Category: anxiety

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it?” -Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

When I was a girl, I adored Anne Shirley. I hadn’t her tragic background nor her dramatic flair, but I loved the exuberant way she expressed herself. Those monologues, when an enraptured Anne would go on and on about something she loved, charmed my socks off. That was how I talked, too — inside my head.

I remember worrying from a very young age that the monologues and scenarios I imagined in my head were an indicator of a mental health problem. (Back then, before I learned that ‘crazy’ is a pejorative, I would’ve put it like this: “I talk to imaginary people a lot. Does that mean I’m crazy?”) When I was around 10 or 11, I picked up on the  notion that what separates the mentally ill from the mentally healthy is that the latter may have an imaginary friend, but the former talks to imaginary friends and they talk back. That was probably supposed to make me feel better. I was supposed to think, “Well, golly, I’m 100% sure that this is all in my own imagination. It doesn’t feel like a separate entity no one else can perceive is speaking to me, so I’m fine.” Instead, my little brain warped it so that I thought, “Hmm, sometimes when I engage in these long conversations in my head, I really do imagine what the other people say back. Maybe that means I AM crazy.”

So you see, it felt like it was only a matter of time before my parents and the rest of the world figured out I was insane. I was sure that the clock was ticking and when they discovered my secret, I’d be in trouble at best – or at worst, hauled off to an asylum for some good old-fashioned shock therapy. (I was a weird kid and had read some admittedly unhelpful books on the subject of mental health.)

I wish I could remember having a moment of epiphany, but instead my late teens and early twenties simply gave me a gradual slide to a state of comfort with the way my mind worked. I stopped fretting about a clinical diagnosis (and I learned not to throw around the word ‘crazy,’ even in my own mind about my own self) and accepted the fact that I have an active imagination.

I eventually realized that the way I’m wired keeps my sense of wonder and laughter close to the surface – which is definitely part of what makes me a great teacher of young kids. I realized that my imagination sometimes works against me, when it manifests as generalized anxiety, and that I can control that part with medication, therapy, and mindful practices. (So: interestingly enough, I do have a mental health diagnosis, just not the one I feared when I was a kid.) I realized that my imagination is like a puppy with a lot of energy, and if I set it to the task of writing –dreaming up an entire novel-sized world of people and places and situations– it’s a lot less likely to bother me by misdirecting that energy*.

So. Like the effusive Anne Shirley, I’m glad to live in a world where we get to enjoy Octobers. This time of year is beautiful here in western Kentucky, and autumn always seems to renew my energies. I’m thankful for what I’ve learned about imagination, because embracing mine opened up the path for me to explore writing. Even if my novels never hit bookshelves, the act of writing them has been wonderful in and of itself.

Because, as Anne Shirley would say, “when you are imagining, you might as well imagine something worthwhile.”

 

 

 

*for more on that notion, I highly recommend Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Her analogy about creativity as an overactive dog sparked an instant sense of “hey me too!” in my heart and you might enjoy it, also.

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Sweet Abi started taking a ballet/tap combination class this school year. She so adorably loves it. Every Friday morning, she gets all decked out (and even lets me fix her hair! #girlmomperks ) and after class, regales me with chatter about what her teacher did and what her friends said and all the movement games they played.

I love it for her.IMG_6661

When I was about 11, I took ballet when we lived in Texas. I think I took classes for about a year, and I remember loving the music, the movements. It was probably the first time I felt aware of my body and proud of its strength. But when my dance teacher told us that she wanted me to move up to the en pointe class, I got scared. She said I was younger than most of her pointe students, but she thought I would do well.

Even as a kid, I had a bad case of paralyzing perfectionism. The idea of going into a new class where I would be the youngest, the least experienced, and therefore probably the worst? No way, nuh-uh, not happening.

So I quit ballet.

That was the first of many hobbies and interests and activities I would begin, excel in, and abruptly quit.

Piano. Baton. Horseback riding. Sewing. Spanish.

I’m so thankful that my parents continued to let me try new things.

But I hate how my anxieties kept me from enjoying them longer. I wish I had been able to push myself past the part where the new skill got challenging. When I could no longer play my piano pieces through after a single practice session, I decided that meant I didn’t really have “an ear for music,” and I stopped taking lessons. After my first parade, I realized that other {older, experienced} baton twirlers could do a zillion more tricks than I could, and figured since I was still struggling with Move X, I’d probably never ever master my way up to Move Y. So I quit that, too.

The thing I’ve realized as an adult is that a lot of that tendency was due to my particular brain. Lots of gifted kids exhibit this little quirk: so many things come so easily to us upon first blush, that we get accustomed to everything coming naturally. We also get stuck in a feedback loop, where adults praise us for mastering things that seem very simple and effortless: therefore we think that effortless=praiseworthy. We see kids around us struggling with mastery and {yes, it’s true, we kinda can’t help it, many of us start off pretty egotistical and only learn empathy later} we assume that struggle=stupidity. Then, the first time we hit a task that’s going to require some WORK on our part, we spiral into cataclysmic thinking.

This is hard. -> Stuff is supposed to be easy for me.  -> If it’s hard, that means I’m stupid {about this}. -> Feeling stupid is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. -> I’m going to quit {this} and do something where I’m comfortably smart, instead.

In my life right now, I’m figuring out how to push through that old pattern and not get caught on that spiral. Part of my new ability to do that comes from my meds, and I’m okay with that. The other part comes from some good therapy and learning some new types of self-talk. I had to figure out how to recognize the pattern, the voice in my head that whispers that LIFE AS WE KNOW IT WILL END IF MICHELLE FAILS AT SOMETHING PUBLICLY aaaaah eeeeeeek oh noes and I had to figure out how to approach opportunities rationally. There are certain key phrases my brain uses when it’s in that mode. They are my red flags that what I’m thinking and feeling isn’t really grounded in truth.

Having a friend or loved one to springboard ideas has also really helped me. A local bestie who knows me well, my husband – both people who can “gut check” me and will kindly but truthfully tell me when I’m hung up on old notions and operating out of fear.

https://smilescanbecatching.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/what-if-i-fall-oh-but-my-darling-what-if-you-fly/

One of the things I want desperately for my kids, then, is to grow up without the whisper of paranoid perfection in their heads. I pray that I’ll see the warning signs if they feel pressure to be perfect. I hope that I’ll know when to nudge them to keep going, to persevere, to take another step, to leap, to fly. And on the other hand, that I’ll know when they really do need to heed their inner voice and lay something down, take a step back, stop.

I don’t want Abi to stick with ballet because I have visions of her onstage beside Misty Copeland someday. I want her to stick with ballet for as long as it makes her happy, and if at some point it doesn’t, I hope I’ll be able to help her find another outlet that does bring her joy.

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keepcalm

When I was a kid, I wasn’t particularly fearful. I don’t remember being afraid of the dark, or of monsters under my bed. I was too rational and logical, even at three or four years old, to get caught up in those fears.

I’m not sure exactly when that started to change. It wasn’t that I ever really got swept up in normal kid fears; it was more like I had a really heightened sense of awareness of everything that could go wrong in the world. The first pivotal moment came when my dad went to the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Storm. My mother and brother and I remained in our house on Fort Hood, in central Texas, for a while. Then after a few months, we took a Greyhound bus all the way to Thomasville, Georgia. If you’re not familiar with the Southeastern United States, let me illustrate (well, let Google Maps illustrate):
TxToGaMap

That is a long stinkin’ bus ride. Please note that the 14 hours drive time helpfully listed on this map? Does not account for bus stops. Anyway, what was I saying? Ah, yes, pivotal moments in Fear.

There was this man on one of the busses. I was turned around in my seat, kneeling and looking around the bus. It was such a new experience, you know? Everything seemed infinitely possible. Who were all these people? Where were they all going? And then this guy made eye contact with me. My memory of him is hazy; over time I’ve turned him into that guy from Con-Air. At the time, of course, I had never seen Con-Air. But that guy scared me, like down to my bones scared me. My stomach clenched and I just knew I couldn’t explain it to my mom, who was seated across the aisle. She was sharing a seat with Jason, who was feeling horribly bus-sick most of the ride.

Danny Trejo Con AirIt was all fine, you know, as most bogeyman stories are. The guy didn’t grab me or try to kidnap me. We stopped eventually and found Dramamine for Jason. I remember the bus stopping at a Popeye’s chicken. I remember watching the trees change. That’s the thing about a trip from Texas to Georgia – the trees change and when you finally start seeing the pecans, you know you’re almost home.

We got to the bus station, and my Grandmama was there to pick us up, and we went to her house and I felt warm and safe. Even though I know now it’s not true, at the time it felt like the only place I would ever be completely safe again was at her house.

Eventually, the war ended and my dad came home (safe and sound and in one piece, thank God). We went back to our house on Ft. Hood. Everything went back to normal.

Except me.

So now I have to tell you what I know now, that I didn’t know then, to make the rest of this bogeyman story make any sense.

I have an anxiety disorder. My brain is long on ephinephrine and short on serotonin and dopamine. (It’s not actually that simple, and researchers don’t even agree that all anxiety disorders are due to chemical imbalances anyway. But that’s probably an argument for a scholarly blog. I’m just tellin’ my story.) And at age 34, I finally decided to address it with a medical doctor and treat it with medication. But back then, I thought I was just a really crazy kid.

When we got home from that bus trip, I was jumpier. It was like I suddenly had a Spidey-sense, and it tingled all.the.damn.time. Lots of situations started screaming “danger! danger! danger!”

There was a day – I don’t know what year, but it was while we still lived in Texas, so somewhere during 6th or 7th grade – when my parents wanted to take me and my brother to play Putt-Putt Golf. They were going to drop us off with a couple of pre-paid rounds of mini-golf and a pocket full of tokens for the arcade – then go enjoy themselves at the mall a half-mile down the road – then return to Putt-Putt where we’d all share a nice pizza for lunch. Swell plan. Super sweet. (As a parent, I look back on this day and feel terrrrrrible, because I am pretty sure I can guess how much my mother was looking forward to alone time and adult conversation with my father.)

We pulled in to the parking lot at Putt-Putt, and my brother hopped happily out of the van. I got to the doorway and just… froze. My knees locked, my hands started to shake. I felt feverish and my head was pounding. I was seized by a immediate and inescapable certainty that if I got out of that van and my parents drove off to the mall, I would never see them again. Something horrible would happen to us, or to them, while we were apart.

What I know now, that I didn’t know then, was that I was having my first panic attack.

What I know now, that I didn’t know then, is that there are a few good ways to help a person through a panic attack – but yelling at them to stop being dramatic and just get out of the darn van – isn’t one of them. (No blame to my folks here, okay? I’m sure that on the outside it looked like a stubborn preteen being dramatic and ruining the nice family day that had been so lovingly planned. They had no idea what was going on in my head because I had no idea how to explain it to them.)

Eventually, I think we just went home. I don’t really remember. My memory of the panic and standing in the doorway of the van is crystal clear, and then as the attack passed everything that followed is a blur. (I know now that that’s pretty common for me. I think it’s because all my senses are so heightened during the adrenaline rush of a panic attack; afterwards I am exhausted as if I had run a foot race. I usually zone out or even sleep pretty hard afterward.)

For the next few years, I suffered from mild agoraphobia. I had a very hard time being in crowds, no matter who was with me. I had crippling fears and anxieties about doing anything in public alone. And I knew that it wasn’t normal.

So I remember trying really hard to couch my fears in words that sounded normal. I decided it would be better to sound stubborn (“Because I just don’t want to go, all right?!”) than to sound crazy (“Because if I go, I’ll be kidnapped and tortured or possibly have a heart attack, I can just feel it coming”).

And I started researching what was wrong with me. I actually did a research paper in 8th grade on phobias; I found my notes recently and they made me cry. I knew it, even back then, even before anyone around me seemed to.

Over my high school and college years, I learned a lot of coping techniques that worked really well for me. I still had some quirks and idiosyncrasies (for example: even though I learned to be comfortable shopping alone, I never ate in public alone nor attended a movie alone; and making phone calls to strangers made me feel sick to my stomach) but I was able to function at my schools and in my groups of friends. I went to amusement parks and baseball games, and learned how to talk myself down when the crowd levels made me itchy.

Let’s skip ahead a bit.

Last year, my anxiety level started to get worse. During normal, every day activities, I would feel like there was a movie trailer playing in my mind.

IN A WORLD….

WHERE EVERYTHING SEEMED NORMAL…

ONE WOMAN IS ABOUT TO DRIVE OFF THE ROAD AND DIE A HORRIBLE DEATH!

IN A WORLD….

WHERE DINNER NEEDS TO BE SERVED SOON…

THAT POT IS GOING TO BOIL OVER, SCARRING YOU FOR LIFE!

It was a pain in the you-know-what. Now, it’s not like I was hallucinating. I knew that the horrible, scary, worst-case-scenarios weren’t actually happening. I wasn’t out of my mind – I was too much in my mind. Does that make any sense? And so, I decided to get some help.

I’ve been in therapy a few times over the years for this and that, and one of my therapists in particular had sort of stumbled upon some of my anxiety triggers (while I was seeing her about something else completely) and was very helpful.

But this time, I decided that therapy wasn’t the way to go. I’ve talked about (and researched, and read about) my anxieties for many years, and you know what? It’s not something I can just pray my way through, or logic myself out of. I saw my primary care provider, and I started a prescription anti-anxiety medication.

After about three days of the medicine, I was standing at the kitchen counter jotting down a to-do list. And suddenly, I realized, it was mighty quiet.

You know how, when the power goes out at night, there’s that dramatic zap as all the lights go off? But, if the power goes out in the daytime, you don’t notice immediately. After a few minutes, it slowly dawns on you… the air conditioner isn’t humming. The sound of the fridge that usually fades into the background is roaring in it’s absence. You think, “gosh, it’s quiet around here,” and then you notice the clock on the oven is dark, and it hits you: oh, the power went out.

That’s what it felt like… in my head.

I’ve been on my anxiety medication for about four months, and it’s been a great experience. I haven’t had any side effects, and my personality hasn’t changed. I’m not dulled or zombie-fied. I’m ME. And a lot of those quirks and things I thought were just parts of my personality? Turns out they were parts of my disorder. They were barnacles, and my medicine keeps them scraped off my hull.

Being able to tackle writing my book — is due in part to shedding my anxiety.

Having much more control over my temper — is due in large part to managing my anxiety.

Being able to come back here after a bad experience — also due to freedom from anxiety.

I’m not sharing this because I think every person on the planet should take drugs. I’m not sharing it so people will feel sorry for me. (Don’t, seriously; I’m good, I promise!) I’m sharing it because it’s been a heck of a ride, from 1990 till now. I’m sharing it because maybe you have a preteen kid who’s suddenly freaking out – so here’s just another possibility instead of assuming they are just being stubborn. I’m sharing it because maybe you have a friend with weird quirks and a list of things they just can’t bring themselves to do. Or maybe you, yourself, have some bogeymen under your bed.

It’s okay. You’re not alone. There are a lot of ways to fight your battles.

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Meet the author

MICHELLE NEBEL

I write uplifting women’s fiction woven with threads of faith, grace, and Southern hospitality. My blog is where I share a glimpse of my life, and I hope you’ll find the thoughts here encouraging!

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