Five years ago I went to movies and plays and church services, I sat in the backseat while carpooling with friends, and I'd have gone to Disney and ridden the rides every day, if I could. I took flights to see my family a few times a year, I loved to drive, and I never once wondered what my heart rate was or whether I was going to die in my sleep that night.
Five years ago "anxiety" was a thing other people had, and "panic attacks" only happened to flighty, nervous people who drank too much coffee.
Then one night - the night of August 4th, 2007 - I woke up and knew I was dying. Everything was wrong and my heart wouldn't slow down and I was more scared than I've ever been in my life. The nurse at the ER clipped a monitor on my finger, and went from looking bored to looking a lot more like me. Then there was a lot of running (not on my part, of course) and tests and four long, torturous days in a hospital bed hooked up to monitors. John slept in a chair by my side every night, and held my hand during every attack, when the nurses would come running in demanding to know what I was doing to make my heart rate go crazy, but each time I was just lying there quietly, gripping John's hand and watching the alarms go off.
Five years later, I still don't know exactly what changed. I literally went from "normal" to having a panic disorder overnight. I was always the calm and composed one. I was always in control of my emotions. Words like "panic attack" and "anxiety" were insulting, and it took me years to accept these labels and learn to apply them to myself without flinching. Without shame.
John was supportive but incredulous, and my constant, unrelenting fear wore him down as nothing else in our marriage had. Like everyone who's never had anxiety, his solution in those early days was that I should just "buck up" and "face my fears." He thought it was a lack of will power somehow, and that I should simply "not think about it."
After watching me "power through" enough movies and plays and church services, though, John eventually changed his mind. He saw the white-knuckled misery, the attacks, and the side effects of the Xanax I had to take just to get through them. For church especially, we came to agree after a few years that there was no benefit from the music or message if I was spending the whole time concentrating on not running crying from the building - or worse yet, running crying from the building.
Today I manage my life around my anxiety, and I've found a balance that allows me to live my day-to-day life without medication or constant fear. It helps that I work from home and have a relatively peaceful life. (And isn't it odd to think I started Cake Wrecks just nine months after that first attack? Two of my most life-changing events, forever linked.) By omitting the worst of my triggers, politely declining most media engagements, and with regular visits to a chiropractor, of all things, I've found I can live most of my life mostly panic-free.
That said, sometimes I have flare-ups - and when I feel bad, I start cutting things out. Things like travel, or outings with friends, or anything that removes me from my safe little cocoon at home. If I'm not careful, I can let the walls of my life close in until there's not much of a life left to live. And the more you shelter yourself, the bigger those fears can get, until facing the outside world again requires an almost Herculean effort.
Again, this is where your average non-anxiety-sufferer would say something like, "Then just get out there and DO it. You'll feel better!"
But here's the thing: sometimes you don't feel better. Sometimes you have such a bad experience facing a fear that you're worse off than before you started. Sometimes you just have to retreat and regroup for a while, and give yourself time to heal. And sometimes that's ok.
Take the tram at Disney World, for example.
My anxiety has changed a lot over the years, but it currently stems from a lack of control, and a lack of escape routes. I need both to be comfortable. So things like elevators, planes, and yes, even the parking tram at WDW can cause me to panic.
On the inconvenience scale, parking trams are near the bottom of the list. I much prefer walking anyway, so we do. However, several weeks back we were there with friends, and we were mid-conversation, and we thought, hey, it's just a five-minute trip, let's give it a try again!
AND THE FRIGGIN' TRAM BROKE DOWN.
I kid thee not; the tram literally made it about ten feet - we hadn't even cleared the loading area - before coming to a screeching, shuddering halt. The driver announced that the brakes had locked up, and we'd have to wait a little while for them to reset. Since the trams now have doors on them, and we were penned in by the concrete barriers, I couldn't get out. And I panicked. It didn't matter that this was most likely a five-minute delay, or that the safety of the sidewalk was two feet out my door - I felt trapped, and my heart went insane and the world spun and I shook long after the tram started moving again.
Lest you think the tram breaking down was a freak occurrence and that I am not, in fact, cursed, the same thing happened on Spaceship Earth (aka "the ride in the big golf ball.") I've had panic attacks the last three times I've been on that ride, but this last time I was sure I'd be ok. There was no line, and John and I needed to ride it for a Scavenger Hunt we were competing in. "We'll be in and out in no time!" we said, and skipped on board. The car door slid shut, we got about ten feet up the giant hill - literally within sight of the loading dock - and the ride broke down. For about 15 minutes. And then - THEN - when it finally started again, I still had to go through the whole ten minute ride, eyes shut, shaking, heart hammering, and near tears.
I think it goes without saying that I'll probably never go on Spaceship Earth again.
I know this is pretty much the worst pep talk ever, but I think this is something you "just do it!" types need to hear: sometimes pushing someone into "facing their fears" only makes the fear worse. And even if it doesn't, there's no guarantee they'll be any less afraid the next time around. Panic isn't rational. It doesn't follow logic or common sense. You can't reason with it or outsmart it - and that's probably the hardest part for loved ones of anxiety-sufferers to accept.
Of all the things anxiety has taken from me, though, I think it's those silly little Disney rides that I miss the most. I'm ok anywhere I can step out of the vehicle in an emergency, like Winnie-the-Pooh, but rides like Pirates, Star Tours, or the monorail are out. This also means we don't go to the Magic Kingdom as much anymore, for fear the ferry won't be running and I have to take the monorail. Frankly, the ferry is hard enough.
Disney has always been my refuge, and my happy place. To have it marred by my own body - to have it bound up with irrational fear - is one of the harder things I've struggled with these past few years.
I mention all this because this week I've made several dates for meet-ups with you readers out at the parks next month, and while I try to act like it's no big deal, it's actually really embarrassing explaining why I probably won't go on Small World with you. It's hard to interrupt a conversation with, "Sorry, but I can't go on this sedate kiddie ride with you, because it scares me. So...see you in the gift shop?" In fact, some of you who've been out with us before are just now realizing why I kept ducking out of lines and skipping the trams.
With anxiety you learn to take what you can get, so these days we meet people at Epcot, where we can park and walk in under our power, and where there are so few rides for me to excuse myself from - even though my heart will always be over at the 'Kingdom. (What I wouldn't give for a way to walk in to that park*! It's almost enough to make me go apply for a job there again, just so I can use the cast member entrances. [wistful sigh])
My main point is this, though: in order to keep living your life with anxiety, you learn to choose your battles. I'm perfectly happy never seeing a movie in a theater or flying again, but I'll keep fighting and trying and risking an attack for those silly little Disney rides. Depending on how I'm feeling, I'll still take a trip on Pirates or Haunted Mansion from time to time. I can't remember what it's like to not be uncomfortable on them anymore, but sometimes it's just that: uncomfortable. And two months ago we went to see a play for the first time in years, and I made it through, Xanax and attack-free! (Granted, we had to sit in the last row on an aisle in the nose-bleed seats, but hey, a win's a win!) So sometimes I get to push those walls out again, just to prove that I haven't given up.
There was a time two years ago when I hit rock bottom. It was after that stressful Christmas cruise I blogged about, where the combination of travel and family and prolonged forced social interaction all conspired to leave me a fidgety, medicated wreck. I had a three-hour-long attack just getting to the port (I was in a backseat), and then spent the whole five days of the cruise on Xanax, something I'd never done before or since. (Don't get me wrong; Xanax can be an absolute life-saver. I just don't like feeling fuzzy and tired, and I don't like taking meds if I can avoid them. I've also found that Xanax gives me a "kick-back" depression, which usually takes a day or two to wear off.)
When we got home from the cruise I locked myself in the sanctuary of my bedroom and didn't come out for nearly four days. I brought the laptop to bed with me, and worked from there. John brought me meals.
I wasn't depressed. I was just...fried. My adrenal system was shot, and like a wounded animal, I needed someplace quiet and dark to heal.
For about a week after that, I could leave the room, but not the house. This was when we were still remodeling the Crack House down the street, and just taking a car ride three streets over to see John's progress made it hard for me to breathe. I had to clutch the door handle and keep telling myself I could get out of the car at any time. The fear was so great that I worried I'd never be able to ride in a car again, and that I'd spend the rest of my days as a sad shut-in, peering through windows and crippled by my own agoraphobia.
Consider that I went from that shaking wreck to taking a six-week car trip up the East Coast into Canada and back again less than a year later for my last book tour. Not only did I do it drug-free, I even enjoyed it.
Like I said: sometimes you just need time to heal. You can't force it, you can't psych yourself up for it, and you can't predict it. Some day you'll just need to go to the store, and you'll realize that getting in the car doesn't seem like such a big deal anymore. And then life will go on in its usual, boring way until the next thing that scares you doesn't seem quite so scary.
I still can't ride in the back seat of cars, and I still panic in stopped traffic. I still have to sit on the aisle seat in the last row at convention panels. I still get light-headed and scared sometimes for no reason at all. I still miss most plays and church and the Jungle Cruise, and I still take a Xanax a few times a month to get by.
But you know what? Some people out there still can't ride in cars, or leave their houses, or go to conventions, or blog about their irrational fears to people who honestly seem to care about them.
So today? Today I am content.
And I hope you are, too. Or if not, then I hope my story helps remind you that today's fears won't always be tomorrow's, and that your own "someday" is coming. I promise.
*************I wanted to end this post with an inspirational quote on fear or anxiety, but all I found online were a bunch of trite platitudes about 'living in the moment' and how fear is a weakness because there's nothing to worry about. Which really ticked me off. Fear is not a weakness. Pretending fear doesn't exist is.
So here's MY inspirational quote, paired with a photo from Disneyland I thought was appropriate. It isn't eloquent or philosophical, but it's what I've come to believe:
And you can quote me on that. ;)
*UPDATE: A few of you have helpfully pointed out that it IS possible to walk into the Magic Kingdom, and I am amazed I never knew this before. (Apparently there's a walkway from the Contemporary Resort.) Needless to say, this is the best news I've had all month, and I'm so excited it's taking all my will power not to drive over there this very instant. So thank you, all of you. I promise to have a Dole Whip soon in your honor. :)