Tuesday, January 03, 2006

What it's like (Updated)

This is about my anxiety attacks and has been hard to write but increasingly impossible not to write. I'm dubious about posting it, but here it is, though I may take it down later if my courage fails me. I'm probably hoping some demons might be exorcised through the writing process. I've never posted anything this revealing before and I feel very apprehensive but all I can say is that it feels necessary to do it.

Cliff path

It's so strange, when people who don't know me that well mirror back how I present myself, the words "calm" and "laid back" are frequently used. I'm a good listener, apparently, and people often confide in me. I have become a past master (mistress?) in concealment, and specifically in concealment of my periodic acute anxiety attacks.

Sometimes the black tide comes rushing in and sometimes it oozes in gradually and insidiously. Maybe someone says something I take as criticism and I go under, but usually an attack is triggered when I become overly anxious and stressed about some aspect of work, such as organising an event, meeting seemingly impossible deadlines etc. etc. Very easily overwhelmed by responsibilites and my own and others' expectations, I have a ridiculously excessive fear of making a critical mistake and letting people down because of it. Or of inadvertently doing anything wrong at all. And we're not talking brain surgery here. I work as a temp PA/secretary and have a few official-type commitments outside work. One of the reasons I have never attempted to climb any sort of career ladder is because I know myself only too well.

It's all I can do then even to carry out the basic necessities of life, with a racing heart, churning stomach, shallow breathing, and insomnia always present. It's like having my diaphragm encased in a metal vice, and I simply cannot physically breathe deeply at these times. I isolate, and every other area in my life goes on hold, I can only deal with whatever it is that is so worrying me. My home is neglected. I pull out of things I am committed to. I go to work, and obsess about work, and about things that might go wrong, checking, double checking, treble checking unimportant details and going over and over them in my head. To gain some respite I watch TV incessantly and fall asleep on the sofa in my clothes around midnight to wake at 3 am, or else surf the net for hours on end - anything not to be present. I pull my hair out. I used to drink to numb it all but I don't do that now.

Life becomes something to be survived. I know myself to be deeply and irredeemably flawed, damaged goods. Normal people surely do not react in such an extreme way to such generally (though not always) minor stressors? Meditation sessions are taken over by anxiety and I sometimes burst into tears in the course of a sitting. Prayer helps most. The 23rd Psalm becomes my mantra, even though I am of indeterminate belief.

These bouts can last hours, days, weeks. Some things help me get through. Maybe someone phones and at first I say I can't talk about it but then I do, or maybe I have a commitment even I can't pull out of and I go and feel better afterwards. I talk to someone perhaps who has an abundance of faith that things will always work out and some of theirs rubs off on me, and for a few hours I laugh and listen and behave like a normal human being, and then I think it is possible I am a normal human being again.

The real turning point is that I survive the particular ordeal I had been dreading, and I always do survive. Why I set such store on perfection and on being seen to be perfect I don't fully understand, nor why I think what I do is so important, nor why others' potential criticism and judgement have such power over me. Over-conscientiousness triggered by insecurities I guess, too deep-rooted to be combatted by logic or accumulated experience. HSP literature rings a loud bell with me, and according to the website's online test I qualify easily. After all these years too, habit and learned behaviour must play a part.

As my life starts to return to normal it becomes easier to breathe properly, and the other physical symptoms abate. Structure and self-care return. Music reaches me and I see and take notice of something natural and beautiful like a tree silhouetted against the sky, or maybe I read something and really take the words in. And I start to move and unfold, the paralysis leaves, and dammed-up energy flows back into other areas of life, and it becomes possible to place my focus elsewhere. I eat better and I connect and meet up with other people and make plans to do a few enjoyable things apart from going to work and being dutiful. I am again able to be content alone and with others.

But I know the tide will come in again and that this is the cycle I am caught up in. Quite honestly, I don't know who I would be if it wasn't there. I thought the passing of the years would deal with these attacks, but it hasn't, not really. I have tried therapy, briefly. I suppose I have simply become more accepting of them, and I think they are happening a little less frequently. Maybe I can settle for that.

Update: Cyberspace friends are good friends. I'm seeing a cognitive therapist at the end of next week for an introductory meeting with a view to a course of therapy. If this doesn't work, or isn't sufficient, I'll move on to another option.

I can't help but believe though that the therapy started a couple of days ago with the previous post. Bouts of acute anxiety have plagued me as long as I can remember and I've pretty much suffered in silence, certain that I would be unable to speak the words needed in order to communicate what was wrong, and that even if I could the response would be that of incomprehension. After all, I haven't been able to understand it myself. I am very grateful to have been heard here.


Blogger Jean said...

Mary, I'm so sorry you're feeling like this. You'd think being able to see yourself so clearly and describe it so lucidly would help, wouldn't you? But I imagine it probably doesn't. In fact, I sometimes suspect that having a particularly acute appreciation of the whole picture is part of what causes acute anxiety! You don't deserve to feel like this and I wish there was something to do to make it better. I do believe that, slowly, slowly, meditation helps. I think every time you can admit how fragile you feel, and not keep up the huge constant effort not to appear how you feel inside, helps too - helps you and all the others who often feel like this and also struggle to hide it in our crazy stupid society. And I'm sending you lots of love - I hope you can feel it.

11:19 am  
Blogger zhoen said...

If you were perfect, you would in no way be a normal human being.
I'm sorry you going through this. I have some issues here as well, feeling useless and unworthy of friendship or human interaction. Intense attentiveness and both self talk and behavioural changes have, over decades, made a difference. So. I would earnestly suggest you look for a behavioural therapist, forget about why you do this. Like smoking, who cares why, just do anything possible to change the habit. Consider medications.

Move off the tidal plain, the water may rush in, but you don't have to be there to drown.

1:54 pm  
Blogger MB said...

I've wondered before how many of us mask internal difficulties, whether anxiety or depression or.... I suspect they are more common than we think, or let on.

I'm sorry that you have to deal with this. Jean is right, you don't deserve this in the least. That's small comfort, I'm sure, in the face of the reality that periodically descends upon you. Having experienced depression, I understood completely your description of the way the anxiety comes on and takes over, becomes the filter through which you see the world, even if a rational part of you somewhere inside knows it is distorting the view (which it is).

For myself, medication was what ultimately made the difference for me. I still resist the "idea" of it in principle, but I see more clearly how unfair and crippling it really was - the wasted years - which helps me recognize it as a disease needing treatment. My situation is not your situation; I tell you this only with the thought that you might consider treatment which might help you. Only you know, of course, what is right for you, and I have faith that you will choose the course that is right for you.

I'm grateful that you chose to speak about this, (that I got to read this before you pulled it?? ;-) because having support is part of healing. Having friends to talk to, even over the cyberwaves.... It's in our wiring, in our blood, we are social beings (even us introverts!).

Much warmth and love to you.

4:33 pm  
Blogger leslee said...

Yes, I was going to suggestion medication, because it's a chemical imbalance that usually causes anxiety attacks. It's not simply being very sensitive, although that can be associated. My mom had panic attacks, and so did my brother. Once my mom got on medication it made all the difference in the world. You can't talk yourself out of it any more than you can talk yourself out of having a stomach ache or a tooth ache. Because it affects your mind, you tend to think that it's in your head, but it's a physical ailment, so stop beating yourself up!

If you're uncomfortable with meds, I can also personally vouch for having a good homeopath. Getting the right remedy can help put you back in balance.

Glad you posted this - we hide these things like we're ashamed, but goodness, for what? Best of luck to you, Mary. Sending you good energy to find healing help.

4:53 pm  
Blogger moira said...

Hoo boy, you are not alone.

I find it immensely helpful to write things out in a journal. If there is a thing that is causing a great deal of anxiety, a workable tactic is to break it down into tiny little bits and tackle it piece by piece (I actually do lists, which has really helped). When on the verge of a panic attack, I use distraction.

There are lots of other tools and methods to use. Then there are the things that address the anxiety itself. Meds are one option. Also, I understand that cognitive therapy is one of the most useful tools for combatting anxiety. I imagine behavioral therapy is also effective. There's a book called "Mind Over Mood" that I have found extremely helpful; it uses a cognitive approach. There are times when I need a push, though, and that's when I take on a coach in the form of a therapist.

Use all the resources you can find. Dig out the things that work for you. The more proactive you are able to be, the more ease you will feel. The more you practice, the more automatic your internal resources become. I know how hard that is. It seems the first step is always the most difficult, and life is full of first steps.

9:05 pm  
Blogger rdl said...

Mary, I am so sorry for what you are going thru. I have had a panic attack only a couple of times in my life, but I remember how damn uncomfortalbe it is. I don't know if I should but I feel like I should offer some advice. It sounds very debilitating and affecting your life regularly, therefore I would say get whatever help you can, be it medication or therapy. This is not yr. fault or a flaw but a medical problem, just like diabetes, if you had that you'd take insulin. I hate the stigma that mental issues have, keeps people from getting help. I have dealt with depression in the past and have taken medication that has helped tremendously. I'd really like to hear that you get some help with this,it really is too much to deal with alone. Sending you good thoughts and prayers. Hang in there.

3:35 am  
Blogger Mary said...

Thank you all so very much. Your care and concern help much more than you know. I'm glad I took the risk of posting this. Your suggestions are all good ones, born as they are from personal experience, and I will explore them.

Thank you again.

5:55 am  
Blogger zhoen said...

Ain't it amazing how much love flows in when we ask for help, or merely open ourselves to others? I wrote in my space about a difficult event, and had warmth and encouragement from all over the world. We are all much more worthwhile than our dark fears intimate.

Courage, friend.


11:32 pm  
Blogger Dave said...

Thanks for sharing this, and I admire the courage it must have taken to do so. I'm afraid have nothing particularly helpful to say, other than to express my appreciation for an eye-opening post and comments. What a great blog community!

2:52 am  
Blogger Mary said...

Dave: Thank you. I feel very fortunate to find myself in such a caring corner of the blogosphere.

7:18 am  
Blogger Mary said...

Zhoen: Until you actually press the Publish button, it's impossible to realise what a relief it is to be honest ...

7:22 am  
Anonymous beth said...

Mary, I'm late here but wanted to add my support. I too have issues with anxiety. Except for one period in my life, I've learned to to control my anxiety reactions with meditation and breathing techniques but I wouldn't hesitate to again seek professional help and/or meds if I were having full-fledged panic attacks - nobody needs to live with that, nor should they. I really know what you are talking about, and it's awful to feel controlled by it. I wish you the very best with this - and I know it took a lot of courage to write this down and share it!

8:22 pm  
Blogger rdl said...

Mary I was so glad to read yr. footnote and I am so proud of you for taking this step.

4:23 am  
Blogger Mary said...

Beth: Thank you. Please don't take it the wrong way if I say that I find it reassuring that you deal with some of these issues as well. I wouldn't wish them on anyone but it does tell me I am not alone I really appreciate your telling me this.

Rdl: Knowing that you and others are rooting for me means a lot. Thank you.

8:17 am  
Blogger Dale said...


Oh, Mary, you don't deserve this affliction!

Thank you for speaking of it out loud. It takes huge courage.

I don't imagine you need any advice from me, but I always give advice anyway :-) Be ruthlessly experimental. Try things until something works.

I hate to think of such a beautiful radiant soul being shadowed by something like this.

3:19 pm  
Blogger MB said...

Mary, thanks for the little update you posted. I feel secure that you will find something to help, though it can take time and can be a frustrating process if/when it takes more than one try. It's true, you don't deserve this, you deserve relief from it, and I hope you find that soon. I appreciate the courage it takes to recognize and face this kind of thing, and then to follow through to doing something about it. Not easy, any of it, but then neither is living with it!

5:42 pm  
Blogger MB said...

Oh, and I wanted to thank you for that HSP link. I looked at that stuff a few years ago and was put off by it for some reason, but now it's sinking in, in a different way, and I'm finding it a helpful perspective. Thanks!

5:44 pm  
Blogger Patry Francis said...

I experienced panic attacks during a period of post-partum depression; and I can honestly say that no physical suffering can equal what your mind can do to you. I followed your link and I also seem to be one of those hyper sensitive types (aren't a lot of artists?) Anyway, glad to hear you are taking care of yourself. And know that it will pass.

12:12 am  
Blogger Mary said...

Dale: Hugs back to you as always - and yours is excellent advice. :-) Thank you.

MB: Pushing through the inevitable but hopefully infrequent frustrations will probably be the hardest part. And I'm glad you found the HSP link helpful this time around.

Patry: Thanks so much for your kind words and the sharing ofyour own experience. It is very much appreciated.

7:48 pm  
Blogger Sonia said...

I am so sorry you're feeling like this, Mary. My poor English don't allow me to express properly my feelings. Sorry about that. I agree with others friends about to take some medications. Nowadays there are many good and safe medication. Thank you for your entrust to sharing this problem with us. Although we meet online through blogosphere, I believe that bloggers can be positive people and can encouraging us. Warmly regards and love to you!

11:55 am  
Blogger Stray said...

I used to drink to numb it all but I don't do that now.

A simple sentence that says so much. I'm glad you've made that choice, because my experience is that the window of relief is short and thereafter follows only increasing separation and running from shadows. You make it sound easy. I am guessing that it wasn't.

I hope you are still moving forward with this stuff - sometimes being seen, for all of who we are, allowing ourselves to be heard even when the stories are incoherent and don't have tidy endings ... well, it's a step away from placing that part of ourselves in a ghetto, or sending it to be quiet in it's room. Alone.

It was brave of you to write this. Brave to stop drinking as well.

Keep keeping on, a day at a time and all that ...


12:02 am  

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