This isn’t the post I wanted to write today. I wanted to write about our renovations and some of the exciting things happening in our lives right now. Instead, I’m writing this:
Today is a hard day. It started off rocky and has continued in the same vein. Last night I thought I might be getting sick – my entire body ached, my stomach was upset and I felt feverish. I didn’t eat dinner and went to bed early, but I couldn’t get comfortable. Everything hurt and I thought for sure I was going to be sick.
When I woke up this morning, I felt a bit better. My stomach had calmed down and despite a sore lower back, the aches had subsided. It wasn’t until I was standing in the bathroom putting on my makeup that I realized what had caused the symptoms in the first place. All at once and without warning, a giant wave of anxiety washed over me. My heart started pounding, sweat beads formed on my face, my head started to feel fuzzy. As has been the case countless times throughout my life, I had to stop what I was doing and sit down, not just because I was dizzy but because I physically could not continue my morning routine. My legs were shaking, my arms were weak and even bringing the mascara wand up to my eyes proved impossible.
This isn’t my first rodeo. Anxiety has been an ever-present companion for most of my life and I’ve developed a series of skills and tools to help manage it. I’ve even gotten pretty good at heading it off before it has a chance to fully develop. Not this morning, though. For some reason, it caught me completely off-guard. Since I was slow to respond to the initial warning signs, it’s gotten quite a good hold on me this time.
Usually when anxiety hits first thing the morning I use my commute to work to engage in what therapists call “self-talk.” It’s literally a conversation that I have with myself, often out loud, where I pose questions about what might be causing the anxious feeling and reassure myself that despite the really horrible sensations I’m feeling in the moment, I am capable of handling it and eventually it will go away. The challenge with self-talk during an anxiety attack is staying focused – as your conscious mind is trying to impose logic and perspective, your sub-conscious is running amok, replaying worst case scenarios and tossing out disparaging judgements about you, your decisions and your ability to handle life.
While I set out on my drive with every intention of using all 21 minutes to talk to myself, by the time I reached work I’d assumed a quiet, unresponsive, reactive posture. The anxiety had taken over and at some point during my drive (I’m not even sure when it happened, such is the subversive nature of anxiety) I abandoned my self-talk. I was running on auto-pilot. I was moving through the world as I always do, my routine ever intact; meanwhile my mind was completely absorbed with whatever chaos was being wreaked inside.
By the time I settled down at my desk and turned on my computer, my anxiety had developed into a full-blown panic attack. My stomach flipped and I wondered how long it would before I was racing to the bathroom. Unbelievably hot, I tore my scarf off, kicked my shoes under the desk and pressed the soles of my feet against the cool filing cabinet. As the light-headedness swept over me and a rushing noise filled my ears, all I could think was, “You’ve got a meeting in 20 minutes. Pull your shit together!” I know that this kind of thinking does more harm than good during a panic attack but it’s an honest reaction. I feel out of control and all I want is for the feeling to stop. I’m terrified that I’m going to throw up or pass out. I’m terrified that I’ll be too paralyzed to speak during my meeting. I’m terrified people will know something’s wrong.
The panic attack eventually subsided, though not before the meeting. Still dealing with hot flashes, I was grateful for the cooler-than-normal boardroom. I mustered up the energy to speak during the meeting but my answers were curt and impatient. I struggled to focus on the conversation, instead flipping unseeingly through my emails and compulsively sipping my coffee. (Despite my queasy stomach this morning I still managed to stop by the drive-thru for my daily caffeine boost. I don’t even remember how I paid for my drink.)
I survived the meeting and escaped back to the relative safety of my desk. Though the panic has quelled, my anxiety continues to vibrate just below the surface. My first instinct is to claim illness and go home. I’m exhausted and scared. I feel horrible and don’t feel like I can do my job but I convince myself that going home isn’t the only option. While there is no shame in having to take a “mental health” day, I know going home to a quiet and empty house won’t actually help my condition. I know that talking to someone and sharing your feelings goes a long way towards reducing anxiety, so I pick up my phone and text the Big Guy. I don’t hear back. He’s in a meeting and unavailable. I feel lost and helpless and scared.
Then I open a Word doc and start typing. Writing has always been a positive outlet for me. When I was in therapy, my counsellor encouraged me to write in a journal every day and while I wasn’t always the best at the “every day” part, I reached for it any time I found myself struggling. There is something cathartic about committing feelings to paper (or virtual paper, in this case). If nothing else, it helps me gather my otherwise scattered thoughts and focus my mind on one task. It’s true, I haven’t gotten much accomplished today, work-wise. I’ve spent a lot of time staring off into space, absently shuffling papers around my desk, scrolling aimlessly through my email. But I’ve also attended two important meetings and contributed (even if only in a small way) to both. And I didn’t go home. It’s 3:44 and I’m just over an hour away from end of day. I don’t feel great – my head is throbbing, my lower back is still aching, my stomach feels like someone kicked it and there’s still a 50/50 chance I’ll throw up. Every once in a while a hot flash strikes, followed closely by the chills. But I stayed at work. When everything in my body was saying “RUN,” I stood my ground and fought, however meekly. I’ll consider this a success.