Anxiety is ruining my life.
About two weeks ago I began the cycle of panic that crops up anytime I'm about to do something that steps outside my tightly knit comfort zone. I was going to get on a plane. Air travel has always made me nervous, which I've written off as pretty normal, considering that about 1 in 3 adults are at least a little apprehensive about being trapped in a flying metal tube 30,000 feet above the ground. I am actually an avid traveler, which is miraculous considering my high level of anxiety. I've probably been on over 100 flights, including 2 that were Transatlantic. My heart would race a little during takeoff and I would avoid eating the day before and day of travel to mitigate the risk of airsickness. But I've always been able to tuck away the fear just enough to get on the plane.
But that all changed last April when Trenton and I were on our way home after a beachside vacation in Florida. When we arrived at the airport, all of the monitors throughout the terminal were flashing warnings about storms brewing across the majority of the country. The rush of getting our bags checked and making our way through security kept my mind busy enough to stay rational. We tinkered around in the gift shops and bought a few goodies to take home to our kids, and made it back to our gate with a good half hour to spare before needing to board. Unfortunately, shortly after arriving at our gate, the pilot came back into the terminal from the airplane and got on the intercom. "If any of you have a fear of flying or turbulence, or are prone to airsickness, you might want to avoid this flight. There are tropical storms forming all along the East coast and this is going to be a very bumpy ride. I'll get you there safely, but it may not be fun."
My husband, who is well versed in all my phobias and knows how I react to them, immediately turned to me and grabbed my hands. He held my fingers up to his mouth and kissed them and looked in my eyes and said, "It's going to be fine. I'm right here with you." I'm not sure if I've ever been filled with such overwhelming panic before. I begged him to just let us rent a car and drive the 3 days home from Florida. And I'm sure if he had agreed, that's just what we would have done. But he gave me several reasons why that wasn't possible, including his need to return to work the next day and the reality that we didn't have anyone to watch our kids while we made the trek across the country. I couldn't breathe. And I felt so much like I was going to throw up. I suggested we say a prayer, and by the time we said "Amen" it was time to board. I'm not sure if I took a single breath as we walked into the aircraft. I noticed another woman talking to the pilot, asking if he honestly thought we would be safe. There were several other people that took the pilot's advice and actually did cancel their flight. As fate would have it, the nervous lady talking to the pilot was in the same row and me and Trenton. The poor man was sandwiched between 2 very nervous women.
The flight was worse than promised. The air was so turbulent that the captain didn't turn off the fasten seatbelt sign, and even the flight attendants were required to remain in their seats. People around us were vomiting and they just had to sit and hold their airsickness bags because the attendants couldn't get up to dispose of them. So here I was, experiencing one of my worst nightmares. It was happening. I was trapped. Forced to deal with the sound and smell of people getting sick, worried that the turbulence might make me sick myself, and worried that the plane wouldn't be capable of withstanding the "choppy air." The lights kept flickering, and at one point a flight attendant actually screamed and said she had never been on such a scary flight. It is no exaggeration to say that I mentally promised myself at least 30 times during that 5 hour flight that I would never step foot on another plane. I would never put myself in a situation where I was so completely out of control again. Ever.
Fast forward a few months. After having had some time to recover and somewhat forget about the whole ordeal, I decided it would be fun to fly out to visit my sister in Kansas City. I thought to myself, "It's only an hour flight. Anyone can do anything for an hour." So the tickets were purchased and I looked forward to a ladies' weekend with some of my favorite people. Everything was running smoothly until about two weeks ago. Out of nowhere I started having intense and unrelenting anxiety attacks. I was waking in the middle of the night from terrible nightmares. I kept rehashing the flights back in April. I lost my appetite and started breaking out in hives, and I began sobbing uncontrollably any time I would think about boarding the plane. A few days before we were due to leave, I was driving my oldest to school on a gorgeous fall day and I thought to myself, "I would literally rather die than get on that plane." It didn't feel like my own thought. It was intrusive, and it scared me, because it's how I actually felt. But thoughts like this kept happening. I continued daydreaming about different ways to avoid flying. "I could just drive myself. It's only a 10 hour drive. But then I'd be giving into the fear. I can't do that to myself. Fear already has so much control over so many aspects of my life. I can't let this be another one." So I continued with my plans to fly to Kansas. The day before the flight, I could not stop crying and I called everyone in my family, asking for advice, or comfort. And they did the best they could by offering me various statistics about how air travel is safer, and how it's a short flight. That didn't matter. All I wanted to do was run away, or "accidentally" forget my driver's license, or check myself into a mental hospital. ANYTHING to avoid the trip!
Our drive to the airport was long, and we ran into a lot of traffic on our way to Denver. My sister tried distracting me by playing fun music and telling me about her week. My mom kept patting me on the shoulder and telling me how proud she was of me- that I was facing my fears and being brave. I didn't feel brave though. I felt exhausted. I had suffered almost an entire week of panic attacks, lack of sleep and food, and my body ached. As we got closer to the airport I could see planes taking off and landing, which caused my heart to race in a way I had never felt before. We gathered our luggage and boarded the shuttle to the terminal.
It was on the shuttle that I began feeling numb. I'm not talking metaphorically. I literally couldn't feel my toes or fingers. The feeling began spreading to my chest and face and I wondered if maybe I was having a stroke. I kept quiet about it because I didn't want my mom and sister to be disappointed. Then my legs began shaking uncontrollably, I felt nauseated, and my chest hurt with a familiar tightness. Everything around me became blurry. Sounds were muffled, and my vision was tunneled. I have endured thousands of panic attacks throughout my life, but I was sure this one would kill me. I know that people were talking, and my sister and mom were arguing about something, but all I could hear was a muted buzzing, like the sound an overhead florescent light makes. Once we got to the drop off at the terminal, we all got off the bus and then it happened.
I had a mental break. It wasn't dramatic at all, at least for anyone who was watching it. The drama was all happening internally. I simply reached a point where my fear became paralyzing. This was no longer an issue of mind over matter. No amount of personal fortitude or deep breathing was going to get me in the airport, let alone on the plane. I could not put one foot in front of the other. You know in those old Hitchcock movies where a black circle slowly encloses the image on the screen, which gives off this eerie, claustrophobic feeling? That is what I felt was happening around me. Reality and my fears were no longer two separate entities. They had blurred together and I couldn't decipher between what was actually happening and what my mind was telling me was happening. My mom, sister, and I stood there by the bus for a good 10 minutes, arguing about getting on the plane. I just kept saying the same thing, "I'm not getting on the plane. Please go without me." At this point, I couldn't breath. My chest was so tight, and I had hyperventilated to the point where my fingers were beginning to curl in and my head was swimming. My sister finally stepped in and said, "Either we are all flying, or we're all driving. You are not going to be left behind." So we gathered our bags, got back on the shuttle and pulled up the directions for the 10 hour drive ahead of us.
Something strange happened as we started out on our journey. I fully expected to be chastised and embarrassed, and lectured on how I needed to stop letting anxiety rule my life for the duration of the drive. I expected these reactions because this is how I consistently treat myself. My inner dialogue is filled with, "I am never good enough. I'm too crazy to be a functional member of society. I'll never amount to anything if I can't get my anxiety under control." But that didn't happen. Instead my mom and sister expressed their deep and unconditional love for me. I was met with more compassion than my heart could handle, and an understanding from them that was so completely unexpected and undeserved. I drove a good part of the night and had plenty of time to reflect on what had just happened. Instead of feeling the usual sadness associated with defeat, I was filled with determination and hope, which totally confused me since I should have been feeling completely hopeless. For the first time in a long time I felt that I could be loved regardless of my anxiety and unrelenting phobias. I felt like maybe I didn't need to waste so much energy keeping everything under wraps for fear of judgment. There is a lot of shame associated with mental illness, especially when you're expected to be a good mom, and wife, and sister, and daughter. What a weight off to know that I can have a major panic attack, right there in the parking garage of one of the busiest airports in the country, and I'm still deeply loved.
I was very worried about what Trenton would say once I told him I couldn't get on the plane and that we would be driving through the night. I sent him a text simply saying, "I couldn't do it. We are driving to Heather's. Do you still love me?" Immediately I was reminded of why I chose to marry this man. His response was, "Wow. You are all good, my sweet lady. I love you so much." Then he sent a picture of himself with the kids and said, "We love you. Get some Mountain Dew and get after it. Have fun!"
So there it is. I'm crazy. I have anxiety attacks first thing in the morning, right before bed, and everywhere in the middle. I'm scared of heights, and sickness, and airplanes, and food, and dentists, and enclosed spaces. I'm scared of everything. I'm sure it's not some big surprise that I have an anxiety disorder, especially if you've been keeping up with this blog. But I've decided that I'm going to be a lot more open about it. I'm going to take the energy I've been using to try and hide my fears and use it to redirect myself toward getting better.
I'm reminded of what Trenton said to me recently after I had expressed how much guilt I was feeling about my struggle with mental illness. He said, "This is not your fault, Janet. It only becomes your fault if you choose to do nothing to change it."
I have no choice but to change. If I don't take these all important steps toward health, the walls will continue to press in on me and I'll be reduced to a fraction of my potential.
One day I truly hope to be able to say, "Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."
J. K. Rowling