Wednesday, January 24, 2018

What Is Anxiety (for me)?

Hi, I'm Tabitha and I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Depression.

I sometimes feel like that's how I should introduce myself, but the reality is that when I do mention those things, something strange happens:

People start talking to me like I'm either a time bomb, or a small child.  Or they start asking uncomfortable questions and saying things like, "But you don't seem anxious/depressed!" or "Why are you anxious?  There's nothing to worry about!"

Let's start with the obvious: Anxiety, Panic Disorder, and Depression are Mental Illnesses.  By definition, that means that my brain does not work the way it's supposed to.  It means that there doesn't have to be anything "scary" or "worrying" going on for my brain to randomly decide to hit the PANIC button.  It can literally be anything, or nothing.  There might or might not be a trigger.  And if there is a trigger, I'm not always able to identify it right away.

You know, because my brain is in panic mode instead of thinking rationally.

Sometimes, I don't even realize that it's my anxiety or depression acting up.  My brain slowly begins to feel foggy - slowly enough that I don't realize it's happening until I "suddenly" can't think clearly.  Sometimes, I start getting cranky for no reason.  Sometimes, I feel like running away.  Others, I want to curl up in my chair under a blankie.  Often, I want to be left entirely alone, and any noise is too much noise (a delightful experience when one has children).  For me, my depression is so wrapped up in my anxiety that I usually can't tell which is which, except by evaluating whether I feel more like running away (anxiety) or more like sleeping for a week (depression).  Add in the fact that I haven't had a good, regular sleep pattern in years (again, thanks kids. lol), and I often can't tell what's going on in the moment.

Some other facts about my particular brand of mental illness:

  • It tends to be worse in the winter or when it's particularly cold, but it's been pretty solidly in the "not good" category for over a year, now.  We're working on it.
  • I have "brain fog" pretty much constantly right now, even with medication.  I know it's there because occasionally, things will be going just right and it will clear a bit and I'll remember what it's like to think clearly.  
  • Having constant brain fog makes literally every single thing I do a monumental task.  It's exhausting for me to have a conversation.  Writing lesson plans takes forever.  Letting the dog out requires a moment to collect myself so I can drag myself to the door.  Cooking dinner takes so much energy and focus that sometimes, I don't feel like eating by the time I'm done.
  • The only thing that reliably helps me feel better is a combination of therapy and medication.  I'm on the meds.  I still haven't had the mental energy to find a therapist.  One of those catch 22 situations.
  • I am "lucky" in that I have a pretty clear idea as to the root causes of my anxiety and its bff depression.  That doesn't mean I know exactly what triggers each episode or panic attack, but I do know the root cause.  Unfortunately, the root cause is not something I can just erase or cut out of my life.  I'm still learning how to deal with something that is so much a part of me that it will literally never go away.
  • Because my mental illness has its roots in my childhood, I literally have no idea what parts of my personality are "disordered" and which are "me".  Is my spontaneity a symptom or a characteristic?  What about my "fight me" attitude?  Where does the illness end and the person begin?  Is there really any differentiation?
  • Being around people helps.  A ton.  Unfortunately, the planning required often exhausts me to a point that I avoid it.  Which makes my depression worse.  Another great catch 22 of mental illness.
  • Here's a big one: I don't feel like my brand of mental illness is a "real" mental illness.  I mean, it could be waaaaaay worse.  I can often "pass" as "normal", so it doesn't "count".  (Intellectually, I know all of this is bupkis).  What does that mean in a practical sense?  It means that I don't feel like I should be allowed to speak about my mental illness, because it's somehow less important than others.  Again, I know, intellectually that it's nonsense, and that my anxiety and depression and panic are valid, recognized mental illnesses.  But that doesn't stop me from feeling like they're not.
  • Just for brevity's sake, I refer to my anxiety/panic disorder as Mildred.  I picture her as a middle-aged, middle-class housewife screaming profanities at a customer service rep (me) because she's bored and unhappy.  I've discovered that a lot of people who struggle with mental illness use this technique to separate the illness from themselves.  It helps us to frame it in a way we can fight back.  It's difficult to fight your own brain.  But fighting this other, this anthropomorphized version of our disease, that is something we can do.
  • My depression, as yet, does not have a name or an imagined form.  Mostly because it is much less invasive in my life.  I tend to think of my depression as an emptiness, a void.  It doesn't tell me I'm worthless (Mildred has that covered), it just removes all feeling - all highs, all lows.  I stop dreaming.  I stop creating.  I stop doing things that make me happy, because they don't anymore.  I know others experience depression differently, but for me, it is an abyss.
  • I had a GOOD childhood.  Was it perfect?  No.  But the vast majority of it was pleasant and fun.  The parts that lie at the root of my mental illness, in perspective, are relatively small portions of my childhood.  And yet, somehow, they've affected me very, very deeply.  And none of them are particularly horrific.  Just the somewhat mundane, long-term and unpredictable sorts of things that some people would not even be affected by.  But not me.  For me, they are a source of anxiety, even now.  Not by choice.  It's just how my brain is wired.
  • My favorite forms of self-medicating include, in no particular order: coffee, overworking myself, "rescuing" someone or something, mindless video games on my phone, oversharing with everyone, and zoning out.  By favorite, of course, I mean most common.  
  • My preferred methods of self-harm include: overworking myself, being sedentary, isolating myself, and forgetting to eat.  Again, by preferred, I mean most common.  It's not like I enjoy any of these.  But they are the places I go when things get bad.  I figure it could be worse.
Basically, it's a big, mixed up, complicated mess.  Because that's what we humans are.  Especially those of us with mental illness. 

So, when I introduce myself, and 5 minutes in, mention that I have anxiety/panic disorder/depression, this is a bit of why.  I can't help myself.  But I'm also judging how you're going to respond to me.  If I tell you about my mental illness, and you keep talking to me like I'm a "normal" person, there's a good chance we'll be friends.

Condescend to me and it will take much longer for me to learn to trust you.  

Friday, June 23, 2017

"How are you?"

"How are you?"

"I'm okay.  I'm tired."

It's true, but it's not the whole truth.

I'm exhausted.  I am fighting my own brain 24 hours a day - and have been for months.  I am constantly ambushed by surprise panic attacks.  I have a list a mile long, and so much anxiety that I can't even start on it, which causes me more anxiety.  I drag myself out of bed, out of the chair, out of the house, when I can, when I have to.  I maintain what I can through sheer stubborn force of will.  But dammit, it's exhausting.

I'm overwhelmed.  I have children who need a million small things every second.  I have a job/hobby that requires research, and leadership, and decision-making skills, and making my own costume - none of which I feel "good enough" to do acceptably.  I have a household to run, groceries to order and pick up, dishes to run, laundry to fold, clutter to donate, dust bunnies to sweep, papers to file, appointments to arrange, lists to make...

I'm weary.  The world is falling apart around me.  Hatred. Death. Destruction. War. Tyranny. Injustice. Prejudice. Xenophobia. Bigotry. Illness. Poverty. Struggle. I cannot observe without feeling, and I have felt so much, so constantly, that I am weary of feeling.  I want to feel numb, just for a little while.  And yet, I know how much I hate that feeling, so I avoid it, too, trying not to feel anything at all, not even numb. I don't have the energy, even for that.

I'm sleepy.  The new meds don't give me vertigo, at least, but I can't keep my eyes open.  I sleep seven. eight. nine. ten hours.  Still sleepy.  Take a nap.  Wake up more sleepy than when I fell asleep, if you can call it that.  Is it really sleep when your brain doesn't stop asking, worrying, chewing on a problem, even when the rest of you is asleep?  Is it really sleep if all your dreams are of being chased, of running away, of being too slow, too stupid, too weak?  Is it really sleep if you wake up just as sleepy as when you laid down?

I'm anxious.  Above all, I am anxious.  Every second of every day, my body vibrates with it, this underlying but certain dread that everything is going to end, soon, and badly.  My face smiles while my brain whispers, "Watch for the other shoe.  It's about to drop.  Any second now, all of this will be gone."  I put on lipstick and try to pretend I'm someone else, someone whose brain doesn't insist on playing out visualizations of all of the horrible things that could happen to a person.  I stay at home, pretending I just need to get things done, that I'm not terrified of taking my children in a car on the highway where my brain will play a video of us crashing, rolling, dying, screaming.  On repeat.  Until we get where we're going.  And then I get nothing done at home because I'm so anxious about all that needs to be done that I ignore it all and sleep.

I'm panicking.  Not multiple times a day, anymore, not like last week when I couldn't go more than a few hours without my brain hijacking my body and making me feel like I was dying.  No, at least not that.  Now, it's only once - or maybe twice - a day.  Only once - or twice - that my heart races, and I can't catch my breath.  Only once - or twice - that my muscles tense, preparing to fight, or fly - only there's never anything physical to fight, or to run away from - so they just stay tense, waiting.  Only once - or twice - I get so nauseous I think I'm going to puke from all of the built up nervous energy collecting in my belly, filling it up with worry, so that I'm not hungry for food.  But this is improvement, and if I keep it up, maybe, someday, it will all go away, and I will stop having to watch over my shoulder for its inevitable ambush.

But that's all too much.  That much truth would overwhelm you.  That much truth ruins the social niceties.  That much truth makes you chuckle, nervously, and change the subject.  That much truth makes me seem crazy.  That much truth will make you sad.  That much truth is too much, for most people.  That much truth is too much for me.  It's too hard to explain, over and over again.

So, instead,

"I'm okay.  I'm tired."

And leave it at that.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Should...

I'm overwhelmed.

I should be posting information for my Living History cast.

I should be making preparations for Sam's birthday party this Saturday.

I should be folding the laundry that is clean, or washing the piles that are not.

I should be washing the dishes.

I should be clearing out the flower beds in front of the house.  (I should have planted ages ago).

I should be reading to the children.

I should be filing the paperwork I am drowning in.

I should be clearing out the clutter that makes me feel anxious and claustrophobic.

I should be sweeping the floors that gather dust faster than anyone can keep up.

I should be answering messages from people.

I should be scheduling appointments.

I should be writing my novel.

I should be sewing a costume.

I should be ...


But how can I when I'm drowning in the static that is anxiety, loud and endless as the ocean.

I can't even think.  How can I function?

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Escape

When I was younger, in my late high school and early college days, I would often repeat the age-old sentiment as though I'd discovered it: "Stop the world. I want off."

For me, it was never a statement about the outside world.  It was always about having too much happening all at once, on a personal level.  Too much to process for someone like me, who needs time to analyze every.little.thing. It was often a springboard for writing something out to process what was going on, and how I felt about it.  It was a sincere desire to walk away from everything, temporarily, to give myself time to breathe, and time to process, and maybe even time to relax a little.

When my anxiety was at its worst, this feeling came back, even stronger, urging me to leave everything behind - run away, and never look back, if that's what it took to escape everything that threatened to overwhelm my senses.

And still, there are times, when the world at large or my little world here seems overwhelming, and I just want to run away.  Stop everything for awhile, and go somewhere and breathe.  The good news is that, now, I want to take my family with me.  Run far away - somewhere warmer - and pretend I don't have to deal with anything.  Even if it's just for a few days.

(I hear tell that this is called a "vacation".  Maybe one day I'll get there...)

Anyway, I'm there.  The world seems at once too big, too intimidating and yet, too small, too confining.  I am restless, in a way that only winter can make me feel.  I have yet to find what cures that restlessness.  Until Spring, I am here.  Trying to find my way, wanting desperately to ignore the world, to hide away, somewhere warm, and play with my kiddos in the sun.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Tired

I haven't really felt much like writing, lately.

Seasonal depression/blues/whatever is in full swing, and it just makes me tired.

Plus, I've messed up my back again, so it's hurting, which makes me tired.  And it has been cold.  Which makes me tired.

And I've made the mistake of reading the news.  Which definitely makes me tired.

We've been doing a lot of fun stuff.  And I want to tell you all about it all.  But I'm tired.

Maybe tomorrow.  Or the next day.

Sigh.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Strong Emotions

It is quiet.

It's 10:00 pm.  The kids are asleep.  The hubby is in the basement.  All I can hear is the tick of the clock, the shuffling of the cat adjusting in his sleep, and the tip-tip-tap of the keys as I type.

We are halfway through the week. The Christmas countdown is going strong.  We are 7 days from the longest night of the year, and 17 days from the end of one of the most emotional years many of us can remember.  As one friend put it, it's been a transition year.

And I'm having all of the emotions.

Miles is getting big.  Various videos and pictures viewed over the past few days have reminded me just how little he used to be, and by contrast, how utterly grown-up he seems suddenly.  He is confident, yet sensitive.  Smart, yet distractable.  He can make his own breakfast, put together increasingly-difficult puzzles, and even empty the dishwasher and fold his own laundry.  Yet, he still crawls into my lap for snuggles and wants me to sit with him until he falls asleep at night.  He's 7, and I can see the days of needing mom for every little thing slowly, yet surely, disappearing.  He's still an unusually (?) affectionate little boy, but I can't help but wonder how much longer that will last.  I just want to curl him up in a ball and hold him in my lap as long as he'll let me.  And so I have been.  I feel so proud of him.  And so happy for all he's learning and accomplishing.  And so sad that his little voice has lost its baby-like quality.  And relieved that he's grown into a really easy-going kid.  He's a joy to be around, and I simultaneously laugh with the delight of it, and cry at the prospect of what is now well and truly gone.  His early years were tough, in a lot of ways, but goodness I miss the good parts.  (Though, to be entirely fair, I would not go back if I could - I remember all too clearly just how tough those days could be.)

And Sam.  My Sam.  She never was a baby, not really.  She had one year of infancy, during which she was one of the calmest, easiest, happiest babies I've ever met.  And then she learned to talk, and became a miniature adult.  I often forget that she's only 3.  She, too, makes her own breakfast in the mornings, and helps empty the dishwasher, and helps with her laundry.  She engages in deep conversation, ever curious, ever wondering, ever asking the next hard questions.  And so, it's easy to forget that she's 3.  When she has tantrums and moments of defiance, it's easy to get frustrated and expect her to calm herself and be rational more quickly than, probably, she is yet capable of.  She speaks like a child twice her age, or more, both in content and in vocabulary, and yet, under it all, she is still a very little girl in a very big world.  She makes me giggle with her silliness, sigh at her defiance, and sometimes, cry in frustration with her stubbornness.  I feel so proud of the fierce, determined young lady she is.  And so guilty over my (unreasonably?) high expectations of her.  And grateful for her constant over-the-top displays of affection.  She is a beautiful soul, and I am so insanely proud of everything she is. I look forward to her future, to seeing if she, too, mellows with age, or gains the confidence to be even more steadfast in her determination to do things her own way.  Given the long line of stubborn, fierce, determined women she comes from, the latter seems most likely.  She is going to make me crazy for many years to come, but I look forward to seeing what she does with it all.  For now, though, I feel so very lucky to still have the love, the affection, and the silly parts of my wonderful daughter.

In many ways, I am so thankful for this crazy mix of strong emotions.  There was a long time after Miles was born when I was completely unable to cry.  It is beautiful to be able to cry over everything again.  It is beautiful to feel so deeply, when I had become so numb for so long.  And I am trying to hold onto that thought: that there is beauty in everything I feel.

There is so much more, but what I'm feeling, more than anything else right now, is tired.  Winter has arrived, cold and dreary, with the promise of becoming more so soon.  And really, it has only just begun.  And there are so many obligations to meet in the next 11 days.  And then an abyss of probable anxiety and depression stretching out until March, at least.  And I look at it all...

And I am tired.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Bullies

When I was in first grade, there was a new girl at school.

She came from far away, some place called Texas.  She spoke funny.  She dressed funny.  She had huge glasses and uneven teeth.  She was ridiculed and insulted and called names for everything she was, everything she could not control.  I found her at recess, hiding in the tunnel, and sobbing.  I found her, and I sat with her, and I told her I liked her accent.  I complimented her dress.  I told her that her glasses were my favorite color, and I showed her how crooked my own teeth were.

We were best friends for the next 5 years.

When I was in sixth grade, everything changed.

We were in a new school, a Middle School.  I spoke with words that were too big.  I dressed in clothes that were too modest.  I had big glasses and uneven teeth.  I was ridiculed and insulted and called names for everything I was, everything I could not control.  My best friend found me in the hallway, sobbing by my locker.  She found me, and she insulted me, and she slammed my head into a locker.  And she laughed at me.

I had no friends that year.

That year, I was in the 8th grade orchestra, because of a scheduling conflict with my gifted classes.  I was tiny.  I had huge glasses and uneven teeth.  And I worked my ass off to keep up with kids who had been playing for years longer than I had.  And it showed.  Slowly, slowly, I earned my way to the second chair, in spite of everything.

That day was the first time I was locked in the instrument closet.

I went to put my things away, and a big eighth grader named John closed the door behind me, and locked it.  I was trapped.  I tried not to panic, and instead pulled my violin back out, and in the tiny space, I made music until the teacher found me an hour later and let me out.

It was to become a daily occurrence.

Everyday, I'd try to get there early.  I would put my things away, and try to get out first.  And everyday, I was locked in anyway.  Sometimes, I was shoved.  Sometimes, I was physically lifted and placed inside.  And everyday, I'd try to contain my panic as I heard the lock click into place.

And everyday, I'd play music until my teacher let me out.  Sometimes after only a few minutes.  Sometimes after more than an hour.  Everyone else in the class knew it was happening.  The teacher knew it was happening.

Not one person ever tried to stop it.  Not once.

There is a reason I cannot abide a bully.

But even more, I cannot abide a person who stands by and watches the bully, and does nothing.

And if you don't understand the relevance this has to current events, then you're not really paying attention.

They had their reasons.  They were too worried about their own lives.  Too unwilling to give up the mirage of power from being on the same side as the bully.  Too scared of what he'd do to them if they spoke up.  Too caught up in their own lives to bother helping me.

But I would have helped them.  Just as I had once helped that sobbing little girl in the tunnel.  The one who would later forget the kindness in exchange for a selfish taste of the power of fitting in.

I would help you.