Thursday, January 23, 2014

There is a blog post coming…I promise.

I have been writing.  Nearly every morning in fact, yet I can't seem to complete a blog post this week.  I've two drafts that I continue to pick away at but I get to certain point and just stall out.  Perhaps my mind is too busy adjusting to the new school schedule or it could just be a case of half-way writer's block (halfway because I'm writing…words are coming, they just are not being put together in a way that I'd like).

So for now I'll keep on plugging away until I have a substantive post for you.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Part 3: Where am I going? (or "Breathe. Breathe. I'm not going to die.")

I have started this blog post multiple times.  Right now at 11:52 PM on a Tuesday night I am making attempt number four.  The thing is that I know what I want to say.  I know that I want to write about my plan for managing the stress and anxiety I've been dealing with for the past five months.  The problem is that everything I write comes out sounding...well, overly simplistic and weirdly cheerful.

What?  That's a bad thing?

Yes, because this isn't a happy moment. This isn't a moment of bliss or joy - instead it's me recognizing that this is going to be a lot of work.  I can break it down into a list of things I need to be doing:

1. Paying attention to how I feel.
2. Pausing to recenter when I feel stressed or anxious.
3. Making time everyday to relax.
4. Getting enough sleep.
5. Eating well.
6. Being physically active.

But while the list may seem simple (Hey! You too can achieve peace and life long serenity in these six easy steps!!!), the actions are not (oh, wait...).

Anxiety feels AWFUL especially at its overwhelming extreme and to get to the first item on the list means to acknowledge that it is exists.  And that, dear reader, can be a very uncomfortable place for those of us who prefer to just keep on moving in the hopes that the bad feelings go away or at least don't catch up.  Facing it, confronting it and dealing with it instead of shutting down or denying it is of course the only way one can learn to manage it but that does not mean it is easy.

And here is the other catch.  I don't believe for a moment that this is something that will go away.  I believe that one way or another I'll be dealing with anxiety issues for the rest of my life.  Whether through conditioning or genetics I think that I, like many others, am simply prone towards anxiety.  Add to that one or two traumatizing life experiences that, while long past and massaged into manageability by lots of therapy, still occasionally rear their beady eyed ugly little heads and it becomes pretty obvious that anxiety and I will likely be in a constant state of negotiation for some time to come.

I also know that the old adage of anything worth doing is worth doing well is true and doing something well often means a lot of hard work.  I took the easy route once, and at that time I needed to. While being temporarily on medication helped to ease the extreme anxiety I was having at that time, allowed me to sleep and to also take a look at why I was feeling what I did, it had side effects that I did not want in my life.**

In the years that followed I learned to manage my anxiety, spot an impending panic attack and prevent it from happening.  I learned what circumstances were likely to trigger it and how could I approach those circumstances differently. I learned that no matter how awful it might feel in the moment anxiety, and the vast majority of things that made me feel anxious, won't kill me.  "Breathe.  Breathe.  I'm not going to die," became my mantra.

Being alive is like running an emotional marathon where the training and practice begin at the same time that the starting gun is fired.  I might have run approximately half the statistical distance of my life but I've still  just as far to go ahead of me to go.    Living is definitely something worth doing well, and while being human is a lot of work, it's work that I am equipped for and willing to do.

**A word on medication and anxiety.  

Anxiety in its extreme can be crippling and medication for anxiety can be a life saving thing for many as it was for me.  For a variety of reasons it was not something that worked for me in the long term; for others it is something they need to get through the day.  There is nothing wrong with either choice. 

If you are dealing with extreme anxiety, particularly if it is to the point where it is disrupting basic life care activities like eating or sleeping, please seek help.  You are not alone.  

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has many resources available.  

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Part 2 - Where am I? (or, Wow, it didn't take long for the panic to set in)

A few days ago I looked back at the second half of 2013 and pondered how I managed to survive it.  Until this afternoon I was patting myself on the back, being all self congratulatory because after a weekend away and several nights of good sleep I was feeling quite improved.  I got paid today and it was nice to feel a little less poor for a moment or two.  I bundled up so I could walk to take care of my errands and I revelled a bit in how good it felt to move.

"See?"  I said to myself, "You just needed a little break is all."

And then I looked at the syllabi for my upcoming spring classes.  And then I looked at my calendar and realized I've only a few days before it begins.  And then I thought to myself that I'd better start making plans with people who I want to see socially within the next four days because soon I'll be up to my ears in homework and life will be too busy.  And then I whined and pouted via text to a friend about how little time I had left...after which I reprimanded myself for being a complainer.  And so within a couple of hours I found myself once again on the edge of the panic precipice.

And all the while there was a tiny voice in my head that was trying desperately to tell me to just calm down. Trying to remind me that the semester's start is still a few days away.  That if I don't see everyone I want to see in the next few days it will be okay because they are my friends and they like me enough to stick around.  And that I really should stop indulging my inner angsty teenager and take a deep breath before sending out a barrage of panic texts.  And all the while...I was not listening. 

Some habits are so hard to break...

It was about five or so years ago that I went through a period of extreme anxiety.  I wasn't sleeping and my diet consisted mostly of red wine, ice cream and potato chips.  My stomach was a mess and most days I was convinced I was dying.  For a short time I was on an anti-anxiety medication which did stop the anxiety along with just about every other feeling I had, so after a few months of therapy to figure out what had brought me to that level of intense anxiety I came off the medication and began to learn how to deal with it  I learned what my triggers were, and I learned to spot the signs of an impending panic attack long before it occurred. AND I learned how to do what I needed to in order to prevent them.

And then for five years I stopped having panic attacks.  Until this fall when every bit of self care I'd so carefully learned went right out the window.

When I am overtired and experiencing a lot of stress I become very NOW focused.  Not in the good way of being present in the moment but in the panicky this-is-the-problem-and-I-must-resolve-it-right-now sort of way.  Instead of stepping back to take a longer view (like if I stop now, take a nap, make a list of what needs to be done and tackle it one thing at a time I'll get through this) I just see the big heaping pile of TO DO and start feeling overwhelmed, paralyzed (there is now way I can get this all done NOW) and then the anxiety engine revs on up and now the to do pile is no longer the problem...the anxiety is and so now how do we deal with this feeling because I don't like it and I want it to stop right now!

(and here is where I'm absolutely not going to elaborate on my various unhealthy anxiety coping mechanisms...)

And so now this is where I am.  At the question of, "How do I deal with this?"  And the answer, as I know because a little voice tells me so, isn't found in just a few days of getting away, one or two nights of good sleep or one paycheck or one walk.  It's a continuous diet of all of these things, combined with learning to once again see the signs of impending anxiety so I can do what has to be done to take care of myself. Which is usually something as simple as taking a step back, breathing calmly and recentering.

Simple.  Except of course when the panic is already flowing over me like a wave.
Simple.  Like it was five years ago when I remember first learning to deal with this and I failed over and over again.
Simple.  Until finally there was that one time I caught myself, and I stopped and I took a few breathes and the panic began to subside.
Simple.  As simple as when I did it again...and again...and again.

Perhaps one of the bonuses to getting older and accumulating experience is that you begin to realize that "Where I Am" is often also "Where I Was Once Before" and that tucked away somewhere in your life pocket you already have the tools you need.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Part 1 - Where I Went

It is the first Monday of 2014.  At one point, in what now seems like a past life in which I had time, I had a habit of writing a blog post twice a week.  Then fall 2013 happened.  I loaded myself up with five classes, a second job and the expectation that somehow I'd be able to maintain the rest of my already jam packed life. In my mind I was some sort of superwoman powerhouse who, with my superhuman scheduling abilities and short night sleeping habits, would not only get it all done but do it with a smile on my face. At the end I'd be looking at every one else and saying, "What you didn't think I could do this? Piece. Of. Cake."

I was wrong.  I was very wrong.  By mid-September I knew that piling it on like this was a mistake.  At that point of course I was committed.  If I wanted to finish earning my degree by Fall 2014 I had to push through these five classes.  I couldn't drop the second job because I desperately needed the money and even with it I was struggling to make ends meet, feed myself and my feline companions.  Creative commitments were piled up too, most of them collaborative in nature, and I wasn't going to back out or let anyone down on that front either.

By mid-October the tired began to creep in.  I relied greatly on my obsessiveness about writing things down and setting the reminder alarm on my iPhone so that it's chime would alert me to where I needed to be in the next 15 minutes.  Still I started to fall behind.  Every evening was jam packed with homework and  keeping up with performance responsibilities.  My social life became non-existent as I cancelled dinner and lunch plans and stopped going out dancing.   I not only lacked the time to make such commitments but I also felt I simply wasn't all that pleasant to be around.  I seemed unable to do anything but talk about how exhausted I was and when I wasn't talking about that I was distracted because I was thinking of all I could be doing at that moment.   I seemed to have no time for writing, dancing or music and certainly no time to just sit and be still.

"I just have to make to to December.  I just have to make it to December.  I just have to make it to December," became my mantra.

The crankies set in and I ended many days with tears and questioning whether or not I could do this.  Due to a self feeding cycle of anxiety and lack of sleep I became an emotional sieve.  I could hold nothing in.  I cried daily...sometimes hourly.  I was snippy and short tempered.  I lacked any shred of diplomacy in most interactions.  When I was happy it was with almost manic giddiness.  The one thing I seemed unable to feel was any sense of peace.

(I just have to make it to December.)

On top of all of this my elderly cat began to have unexplained seizures which after over $1000 in veterinary bills is yet to be explained.  I began to have trouble with my own health issues as my asthma flared up again and again likely triggered by stress.  I couldn't afford to purchase the medication that I needed to keep it under control (and the stress I was under was certainly NOT helping with that).  Bills piled up and I began to make yet more cuts in my life, this time on food.  My diet was pretty much devoid of fresh vegetables and became a steady diet of rice and beans, which generally left me standing over a stove before a meal wondering if I wanted to actually bother to eat.

(I just have to make it to December...or maybe January)

At this point something quite amazing happened.  An anonymously given gift certificate to Trader Joe's appeared in my mailbox one day. The next a Hannaford gift certificate from my mother arrived in the mail. Other friends brought over homemade canned goods and even the treat of some homebrewed wine.  My father gifted me with a heated mattress pad for my bed after learning how cold my bedroom became at night. There were even gifts to help out with my and my kitty's medications and bills.  It was all unexpected, very needed and truly if not of these acts of kindness I'm not sure I'd have made it.

(I just need to make it to December)

My grades suffered and though I ended the semester with three As and a B, I also earned my first ever C. And I earned it.   School is something that has generally always been easy for me and it was one of the reasons I thought I could pull off five classes.  I was wrong.  I found myself fighting to keep above a D and knowing that I had to earn a C in the class to have it count towards my degree I contacted the professor. who told be exactly what I needed to do to earn it.  100's on all my remaining homework and quizzes (which I did) and at least a 63 on my final exam (I pulled of an 85).   In the end it brought my GPA to a level that, while still quite respectable, is far lower than I'd like it to be.

(I just need to make it to...oh, wait...)

I finally did make it to December and I thought when I walked out of my last final exam that I would feel some sense of relief but it didn't come.  Looming on the horizon was a New Year's Eve show in Boston with my troupe for which we needed to rehearse, create costuming and make travel arrangements for.  Due to weather, holiday schedules and the unexpected lateness of a funds payout everything was crammed into the last week before the show.  My late and mostly sleepless nights continued.  Once again a few folks stepped into assist and thanks to the busy hands of my fellow troupe members we had what we needed for the show and I was able to get a few extra hours of sleep the night before our performance.

The show went well (everyone was on the top of their game) and it was so very nice to toast in the new year with my fellow troupe members, many of whom were witness to all of my emotional ups and downs.  My social interactions had been minimal in the prior months, if not for the continued efforts of a few close friends who pestered me often to take a few minutes to do something other than work (and who I thank immensely for their patience and tolerance), I'd have had none at all.  New Year's Eve after our show was a reminder that I need to allow the time to enjoy the company of those I call friends.

On the train ride home I finally began to relax.  I found myself nodding off and gave into the pleasure of a nap.  When I arrived home I collapsed for two hours and later that evening, when I finally went to bed I made sure I would sleep.  I took two benadryl, turned on my white noise machine and put in earplugs.  I did not have to work until 10:00 the next day and so finally, after months of existing on two to four hours of sleep a night I managed a solid night of it.

This weekend I was able to get out of town to visit a friend and spent time reading by the fire, eating good food, having late night conversations that were not about how tired I was, spend time in the winter woods snowshoeing and yes, getting more sleep.  I'm not 100 percent yet, but I'm on my way.

So I made it.  Somehow I made it through all of this.  The new semester begins in one week and I plan to spend this week doing not much other than working.  I'll be taking four classes this time, still a heavy load but I think more manageable than five.  I am making some rules for myself about making sure I keep aside enough time for real self care and to do the things that feed my soul.

Like many of us I thought in the past that I knew what my limits were and I realize now that I only had an inkling.   The level of emotional stress and exhaustion I felt brought me to a very dark place.  Though I still don't know how close to the edge I came,  I feel like I have turned a corner and that I have a good chance of finding some sort of balance again in the coming year.