Monday, May 21, 2012

When it feels like you are going to die...

Today's post is about anxiety.

The facespace informed me that it's mental health awareness week. I don't usually like to think of myself as a victim of stuff since my life is relatively awesome. This is not a brag, I swear. Here's the thing: I was born in America, my parents paid for my college education, and the worst physical illnesses I've ever had were cured with a pill or shot. My dog and husband adore me and want to be all up in my space, even when I wear sweats all day or forget to brush my teeth until dinnertime. Some of my biggest life disappointments have included being laid off or getting denied to certain academic programs. Sure, there are some dark skeletons in my life whose descriptions aren't necessarily blog appropriate, but all this good stuff has helped to eclipse the darkness in a major way. That's why I feel like a total jerk for the times when I become so panicked, so anxious and completely agitated, that I feel like my heart is going to stop beating, or even that I might be better off if it did.

I think a lot of people say they feel like they are going to have a panic attack. They get really nervous about something or they start to worry and then they say, "Omg, you guys, I'm totally about to have a panic attack right now!" This may be true. They might be experiencing the same type of panic I get from time to time. But I don't tell people when I'm about to have a panic attack because I'm usually too busy trying not to have one. I have to use the techniques I've learned to keep myself from taking the Wacky Train to Crazy Town. I have to control my breath so I don't start breathing so quickly and shallowly that I pass out. I have to remind myself that just because I can hear my heartbeat in my ears doesn't mean that it's going to burst out of my body and shoot across the room. I have to convince myself that just because my chest feels like it's collapsing in on itself does not mean I'm having a heart attack. I have to close my eyes to prevent others from seeing the tears that I'm trying to keep safely behind my eyelids. And then I have to feel like an idiot because the whole reason this nonsense started is that I couldn't find my phone right away because I accidentally put it in the refrigerator.

I had two panic attacks over the weekend. That's more than usual on account of I've been especially stressed lately. The triggers were so stupid. But when you panic, you don't always have control over what sends your world off the rails. The first happened when Rob dropped me off in front of Target so I could make a return. (I'd bought pants on a whim and they were too small. That's what happens when you buy Target pants without trying them on.) I'd left my phone in the car, and I'd expected that I would run in, do the business, and then run back out and Rob would be there. When I went back out, he wasn't there. He wasn't there for a while. It felt longer than it actually was, of course. And I don't know what I thought the worst case scenario was. It was a Target parking lot, for hell's sake. How many different places could he have gone? But I panicked. My breathing sped up and so did my heartbeat. My chest started to feel tight and so did my throat. I had to take myself out of the moment. I had to talk to myself in my head: "Listen, Gretta. He didn't leave you. He'll drive back around and you'll get back in the car and you'll head to Pasadena and eat gourmet hotdogs. This is not an emergency. This is not a disaster." After a few deep breaths, I went back into the store. I asked them if I could use their phone (they looked at me like I was crazy...who needs to use someone else's phone these days?) and I called Rob. Luckily, he picked up. He'd been waiting in a parking spot that I couldn't see, and he couldn't see me waiting in front of the store. I hung up and by the time I got outside, I could see him. Crisis averted. Panic assuaged.

The second attack happened when I couldn't get the parking meter machine to work. After some cognitive dissonance exercises, I tried another machine and it worked just fine. Second crisis averted.

In my brain, I know the situations that cause my anxiety are not even close to as harrowing as they sometimes feel. But my body can't always tell. The panic attacks are fairly rare. But the anxiety is constant. Even though my life is truly wonderful, I live almost every day with the low grade fear that the world will start unraveling because of something I did. I can't tell exactly when this started or why, but I remember having anxiety attacks when I was a kindergartner, and I think it was because my socks weren't the same height.

Am I ashamed of this panic problem? Honestly? Well, yeah...a little. I'm ashamed because I don't want people to think I'm not grateful for the good things in my life. I'm ashamed because the triggers are so trivial and because the symptoms of an attack are sometimes hard to hide from my friends and family and perfect strangers. But I shouldn't be ashamed. For whatever reason, my brain and my body shift in to hyper-drive at weird times. And while I've done nothing to deserve the responsibility of the world, I've always felt that its weight rests squarely on my shoulders. But I'm learning to deal with it. And I shouldn't be ashamed of it. I should just adapt.

I'm working on it.

12 comments:

amelia said...

Oh Gretta, you're awesome. Loved the honesty in this post. I started suffering from panic attacks after having my daughter. Now I carry a sheet of paper in my planner "How to end a panic attack" - sometimes I'll read over it when I'm feeling fine and chuckle "These are such simple instructions..." but when I'm in the thick of it, I totally need it.

Hilary said...

Ah, a woman after my own heart. Mine lessened since I left Los Angeles, but every once and a while they rear their ugly head when I least expect it (like when I watch too much TV and then think about going to bed (!?!?) or because of something weird, like purchasing a minivan for example. I think we can thank our wonderful genetic code for this, and in the meantime--like you said, "work on it." Great post. And it's true, your husband and your dog and I love you for wearing sweats and not brushing your teeth sometimes until the afternoon. ;)k

Jen said...

I heart you.

elliespen said...

Thanks for this. I really needed it today.

Gretta Whalen said...

Amelia, Hilary, Jen, Liz... I love you all. Thanks for reading this and for offering positive feedback. It's nice to know there are beautiful, brilliant, strong women out there who know how it feels to be crazy. ;)

(Hil...I STILL have anxiety about buying my car five years ago. What the hell is that all about?)

Victoria Blanchard said...

I admire your ability to share this struggle publicly. Of course it's not something you should be ashamed of, but I know how hard it is still to share stuff like this. Panic attacks sound awful. I once had the starting of one for about 5 minutes back in 2005 and it was horrible, and I know from your descriptions that it wasn't even nearly as bad as what you described. I also struggle with general anxiety quite a bit at times. That is no fun. Feeling for you . . .

Gretta Whalen said...

Thank you, Vickie! "Public" is a relative term. Only you guys read this blog. :)

Megan said...

I had Jesse read your post, and he asked why you were writing about me! I miss your guts. Sometimes it makes me cry.

Gretta Whalen said...

@meg that's why our souls are friends. ;)

promise me if you come out here, you will tell me.

Bronnie said...

Great post! I, like you, have really got no reason in the world to complain or be anxious. But I think there's a trigger in all of us when it all becomes too much.

I have the odd one, it just takes a quick mini pep talk to get myself back in line! :)

Anonymous said...

maybe it's karma doing its thing for all the boys you screwed over through the years by being dishonest, evasive, aloof and just plain mean....funny you even look a little like Zooey in 500 days...

Rob said...

boy-howdy, anonymous, but you are nursing some oooooold wounds, ain'tcha? if you're feeling so raw toward Gretta, then why are you reading her old blog posts? schadenfreude isn't a good look on anyone. yeeesh.