This is in response to my student’s blog post about anxiety taking her away from college.
Wow. I love it. I mean, I feel so sad for your beautiful soul, but I am so happy for the talent you put into sharing it. You are an amazing person, and I have a lot of empathy for what you are going through. Here is why:
I can’t remember if I have told you this before, but here it is. Whether or not you read this is up to you, but for some reason, on the last day of 2018 and the first of 2019 I felt the need to write it. I am sharing it with you.
My panic disorder first reared its head when I was 4 or 5 years old. My Mom tried to explain to me that the Gramps we were driving to Minnesota to visit was her Daddy, but that Grandma Alice wasn’t her Mommy. My Mom told me her Mommy died. So, in my young mind this lady wasn’t Mommy’s Mommy, she was Alice. Where did Mommy’s Mommy go? She was dead. Would I ever see her? No. Would anyone visit her? No. I was a little girl, and I didn’t have the tools to deal with this. My head exploded.
When my dad came home from somewhere, sometime that day, I had been crying and screaming and running around the house in a state of raw panic for several hours. I have a very physical memory of lying face down on our deep dark blue couch in the living room, pounding my fists, kicking my feet, and muffling my screams into the woven wool upholstery. My Daddy, who was my person in life, tried to ask what was wrong. Why was I upset? What was happening? I couldn’t be coherent. I moved to our entryway and resumed kicking and punching and wailing into the grey carpet on the stairway. I think my Dad was scared and confused. When I could finally choke out some words to answer his queries of what was wrong, all I could get out was “Mommy’s Mommy . . . is dead . . . and Mommy . . .” at that point my Dad leaped over me and bolted up the stairs. It was obvious that he thought something catastrophic was wrong with his wife. “Noooooo,” I yelled. “Mommy said it is going to happen to me . . . ” and I continued to convulse with existential realizations that a child cannot fathom, much less accept.
That was the first time. I grew up a fearful child. I was afraid of death. I was afraid of not existing. I was afraid of old people; didn’t they know they were closer to death than me? So, in hindsight, I spent a lot of my youth just plain surviving. I didn’t have big goals. I didn’t have little girl fantasies about being a bride, getting married, and having a family. I just lived. I went to school and did okay. I played sports and did okay. I had a few friends but have more memories of being intimidated and bullied than I do of finding happiness. My desire to be important and help people showed up periodically in acts of volunteerism. My fear and insecurity also showed up in selfishness and mean spirited acts. I was just a kid.
Then my dad died. My person died. The parent who definitely made me feel unconditionally loved – he died. The man that could have helped me develop a sense of self-worth was gone. The dad who could have met a prom date at the door, taken me on college visits, or encouraged me to join ROTC wasn’t there to do those things. Now it wasn’t just me that was surviving, it was our little family. My Mom, my brother and me were all in the same boat now.
I wasn’t done grieving my Dad’s death when I had to contemplate going to college. It was never a question of if I would go to college but where. My dearest friend Susan and I visited state schools, filled out applications, and finally accepted opportunities – she at the University of Kansas and I at Virginia Tech.
When the excitement of a new place to live wore off, and I returned home for Thanksgiving Break, the panic found me there. Again, the memories are so physical, and so clear to me. That tells me that I was 100 percent engaged in this action, these feelings and emotions, and that is why they still have color and texture all these years later. My Mom had gone to work the day after Thanksgiving and my brother was working a part time job. I was home alone. I paced the hallways of the house as the feeling I had feared for 14 years flooded back. This time I planted myself in my Mom’s bedroom where she had a window facing the front of the house and a small black and white tv. I tried to occupy my brain with sitcoms and soap operas, but nothing could slow or distract the unleashed flow of panic that was racing around in my head. Later, I would tell a therapist that it was 4 days in which every second, of every minute of every hour of waking time was spent engulfed in panic. It was exhausting.
I returned to school, looked in the phone book for a psychologist, made an appointment and lived as fast as I could to try to keep ahead of the panic. My theory was that if I could just stay busy, the panic would not be able to catch up with me. That was how I had dealt with the sadness of my Dad’s death and now I added panic avoidance to my frenetic life style. I kept myself busy with college courses, aerobics, a part time job at a sub shop, training and volunteering at RAFT community crisis center, writing for the Collegiate Times, soccer intramurals, sports photography, rising to Editor of the Student Publications Photo Staff, partying, traveling with the Va Tech Men’s Basketball team as a photographer, more partying, relationship after relationship, after hours New Wave dance parties, and as little time at my childhood home as possible. I was running away. It is hard to run away from something that is in your own head.
At 19 years old, I was diagnosed with Severe Panic Disorder. I read the few books that were published on the subject. I had weekly therapy sessions. I tried bio-feedback (which is awesome). I remained afraid. I was afraid of so many things – death, aging, the universe, any topic that happened before I was alive, any topic that would exceed my lifetime – you name it, I was afraid of it. In the 1980s doctors didn’t offer anti-depressants or anti-anxiety meds to college students. That is probably a good thing. At some point, I remember deciding that I would not take meds for panic until after I had a family. I couldn’t imagine depending on meds for relief and then wanting to have a baby and having to stop taking meds while I was pregnant.
Panic is an unreliable visitor. You never know when it is going to come, how long it will stay, or when it will leave. What you fear is that it will come back. It will stay awhile. It will eventually leave. This is how I lived for the remainder of college and into my 20s and early 30s. I remember in college I had to drop a history course because I couldn’t bring myself to read about a time period in the past – all those people were dead. I had times when traveling across the world to visit my Mom in Hong Kong or Australia made me feel like I was living outside my body. How could I be so far from where people knew my name? Then I got to a point where flying wasn’t possible anymore – too claustrophobic and too afraid I would have a panic attack in an airplane with nowhere to go but insane.
My 30s brought 2 kids and anti-anxiety medication. Bringing a life into this world seemed to give me some roots and a sort of balance I hadn’t had before. This is when I realized the root of my panic. It was all about control. I feared things I could not control. I worked hard to control everything I could. If you think about it, wanting to be in control is a selfish act. Think about it. Believing or needing to be able to control life is a symptom of feeling like you have that much power and that it should be up to you to keep things going in the direction you deem correct. It’s not up to you. A lot of people have figured this out, and they write books about it and create sayings printed on canvas with beachy backgrounds. Let Go and Let God is one such example. Just Be. Talk Less, Listen More. All of these are aimed at letting go of control and being a passenger in the Universe instead of a driver.
Somehow, I learned to release my tight grip on some of those things I could not control. I slowly converted all that anxious energy into positive energy and distributed it between my kids – and I know that is still a form of control. I put so much energy into teaching my students, and that too is control. I control the things I can control. AA got it right, too.
Most of today’s therapy, life coaching, guru magic is based on this simple premise. Let it Be. Let it Be. Speaking words of Wisdom, Let it Be.
Okay, I think it is totally cool that I ended this epic life blog on a Beatles note. I know I am just sort of stopping, but I have to. I am not in control of the fact that 6:50 will come and I will have to get in the car and go to work. I’m also not in control of the fact that 8 of my students attend districts that aren’t open today and that my grand Roll Out of the International Fair Project will be significantly affected by this late breaking news. So, do I freak out? Nope. I bring a blender, yogurt and frozen blueberries to work so that my one student who desires a blueberry smoothie at MEHS, when all they normally serve is strawberry, will get a blueberry smoothie on the first class day of 2019. I can do that for her, and in doing so, I make myself happy. 🙂