Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Panicking out of time...

Trigger Warning:  Panic Attacks

It begins with a tightening at the midpoint between my stomach and my heart.  The lower half of my lungs feel cut off; I cannot draw a full breath. 

My heart begins to pound. It feels as though my heart has quadrupled in size.  That my entire chest is filled with this hyper beating mass of my heart.  I imagine this is why I can't breathe, my heart is suffocating me. There is not enough room inside of me for it and air.

My palms go cold.  My fingers numb.  As my hands and legs begin to shake I can hear the pounding of my blood in my ears. 

I feel sick.  I clench my jaw to keep myself from vomiting.  

Everything is tight.  My neck, my spine, my belly.  Softness disappears from my body. 

I know just what is happening and I know that at this point there is nothing I can do to stop the panic attack that has overtaken my body.  What started with a word has become an unstoppable, physical thing. 

It could not have happened at a more inopportune time (these things never happen in an appropriate manner). In twenty minutes I am supposed to play music and dance before a crowd of 150 people.  I feel as though I can barely stand and yet somehow I'm supposed to be entertaining.

I make an excuse to go to the ladies room.  I put a cool wet towel to my neck.  I pace.  I count. I speak mantras to my mind. I do all of the things I know to do to calm myself but the shaking does not stop. 

A friend approaches.  Tries to comfort me; to tell me things will be okay.  Still it does not stop.  I ask to be left alone.  There is nothing to be done.

I go back to waiting.  My fists are clenched around my zils (finger cymbals), the edges dig into my palms. I feel cold sweat down my back.

I am telling myself that once I take the stage I will be okay.  Once I am there this will fall away. 

I hear the announcer call our name and I step out.  My zils begin to ring.  I'm playing too fast and I know it but I can't stop.  I'm waiting for the entertainer to come to life but nothing happens.  Inside I am frozen.

I'm depending entirely upon well drilled and memorized movements to get me through this.  I feel as though I am letting everyone down.  I cannot meet the eyes of the audience or my fellow performers.  Later, when I see photos of the performance my eyes are downcast in every one, looking only at the floor.

One act down.  I sit to play the drum.  I am trying to keep the rhythm but all I can hear is the pounding in my ears.  My racing heart and the music are out of sync.  Please, I think to myself, can't I at least panic in time?

One more to go.  We finish, the crowd cheers, we bow and I leave the stage as quickly as I can without running.  I need to get out, to get air. 

(Note: Despite the location of this occurrence, this was not a case of stage fright.)


It was many years ago when I had my first panic attack.  They came upon me in the middle of the night.  I'd wake up in a cold sweat, my heart pounding, fists clenched, feeling full of dread and convinced I was dying.  I'd get out of bed and sit in the living room with blankets piled upon me, sipping tea and watching the Home Shopping Network until it passed.  During the day I'd make excuses for finding a quiet space alone to sit until it passed.  For a long time they were sporadic, sometimes with years between them.  But about a decade ago, I began to have them so frequently I was afraid to go to sleep and leaving the house was cause for extreme anxiety. It was then that I sought help.

I tried medication for a time but it made me feel numb.  I began to work with a therapist and over time I learned what things triggered the attacks.  I learned to sense, sometimes days ahead of time, when the circumstances of my life and mental state made me more vulnerable to them.  I would up my level of self care, get extra rest, seek out peaceful places, move my body more - whatever it took to put myself at ease. After a year they stopped all together. Until a few weeks ago I'd not had a full blown panic attack in nearly nine years.  Now I've had two in the past three weeks.  The attack described above only happened a few days ago.  

I'm already seeing a therapist and you can pretty well guess what our topic of conversation will be at this next appointment.  I know that with her help, a lot mindfulness and self care I can again reach a state of relative equilibrium. I say relative because I've also lived with anxiety for most of my life.  Over the years I have learned to keep it from controlling me and my life.  But it is always there.  It is my white noise, humming along through every hour of my days. I live my life despite it.  My struggles with it have been a more than occasional topic of this blog.

I will get through this.  While I don't expect it to be easy, and I worry that there may be more of this in my future,  I have at least learned that as frightening as it can be a panic attack will not kill me, and though it is at a higher level than it has been in some time, neither will anxiety.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Beauty Inside and Out

“It would be good if we could make efforts to free ourselves — to sometimes try to see beauty in people, to give them a chance, or let it be an acquired taste,” she says. “Our society often talks about inner beauty; that that’s what counts. But we fail.” - Amanda Filipacchi

Today's post is inspired by a PRI interview with Amanda Filipacchi from late last week;  Is it Possible to be too Beautiful?  Amanda discusses growing up with a super model mother and how our standards of what is beautiful changes over time.  The interview also touches on the high importance we place on physical beauty.  Her own love-hate relationship with beauty, wishing did not matter and yet being drawn to it, loving it at the same time.

In the four years of writing this blog I have written often about my own struggle with how I feel about my appearance. There are days that I feel hideous and there are days I feel beautiful, most days I feel a tenuous sense of moderate physical self acceptance.  My perception of my own beauty and my relationship with my body has been an ongoing struggle since my teenage years.

Physically I always felt awkward and ungraceful due to my height.  It was a feeling of always taking up too much space.  I actively tried to make myself seem smaller; an impossible task.  My long fingered hands and size 11 feet extended inches beyond sleeves and pants cuffs that were always a few inches too short.  And no matter where I stood or sat, my arms and legs always seemed spill out of the chair, couch or corner I was trying to contain them in.  My discomfort made me clumsy. I was forever bumping into things and people, which of course only drew more attention to me and my giantness.

As a performer I've learned to appreciate the advantages of my size; bigness provides instant stage presence and few can loom over an audience as I can. Still, even now I  have an inner dialog that bounces between "appearances don't matter, I will learn to accept myself as I am" and "don't fool yourself, appearance is everything you must to find a way to be beautiful."  The former tends to win out but the latter voice still makes itself heard more often than I would like. 

For the past several months I've tried to set this dialog aside and focus instead on improving myself on the inside, working on my "inner beauty" by making myself a better person. I've encountered my share of ugliness there too but that is far more fixable than trying to fit into a physical mold that is not possible without massive amounts of plastic surgery. 

It is not easy.  This sort of personal work is that it is work no one sees.  We are complimented when we lose weight, get a new hair style or show up to a party wearing a flattering new dress...

"You look amazing!  Have you lost weight?  Love the hair.  That dress looks fantastic on you."

No one comes up to you and says, "You really handled that anxiety attack well yesterday."  or "It's so great that you've taken the time to identify what your fears are." or  "Facing and accepting your flaws.  Wow, that's really awesome work you are doing."

In culture that places such a high value on externalities like physical beauty, there is perhaps little incentive to focus on one's inner beauty.  It is not something that is directly rewarded in the way being beautiful is.   The rewards of self acceptance, a chance at some inner peace, a sense of purpose, are not something that come from outside; they are 100% internal.  And it is not instant.  The changes can be frustratingly incremental.

I don't think that society's views on beauty will change anytime soon; the change will be incremental there too.  And I don't have any control over whether others may perceive me as beautiful or not.  What I do have control over is myself.  I have chosen to turn inward in an attempt to find some happiness and self acceptance.  I'm starting to realize that as I do this work on the inside and learning bit by bit to accept myself, that my acceptance of my physical self is growing too.  It is an unintentional, but welcome, side effect.

Maybe that is what makes this sort of work so personally powerful.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Storms of all kinds...

If you live anywhere in New England then at some point in the past few days you've probably had a conversation about snow. You  have probably had at least one, if not several, events canceled or postponed due to snow.  You are likely sick of shoveling and cursing yourself for not buying that snow-blower that was on sale last June.  If you ski or snowshoe you've not had to travel far to make use of them and they may have been your only way to get to the corner store, to work or to overcome your serious cabin fever in the middle of storm number three (and besides, snowshoeing down the middle of Main Street is kinda cool).

If you don't live here and you have tried to fly into one our airports in the past few weeks there is a good chance your flight was delayed, canceled or rerouted.  If you found yourself stuck here, unable to leave due the storm you now have a Winter of 2015 story to tell the kids.  You've probably told friends how you are glad this is not something you have to deal with regularly and what's with those crazy people who live in places where something like winter exists anyway?   Should we start taking up some sort of collection for them?

I can't say I love winter but I have always been tolerant and accepting of it and I've come to enjoy it a whole lot more since I discovered snowshoeing,  I'm not one of those folks depressed by snow and I make sure I dress appropriately for the cold when I go out so cold isn't often an issue.  In general winter does not impinge on my social life or cause any undue burden. In the early part of this winter I'd even lamented the warm days and serious lack of snow which prohibited my having any snowshoe adventures.

But now I've have missed four days of school and two of my classes have had to issue multiple syllabus updates.  As I tend to make keep track of my life based on my school schedule I'm not sure what day of the week it is most days let alone what is actually due for class.  I've made and rescheduled plans with one particular friend so many times that we are considering setting up a Skype date and then meet in person if there ISN'T a blizzard that night. Like most everyone I'm feeling totally overwhelmed with snow. 

When I began writing this post a few days ago we were forecast to have and 12 - 18 inches fall upon us today.  As of right now we've had about 4 inches and there is a bright spot of sun attempting to burn through the clouds.  I'm feeling a mix of ENOUGH ALREADY relief and darn, I really wanted to snowshoe in the falling, blustery snow today.

My mind is moving towards metaphor and my efforts towards self-discovery these past few months.  I began this attempt in the late fall as the weather turned cold.  I was trying to figure out just what it was I wanted in life and to equip myself with the self knowledge that I needed to make some decisions I'd soon be facing.  I started seeing my therapist again, did a lot of journaling and contemplation.  I seemed to be doing all of the right things and though I didn't seem to be making a whole lot of progress, I at least felt like I was doing something.

Fast forward to about a month ago, right as our first storm it. I'm now writing regularly in my journal about feelings of depression that I've been waking up to each morning (something new to me as my emotional struggles have always been late night insomnia inducing ones).  I've been working through a personal inventory  that brings me face to face with those sorts of personality flaws that we'd all prefer to pretend we don't have (most of which I'd been well aware of know, denial).  I have a series of conversations with friends that seem to confirm all my fears of being a horrible failure of a human being.  Most are initiated by me, one is out of the blue unexpected, one is delivered with seeming relish...all leave me feeling a bit battered, low and questioning everything.  I'm a heaping pile of doubt.

Somehow I don't shut down.  I don't run for the hills.  I don't bury myself in being busy.  I do give in to a bit of wallowing.  I recognize that I asked for this when I started down this road in the fall. I can't say I expected, much like the storms of the past few weeks, to have as much dumped on my psyche as has been but whatever the mental equivalent of shovels and snowshoes are, I'll be attempting to dig myself out keep moving forward.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


I am very pleased to announce that I will be participating in the #Womenslives initiative.  The initiative, a partnership between Public Radio International (PRI) and SheKnows Media, intends to bring attention to news stories from around the world that focus on or impact the lives of women and girls. 

This blog began with a focus on living as an unmarried woman in a culture that puts coupling on a pedestal.  Over the four years of its existence the scope of my writing has grown to include not only my personal story but also my thoughts on a broad range of women's issues.  Joining this initiative seemed not only to be a natural fit but also an exciting opportunity to help shine a light on the issues women face around the globe.

As part of this initiative I will be sharing news stories on Twitter, tumblr and Facebook, with the hashtag #womenslives, as well as continuing to blog regularly on thees topics.  I hope that you will join me helping to highlight these issues by sharing the stories in social media and engaging in thoughtful discussion. 

I look forward to sharing more of #womenslives with all of you. 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Day 31: The Mission Statement

The Mission Statement:  Day 7 (based on Creating a New Mission Statement from the New York Times).

For the past week I have written blog posts that answered the following seven questions:
  • How do you want to be remembered?
  • How do you want people to describe you?
  • Who do you want to be?
  • Who or what matters most to you?
  • What are your deepest values?
  • How would you define success in your life?
  • What makes your life really worth living?
My reason for answering these questions was to find out what motivates me, what I'd like to achieve in my life, and what things are important to me.  Once I knew these things I would, hopefully, be able to craft a personal mission statement.  The idea being that this mission statement could serve as a guide for how I live my life in the thousands of days that lie between tomorrow and death.  

I admit at first I was skeptical.  I was not sure that I'd finish the week with anything close to resembling a mission statement.  As I answered the questions each day it began to become clear that there were definitely some recurring themes in my responses: art/creating, my relationships with people and my community, attaining intellectual knowledge, and exploring/experiencing as much of the world as I can.  

It also became quite clear that my mission statement would not be a simple one.  However, I have, as of 3:26 PM today, achieved my goal (though I'm pretty sure it won't fit easily onto a cross stitch pillow)...
I want to live my life in a fashion that is true to my self, my values and beliefs.  I want to continue to create and explore art in its infinite variety of forms; to expand my intellectual knowledge and grow my mind; to experience more of the world both at home and abroad; and to cultivate and foster personal connection with individuals and my community.
Tomorrow is my birthday and I think I may have just given myself a pretty neat gift.   I feel as though I am starting this next year of life with a little more self-knowledge than I had eight days ago. 

Today also marks the end of two months of daily blogging. I entertained the idea of doing one more month but my life is very full right now so after today I'll be changing to weekly posts.  

Thank you to everyone has been reading over the past two months.  I'll "see" you later on this week. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Day 30: What makes you life really worth living?

The Mission Statement:  Day 7 (based on Creating a New Mission Statement from the New York Times)

I am down to the last question:   What makes you life really worth living?

It is interesting to me that as the week has progressed the questions have in some ways become easier for me to answer.  Of course, intentional or not, they do seem to build on each other so it may just be that my thoughts have been corralled in this direction all week long.

What makes life really worth living for me?

  • The creative process.  Birthing a new work from idea to creation is a never easy but always worth it.  
  • New experiences.  I love learning new things, exploring new places and discovering things about the world and myself. 
  • People.  My friends, my family and my community bring so much to my life.  I share many of the two things listed above with them. 
Of course this does mean that any of these things are always joyful things.  Goodness knows I have my share of letdowns, failures and upsets but in the long run, these are the three things that really keep me going.  

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Day 29: How do you define success in your life?

The Mission Statement:  Day 6 (based on Creating a New Mission Statement from the New York Times)

How do you define success in your life?

"Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm" - Winston Churchill

"There is only one success - to be able to spend your life in your own way." - Christopher Morely
It is day six of my quest for a personal mission statement.  When I first read today's question I thought it would be difficult for me to answer.  For assistance I turned to Google and did a search for "quotes about success."  I thought I'd be spending a lot of time browsing words of wisdom but suprisingly enough the two quotes above were on the first page I looked at and both resonated with me.

Success for me means living life on my own terms in pursuit of my own purpose.  And it also means a willingness to keep seeking because my purpose today may not be the same tomorrow or a year from now, and there may very well be days that I feel lost.  Success is being able to live the life I choose.

And, well, hopefully having a roof over my head, food in my belly and community of wonderful people around me. That would be a part of success for me too.

One more day to go!