not so sure.

When we got there, she dashed up to the front door and judo-kicked the handicap button on the door. The door swung open and she ran inside, pell-mell, past the secretary, jabbering about her pigtails, and ran through another set of doors, down the hall, to her preschool classroom. She needed to get to class. There were crafts to be done. And songs to sing. It was an emergency, as always. Henry and I huffed and puffed behind her, trying to catch up.

Gotta get to pre-school, mom! Let’s go, mom! 

I love watching her pigtails swing back and forth as she’s running away from me down the hall. I love watching her back-pack (“pack-pack”) bounce all over her tiny body. Sometimes I love her toddler excitement. Okay? I do. Sue me.

But I’m still gonna tell her to slow down. Come back. Don’t you want to hold my hand?

Just hold on. 

Baby Terror. And Agoraphobia Terror. And Just Plain Terror.

Lou can tell when I haven’t been taking my zoloft, and his accuracy is alarming. It never ceases to astound me how totally chemical anxiety is.

Without getting too detailed, having another child is almost a physical impossibility for us at this point. We’ve decided we won’t be having any more kids for some time, and knock on wood, there won’t be one. But that doesn’t stop me from peeing on a pregnancy test every single month, even though pregnancy is nigh-impossible and my husband is rolling his eyes in exasperation. There’s no way we could be pregnant this month right? I ask, three times in a row, rapid-fire. Without fail, he raises his eyebrows in a ‘you’re insane’ way. No, he says. Have you taken your zoloft? So there you go.

 But I can’t help it. I think it’s how your hormones shift after you ovulate. A doctor drew it for me on a napkin once, after I told her that during ovulation, I feel amazing. Great! Stable! No anxiety here! Depression? What’s that? And then a week later, I am hyperventillating, crying, obsessing, and generally wanting to hide in a hole.

Go figure that your hormones (progesterone, I think? And estrogen) plummet after you ovulate. And when your hormones plummet, you start to feel like shit. Your anxiety (or depression, or both) comes back in full force. You go from thinking, hey, life is pretty great! to over-analyzing completely everything. When I’m ovulating, I think, you know, having another baby wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe in a year or so…? We’re in a good place right now. A week later, I think of having another baby and my heart starts pounding. Oh Jesus no, I think, no no no, please don’t send me another baby, I couldn’t mentally handle it. 

Truth be told, another BABY wouldn’t be so bad. Pregnancy and birth are what I hate. I have an intense fear of vomit and some vestiges of medically-related PTSD that makes birth and pregnancy a whirlpool of uncontrollable anxiety. A pregnancy without antidepressants is not possible for me, but now that I’ve had a child with a neural tube defect, I’m so terrified of taking anything during pregnancy, in case it was a medication that caused it. I start skipping my zoloft after I ovulate — you know, on the near-impossible chance that we actually did concieve a baby and on the premise (which is not evidence-based, by the way) that the zoloft actually caused his NTD somehow. Anyway, I’m terrified. And the terror convinces me to skip a dose or two. Which makes it worse. Which means until I start getting some mad therapy (and until we get, like, our own house, obviously), there are no babies on the horizon.

If it were morally licit and I had a zillion dollars, I would totally have a test tube baby. No vomiting for months on end. No danger of me poisoning the baby with my very-much-needed antidepressants. No painful, terrifying birth. No danger of a post-partum hemorrhage. I would have like ten test-tube babies. I would have my own Jurassic Park full of test tube babies.

Literally a conversation my husband and I have had, post-delivery.

So it’s with alarming accuracy that Lou can tell whether or not I’ve been taking my meds. I start sounding a little bit like Shoshanna from GIRLS, hyper and fast-talking. I start talking over and over about things I can’t control and I start imagining worst-case scenarios. An example: I was pinning away on Pinterest the other night, dreaming of having our own condo and what it might look like. For some reason, people like to pin pictures of trap doors in houses – trap doors under the stairs, hidden rooms behind bookcases, that kind of thing. I’ll admit it’s pretty cool, but when I haven’t taken my zoloft that day, I start imagining myself as a Jewish woman in 1930s Germany, cowering with my children while Nazis tear through the house. Or I imagine I’m Jodi Foster in Panic Room, and I have to corral my child in a safe room while intruders try to coax us out. Basically, I start running through a billion scenarios in my head where my children are in danger and I have to protect them. And then my heart starts pounding. And I have to shut off the computer, take my medicine, and go to bed. All because of this:

OH JESUS, YOU CAN TOTALLY SEE THE HINGES, THE NAZIS WILL FIND US

I also, ever since being diagnosed with PTSD, have struggled mightily with agoraphobia. When I skip a few days of my zoloft, and then convince myself I’m miraculously pregnant, and then skip more zoloft so I don’t poison my imaginary baby, and so on, and so forth until I’m literally incapacitated by anxiety, it is hard — nay, impossible — for me to leave the house. This was a phenomenon I never really understood until a counselor sat me down, opened up the DSM-V, and showed me the part of the book where it spelled out explicitly what agoraphobia is. I half expected to see my picture next to the description.

Avoidance? Well … I only avoid class because there might be a shooter or something. And I avoid Devon Avenue because it reminds me of India. And I can’t walk to CVS without a buddy because there might be a stabber on the loose. But other than that, I’m cool!

Restricted Travel? Not really. Except I haven’t been able to take the train in three months without a panic attack. And I’m late for class every day because once I muster up the courage to go to class, I have to walk three miles to get there. That’s normal, right?

Fear of being confined? Uh, duh! If I’m confined, I can’t escape if there’s a shooter!

This is the picture they’d use, too. Because CRAZY EYES!!!

I can safely say I no longer have PTSD. But I very much still struggle with agoraphobia. Even with medicine, it is hard for me to voluntarily leave the house. I can’t tell you how many times we miss Wednesday Rosary at church because Henry pooped his diaper twice this morning and he might do it again when we’re out! or June is potty-training and she’ll pee everywhere! or there might be rain — the sky is cloudy!. It’s not logical. It doesn’t make sense. But, I guess, the anxiety I have makes me have an incredibly low tolerance for anything surprising, or unplanned, or anything from whence I can’t immediately flee. At the height of my PTSD, I couldn’t ride in a car because if I had to pee while I was driving, I couldn’t immediately get out and pee. I would have to wait and find a gas station or something first. That terrified me. Legitimately. One night, on our way to a friend’s party, I suddenly had to pee while we were on the highway, and we had to drive around looking for an exit, trying to find a Burger King where I could relieve myself. We found a gas station within fifteen minutes, but by then I was a sobbing, hysterical, hyperventillating mess. Because what if I had peed my pants?

Believe me, it doesn’t make sense, and I lived through it. That’s the funny thing about anxiety. Your brain takes situations that, to anyone’s right mind, are no big deal. Wearing a dress. Riding in a car. Going to Wednesday Rosary. And it takes those situations and warps and perverts them until they become insurmountable obstacles. You start thinking this dress is too tight! I’m gonna asphyxiate and die! I have to pee and I have to find parking before I get out of the car! I’m gonna have to hold in my pee forever and I’ll die of uremic poisoning! And on. And on. Until you’re a crying mess.

Whoever drew this knows what’s up.

By the way, the anxiety is never really about being in a dress or going outside. The anxiety is about things happening that you can’t control. The anxiety is about the fear of having a panic attack. It just feels like you’re freaking out about something mundane.

 Even worse, sometimes anxiety manifests itself as a physical sickness. Ever wonder why people go years and years with untreated anxiety or depression? It’s because sometimes anxiety or depression doesn’t look like a humorous personality quirk. Sometimes, back in college, I would start coming down with the flu. Achey limbs, runny nose, sore throat, headache. And then I’d cancel my plans and all my flu symptoms would go away in an hour. That’s weird, I thought, and thought nothing of it. It took years and years to realize that, oh, this feels like the flu, but it’s not really. It’s kind of like having a twinge in your stomach and then finding out it’s cancer. It kind of tilts your world on its axis.

 Anyway. I guess my point is that it doesn’t matter what your triggers are. Anxiety triggers look different for everyone. And they only very tangentially make sense. And your anxiety symptoms will probably not look like the next person’s. And they might change over time, as well. (Ask me about the time I developed Irritable Bowel Syndrome and I couldn’t go anywhere without the fear of crapping my pants! Actually … don’t ask me.)

But my point is that anxiety is debilitating. And elusive. And it makes you crap your pants.

And all you can do about it is suck it up, take a deep breath, and try your best to make it to Wednesday Rosary. Even if June pees her pants on the way there.

And get some zoloft. Sweet, sweet zoloft.

 

Underlying Depression

This is the fifth part in a series about PTSD, anxiety, trauma, and depression. This is the part about depression. Obvs. Read this post to catch up. 

I didn’t even realize I had depression until I was in the thick of it.

It was my senior year of college. I was going to school full-time, working part-time, and going to therapy once a week where I was in the midst of processing some really traumatic shiz. It was January, and I had started taking an SSRI for the first time in November, to combat my extreme anxiety and PTSD. It did nothing at first. And then — it kicked in. And it felt like my prayers had been answered.

The antidepressants worked. They worked so well. Instead of a constant hypervigilence, I felt normal, calm, that relaxed feeling you get after a hot shower or a deep-tissue massage. After a year of constant anxiety, I practically buzzed with happiness. I felt like I could breathe again. Why didn’t I start these earlier? I asked. I could talk about India without being massively triggered. I could walk to campus, hear car horns honking, and not suffer major panic attacks and have to turn around and hide out in my room. It was like I had a new lease on life.

And then, I think, the antidepressants worked too well.

Gonna eat some dinner and not worry about dying from botulism. Take that, anxiety!

The paralyzing depression snuck up on me. I noticed that I was taking more naps. I was slowly more sluggish. It was harder to get out of bed in the mornings. But I attributed that to working, school, and “writing my trauma narrative,” as the counselor called it. I was physically and emotionally spent.

Slowly, throughout the month of January and February, I would come home from class and just zonk out for hours. I had a 3 hour writing workshop — my favorite class — and I would come home in the afternoon and sleep well into the evening. My counseling session was every Friday, and I would come home at noon and routinely sleep until four or five in the afternoon. Even if I just felt like I could take a quick cat-nap, I would wake up and five hours would have passed. Even if I didn’t even feel all that tired. It’s like I would just lapse into a small coma every day, and wake up feeling like I could keep sleeping. Maybe if I had known more about depression, I would have suspected it. But to me, depression was just “feeling sad.” It was that little cartoon bubble with a frowny face and a cloud following him around. But I didn’t feel like a sad cartoon bubble. I didn’t feel “hopeless” or “unmotivated.” I didn’t even particularly feel tired. I just kept sleeping. And sleeping. And sleeping.

On the contrary, I felt really good. Kind of sluggish. Kind of groggy. But hell, after the year of heart palpitations, of extreme anxiety, of hypervigilence, feeling “kind of sluggish” and “unusually relaxed” was a welcome reprieve. I’m probably napping so much because of the zoloft, I thought, but hell, between crippling panic attacks and a few naps here and there, I’ll take the naps. And then again, it could have been the hectic work/school/therapy schedule. Who knew? I brushed it off. And kept brushing it off.

Depression is so cute!

For the life of me, I didn’t realize it was depression. Or maybe I just slept a lot, because of the medicine, and that triggered the depression. But either way, I wasn’t sad. I felt amazing, and relaxed, better than I had in the past year. But more and more, I started to love my bed. Not in a I-dont-have-the-will-to-live kind of way; Not even in an I-feel-so-tired way. I just craved being in my bed. I craved it like a big, fluffy, delicious sandwich. It was warm and soft and my pillow was just the right firmness, and I had just purchased an electric blanket that made nap time downright heavenly. So for whatever reason, I just became really attached to nap time. I’d look forward to it all day. I’d wake up in the morning, go to class, and count down the hours until nap time. And then when I’d come home and fall into my bed-haven, thinking, I’ll just nap for twenty minutes, I would open my eyes and four hours would have passed. I hadn’t even been tired!

We were BFFs, my bed and I.

Soon enough, I started sleeping through class. I would set an alarm and wake up seeing that it had been blaring for hours. That’s weird, I thought, and set the alarm for different frequencies, different volumes. I would sleep through most of them. I started sleeping later and later in the mornings, and taking naps earlier and earlier. And for longer. I missed more and more class. I got farther behind, try to catch up, and get really quickly overwhelmed and want to take a nap. And the more class I missed, the more overwhelmed I got. And the more overwhelmed I got, the more I kept on napping. And the more I napped, the more I felt like I couldn’t leave my bed. I felt stuck there. It was comfortable, and warm, and sleeping felt so good. I felt high off sleep.

I don’t remember when the weird crying spells started. I would go to class and just come back home and randomly cry. I wasn’t even crying about anything in particular — nothing that I recognized, anyway. I wasn’t particularly sad, and I didn’t cry because I was triggered by anything specific I would have a good day in class and then just come home and burst into tears and sleep. Well,  that’s weird, I would think, but I attributed it to PMS. Or stress. Or maybe it was the zoloft? But between debilitating anxiety and a few crying jags here and there, I’d take the crying jags. I made a mental note to call the doctor — after I took a quick nap.

Crying, but also thinking about what to order for dinner. Pizza or Thai? I can’t decide. Let’s cry about it!

Crying takes a lot out of you. I’d come home, cry for no reason, get super exhausted from crying, and take another four-hour nap. I spent a few months like that, and suddenly I realized I wasn’t getting out of bed much at all. And showering? That required you to stand. For a long time. Homie don’t play that. I was tired. From crying. Who had the energy to stand? Sure, my hair looked greasy as hell, but who did I have to impress? Who cared? Washing my hair would require lifting my arms, and my arms were tired. I’d take a shower later — right after a quick cat nap.

Slowly, it progressed. More naps, more crying, less socializing, less leaving the apartment. But I wasn’t having anxiety attacks anymore, so it was all good!

Depression is so full of shame. I don’t remember when, or why, but I very slowly became morbidly fascinated with death. It was confusing — I wasn’t suicidal. I didn’t want to die. I loved life. I was happy — aside from the random crying jags. I was excited to get married in a few short months — if I had the energy to make it down the aisle, that is. But for whatever reason, I wanted to know what death felt like. What it would look like. What would look like, if I died. How would I do it, if I could choose? It wasn’t an obsession at first. Just a casual curiosity. I found myself mulling over it more and more. What would happen to me? I mean, physically? If I hanged myself, how would my face look? Bruised? Bloated? These thoughts disgusted and shamed me — even now, they disgust and shame me. I didn’t (and still don’t) want anyone to think I was weird, that I was deviant. I didn’t want anyone to think I was unhappy or planning to die. I wasn’t. But I just kept thinking about it. What would people think if they knew I was imagining myself hanging in my bathroom? If I told someone, would they have me committed? Would I get put on some list? Would they “flag” my medical file? (Is that a thing?) I didn’t want to find out. I tried to push the thoughts out of my head. It didn’t matter anyway, I told myself. I wasn’t suicidal. I didn’t want to die. I just … wanted to imagine that I was dead.

Soon, it was all I could think about. I would have Googling sessions that lasted for hours, when I was supposed to be writing papers or studying, where I would just google graphic images of plane crashes. I didn’t like these images — I just wanted to see them. It was like a little game — what was the most graphic image I could view, without wanting to shut down my computer? I didn’t get very far, admittedly. I was terrified of gore. But the non-gory stuff I was all over. For hours, I listened to cockpit recordings of planes that had gone down. I wanted to hear the pilot’s last words. I wanted to imagine how it felt. How did it feel to die? How did the pilots feel in those last minutes, knowing that death was inevitable? I had heard, in my own family, of people beckoning toward the sky in their last moments before dying. Had the people on these planes experienced that too? The cockpit recordings disgusted me, calmed me, and thrilled me, all at once.

I googled 9/11 a lot. I listened to 911 dispatches. I was horrified. But I kept seeking it out. I kept imagining myself on those planes. I omitted this when I saw my therapist — I knew it wasn’t really considered a suicidal ideation unless I had a plan to kill myself. And I didn’t. Not exactly. Did I? I mean, I had thought about it a lot. And I had decided that hanging — no, pills — would be the way to go. But didn’t want to die. Did I? I mean, I didn’t want to die, but I also spent a lot of time thinking about death. And I didn’t feel sad … but I also spent a lot of time crying inconsolably. It was all just very overwhelming. And you know what helped that overwhelming feeling? Naps.

I don’t know if I had a “bottom” — some low point that made me realize I needed to get help. But I remember one day I googled the phrase I can’t stop thinking about suicide and a suicide survival forum popped up. I made a username and posted on it. Please help me, I posted. I’m not suicidal, I don’t think, but I keep thinking about suicide. I can’t stop. I can’t think about anything else. I can’t get out of bed. Does this mean I’m suicidal? I don’t want to die, but I just can’t stop thinking about it. What do I do?

The response was overwhelming: You’re depressed, dummy. Get to the doctor. NOW. 


And I did.

We Need to Talk about Antidepressants

The fall of my senior year in college, I had a nervous breakdown. Until recently, I didn’t even know what happened to me could be considered a nervous breakdown. When I hear that term, I think of a padded cell and a 5150 hold. I think of a complete psychotic break — like running around the streets naked and smearing feces on cars, or something. That didn’t happen with me. Instead, I spent a week huddled under my electric blanket, feeling like my heart was going to beat out of my chest, convinced I was dying of Swine Flu, crying and eating cereal and watching Frasier on an endless loop. This was triggered by the PTSD I developed after studying abroad the previous semester.

Accurate.

A “nervous breakdown,” according to MayoClinic, refers to a stressful situation when someone is unable to function in day-to-day life. It’s really helpful for me to read that definition out loud to myself. It helps me realize, to this day, that yes, things were that bad. Until recently, I kind of just referred to that time in my head as the week I binged on Lifetime Original movies and drank a lot of wine and missed a lot of class. As it turns out, I wasn’t just “having a bad week.” I wasn’t just “feeling stressed” or “feeling sick.” I had completely ceased to function in the world. I had a full-on nervous breakdown. And maybe had I known I was careening toward a breakdown, I wouldn’t have been so reluctant to start taking some medicine.

Pretty much verbatim what I told my roommates and coworkers

So after my full-on, hiding-under-the-covers nervous breakdown, I finally admitted that yeah, maybe I wasn’t doing so well with just therapy and a bottle of wine. And perhaps — just perhaps — I needed to kick it up a notch.

Up until that point, my therapist had been cautiously suggesting that I try an anti-depressant. And for months she had respectfully nodded and hadn’t pressed me when I all but laughed in her face. Well, I didn’t quite laugh in her face, but I made it clear that the thought of taking medicine was ridiculous. Hello? I thought. Haven’t you been paying attention? I freak the fuck out when I have to urinate, and I’ve been urinating for my entire life. If I start getting weird symptoms because of these pills, I’m going to have a heart attack. I’m going to start obsessing every time I take them. I’m going to start feeling imaginary symptoms. I’ll over-think every twinge, every cramp, every unfamiliar ache. It’ll make my anxiety worse. So for months we’d do a cat-and-mouse where the subject of meeting a psychiatrist (for medicine) would come up and I’d awkwardly try to side-step. And by side-step I’d be like:

But after that week in October, I felt like it was very literally my last option. Either I could take some medicine and hope that it worked, or I’d cease to function like a normal human. And that kind of panic — that flu-like feeling of sickness — is simply unsustainable. I’m not saying I was suicidal. But I really don’t know how much more of that I could have taken. So when I went crying to the campus nurse about how I had the Swine Flu and all my “Swine Flu” symptoms turned out to be anxiety induced, that blessed nurse scheduled a therapy session for me immediately. And from there I saw the psychiatrist.

Psychiatrist guy gave me two things — and I feel like it’s important for me to tell you what they were, at the risk of sounding like a druggie, because every week or so I’ll get an e-mail or an instant message with someone asking me about anti-anxiety drugs and what they’re like. There’s a definite undercurrent of shame, and fear, and, well, anxiety about what the side effects are going to be — which was totally my preoccupation before I started trying them. So. Psychiatrist guy (who looked curiously like Tobias Funke) gave me xanax, which has short-term effects and calms you down in the midst of an anxiety attack, and started me on Zoloft, which is an anti-depressant. Basically, untreated anxiety or PTSD feels like you’ve got your hand on a hot skillet and you can’t take it off. You’re expected to function as though everything is fine, but inside you’re thinking HOLY SHIT THIS HURTS I CANT FOCUS ON ANYTHING ELSE BUT THE BURNING IT BURNSSSSSSS!!!! Xanax is like splashing some cold water on the skillet — a temporary relief, but your hand is still on the skillet, and it’ll heat right back up again in a few minutes. Zoloft is like someone coming up behind you and turning off the burner — gradually, the anxiety goes away, and you start acting and feeling more like your normal self.

Seriously. Can you tell I was an English major?

So I started the zoloft that day. And I’d be lying if I said I had about a million tiny little anxiety freakouts and IBS flareups wondering what the side-effects would be. And I did get side-effects — nausea, primarily — for a few weeks until it started to kick in. And boy, did it kick in.

About a month after I started taking it, sometime in the first week of December — about ten months after the incident that spurred my PTSD — I woke up one morning and I felt lighter. Physically lighter. My limbs were looser. And the biggest difference was that I could breathe. It was a totally unparalleled feeling and I’m sure I looked like a complete dumbass, because I would just walk around campus and take deep, long breaths, sucking all the cold air into my lungs that I possibly could. It felt wonderful. I hadn’t even noticed until the anxiety went away how completely crushing it was. A weight had literally been lifted, and I felt joyously free. Right in time for finals. And then winter break.

When I went home for winter break, the primary feeling I felt was utter bliss. I’m not kidding. It always really irks me when people refer to anti-depressants as “happy pills,” because they make me functional, not happy. But this period was the exception — I had been living under the crushing weight of PTSD for so long that I had forgotten what it felt like to just feel normal. I could take big, deep breaths. I could  hear the doorbell ring or the blender turn on without hiding under my covers. I could wake up and actually feel excited about the day, instead of dreading all the millions of little noises and random events that would trigger an episode. I spent the whole winter vacation in my parents’ house, absolutely blissed out, reading books and lying on the couch and just feeling like I had gotten my life back. I could talk about my anxiety triggers without actually feeling triggered. I could think about India without feeling like I was dizzy or short of breath. I could ride in a car or a train without willing myself not to jump out of it. It was heaven.

Oh, it felt so good

I kind of sound like a druggie, don’t I? Obviously, anti-depressants aren’t for everyone. And Zoloft, specifically, is not for everyone, I’m sure. I wasn’t high or anything, but getting your life back after ten months in hell? Oh, it was wonderful. I couldn’t breathe deeply enough.

And then — I got depressed.

Stay tuned.