When you’re the least important thing in your own life
Image by Ian for Unsplash
These days, I’m that person who insists the glass is half full.
But I haven't always been making lemonade out of lemons. It took almost killing myself by accident to help guide me towards what it really means to harness this beautiful thing called life.
Today I gleefully disregard pessimists and remain steadfast in my belief in our awesome ability to will things into fruition. The good and the bad.
Here’s what started my downward spiral
working too many hours
not getting enough sleep
drinking far too much caffeine to get me going in the morning
eating far too much sugar in the evenings to keep me going
stressing out over literally everything
taking on the problems of the world
trying to please everyone
giving myself no physical outlet
over analyzing everything
allowing toxic relationships and situations in my life
Eventually, it all caught up with me. It always will, no matter who you are or how strong you are. Remember that.
“Stress: Someone trying to repair every situation solo. “ — Dave Willis
Image by Yuris Alhumaydy for Unsplash
The year was 2009…
My career was running full steam ahead and the days never offered up enough hours to clear my to-do list.
I was an Education Director managing an award-winning youth summer arts camp and a year-round adult continuing education art school offering upwards of 100 courses each season. In addition to that, I organized and hosted three annual arts festivals… exceptionally well attended.
I was engaged to a wonderful man with three kids from a previous marriage who all seemed to be testing my limits. I had recently made the move from Michigan to Florida and was desperately trying to maintain my intricate relationships with my long-distance family, via late-night phone calls and social media.
On top of all that, I had started my graduate degree program online and homework consumed my weekends. I barely had time to eat.
Life for me was booming at a backbreaking pace.
Then everything came to a screeching halt.
It took experiencing a full-blown panic attack to make me consider that maybe it was time to rethink my priorities. Maybe I should have been the priority all along. For those of you who haven’t experienced a panic attack, a true panic attack, it’s terrifying.
I was in the car with my family on our way home from my favorite Mexican restaurant. Nothing in particular set me off.
It just happened.
It began as feeling kinda warm… enough to roll my window down. Didn’t seem to help. I thought… well that’s weird. I was only just getting hotter. Spicey Chimchamgas catching up with me? As my temperature rose so did my paranoia. The front passenger seat of our minivan was spacious, but at that moment it felt as though I was sinking deeper into an ever-shrinking pocket. My fiance, Greg, noticed my agitation and asked if I was alright. No. Something was wrong. Claustrophobia set in. Within minutes I was completely freaking out. Everything needed to come off! My jewelry felt like it was cutting off my circulation.
Watch, rings, necklaces… off off…off!
I was burning up and frantically struggling to get my cardigan off. A button popped off. Arms restricted in the awkward car seat. Seat belt off… gasping to breathe and tugging at my tee-shirt. I was starting to hyperventilate.
At this point, everyone in the van is officially freaking out. No one knows what’s going on. “We’re almost home…” Greg said comforting me. His words are muffled, everything’s spinning. I remember us arriving home… the thud of the van hitting the base of the uneven driveway. I remember my door opening and Greg scooping me up. My equilibrium was completely nonexistent. Sounds seemed a million miles away. I wanted to puke. Food poisoning? A stroke? I had no idea.
Greg carried me into the house and laid me on the bed. His kids were chattering beside me. I could make out vague sentences of concern.
I couldn’t move my body…because I couldn’t feel it.
Image by Jehsomwang for Istockphhoto
Moment of truth
When you don’t know when enough is enough, your body makes the decision for you.
I had been burning the candle at both ends for far too long. Self-care? What’s that. Overworked, stressed to the point of mental exhaustion, and overweight, I was in shambles and my body said enough!
The doctor prescribed a little something to force me to unwind at the end of each day. “Take for a month…” he said. It did its job. The magic pills knocked me into another dimension.
Image by Zohre Nemati for Unsplash
I can recall sitting one evening…
My hands were setting palms down on the couch on either side of me. I was stationed there for what must have been maybe an hour. I know how my hands were positioned because I had been looking down at them for a ridiculously long time.
Everything was in slow motion.
I could hear my own thoughts in my head.
It was like looking out of a glass jar.
So there I was… with myself. I couldn’t go to work. In fact, I couldn’t leave the house. I can’t explain why to this day… I just couldn’t. I’d have another attack.
The funny part about my new self imposed house arrest was that I really did want to go to the beach. I wanted to go shopping. I wanted to go for a walk under the cool palm tree-laden streets. I wanted to visit with friends.
My mind wouldn’t let me.
My mind made me erupt into lightheadedness, hives, heart palpitations, and short breath.
My mind and body were conspiring against me in protest until I figured my life out.
It was time to do some major soul searching. I’m so very fortunate that I had such a loving partner. He gave me the space I needed but held my hand at the same time.
One day Greg suggested that I attend a life drawing session. It was a local group that met weekly in three-hour blocks. The thought of creating art again made me feel happy. He gathered my supplies for me and packed them into the van.
He drove me to the Monday evening class, told me I looked beautiful, handed me some cash in case I wanted to get any snacks there, and off I went. Sitting in the classroom I kept to myself and tried not to feel too self-aware.
My heart was racing.
Glancing out the window I could see Greg still sitting in the parking lot. He was going to wait for me… for three hours. I hadn’t asked him too. He was just amazing like that.
The drawings I would create over the next few months were nothing less than telling… an unintentional visual journal. The figures I drew, in the beginning, were elongated and distorted. They seemed sad and my color choices were pale aqua blue, faded pink, and seafoam green.
These were my skin choices.
Looking back on those figures now I clearly see how sickly and withered they appeared. I didn’t see that back then. It makes me sad to think about it. Greg was so supportive. He’d smile and say how good they were, then ask if I needed to buy more colors… his nice way of saying why the hell are the figures blue and green.
As the weeks crept by my work slowly took on new energies. I was coming out of the trauma of what my chaotic life had become. Eventually, the trips to the class would include stopping off to get a coffee. I was beginning to venture out more and more and I was using considerably less blue and green.
I had been licking my wounds and regaining my witts. The hives were the last to go. That stayed with me and would flare up every now and then if I started to get worked up over something. But that I could handle.
The months that followed included many starlit nights sitting out back with Greg, hashing out what had led me to being brought to my knees by crippling panic attacks. Together we reasoned through what needed to change.
Change is hard
I had people who loved me… and that means everything. Change alone can bring on panic. Once you suffer a break you are all the more vulnerable. So a game plan with cheerleaders goes a long way.
Here’s what I learned about heading off an approaching panic attack...
Recognize it and acknowledge that you are beginning to have a panic attack.
Focus on taking deep breathes in your nose and out your mouth.
Close your eyes to cut down on visual stimuli. This is part of feeling overwhelmed.
Sit or lay down someplace quiet and comfortable if possible.
Talk to yourself. Think peaceful thoughts. Tell yourself that everything is alright. don't laugh. Saying is believing… if you say it enough.
After mastering these techniques they became almost second nature for me. I began using them in all sorts of scenarios.
I even joined a yoga class.
I didn't know what to expect there at first… but fell in love with the serenity it gave me immediately. My body loosened and tension evaporated. I experienced better circulation and noticed my headaches were subsiding. It was magical… without a pill.
Image by Tim Goedhart for Unsplash
Today, I’m a stronger person for having experienced my anxiety and panic meltdown. I’ve been to a dark place a hope few others will never have to visit. But I came back up… and with purpose. Living through that event and thinking I was dying changed me. Losing control of myself and being completely vulnerable made me sober up and take a long hard look around me.
Life is valuable and fleeting. Tomorrow is never promised to us.
Live the life you want and need… now.
Don't put it off.
For me, that meant making career-changing decisions, eliminating toxic relationships in my life, adopting a healthier lifestyle, and feeding my hearts need to create and explore. it meant accepting that not all the world's problems are mine and that somethings I can impact and others I can't.
In closing, I sincerely hope that you are not suffering from anxiety or panic attacks. But if you are, it’s going to be okay. I mean that. Just breathe… and know that this is going to be a journey. Roll up your sleeves and take back your life.