Well, that didn’t go as planned…

Like most teachers, I tend to kick off my summer with ambition plans. THIS summer was finally going to be the one where I focused on my health and practiced self-care. I was going to make myself a little daily plan that included hitting the gym and eating well. I was going to read a ton and walk a lot and go in my pool and see my friends for lunch and do some small house updates, etc.

Well, to say that things did not go as planned would literally be the understatement of the freaking century. I am not a person who does well without routine and since I didn’t have a job to wake up for (or kids to take care of or really any other responsibilities besides feeding my cats), I ended up lounging around a lot. And then that turned into staying home more. And then THAT turned into me getting more anxious when I DID have to go somewhere. Only a few weeks into my “relaxing, self-care, healthy me! summer” and I told my therapist that I thought I needed to go back on an antidepressant. This was not a shock to either of us because my issues with agoraphobia started to spiral out of control in the spring, after two years of covid giving me a completely valid excuse to not have to go anywhere. I guess I convinced myself that I was going to use my summer off to work on getting better and expand my comfort zone, but then the opposite happened.

I went to my doctor and she prescribed me Prozac. I have taken a few different medications over the past two decades, so I was open to trying something new. I have a lot of medication anxiety (which is the literal definition of irony when you need medication because of having anxiety). But I knew that I needed to go on something and I accepted that. The first couple of days were fine. I had a little dry mouth and lost my appetite completely. I can definitely afford to lose some weight, so this side effect wasn’t a deal breaker.

After only being on the medication for a week, my sister left on a four day vacation with her family that was about a five to six hour car ride away from the town we both live in. I was anxious about her leaving. She has always been my “person” (or if you are a Friends fan…my “lobster”), so I was uncomfortable about her being so far away, but I tried not to burden her with my fears because I was happy she was taking a well deserved vacation with my nieces and brother-in-law.

She left and I COMPLETELY LOST MY SHIT. I honestly don’t even know what happened. I have had panic attacks obviously, but they usually hit and then subside. I have had lingering anxiety, but even that eventually has a period of relief. I had what felt like panic attacks 24 hours a day the whole time she was gone. I have never experienced anything like it. I completely shut down and wouldn’t talk to anyone. I could not get off my couch. There were times I wanted the blanket off my legs and I couldn’t do it- I couldn’t muster the energy to peel the blanket off of myself. I didn’t eat, hardly drank water, and just felt like I was having heart palpitations. I obsessively thought about needing to go to a mental institution or the hospital. I desperately wanted her to come home. No one else could soothe me at all, not for lack of trying. I felt like I was crawling out of my own skin and I was terrified about what was happening to me.

I called my doctor, who told me to stop the Prozac. I somehow survived the weekend and my sister came home. I thought that as soon as she was home, I would immediately feel better. I didn’t. It’s been another week now and I am just starting to feel a little better. I still am having SO much anxiety and am taking Xanax several times a day. I have had a bunch of extra appointments with my psychologist. I even went back to the doctor and unfortunately, my primary care physician was on vacation and I saw another doctor, who told me to (and I literally quote) “bake a cake for your sister and read The Secret” and then she patted my arm and said, “you feel better, right? Ok good”.

I desperately tried to find a new psychiatrist and it was SO hard. It really made me realize how messed up our mental health care system is. And I am privileged enough to have health insurance and the internet and the ability to make phone calls. My appointment isn’t until Tuesday and I am just trying to make it through each day until then.

I don’t know if it was a negative reaction to the medication or just complete fear of being without my sister, but I was genuinely so scared and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. I still do not feel right. I am still so anxious. It is not completely crippling like it was last week, but it is there- steady and festering. I am scared about what to do next. My mother came to my house to sit next to me and make me shower and I remember saying to her that I promise I would never hurt myself, but that I can now understand why people do. I wanted the panic and fear and pain to end. I still do. I literally felt that I was going to die.

I feel like this all just sounds so stupid and is just not capturing how bad I felt. But I guess those who know, know. I still don’t feel like myself. I worry about the damage I did to my relationship with my completely normal and not mentally ill AT ALL boyfriend, who was so sweet and caring and probably shit scared. I know the feeling of helplessness that comes when you are the one having to deal with this. I am sure he sees me differently now. I worry about the stress I caused my family, the burden I have placed on my sister, the guilt that I have or will negatively influence my sweet little nieces.

I hate this. If I won the billion dollar mega millions lottery yesterday, I would trade the winning ticket to make this go away forever. Every shooting star, ever birthday cake candle, every time the clock shows 11:11, I make the same wish: please make my anxiety go away. I’m so tired. I’m so tired of it. I realized this week that I have suffered from anxiety and panic and agoraphobia for almost HALF OF MY LIFE now.

So, my only plan now is to try to stay busy, make myself eat and drink enough to stay alive and make it to this appointment with the new psychiatrist. I’m trying not to be too hard on myself. I keep seeing my friends’ pictures on social media of them being at the beach or on vacation or at a concert and I have shut most of them out and when they ask me what I did over the summer, I am not sure if I should be like “had a total nervous breakdown”?? Maybe I should actually read The Secret and learn to bake so I can just say I did that (I kid). I have always been my own worst enemy so I am trying to just go easy on myself, but it is really hard sometimes to just hate the mental illness and not actually hate me.

Overwhelmed

When I started this blog many, many years ago, I promised myself that I would write at least one time a month and I have. There have only been a few times where it has literally come down to the very last day of the month and I have not written a blog. However, this is one of those times.

I just feel really easily overwhelmed lately. Maybe it is because it is the end of the school year? I’m not sure. But I just feel like work and house stuff and personal obligations have piled up. I am very task oriented so it bothers me when there is a lot on my plate. And honestly, none of the things I need to do have any real urgency- it just feels like too many things at one time.

I have also noticed that I am a lot more overwhelmed after I have a super busy weekend. I guess I just need more down time and when I don’t have it, it throws me off.

I’m honestly writing this on my phone on my lunch break, with research papers that I need to grade stacked in front of me, simply because I need to take something off my list and this seemed like the easiest and fastest one to tackle. I feel disappointed because that isn’t the reason why I started this blog and I am kind of phoning it in this month.

I guess I should look at the bright side of things- I didn’t have anything crazy or dramatic or horrible to write about this month, so that’s something!!

Metamorphosis (part 2)

Part 2: The disgusting larvae

I didn’t make it 😔 I got about 45 minutes into the drive and felt such overwhelming panic (and freaked out about the traffic), so I turned around and came home. I was about 25 minutes from the beach. I have never really done that before and I am beyond upset and disappointed with myself. I know I have to think about the fact I tried and got halfway, etc, etc…but I just feel like I failed.

Metamorphosis (part 1)

Part 1: The Caterpillar

Covid was one of the best things to happen to me as far as my agoraphobia goes. Nowhere to go, nothing to do…everyone HAD to stay home. For two years, I had the perfect excuse to not go anywhere. There were no vacations, no trips to the city, no concerts at the beach, no day trips, no overnight visits…nowhere to go, nothing to do. For two years, my comfort zone steadily shrank and my anxiety was practically nonexistent. That aspect of quarantine was wonderful. I was stuck at home, newly in love, and so content to just snuggle on the couch with him binging Netflix and Hulu. I still did weekly therapy, focusing on remote teaching, my new relationship, and the death of my exboyfriend. But, inevitably, life has started to go back to “normal” and I am left feeling very not normal. I knew Covid was a causing a huge step back when it came to my agoraphobia, but I don’t think I really grasped how much it negatively affected me. Before Covid, my “comfort zone” was an hour and a half or so. I still got anxious going somewhere new, but it was pretty manageable. I struggled with bigger trips and flying was still a huge obstacle, but I was doing ok. Over the past two years, my comfort zone significantly shrank to being about 25 minutes or so and I don’t like being in the car with other people. I especially am anxious about driving with my boyfriend and his two children. I have spent a lot of time in therapy talking about the need to expand my horizons and widen my comfort zone, but I haven’t actually acted on it. A couple of weeks ago, my friends went on an overnight girls trip to a place about two hours away. Even before Covid this trip was not one I usually went on, but this time I didn’t say no right away. I really did think a lot about going, but the length of the drive, coupled with a night at a bar and sleeping in a hotel was just overwhelming and I did not go. I obsessed over the decision, cried a lot, and was incredibly hard on myself for not being ready to do it. I realized that I had to stop just saying I was going to take drives and push myself and I needed to start just doing it. A couple of days ago, I drove (with my boyfriend) to my parent’s house, which is about 45 minutes away. Even though it is a route I had done hundreds of times in my life, I have only been to my hometown two times in the past two years and I had not driven that distance with my boyfriend before. It was the tiniest of accomplishments, but still was a step in the right direction and it was better than nothing. I decided that I am going to try to drive to the beach tomorrow morning by myself. It is about an hour and fifteen minutes away. I know the only way I am going to get better is to keep pushing myself to drive more often and go a little further each time. I am going to bed tonight telling myself that there is no pressure. If I start driving and can’t make it, I can go home and try another time. So…until tomorrow…

Stairway to (not) heaven

My parent’s house is beautiful. It is very large- around 4,000+ square feet. I was very lucky to grow up in such a nice house. I had my own bedroom with a huge walk in closet. My younger sister and I shared a big bathroom and had our own separate living room, furnished with couches, a computer desk, a closet full of games, and a TV for us to watch MTV and play Nintendo. I had a very privileged upbringing and am grateful for that.

However, as my ex-husband used to sarcastically say about my family: “big house, no problems”. I have often jokingly referred to my childhood home as The House of Horrors (The Simpsons reference!). Hidden behind the three car garage and perfect landscaping were secrets. My dad was successful at a very well-paying job. My mom was able to stay home with us and was a volunteer at our school. Our McMansion gave the world the appearance of a perfect family. This was far from the truth.

My sister and I were talking about our childhood memories last night, which we seldom do. I wonder why we don’t talk about it more. My sister said something about just how truly traumatic it was for us. We talked about our nightly family dinners, without a doubt the worst part of every day. Our mother would make dinner and call my sister and me to to the kitchen. Then she would either get my dad or ask/force one of us to call him to the table. He always was drunk and he always was nasty. I feel like I have blocked a lot of this out, but my sister remembers it all so clearly. She said that I would eat as fast as possible, like I barely chewed my food. I did this so I could be excused from the table. I still eat so fast to this day. My parents would inevitably end up screaming at each other (mostly my dad yelling at my mom) and my father would throw things and leave the kitchen and before long my sister would be sitting alone at the table. She is admittedly an emotional overeater and she thinks it stemmed from this.

Where my sister vividly remembers these dinners, what I recall the most is the stairs in my parents house. There are actually two sets of stairs- the front and the back. The first is more grand, it starts in the entryway of the house and you see it as you walk in the front door. My sister and I were not allowed to use the front stairs because my parents wanted to keep them clean. We used the back stairs (I know this makes us sound like hired help lol). They were located on the side of the house and led from the garage door up to our playroom (which is the living room that belonged to us). Basically, you could walk in the front door, go up the front stairs, go down the hallways where the bedrooms were, end up at the playroom, go down the back stairs, go down the hallway into the kitchen and then turn down another hallway into the front foyer where the front staircase was. It was a giant loop. I’m explaining this in detail because completing this loop became part of my survival mode. When my father was drunk, he often chased us. That sounds really peculiar to write, but I am not sure how else to explain it. He would literally run after me and I 100% believed that if he caught me, I was going to be hurt. So if I talked back or ignored him or didn’t do exactly what I said I was going to do, he would quickly stand up from his spot on the couch in their living room, which was attached to the kitchen. That was my cue to run. I would take off towards one of the staircases, which provided a nice escape route through the house. He usually gave up very quickly, his point simply being made by the threat itself. He just wanted to instill fear and he was successful.

A lot of other memories involve the stairs. I remember my sister and me sitting at the top of the front stairs, listening to my parents fight. There were times the red and blue lights of a police car would illuminate the front foyer and we would “spy” on my mom answering the front door to convince the officers everything was fine.

One time we were all in the main family room and I told my dad I was going to go upstairs to get something from my bedroom and would be back in five minutes. Like a typical teenager, I must have gotten distracted by something and stayed in my room longer. When I returned, my father was angry and determined to teach me what “five minutes was”. He made me follow him to the back staircase, where I stood on the landing and faced the blank wall. He set a timer for five minutes.

There was the time my mother came home and found him lying on the tile floor at the bottom of the front stairs. He was very drunk and fell. I have always wondered if for one, terrible moment she believed he was dead and if she felt a fleeting sense of overwhelming relief. He was very alive, though.

Sometimes when my sister and I talk about these things or I write about them, I feel guilty. My dad has been sober for over two years and seems like a different person. His role as my niece’s “Papa” could not be more different than my experiences of him as a father. I have been struggling a lot about the past vs now. I am obviously glad that he is not drinking and is not the monster he used to be, but it is still hard to reconcile who he was when he did these terrible things to the gentle-ish giant he is now.

My sister and I talk a lot about my parents selling their house and how it is simply too large for them to live in alone, especially since they are in their 70s now. My sister said they need to find a home that is just one floor and my gut reaction was to think “how will mom get away from him without the staircases?!?!?” It is just so crazy how it has been so long since I lived in my childhood home and yet these memories feel so vivid in my mind.

Mad

I’m so fucking angry all the time. This is not a comfortable emotion for me. I have always historically been a crier. No matter what the situation, my gut reaction was to get upset and cry. Not anymore. Sometimes I think I just have no more tears to cry. And when they dried up, I became filled with rage instead.

I feel so shut off from everyone right now. Part is that is self-preservation and protection. I am escaping into myself by withdrawing from people and situations and emotions. The other part is that I find myself just wanting to lash out. At times when I would normally be sympathetic or be able to show that I care, I feel myself harden, the anger percolating dangerously close to the surface.

This started- no surprise- right after M. died. The circumstances of his death are still unknown, at least to me. People tell me that “it doesn’t matter HOW he died, the end result is the same”. I am consumed by it. I still NEED to know. I drive to work drafting emails in my head to send to his mother, sometimes demanding the truth, other times begging for it. I read so much after he died about the stages of grief, desperate to understand. Denial…check. That lasted a couple of weeks. Then came anger aaaannnnd I’m still there. Stuck. I kind of feel like I moved through the other stages, but kept anger tucked in my back pocket. It is a weird comfort, years of pent up anger finally being unleashed, but it is directed all the wrong places. It is like a firecracker- scalding hot and bright red and then it explodes and just goes everywhere.

I have always avoided anger. The absolute worst feeling is knowing or thinking someone is mad at me. And I seldom get mad at anyone, even if I have just cause. It just has never been my go-to emotion. Now, I don’t know how to stop being mad. And I get angry at the dumbest things. I feel like I have been pushing people away, especially my boyfriend. And I don’t even know how to explain to them why because I don’t understand it. It seems too simple (or like a lame excuse) to say, “I’m angry because M. died”. But I’m SO ANGRY BECAUSE M. DIED.

The worst part is I feel mean. I know I’m hurting people who care about me and who genuinely want to make sure I’m okay. And I know I’m doing it in the moment and I don’t care. That is the complete opposite of who I normally am as a person. The person I am pushing away the most is my boyfriend, who is so lovely and wonderful and probably so very, very confused. I just don’t know how to articulate how I feel (which is also very unlike me). My anxiety is so bad right now I just want to be left alone and I know if I continue to act like this, I am literally going to be left and alone.

Rainbow bridge

My sister’s cat passed away early this morning. It is just so sad and so awful to lose a pet. I have never experienced this myself (I have been a part of putting family pets to sleep, but not my own). I have two cats and they are the loves of my life.

My female cat is 15 and is equal parts beautiful and mean. She has never really ever warmed up to anyone else besides me. She is a “one person” cat. I got her shortly after I got married. I was having a hard time with anxiety- it was the beginning of my issues with panic attacks and agoraphobia. I would beg my husband daily to get a cat. He was firm in never wanting a pet (this should have been a red flag). He never had one growing up, but I always had animals in my family. Finally, after going to Vegas on a trip that I was nervous to be left alone during, my husband left me a card saying to get a cat while he was away. I was at the animal shelter within an hour. She picked me, as it often happens. I got rid of the husband after about five years, but the cat is still my baby. Even if she bites me every time I cut her nails.

My boy cat is the sweetest, funniest cat ever. He is so playful and personable. He is basically a dog trapped in a cat’s body. He is able to make people who claim to not like cats convert. I got him after I got divorced. I kept the house and was all alone with just my first cat. I went to a pet store to get her food and there was a sign “spend $25 and get a free cat”. I am against “shopping” for pets, but the manager told me that it was a stray kitten someone found behind the store. It was love at first sight. I spent the $25, collected my free cat and then proceeded to spend close to $1,000 on all his various health issues (still the best money I’ve ever spent!!)

I dread so much the day I have to say goodbye to them. I try not to even think about it. But my sister losing her sweet girl cat was a harsh reminder that we unfortunately usually outlive our fur babies. Needless to say, they are getting so many extra cuddles and treats today.

(Too) Close for Comfort

Living through a pandemic was obviously challenging in many different ways, but there were also some things that having to quarantine for a year and a half made easier…for one, my agoraphobia. It was definitely a nice break from having to constantly worry about going places because there was, quite literally, nowhere to go. Reflecting back on it now, I can definitely see how this caused some major setbacks for me. My “comfort area” has drastically narrowed and I have not had to push myself to leave it for a long time. Before COVID, I was okay with driving about two hours from home in most directions, but now I am probably hovering around an hour. I know that now that things are opening back up, I have to start pushing myself to go places, but it is just so hard. It. Is. So. Hard.

This past weekend, my boyfriend and I were discussing going to his mother’s beach house about an hour and a half away. Naturally all of the logistics pushed their way into my head- “it is the first weekend of the summer”, “everyone and their mother is going to be there”, “it will be SO crowded”, “the traffic is going to be a nightmare”. This is the doozy for me every time, the nail in the coffin…the traffic that I will have no control over. And then all the what-ifs start piling on….”what if I get sick?”, “what if I have to go to the bathroom?”, “what if there is an accident and the road is closed?”, “what if I have to go to the hospital?” (mind you, in my 42 years of life, I have gone to the hospital exactly one time for bronchitis).

Years ago, my therapist asked me what the worst part of thinking about flying was for me. Easy…”I can’t get off the plane if I want or need to”. She replied, “WHY would you NEED to get off the plane?” I still have never really had a good answer to that question.

The problem with anxiety and agoraphobia is that I can sit here and have a perfectly logical conversation about it. I am intelligent and well-educated. I have read articles, editorials, self-help books, etc. about these disorders. I can even be my own devil’s advocate (well, really, why WOULD you need to get off?). But, the problem is that once you start feeling those feelings, all logic goes out the window. I can’t control the wave of panic or the sensation that I can’t breathe or my body feeling on fire or any of the other multiple physical reactions that come along with these thoughts. I know it is all about lack of control. I know that. But when it is happening, it is really hard to remember that I don’t need to be in control.

I started dating my boyfriend a few months before quarantining began. It has been a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because we had so much time alone together to be a couple, to learn about each other, to enjoy each other’s company. Also, we work together and he is my boss, so although it is something that was disclosed to HR, it caused a lot of gossip. It was nice to be able to take a step back from that. Now that things are “normal”, he and I are old news and no one really cares

It has been a curse because he wasn’t exposed to this side of me. Obviously, I told him I have these problems from the beginning. I would never hide that from anyone. But it has been very easy for him to say that it is no big deal, he can handle it, it wouldn’t change anything about how he feels, etc. I believe him that he believes himself when he says these things, but I also know that dealing with this can get old quickly. It is easy to say it is not a big deal until the time he wants me to go somewhere and I can’t do it.

And therein lies the other problem. My boyfriend is the most amazing, patient, understanding, caring man I have ever been with. I am so lucky to be with him. Even through the death of my ex-boyfriend and my grieving process, he has been unwavering in his support. Okay, that is not the problem. The problem is that I feel like I don’t deserve him. It isn’t like I have super low self-esteem, it is more like I feel like I am not worthy of him. He is so normal and I feel like I am so…flawed. He had a pretty normal upbringing and I had an extremely dysfunctional family and an abusive alcoholic father. In some ways, being with my ex was easier because he was more messed up than I was. That sounds mean in light of his recent passing, but it is true. I took care of him, I had my shit together, and even though I had these issues, his issues with addiction and depression dominated our relationship. Now, I feel insecure that when my new boyfriend sees the REAL me, he is going to end things or not love me anymore. I have never really felt like this before (not liking it). I have shared a little bit of this with him and he is so reassuring and sweet and always asks me, “why do you think that?”

I don’t know…why do I need to get off the plane?

Sixty seconds

Recently, I saw a post on Reddit that asked the question: if you could go back in time and had ONE MINUTE to give advice to your past self, what would you say?

I have to admit that I have spent way, way more than a minute thinking about this question. Part of me rejects doing this because I know everything I have gone through made me who I am today. But then I think, fuck that cliche…why not tell myself all the things that will help “past me” be able to avoid pain, heartbreak, rejection, loss, and negative experiences???

So, here is what I would tell my younger self in sixty seconds:

“Listen to your gut. When your gut is telling you to run, run. When it tells you, don’t marry him: DON’T. MARRY. HIM. Don’t lie to cover other people’s mistakes or behavior. You think that you are protecting them, but you are really just hiding the truth, from the world and yourself.

Don’t settle. EVER. Forget having to kiss frogs and all that dumb shit. Kiss the frogs for fun, but when it comes to relationships, don’t settle for less than you deserve. Please, please do not be with someone who drinks. Promise yourself this and then DO NOT BREAK that promise. You cannot save anyone who doesn’t want to be saved. Don’t ever put yourself in a situation where you put someone else’s needs above your own. Don’t lose yourself in someone else. And always, always have an exit strategy.

Be nice to everyone. It isn’t a weakness. You never know what someone else is going through. When you think to yourself that you should call or text someone to check on them or see if they are okay, don’t assume you will always have the time or chance to do it.

No one has a perfect family or perfect life. Make the best of what you have. If you focus all your energy on the bad things, you will miss out on enjoying the good things. Forgive people, especially your dad, who don’t deserve it, even if they never apologized. Try to be the bigger person as often as possible.” *

*Okay, I literally timed myself reading that aloud. And I did not go back and edit it because I wanted it to be as authentic as possible. At first, this seemed really easy to do, but it much more difficult than I thought it would be, because how do you sum up twenty years of advice and lessons learned into one little minute? It is an impossible task. And really, how much do young people really listen to anyway? Lol! I teach 11th grade (so mostly kids that are 16 and 17 years old) and as much as I would like to think they hang on my pearls of wisdom, I know that they will have go out into the world and learn life lessons the hard way, just like all of us did- I guess that is a rite of passage. But really, why didn’t anyone stress to 16 year old me the importance of not settling…that would have been REALLY helpful 😉

Nice.

As an English teacher, I often stress to my students the importance of using creative words. Instead of the word “bad”, use “terrible”. Instead of the word “pretty”, use “gorgeous”. One of the biggest offenders when it comes to nondescript words is “nice”. The dictionary defines it as fine and satisfactory…not exactly the most flattering or sophisticated adjective.

I remember when I was in my 20s, I met a guy through a mutual friend. Afterwards, she asked him what he thought of me and his response was that he thought I was “nice”. I remember being offended by this and over analyzing it- “What does that MEAN…nice?!??” I thought it indicated that he wasn’t really interested in me. It felt like an insult.

I didn’t realize the significance of this simplistic, four letter word until I was 30. To put it bluntly, my ex husband was mean. After getting divorced, I remember saying to my sister that all I cared about when it came to meeting someone new was that they were nice. After experiencing my dad not being nice and my husband not being nice, that word took on a new, deeper meaning. I am very happy to say that my new boyfriend is truly nice. It took being with some unkind men for me to appreciate someone who is genuinely a good, kindhearted person.

I can honestly say that I am a nice person. I strive to be. I try to do things to make other people happy. I am thoughtful. It is kind of weird to write this because I feel like I am bragging (and trust me that I have many flaws). During the time my coworkers were teaching from home during quarantine, I mailed out 70 cards, just to say hi and keep in touch. I also sent congratulatory letters to the 120 graduating seniors who were my students from last year. This is one of the ways I know how to show love and appreciation.

Today, I gave my mailman a card and a $10 Dunkin Donuts gift card because tomorrow is National Postal Workers Day and clearly I love mail (who knew?!?!) My boyfriend was saw me do this and said, “you are SO nice. You’re the nicest person I have ever known.” I just smiled and accepted it for the lovely compliment it was. There are far more creative and glamorous synonyms that can be used, but I now understand the simple beauty of being nice.