Over three years ago I suffered from a panic attack that I was sure would cripple me for life. I couldn’t leave the bed for days, couldn’t eat, was sure I was losing my mind, and begged for an answer as to why this was happening to me. Three years later, I am not the same person I was hiding under the covers scared of everything…including life itself. I go to work at a high-pressure job where I’m good at what I do and enjoy the challenges it presents me. I drive to work, I fly on planes, I try new things, and am adventurous and able to go with the flow. I do all the things I used to do…I just do them with a heightened sense of self-awareness now. Things were going pretty well until last week when out of the blue…I had a panic attack. Worst one since three years ago. Terrible…and it rattled me quite a bit…but I survived.
Much like three years ago I began asking myself what may have caused it. The recent change in diet? Are my magnesium levels off? Did the pharmacist give me the wrong prescription? Do I have a brain tumor?
Whoa! Whoa!!!! A brain tumor? That’s some rookie stuff right there. No, I am not going back to the dark ages of my anxiety when I thought I was dying and I was alone. This is common. I need to find some positive things I learned from CBT therapy and get my mind right:
- This panic attack is not as bad as my first one, I’ll never have one that bad again because I know what is happening now.
- I survived my last one – I’ll survive this one. I have what it takes to persevere and feel better. I’m not dying.
- I can be my own safety net, I do not need to retreat to my wife or bedroom to get through this – I must move forward.
- Breathe. Just breathe. Don’t think about everything I need to do, just what I need to do right now.
- Discomfort, not disaster. Discomfort, not disaster. Discomfort, not disaster. This sucks, but I’ll survive.
I drove to my office, breathed, and got to work. I set a goal of making it till lunch and then seeing how I was doing. I made it to lunch and noted I was anxious about 80% of the time and was fending off my fight or flight instincts through breathing and focusing on work. I decided to wait till 3 PM and see how I felt. By 3 PM I was anxious about 60% of the time and aware that the end of the work day was near. I decided to stay till 6 PM and then go home no matter what. At 6 PM I was only anxious about 20% of the time and I stayed late to get more work done. In the end I had a very productive work day, drove home just fine, and passed out I was so mentally exhausted. The next day I was fine…almost like the attack never happened. I felt pretty good about myself.
Over Labor Day weekend I had a plethora of underlying anxiety that grew the later the day got. I masked it from my friends and family by saying my stomach was a little upset and dealt with it by breathing and focusing on how much fun was taking place. I didn’t want to miss out because of my anxiety so I just took the spinning-head feeling as part of the ride and went with the flow. Discomfort, not disaster. I had one small anxiety attack on Saturday night driving back to the hotel and I simply pulled the car over, told my wife and brother-in-law I didn’t feel well, and my wife happily drove us the rest of the way to the hotel. Everything seemed well in hand driving home Monday…a 7 hour ride with 2 kids in the backseat. I got a wicked migraine that I chalked up to them asking questions non-stop and again, passed out once we got home.
Tuesday was rough.
Tuesday my anxiety was right back where I started the week before and my brain immediately went back to trying to solve it. I landed on magnesium…had to be. Had to be the cause. Not the amount of work baring down on me at the office, the pressure I was under, the fundraising project I had taken on, finances, new diet, etc. No…couldn’t be any of that. Probably taking too much magnesium. This is laughable, magnesium is a calming nutrient with no reaction to any of my medications yet I was convinced it was the culprit. Because…there has to be a culprit. Right?
The culprit is not some thing you can cut out and suddenly you are okay again. Anxiety is my train of thought. I suffered through all Tuesday and Wednesday morning till I remembered that and began working on breaking my train of thought. You know when you get a song lyric stuck in your head and you can’t stop hearing it over, and over, and over again? That’s anxiety. You get stuck in an infinite loop of being overwhelmed and then it cycles downward as you wonder if it will ever stop. I could take a pill, but that just attacks the symptoms. I attack the root. Here is what I did…and it worked:
I pictured myself on a tightrope platform of an old-fashioned circus. I chose this visual because I wanted something aesthetically straight, juxtaposing my current cyclical thought process. In front of me was the tightrope, deathly high off the ground, and on the other side; another platform. On that other platform was nothing, no goal, no object, nothing…just the satisfaction of knowing I’d made it. However, there was this tightrope to deal with. Next I reminded myself that I was not in a life or death situation, so I imagined a large trampoline net below me to catch me if I fell…and I knew I’d fall, and that was okay. From the net there was a ladder back up again. The net and ladder represented the part of my brain that reminds me I can be my own safety net. I can be my own support team. I can do what I put my mind to. However, first steps are scary and it is good to have friends, so that is what I imagined next. I pictured a catwalk that ran on either side of my tightrope made of hardened steel with sturdy railings and support beams. On the catwalk I imagined all my friends and family, smiling at me calmly with encouragement. No one was chanting, everyone was just whispering good tidings…like when you walk down the aisle at your own wedding…everyone knows it’s all about you but they want you to know they are there and love you. It was a great visual.
I stepped out onto the tightrope. It was shaky. My balance was terrible. Hundreds of hands reached out for me for me to grab if I needed them. Friends and family. I steadied myself. The hands relaxed like a mother watching her baby take his first steps. My mom was there. So was my wife. I could even see the guys I work with who I swear argue with me just to argue with me. Everyone wanted to see me accomplish my goal. The rope ceased wobbling and I stood upright.
I walked out the front door of my house despite my anxiety and got into my car, backed out the driveway, waved high to the neighbors, and drove down the street.
One foot in front of the other I took steps forward along the tightrope. I focused on each step and did whatever it took to keep my balance.
I drove a new route to work and admired the flowers and new things I encountered.
The catwalk seemed farther away. The net below seemed larger. The height seemed less. I seemed to be walking faster.
I got to work and excitedly engulfed myself in a project that took my mind off things.
I paused to catch my breath. Tightrope walking is hard to do. Kate, my wife, gave me her hand from the catwalk and asked if I was okay. I squeezed her hand and nodded yes, I had my own net and was about half way to the other platform.
Kate stopped by my office and brought me lunch. We hugged. It felt great to be embraced and smell her hair, being hugged by Kate can be described in one word: “Home.”
I moved faster along the tightrope when I saw my friend Chris up ahead on the catwalk drinking a beer asking if I’d like to join him. The catwalk was suddenly empty…a few strangers milled about. I only knew Chris but his smiling face was encouraging to see.
I got a text from my buddy Chris asking if I wanted to grab drinks after work. I told him the truth that I was having some anxiety and needed to play things by ear. He texted back that he understood and was there if I needed anything.
Then I was alone. Just me and the tightrope. There was no catwalk, no platform, no net, no nothing. I was just walking along like one might on the beach…slightly awkward in the sand but ever forward as the waves wash up onto the retreating wet sand and chase cold water between your toes. Was there a tightrope? Was there a net? I was just walking.
Things went back to “normal.” I broke the cycle of thought. …and like that, I heard my song lyric drift off into the wind as if some Nantucket sea-breeze had lifted my radio on a kite out past the breakers…
Sing Ta na na,
Ta na na na.
She got diamonds on the soles of her shoes.
She got diamonds on the soles of her shoes.
Diamonds on the soles of her shoes.
Diamonds on the soles of her shoes…
I don’t know what later tonight will be like but usually once I break my cyclical thinking, it is broken for the day. I don’t know what tomorrow or the next day will be like but I do know this…I can handle my anxiety when I put my mind to it. The tightrope image worked today…maybe I’ll need something else tomorrow? Maybe I won’t need anything? Who knows. All I know is the future is anxiety, the past is depression, and right now is where I am. Funny thing…time. It gets weird in physics and doesn’t necessarily behave the way we want it to. Perception of time is what those of us with anxiety grapple with. Is it an open funnel of opportunity in the future with a set course behind us as we progress ever forward? Is it like a clock? How come time seems to move slower and faster depending on what we are doing? Is there such thing as the present? As you read this…this sentence is already in the past. Does it matter? All I know is when I dwell on the past I get sad. When I focus too heavily on the future I get anxious. However, when I exist in the world around me in that exact moment I am good. I can walk the tightrope…eventually without the net. If I fall, I’ll get up and try again tomorrow. I have people who care about me that will help me along the way. Strangers will help me along the way. I am in good hands, wouldn’t you help a stranger if you saw them in need? People are inherently good. Life is inherently good…and that is hard to realize when you feel broken and wish everything would stop.
Just breathe. Discomfort, not disaster. Just breathe.
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