Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sorry if I hurt your feelings.

A few days ago I was at the dentist getting an old filling replaced.  I’ve never loved the dentist, but I also don’t have a strong aversion like some people do, so I go every 6 months like I’m supposed to.  This time, the dentist showed me a clear mouth guard-like piece of equipment that he’d use to keep my jaw open.  It suctioned and did other fancy things, and he told me to think of it like a snorkel.  I didn’t think much of it until it was taking up every bit of space in my mouth, and I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe.  Or swallow.  Or talk or tell them it was uncomfortable and I wanted it out, out, out, out.  Out!  As my mind raced away from me at an unstoppable pace, an image of my shivering, still-intubated father freshly out of surgery on the stretcher invaded the space of my brain.  It was so sudden that I can’t help but imagine that it was some kind of PTSD-related image, something my brain tucked away in a dark corner but in that moment of panic and association chose to bring forth.  I ripped the mouth guard out shocking the duo hovering above me with their masked faces and abruptly sat up breathing rapidly, shaking, and crying.  Between breaths I tried to explain myself and definitely sounded like a lunatic, but I like to make people feel at ease and work hard to do so.  Even in the midst of a panic attack, I apologized and did my darnedest to justify my behavior.  They were both super cool and understanding and even mentioned that the dental chair can bring up a lot for people (who knew?!).

The first time I ever was able to identify a true panic attack, Angus and I were walking the paths around our neighborhood in midday summer heat.  This was before kids, and we were having some stupid argument when suddenly I stopped mid-step, felt what seemed like my heart threaten to beat out of my chest, my head spin with dizzy light-headedness, and my limbs go tingly and numb.  Assuming next I would pass out, I immediately knelt to the cement and sat down breathing as deeply as I could under the blazing sun and discomfort of what I thought was heat exhaustion or some kind of blood pressure shift.  It wasn’t until later when these episodes started happening more often, and mostly during exercise, that I realized I was having panic attacks and that I had felt them before.  I recalled a morning in Baltimore while driving to work when the same thing happened.  I managed to make it into the front office of the elementary school where I worked and broke down into sobs thinking I was having some kind of heart attack.  In the ER, after a battery of inconclusive tests, the doctor suggested anxiety, and I pushed it from my mind as a possibility.  Anxiety couldn’t cause such an out-of-the-blue physical response, could it?  It wasn’t like I was overly upset in either of these situations.  The full body experience of anxiety was unpredictable, and this started making me more anxious, which in turn obviously sent my body into a tenuous space where the unnerving energy existed close to the surface just asking for a trigger to set it off.

Over the years since that walk there have been many chunks of time and experiences that have thoroughly challenged my ability to cope, to ward off the part of me I know has a tendency to spiral out of control.  Death, injuries, pregnancies, births, postpartum.  Life.  Anxiety manifests itself in different ways in both the positive and negative.  Lately, I’ve been having a lot of anxious dreams, many of which are recurrent in their themes and plots.  I am sure many of you can relate.  Teaching a class of unruly students who refuse to listen.  Waking up to an intruder with a gun standing over the bed ready to shoot.  Losing my spouse or children to any number of tragic situations.  Being chased through a maze of a house knowing the entire time I will be caught.  It is a hefty list, a weighty one.  These dreams deliver me to morning shaken and plagued with the lingering feeling that things are not all right.   

Many of you might judge the inner experience I share as worthy of prescription medication, but I have never gone down that route.  I will if I feel like I need to, but for now my coping strategies are sufficient.  Most of my life isn’t lived in this space, but some of it is.  When life gets stressful, I have a tendency to plan.  Plan a trip.  Plan a date night.  Plan, plan, plan.  But if I really peel down the layers of what is good for me, what can lift me out of the overwhelming spin, it ends up being pretty simple:  Moving my body over the earth or water.  Committing myself to a weekly practice of yoga.  Traveling to new and old places.  Writing and painting.  Cooking.  Spending time with the people I love.  Making time for spirituality.  Talking it out.  Being present.

Besides coping mechanisms, I’ve learned to see the positive in being blessed with a tendency toward anxiety.  Being more introspective and analyzing of life has improved my creative process.  I am a better artist and writer because I get to process the uncomfortable.  I get to write the hard, and that is something special because it touches a deep part of my own soul and hopefully the souls of others.  Also, I’ve realized that worrying makes me more attune to other peoples’ feelings.  It has provided me with an intuitive sense of knowing when someone else is in pain.  I don’t always know what to do or say to make him or her feel better, but I like the way genuine empathy feels.  It opens me to a deeper understanding of what it is to be human and the processes we all go through in spaces of love and loss.  Having anxiety has also made me ask questions, important ones, about life and what it is I truly want.  The awareness I have found in times of unease have often been the most moving.  Opening myself to answering the questions (and different ways of doing so) and being okay with what I discover is an ongoing process that is moving me closer to spending larger periods of time as my authentic self, which is pretty freaking rad. 

One of my best friends and I joke about our anxiety all the time.  We often call each other needing to talk out a spiral or receive assurance that everything will be okay even though we might have potentially, inadvertently, maybe, just maybe done something to hurt someone’s feelings or ruin a chance at a career or scar our kids for life.  It is good to know we are not alone and to help each other stop from slipping into an irrational place that will benefit no one.  Anxiety can be a beast, but it doesn’t always have to be.  If we allow it to – if we allow discomfort to flow through us – we can often discover much more than we ever knew possible.

What have you learned about your self when you open in this way?  Where do you find inner peace?  In perceived weakness, what goodness have you found?

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