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Saturday, September 25, 2010

"Spiraling: My Battles with Anxiety, Panic Attacks and Phobias" - Part Three

Continued from Part One and Part Two...

I did end up getting counseling for my anxiety.  I saw a Marriage and Family Therapist once a week for a month and a half.  She was very nice, if entirely New-Agey and a bit too indulgent.  We had four really great sessions and two really awful, not at all helpful sessions, before she told me I was "good."  She tried EMDR therapy on me, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.  We'd discuss what I was anxious about, and she would have me give her a list of negative feelings or things associate with the situation.  Then she'd ask me what positive things I could think of that would change the situation.  She'd have me sit in the chair, relax, and go to a "happy place" where I felt calm and secure.  She had a tray of objects that were long and thin, and I would choose one (I almost always chose the feather).  She would arrange it so that we were sitting side by side but facing opposite directions.  Then, she'd hold up the feather and say something like "When you are anxious about health problems or a family member dying," which is another HUGE anxiety-ridden subject for me, "you mention the following feelings:  hurt, scared, out of control, helpless, sad, lonely.  I want you to think about two of those words."  I'd pick two of those words or feelings, and then she'd start. 

Then she'd take the feather and have me follow it with her eyes and she quickly moved it from side to side in front of my face.  Seriously.  That's it.  The idea is that Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) helps to reprocess thoughts that were stored incorrectly in the mind.  For instance, if someone went through a really traumatic thing that they can easily recall years later, and still feel the way they did then, that memory may not be processed correctly.  Because it's not processed correctly, the person can not respond to it in a calm, rational way; instead, they feel the fear/anger/helplessness they did when the thing actually happened.  By engaging both eyes in EMDR, you are using both sides of the brain (bilateral stimulation) and the idea is that the memory will start to be reprocessed, and that you will be able to use your rational mind to deal with the unconscious fear/sadness that you are experiencing.  This therapy is supposed to work with people with PTSD, and it worked with me (and I don't have PTSD).

The one time that this worked really well for me is when I remembered the first time in my life that I was really afraid. The memory involves my brother, David, who is just under 3 years younger than I am.  When David had just started crawling, he fell down a flight of wooden stairs into our basement.  I was down in the basement playing with my friend Timmy, and one of us must have forgotten to close the door.  By the time my mom flew down the stairs, she saw that I was standing over David and saying "please don't die David, please don't die."  Which is pretty intense for a 3 year old.

David was thankfully fine that time; not a scrape or a bruise on him, which is really just amazing.  When David was about 2 years old, and I was 5, he ran headlong into a coffee table and split his head open.  We were in Canada visiting friends.  There was a lot of blood, and Mom and Dad took David to the hospital, and I stayed home with our friends (who I still call Aunt and Uncle).  I don't remember a lot of it, but I remember being very, very scared and very upset that I couldn't be with my brother.  My aunt/uncle (can't remember which of them stayed with me) made me macaroni and cheese, and I remember feeling like if I could have gone with David to the hospital, I could have helped him.

David hurt himself many, many times when he was little.  He was always busting his head open, or almost drowning, or something like that.  My parents watched him, but he always found a way to get hurt.  I have quite a few memories of feeling helpless and scared for my little brother (who is not so little now, at 23.  Happy Birthday kiddo!  I'm sorry I still call you kiddo, but it's my way of saying I love you).  These are the memories that my therapist wanted to use for EMDR, specifically the feeling of helplessness, and wanting to help my brother.

My therapist took the feather and told me to think about how I felt when David got hurt, concentrating on two of those feelings (usually helplessness and fear).  Then she'd have me follow the feather with my eyes for about a minute and a half.  She'd ask something along the lines of, "Did any feelings, memories, or pictures come up?"  Often they did, as I was concentrating only on the subject.  I'd say something like, "I remember seeing David's head with a bloody towel wrapped around it, and I remember my parents telling me to stay with my aunt/uncle."  The therapist would say something like "Good.  I want you to concentrate on how staying with your aunt/uncle made you feel."  Then she'd flick the feather back and forth again for a minute and a half.  Then, "did any feelings or memories come up?" and I'd say something like "I wished I was bigger and could do something, it's not fair."  This would go on for a bit; usually there were 5 or 6 feather-y sessions, if I'm recalling correctly.  Slowly she would have me start thinking about positive things, saying something like "Think of how you felt about your brother.  Tell me a few feelings or thoughts you  have."  I'd say something like "I am protective of him.  He's so fearless I'm afraid he'll get hurt.  He's my only brother and I love him."

I did EMDR two or three times with her, I think.  The time it was about my brother getting hurt was extremely powerful.  I was crying without even realizing it.  At the end, she told me to keep my eyes closed and to try to imagine what I looked like as a little girl right around the age David hurt himself in Canada.  She asked me to imagine that that little girl was in the room with us, and she told me to talk to the little girl, and to comfort her.  It may sound sort of crazy but it really was one of the most powerful experiences in my life.  I told little-me, "It's not your fault that your brother got hurt.  Mom and Dad are with him and they're going to take care of him; that's what grownups do.  You can help out here, because I'm sure he's going to need to rest and comfort when he gets home.  Maybe you can make some brownies with Uncle Ray, and maybe you can let him cuddle with your teddy bear when he gets home."  I sort of gave myself permission to release that memory, even though I didn't realize how much it was weighing on me.

I was a bit embarrassed about how much I cried at that session; I really felt like the helpless little girl who was scared for her brother.  I left that session feeling so refreshed and light and clear.  It had amazed me how much of that memory I carried with me, even though it had been over 20 years earlier.  I started to realize that it was these sorts of memories (like I said, it happened more than once with David) that I'd been going back to every time a family member was hurt.  This was part of the reason that I was scared my parents wouldn't come back every time they went on vacation; I was afraid their plane would crash.  I'd make up scenarios as to who we'd live with, how I'd take care of David.  This is why I told my high school boyfriend I loved him before I got on a plane with my family for a vacation; what if I didn't come back?  It wasn't that someone in our family had died, it was that everyone was healthy and whole and I was terrified of that ever changing.  I wanted to be in control so I could keep everyone safe and near me.

Since the EMDR I've had a LOT better handle on my anxiety.  It's been over a year since I've had a panic attack, which is awesome.  I still get anxious, and sometimes I try to ignore it.  For example, I was having stomach pain last month and it got pretty nasty.  It went on for two weeks where I'd just feel miserable and I didn't want to eat anything because as soon as I ate or drank something, I would be in such pain that I wanted to cry.  I got nervous and WebMD'ed it (which is ALWAYS a bad idea) and of course, thought it could be pancreatitis, which shared a lot of the symptoms I was having.  I wanted to go to a doctor, but our health insurance doesn't cover doctor's appointments.  Bryan started quizzing me to see if it was really that bad, or if my anxiety was just playing me.  You see, when my anxiety is bad, I will want to go to the doctor just to hear that I'm physically healthy.  It's weird.  I get nervous going to the doctor but I love hearing that I'm okay.  I actually LIKE getting my women's annual because then I know that everything looks normal downstairs, and that my boobs apparently don't feel lumpy.  I ended up having a friend call her daughter, who is a Physician's Assistant, about my stomach.  Apparently it was GERD/heartburn/acid reflux, something like that, so I took Prilosec for 2 weeks and cut out soda and coffee and tomatoes and citrus foods, and I'm fine now.  Apparently most people that have pancreatitis are alcoholics, so I wasn't really at risk for that at all.  WebMD doesn't mention that.

I never said I was normal.  What's normal?

Anxiety is something I still deal with; my phobias about health and flying (yeah, don't like that at alllll) are still around, and sometimes, when my anxiety has been really acting up, I'll have a little panic attack.  My panic attacks are now very manageable, now that I know what's happening and I have my little trips to stop/ease them.  But my anxiety is a part of me, and I don't think it will ever truly go away completely.  When I feel like I'm weird or crazy for having this problem, I like to remind myself of something my therapist said:  the reason that I get scared of dying or of losing loved ones is that I love life SO MUCH that I want to just hold it tight and never let it go.  I do believe in an afterlife, but I'm enjoying this life so much that I want to live it as much as I can; same goes with my loved ones.  My mom reminds me that most people have SOME sort of weakness in their body: she has bad teeth, my dad's liver isn't the best (less meat, more veggies, Dad), Bryan's gums are crap (seriously), NONE of us have good eyesight (not even perfect David, booyah).  Now that I'm off that awful birth control, I no longer have problems with blood pressure (that was a really nasty side effect that just lasted a long time), and I only occasionally get migraines and headaches.  And I have anxiety.  It's not my biggest weakness, it's just one of the ones I will occasionally have to deal with, like allergies.  It could be worse.  Some people's anxiety makes it so they cannot leave their houses; others drive their friends and families away, lose their jobs, become someone different.  I've got it pretty good.

Anxiety/Panic Disorder is one of those things that's still sort of a taboo to talk about, I think.  When I was dealing with my first panic attacks, I thankfully had two men in our church who had really crippling anxiety, and they were really open about it, which was extremely helpful.  I think it's a very necessary thing to talk about, since it affects so many people, and those who deal with it need support.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 40 million American adults, or 18.1 percent (ages 18+), have an anxiety disorder, and nearly 3/4 of those with an anxiety disorder will have their first episode by age 21.5 years old.  The National Institute of Mental Health also states that approximately 6 million American adults (18+), or 2.7 percent, have panic disorder.  It typically develops in early adulthood and the median age of onset is 24. 1 in 3 people with panic disorder develops agoraphobia.

My first real episode was at 23, but now that I KNOW what a panic attack is, I now know that I've had two very small ones in the past.  The first was at an airport when I was a teenager, and the second was at the opening of a bix box store when I was 18.  I remember being scared and suddenly getting short of breath and crying, and walking very fast away from that place.  I wish I knew what was happening, because I may have been able to control it earlier.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I do have medication for my anxiety.  It's only to be taken when absolutely necessary, as it can be addictive.  It's called Lorazapem, which is generic for Ativan.  I only take it 2 or 3 times per year, usually when I'm flying somewhere (like I said, I HATE flying).  It calms me down and makes me feel like I've had 1-2 glasses of wine, which is nice.  I, thankfully, do not have to take a daily pill, but millions do.  It doesn't mean they're weak, they're just wired differently.  Anxiety/Panic Disorder can be genetic, and it appears that there is a genetic link in my case, as my aunt and grandmother have similar issues.
I hope you have a better concept of what anxiety is now.  It's something that can be controlled, and it doesn't have to affect the rest of your life.  If someone you know has it, they're not 'crazy' or even 'mentally ill.'  They just have a different weakness than you do.  Help them overcome it and learn to live with it.  Once it's been embraced as a part of you, it's much easier to live with, because you're not always afraid of it.  Talk about it. It's something so many people struggle with; if you struggle with it, you're not alone.  If you have questions for me, please feel free to ask.  You can ask publicly as a comment, or email me at jessicamaylords (at) gmail (dot) com.  You can also ask me on my Formspring.

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