Anxiety: My Silent Stalker

Since the previous post I wrote titled:” The Light Inside My Darkness” , which describes my recent struggles with anxiety, a great number of people reached out to me. Some I know well, some I haven’t spoken to in years, and some were complete strangers. Many of them told me I was so brave for talking about a subject many don’t like to talk about, while others thanked me for talking about something they suffer from too. I guess I didn’t expect the impact of my words to help so many people. It was unexpected but extremely humbling. I in no way think of myself as an advocate for anxiety and panic attacks, but if I am helping people feel better about their own struggles, I will continue to discuss my own personal battle.

Warning Signs

Anxiety is something that I believe has always been present with me, but has gone through phases of being better or worse. The earliest memory I can recall was when I was around a year old. I was crawling down the hallway upstairs in the Pennsylvania home I grew up in. I can remember the carpet under my hands and knees. I came to the top of the stairs and paused for a moment, debating if I should go down or not. Apparently I decided I could do it, because the next thing I knew, I was tumbling all the way down. Just a few weeks or months later, I grabbed onto my mom’s curling iron cord and pulled it down from her bathroom counter and onto the top of my left hand. I still have a burn mark from it. I believe, that these two events that are seemingly inconsequential started my anxiety. The world became full of dangers that I never knew existed, and to such a young child it was scary.

When I was a toddler, I developed extreme separation anxiety. When my mom would take me to department stores, grocery stores, or any large place with lots of people, the moment I would lose sight of her I would freak out.  I can remember a few of those times. I really had no logical reason to think my mom would just leave me there, but I was beyond reasonable thinking.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Fast forward to 1997 when I was in sixth grade. This was the year my mom was diagnosed with her cancer. Sixth grade in itself was just a hard year for me. I mean, middle school was not fun in general, but for me, it was rough. I was a complete dork. Glasses, no sense of style, and zero confidence. So the added stress and emotions of my mom being diagnosed with terminal cancer just exacerbated everything.

Over the next year or so, my mom was pretty much in a hospital. My dad was still working a full-time job, and would eventually have a nervous breakdown. So, my sister and I instead of being normal twelve-year-olds would come home from school and do laundry, cook dinner or clean the house. Our family had many guardian angels who helped us during this time, but it was not everyday.  We were responsible for things that most kids our ages weren’t doing. I’m not saying we never did fun things with our friends, or would go out, because we did. But for a majority of the time, we were basically forced to grow up and act like adults. It was a lot of responsibility and stress, and it would eventually break me down.

My OCD and anxiety started during this time. I became acutely aware of disease, and anything having to do with germs and sickness would make me panic. I always had hand sanitizer, and started to compulsively wash my hands until they bled. I was also always convinced something was wrong with me. If I got a bruise on my leg suddenly I had Leukemia, or a cough was pneumonia. For a period of time I was wholly convinced that I was going blind and even made someone take me to an eye doctor. My husband has forbidden me from using WebMD because this terrible habit will raise its ugly head if I look up the symptoms for me or my children.

I also became very cognizant of death. My mom was constantly on her deathbed which was so traumatizing for me.  There was even a night where they told us to say goodbye to her, because the doctors were convinced she would not make it until the morning. I cried so much that night when I went home that I made myself sick. My dad spent the night at the hospital, and when he came home in the morning he told us mom was still with us. Thankfully, like I have said before in other posts, my mom lived until 2015. She was a fighter. The idea of death stirred in me an anxiety that I am still dealing with: separation from loved ones. It all stems from the separation anxiety I dealt with as a child, but it manifests itself in me having the tell people I love them every time I say goodbye. It doesn’t matter if it’s on the phone or in person. I was constantly afraid when I said goodbye to my mom that it would be for the last time, so I started telling everyone I loved them every time we parted ways. This is something I still do to this day, but I don’t think it’s bad to make sure everyone I love knows that I love them.

Just Breathe

Quite a few people have asked me advice on how I deal with my anxiety. I tell them all that everyone is different, but I am still happy to share the things that have helped me. I have compiled a short list of some methods that have been very beneficial for me.

  • Breathing- This is a key one for me. Often when I’m spiraling into full-blown panic mode I am breathing fast. I have to slow my breathing down and take long drawn out breaths, and then count to five when I am exhaling. Just physically stopping and concentrating on your breath can snap you out of your panic mode, and it slows your heart rate as well.
  • A Change of Location- What I mean by this one is that you need to physically change where you are in that moment. Oftentimes, if I am inside and feel the panic racing in, I go outside. Fresh air for some reason helps calm me down, and I feel so stuffy inside and get claustrophobic so the fresh air definitely helps ease that feeling. If you cannot physically change your location, say when you’re on an airplane for example,  see the next one.
  • Grounding- Grounding methods have been a game changer for me especially when I am in a situation where I cannot go outside. Last fall I was boarding a plane from Chicago to Salt Lake City. I’m usually okay on flights but as soon as I stepped into this plane my heart started racing. It was a TINY plane which had two seats on each side of the aisle. I sat down in my seat and tried to talk the panic away but it didn’t work. Instantly I needed to flee, so I ran up to the front of the plane and stood with the flight attendant bawling my eyes out by the still open door as people boarded the plane so I could feel the fresh air. She consoled me and even started to cry herself because she felt so bad for me. I considered getting off the plane, but had a conversation with myself that pretty much said “You will need to board a plane either way. Might as well do it now and get it over with.” So, I sat back down in my seat with the air on me at full blast and my music on in my headphones. I was still on the edge of panic the entire flight, but I kept doing grounding exercises and it helped me get through my flight. So, what is a grounding exercise you ask? Simple. You basically need to use your five senses. You find five things around you that you can see,four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and finally one thing you can taste. It helps you to focus on the environment you are in, and bring you back down from the edge.
  • Music- This one for me has always been an escape. When I got my first walkman, (yes, I’m old), I would sit in my room for hours sometimes listening to music and just going into my own little world. It helped me to escape the harsh reality while my mom was sick when I was in middle school, and has been a huge help to me in many other events or times in my life. I’m a huge believer in driving with the music turned up and singing at the top of your lungs too. Music just heals your soul.
  • Find an outlet- This one can be anything really. Whether it’s a sport, hobby, game, prayer, reading books, crafting, scrapbooking, photography your options are limitless. And the great thing is, you can have more than one! For me, working out is one of my most important outlets. I am a much happier person when I take the time to workout. I also enjoy doing classes at the gym which motivates me more when someone is yelling at me what to do. I also love to play city league sports, and have played in several softball leagues, and do a women’s volleyball league twice a year. But whatever works for you, do it!
  • Having a Person- You know, your “phone a friend” lifeline.  I myself have multiple people who I know I can call if I find myself running for mayor of panic town, and I know they will answer their phones and will understand what’s going on. I trust these people and love them so I feel completely comfortable to be able to call them when I am at my absolute craziest. I think it’s important to have people you can turn to because anxiety is terrifying when you are trying to handle it by yourself. Believe me, I know. Another important thing is to educate your “person” or “persons” so they understand what anxiety really is. My husband for example, who is obviously my main “person”, has never experienced anxiety or panic attacks, so I have made sure to have him educate himself by reading many articles so that he can someone grasp an understanding of what exactly I am going through, as well as know how to correctly respond to me when I am in that state.
  • Getting it Out- Honestly, sometimes the best thing for me is to just let it out. I mean crying, and just let those emotions out instead of trying to hold them in. Sometimes just having a good five minute cry helps the panic subside much quicker than trying to hold it in for me. A release of those pent up emotions can really relieve your anxiety.

I could go on, but these are just a few examples of the things that have worked for me. I have also started medication and am scheduled for my first therapy session next week, (I was supposed to go two weeks ago but because I have no insurance they kept giving me the run around and now I am FINALLY going. But that’s another story!) but these things are what I believe at this time. Not everyone needs medication or therapy.

This Too Shall Pass

The mind is such a fascinating thing. It can really sabotage us though, and I feel like that’s what mine was doing to me when my anxiety was at its worst just a few months ago. But the good thing is, that with the right help and techniques, it WILL pass. During a particurlarly bad panic attack I had my face buried in my husbands chest sobbing, and he was rubbing my back and telling me to breathe, and he said “Don’t worry this is going to pass.” So, now when I do have anxiety attacks, (honestly they have been few and far between since my medication), I say to myself in my head over and over while I breathe slowly: “This will pass. This will pass.” and it really does help me.

The panic is always there, and probably always will be. Anxiety is my silent stalker. I decided, however, that I was no longer going to let it rule my life. It’s a real battle some days, but it’s a choice I am not going back on.

XoXo,

Heather

The Raw BrunetteIMG_5781

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Be Brave My Darlings: An Open Letter for My Littles

My darlings,

As I am writing this letter to you, the three of you are playing a game in the front room together. The sound of infectious giggling is filling the house; a sound that always brings me so much joy. It is a precious sound I wish I could bottle up, and open when the days are hard. I know that one day you will all be grown and gone, and the sound of your laughter will be greatly missed.

Your happiness means everything to me. I have tried to keep your lives enriched with fun activities, new adventures, and so much love. I know I am not perfect. Far From it. I just hope that even when I struggle, you understand one day that I always tried my best and can be forgiven when I failed spectacularly.

I have tried to protect you and keep you safe. The “Momma Bear” instincts are a very real thing. Even when you were just fluttering in my belly my desire to protect you would burn so strongly inside me. When you were newborns, I worried about illness and SIDS. When you were a few months I worried about you choking on small items since every object was chewed on. When you were a year or so, I worried constantly about bumps and bruises when you took your first steps, and had to child proof the house like Fort Knox because every nook and cranny was explored. It honestly goes on and on, and with each new stage comes new dangers and worries for a mom. Unfortunately, I cannot protect you from everything. This reality for me has been such a hard one to come to terms with.

The world we live in is becoming a scarier and more dangerous place. There are so many evils facing us now that I could have never imagined would be commonplace and on the news everyday. As horrifying as it is, these dangers are very real, and even now on American soil. In our cities and hometowns. I never in my life thought that white supremacists would be walking so proudly in the streets of my country openly promoting their sickening message and beliefs of hatred. It makes me physically ill to think that people can be so hateful towards other human beings.

The first time I saw a swastika I was six years old. I was in first grade, and during our art class, a boy tricked me into drawing one onto our art tables that were covered with brown paper. When our teacher saw it she freaked out, because, swastika. I had no clue what this symbol was and was confused and upset why I was in trouble for drawing it. My teacher quickly realizing that I didn’t know what this symbol stood for, decided to call my mom to tell her about it. That night, my mom had a discussion with me. She explained to me that this symbol became the emblem of one of the most hateful and evil groups of people in history – the Nazis. I had never heard of the Nazis before, but would soon understand they were bad guys from the Indiana Jones movies that became favorites of mine. I just could not understand why they could hate people so much because of their religion or their genetics. It broke my little six-year-old heart.

My first real education about the Nazis was during our World War II studies in eighth grade. Towards the end of the semester, we took a field trip to Washington D.C. and went to the National Holocaust Museum. As is the norm with any field trip, we were all psyched to be on buses and with our friends. Even on the elevator up to the top floor where the museum starts, we were still busily chatting with one another. As the metal doors opened, however, we were stunned to silence. I’m pretty sure no one really spoke until we all exited the museum.

In 2015, your father and I took a trip to Europe. While in Munich, Germany we made it a priority to go to Dachau and see the site of the first concentration camp during WWII. It was a very heavy day for us. I had a pit in my stomach that stayed with me hours after we left and headed back to Munich. I was so glad we took the time to go, and I suggest that anyone who is in the vicinity of one of the sites of any concentration camp should go. It needs to be seen and future generations need to be educated so we do not allow history to be repeated. The atrocities that occurred are unspeakable, and being there in the actual location of these crimes against humanity was extremely harrowing.

We spent a few hours there. I took my time, taking care to even tread lightly on the ground. Your father and I maybe spoke a handful of words to one another while we were there. Speaking seemed disrespectful. When I entered the gas chamber I was instantly overcome with the horror of that room. I had been alone when I entered, but was not once I stepped inside. The brick walls were no longer silent, and the things I heard and felt will never leave me.

I do not tell you these things to horrify or scare you. I tell them so that you are aware that these evils happened. Human beings did this to other human beings. Hatred and killing happens everyday, even here in the U.S. Racism is still prevalent in our country. Hate crimes are prevalent in our country. Hate is something that probably will never go away, and peace, may never be a concept our world will fully know again.

There is, however hope. That hope is you, my children. You, and your future children, and every generation to come. I want to teach you so many things while I can, but one of the most important things is to be decent human beings. To just be a nice human. To be the good in this world that is filled with increasing hate. There is more good in this world than evil, and if we educate ourselves and stand up to evil we have a fighting chance.

I want to make some things very clear. Pay attention.

  •    You must never stand by and watch. Doing nothing is as bad as doing the evil itself. Please, don’t be afraid. Some of the most beautiful and rewarding things happen on the other side of fear. Evil wins if fear resides.
  •   I will NEVER be proud of any child of mine if they are involved with, support, or condone any sort of hate. I even hate the word hate. Hate will never be allowed in our home for any person. I forbid discrimination or the mistreatment of any person because of the color of their skin, who they choose to love, who they choose to worship, (or not worship), where they live, their financial situation, what they look like, or what they are good or not good at. It’s absolutely unacceptable and this will never chage. Ever.
  • You are not defined by your mistakes. Despite what people and the world may tell you, you have SO much worth. More than you will ever know. Please, do not forget this. Mistakes will happen, it’s a part of life. The hard but most important step will be to overcome these mistakes and become stronger because of it. I believe in all of you with all my heart.

Perhaps the most important one of all: you will ALWAYS be loved. Always. Don’t be afraid to come to your father or I when things are overwhelming, scary, falling apart, confusing, or hurting. Don’t be upset if we get angry. Our initial reactions to situations may not be how we truly feel. We are not perfect either, so just try to remember that. Despite whatever happens, our love will always remain. That will never change.

Being your mother has been the most challenging and most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life. I am grateful for you three every single day. Sometimes I sit and marvel watching you. I cannot believe that these three different, beautiful little children are all a part of me. I see the good in all of you, because you are good. Hate is not born, it’s taught. Hold onto the good, and never let go. I hope that I can teach you these things while I can so that you can spread a little good in this world. It needs it, and it needs you.

Be brave my darlings.

XoXo,

Heather

The Raw Brunette

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Five Minutes

Five minutes doesn’t seem like a long time. Or does it? To a woman, saying she will be ready in five minutes really means about an hour or so (and we are sorry not sorry about it!) To a kid, five minutes in time-out can feel like a life sentence, but if it’s five more minutes to play then it’s not nearly long enoughIt’s funny how time can be so insignificant at times and monumental at others.

A Glimpse of What Could Have Been

When my youngest son Memphis was born he was a seemingly healthy baby weighing in at 9 lbs 6 oz, (he was a whopper!). I hate hospitals so was overjoyed when they told me we could leave the next morning. Unfortunately, that next morning Memphis failed his heart test. They initially told me to not worry, (yeah right. Me WORRY? Never.), sometimes it happens, and they would immediately run another heart test. Much to my dismay, a while later they told me he once again failed it, and would require an echocardiogram. I was starting to get nervous, and joined the heart specialist over the course of an hour as they did a full ultrasound of my newborn son’s heart. That hour seemed to stretch out forever. Memphis was quite uncomfortable and was tired of being poked and prodded and was crying uncontrollably. The nurse kept giving him little syringes full of sugar water but it would only make him happy for a few minutes and he would start yowling again. I wanted so badly to hold him but was not able to. I kept wishing and hoping for the ultrasound to be over, but time would not yield to my pleas. Soon enough though, my baby was once again in my arms. The doctors told me that there was nothing wrong with his heart, which was great news, but he had started to labor in his breathing and was turning blue. Before I knew it, they were whisking my baby off to the NICU to be monitored, and four hours later, they determined he was born with pneumonia. We were so thankful that he had something that would be easily fixed, but so heartbroken to leave our baby in the NICU for a week. One of the worst feelings ever was leaving the hospital with no baby. I was heavily sedated to even be able to do so.

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For the next 8 days I went back to the hospital as many times a day as I could to be with my sweet baby. When I was at home I was constantly pumping and also bringing as much bottled breast milk with me as I could for Memphis. I had never visited a NICU before so it was all very foreign to me. Every time one enters, they must first go through a washing station that consisted of large metal sinks. Above each sink was a digital timer which when you pushed the foot pedal underneath would start at five minutes and countdown. That was how long you were required to scrub your hands before being able to enter.

Five minutes never felt so long in my entire life. Those red digital numbers seemed to go slower and slower as if mocking me. I would go through this process so many times a day and by the time I was even able to come back to the hospital I was aching so badly to see Memphis that those five minutes were torture.

I’ll be honest, I did some very deep soul searching during those five minute scrubs. It forced me to stand still and painfully revisit the events that had occurred with our family and our brand new baby. The importance of minutes and just how valuable and precious they are became very clear to me. Jess and I for a frightening time thought we were going to lose our son, and it’s a feeling I won’t ever forget. We were lucky enough to be able to still have him, and it helped me to start appreciating every moment I had with all of my children, and all of my family for that matter.

Frozen in Time

Not two days ago I was vacuuming out my minivan at the local car wash. As I was picking up garbage I looked inside the pocket on the backside of the driver seat and saw the back of a Kodak photo. I pulled it out and to my surprise it was a snapshot of my parents that I don’t think I have ever seen before. The weirdest thing is I have no idea how this photo came to be in my van, but I know I was meant to see it when I did.

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Instantly, I was taken back in time. Judging by the outfits, I would say this was from the early 90’s. This was before my mom was diagnosed with cancer in 1997. She was so beautiful in this picture, and so happy. The cancer changed her physically and emotionally over her 18 year battle. She was never really the same person.

I found myself wishing so badly to go back in time to this. I would even take five minutes with her before she got sick, and taken some mental pictures of her when she was her healthy self because those fragile memories that I have of her are fading. I mean, we had no way to know what was going to happen, but when she was diagnosed the cancer forced us all to take a step back and treasure the moments we had left.

Time Lost

Cancer is a thief. It steals time. It made the years that were supposed to be my mom’s best painful 24 hours a day. She fought to stay alive, and she fought hard. My mother was an extremely stubborn woman, and she refused to die until she was good and ready.  Initially when she was diagnosed in 1997, she was terminal with stage 4 multiple myeloma (bone marrow) cancer. For almost an entire year she stayed in a hospital. The doctors did not expect her to live, but she surprised them all and did. She told us that she was determined to see Aly and I graduate high school. She entered her first of several remissions in 2000, which lasted until after we graduated and went to our freshman year of college.

She then told us she was determined to see all her children married. My brother was married in 2001, I was married in 2005, and my sister was married in 2013. Despite have her second bone marrow transplant and nearly dying in 2008, Mom lived to see all her children married like she said. She was so stubborn, that woman.  It’s one of the things I loved most about her.

Her health dramatically decreased from 2013-2015. In October of 2014 they told us once again that she was terminal. But after 18 years of the constant pain, and the long list of health issues that arose from the chemo treatments, radiation, and cancer itself, Mom decided she would stop treatments. None of us could blame her at that point, but that does not mean it wasn’t heartbreaking knowing the end was near.

On Tuesday February 17, 2015 around 6:00 PM we gathered around a hospital bed where she lay dying. They had turned off her pace maker and we were watching the monitors as her heart rate and breathing were slowing. My sister Aly, my brother Rob and I were all by the bedside. My sister whispered :

“Mom, it’s okay to go now.”

My brother and I both chimed in too saying it was okay, and in a few moments she was gone.

Her time on this earth was shortened, but she held on as stubbornly as she could to get every last moment she could with her family.

Time Found

Time is a funny thing. Some days we constantly check our clocks just wishing for the day to speed up, and other days we feel like the days are dragging on. Time is best spent doing things we love, and with the people we love. For those loved ones we have lost, we can find them in those moments of happiness because they do not want us to sit around and be sad missing them. They want us living and enjoying every moment.

One thing is for sure, on those days where I catch myself wishing for time to speed up I have to stop and remember how precious every moment is. Be it an hour, a month, ten years, or five minutes.

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XoXo,

Heather

The Raw Brunette