Today kicks off the Writers of Kern Fall Blog Challenge. I’ve chosen to go with a theme of A-Z posts.
This is probably the hardest post I’ve ever written. I’ve composed this countless times in my head, but that’s as far as it went. I’ve never shared my challenges with anxiety publicly because, for so long, I was terrified of what others might think of me. Until now, only a few close friends knew how much I’ve struggled, and still do struggle with panic anxiety.
It started with a panic attack during a college class in the summer of 1985. It was warm and the air had shut off in the small room. I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath or stay in the room another second. I walked out, but when I went back inside it happened again. I left the class and got in my car. Driving home that night, my heart pounded and I didn’t know if I was dying or going crazy. Although neither of those came true, I felt like my world had closed in around me.
After EKGs and doctor visits they figured out I was suffering from panic anxiety. “No you won’t die, but it might feel like it during an attack.” No shit. I stopped doing anything that might bring on an attack to the point where I could barely leave my house and walk around the block. I had just gone through a divorce and my kids were only four and six. I started therapy, taking them with me to distract me when I drove to avoid the dreaded attacks.
After a few years things got better. I began to lead a normal life again, driving everywhere – even taking on the treacherous Los Angeles freeways during a church trip to Mexico in 1991. After a stressful second marriage and divorce, my attacks began to resurface. Sometimes I only felt an increased heart rate or sweaty palms when I was stuck in traffic or rode an elevator. And other times I was not able to attempt anything that made me feel like I couldn’t escape – which included driving a car or being up in a room full of people. I stopped living what most people would consider a ‘normal’ life and avoided anything that might trigger an attack – anything that made me feel claustrophobic.
Although I’d made great progress, last fall I started having health challenges. The only way to get better was a total hysterectomy, which terrified me. As I had learned from past experiences, extreme stress would trigger the attacks and I started having them again. Mentally and emotionally, I was really hard on myself, knowing that I wasn’t able to be the person I wanted to be. The attacks got worse as the surgery date drew closer. This time they became so debilitating I had a hard time going anywhere, even if someone else drove me. Thank goodness I had a few trusted family members who would help me get where I needed to go around town, but sometimes it was a struggle just to leave the house. In April, I mustered up the courage for my hospital stay, which wasn’t easy. When I was released, less than 24 hours after my surgery, I obtained permission to walk down the flight of stairs instead of riding the elevator. Yep, I’m stubborn and will do ANYTHING to avoid an elevator!
Since April, I’ve been struggling and started seeing a therapist. She’s helped me reframe my negative thoughts about myself. Instead of beating myself up emotionally (like I usually did) I remind myself of all the things I can do, compared to the things I can’t do right now. For instance, I just earned my B.A. degree by attending college online, plus I’m continuing my education in the Master’s program. I serve as President of our local writer’s club, Writers of Kern, and I really enjoy being up in front of the room of 40+ people each month. I write, and have been published many times online and in print media.
As I continue to see myself as “can do” instead of “can’t do” I see myself as a winner. Celebrating my victories has made a difference in my attitude and has also given me the courage to share my struggles. I’ve come to realize I don’t have to fit into someone else’s definition of normal to be happy and successful. After all, I can define my own brand of normal, I’m a writer.