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…

(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?

What is love?

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I have always believed that people show love in different ways.  I love mailing greeting cards for every occasion possible…it is one way I let the people I care about know that I am thinking of them.

During the 41 days my father was in the hospital and nursing home and ever since he got home a week ago, my mother has been glued to his side.  Without knowing it, both my sister and I spoke to our respective therapists about my mother’s weird devotion to him.  He has treated her so badly for so many years, it is hard to understand why she even cares about what happens to him.

However, my sister and I were at the hospital and nursing home all the time, too- even when he had psychosis and was acting so horribly.  We brought him milkshakes and food he liked.  My sister brought her toddler to visit “Papa”.  We basically all put our lives on hold to take care of him.  Clearly this is learned behavior because I did the same thing when my exboyfriend was in the hospital for 28 days…I sat by his side, putting my life on hold.

I have never doubted that my father loved me (and my mother or sister).  I never doubted my exboyfriend loved me either.  They both just had such a hard time showing it because of their addictions to alcohol.

My dad showed me love by providing for our family, for making sure my sister and I had every opportunity possible, including going to college.  He showed love by making sure we had a beautiful home.  He showed love by buying my mother, sister and me matching bracelets for Christmas one year.  He showed love by building me a dollhouse that I can pass down to my niece. He showed love by crying when I told him I was miserable and getting divorced. He showed love by helping me with my mortgage for the summer so I wouldn’t have to worry about money after my boyfriend moved out abruptly.

My exboyfriend showed me love by supporting me working through my anxiety.  He showed me love by convincing me to give up a summer job that made me unhappy.  He showed me love by getting me “just because” flowers.  He showed me love by sending me cards, because he knows I love getting mail.  He showed me love by embracing my sister and loving our niece.  He showed me love by caring about my mother.

Neither of these two men loved me in the ways that I necessarily wanted or needed, but they showed me love in the way THEY knew how and I try to be appreciate of that.  I am very happy right now to be with someone who is able to show me love in the way that I need (physical affection, open communication, security) and who accepts my love in the way I give it.

Summertime Blues

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Summer brings sunshine, pool days, lazy mornings…and anxiety.  I am grateful to have the downtime after a busy school year, but free time often triggers anxiety for me.  I am the type of person who thrives with structure and routine.  It is sometimes hard to pinpoint what exactly is making me anxious and why it gets worse at times.  Traveling causes the most anxiety for me and there are ample opportunities to go places over the summer.  Most of my family was off for the month of July, too, and so I was invited to participate in many activities.  I always feel the desire to go, but sometimes the anxiety is preventative.  I try not to let it “win”, but sometimes it does and it can put a damper on the summer and how I feel about myself.

This week, my family had plans to attend a festival about an hour away.  I decided not to go, but second guessed myself the whole time.  I wanted to go, but was uncomfortable about the drive and how I would feel.  About an hour after they left, I decided to go…to not let anxiety prevent me from living my life.  I bought a ticket, got dressed and jumped in my car before I could change my mind.  To be honest, I think I knew I might do this because driving myself places is one of the ways I can push myself- I do better on my own, when I am in complete control.  I decided not to tell my family I was coming, rather surprise them (I knew this would make my mom so happy because she has been worried about me).  I got on the highway and when I was about 20 minutes into the hour long drive, it began to torrentially rain and thunderstorm.  The venue I was going to was outdoors and so I was uncertain what to do.  I didn’t want to “give up” and go home, but I didn’t want to push myself to make the drive and then have to turn around and go home anyway.

After some hesitation, I decided to go home.  I was just too uncomfortable driving in bad weather when my anxiety was already bad.  The whole way back home, I beat myself up…I should have continued driving, I should have tried harder, I should have waited for the storm to pass.  When I pulled back in my driveway, I cried.  I felt like a failure.

It took some tears and some phone calls with friends and some time to reflect, but I was able to shift the experience in my mind and focus more on the attempt than the outcome.  I did not make it to the festival, but I genuinely tried to go.  And during the drive, I really felt okay and not terribly anxious.  Back at home, I was disappointed, but I knew I should also be proud of myself for trying.  I can’t really say that I would put this experience in the “win” column, but I know that it was better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all.

Check-in time

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I stayed in a hotel by myself last night.  I felt like such a big girl 😉  This doesn’t feel like a monumental accomplishment, however my anxiety has been pretty bad lately.  In fact, staying at the hotel was a way to ease my travel anxiety.  I attended a two day training about an hour and a half away from my house and I knew there would be traffic on the drive home. I decided to stay overnight in the area to help alleviate the concern of getting stuck in traffic.  I actually was not nervous about staying alone overnight, but I wanted to take a drive to a neighboring, popular town I have never visited.  By the end of the first day of training, which included leaving my house at 6 am, navigating to the location I was unfamiliar with, sitting through the lecture-style format training which was SO boring, finding the hotel and checking in, I was emotionally exhausted.  I admit I took Xanax throughout the day, which I normally try to avoid, but it did help a little.  I was disappointed but decided to nix the drive to the other town and went to a restaurant as close to the hotel as possible.  It is funny- I do not really have as much anxiety about doing things alone. My friend who also suffers from anxiety said she would never be able to stay alone in a hotel overnight and my boyfriend feels really uncomfortable eating in a restaurant by himself.  Those things don’t bother me that much.  After I ate, it was still pretty early and it was post-rush hour traffic and I spontaneously decided to take the drive to the town I wanted to visit and I did! I felt those tingles of anxiety as I drove, but I really tried to fight through it and I did!

It is so easy to look back on this little two day excursion and focus on the negatives and failures.  I felt anxious pretty much the whole time I was in the car.  As soon as I arrived at the training, I wanted to turn around and immediately go home.  I felt disappointed with myself for deciding not to visit the other town. When I did go to the other town, it was raining a bit and so I never parked and explored.  I took more Xanax than I normally would.  “I want to go home” flitted through my brain about 200 times throughout the first day of training.  It is hard not to focus so much on the weaknesses I have and the things I feel like I can’t do.

But I am going to try to focus on the things I did do- the successes.  They may seem minor to other people.  I am sure most people would not congratulate themselves for driving an extra 20 minutes out of their way or staying at a hotel by themselves.  I am not patting myself on the back, but I do feel like I am often way too hard on myself and I need to be a better friend to myself instead of falling into the habit of being my own worst enemy.  I didn’t fly across the country, but I did break out of my comfort zone, so I am going to chalk that up as a win.

New name, same me

Hi all- the reason I started this blog four years ago was to have a place to openly, anonymously be able to write about my life, my childhood, my feelings, etc.  Recently, someone I am very close to “found out” the name and has access to it, which makes me feel like I have to censure everything I write.  The only option I could think of was to change the name and URL, which I hope keeps my privacy moving forward.

I sometimes forget how important this blog has become to me until it is threatened and then I remember how much it has truly helped me throughout the years…

Small victories

With my anxiety in high gear, it is easy to let my agoraphobia get out of control, too. Almost all of my anxiety is related to travel and lately my comfort area has been shrinking. I started getting really down on myself and then had to remember that I’ve been here through this before and with determination (and therapy and medication and hypnosis and support and TRYING) things did get better.  My boyfriend’s parents are staying with us while they are in town and I am happy to spend time with them because I enjoy their company. However, them being here means doing more things and going more places. One of those things was a party for my boyfriend’s grandfather’s 90th birthday, which was being held about an hour from my house. I immediately didn’t want to go because I felt like it was too far to drive. I even went as far as to get myself an “out”. But this morning I decided that by using that out, I was allowing myself to go down a slippery slope. If I don’t go to one thing, it becomes easier to not go to the next and so on and so on and my comfort area continues to get smaller. So, even though it probably wasn’t a big deal to anyone else, it felt like a teeny tiny victory to me. Any day I work through it and do something, that’s a day that anxiety didn’t win. And I really, really needed a win.

The anticipation is killing me…

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My problem with anxiety has always been the lead up to the event, not the actual event itself.  My therapist has always referred to it as “anticipatory anxiety”.  The weeks and days before an event cause me such distress and the majority of the time all of my worry and stress is for nothing.  But, I cannot seem to control it.

For example, every year my mother, sister and I go to the Philadelphia Flower Show.  It is a beautiful and amazing display of fresh flowers, all centered around a common theme.  I really enjoy going…however, I live about an hour and 45 min away from Philly.  I have driven there many times over the years, for both the flower show and other reasons.  Yet, every year, I get myself all worked up over the distance and the drive.  My anxiety has been especially bad lately with my father being in and out of the hospital and my sister expecting a baby (which is SUPER exciting, just a very big change).  So for the week before the show, I was a nervous wreck and the night before I all but decided I could not go.  I took a Xanax before going to sleep (I take them very sparingly) and from 4 am on, I tossed and turned, having anxious thoughts.  The approach that works the best for me is to try to be logical- I tell myself that I have done the drive so many times before, that I am in control and in my own car, that I will be with my family, that if something bad happens I can go to a hospital, etc. etc.  It helps a bit, but it is hard to stop the actual physical reaction of having those panicky feelings.  Once we finally got in the car, I was pretty ok.  Once we got to the convention center, I was fine.  That is what always happens.  I build something up in my head and magnify it so much, it becomes incredibly overwhelming and debilitating.  Yet, when I work through it, I almost always feel like afterwards it wasn’t nearly as horrible as I expected and I get mad at myself for getting SO worked up.  Yet, like clockwork, when it comes time to go somewhere again, the same thing happens.  As much as I have worked through having the problems I have had with agoraphobia and anxiety and I know I have come a long way, it is still extremely frustrating and exhausting and upsetting and always feels like a setback.

I am very glad I went to the flower show.  It was as spectacular as ever and was most likely the last memorable and special thing my mom and sister and I will do just the three of us before my niece arrives in May.  So, I am happy I didn’t let anxiety win…this time.

Thankful…

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Things have been a little crazy lately.  My boyfriend and I definitely hit a rough patch and the holidays are always a little stressful.  On top of that, I am traveling to D.C. next week, which is triggering A LOT of travel anxiety.  It is so easy to get disheartened by the negative things, but I am really making an effort to look at the positive things in life.  My friend is having a baby girl, my dad is still doing pretty well, I have really nice students this year, things with my boyfriend are looking up.  I do have a lot to be thankful for this year.

Over this past weekend, I met a girl at a party.  We had talked very briefly once before, we are about the same age and I knew she was a teacher, so I figured we had some things in common.  We ended up talking in the corner for over an hour and I confided things in her that I normally would never tell a stranger- she also is divorced, so she understood things that many other people do not in my life.  She was so sweet and easy to talk to and we had a very similar history as far as the timeline of our marriages and divorces go.  This girl is now engaged (her fiancé is actually my boyfriend’s best friend’s good friend, which is how I happened to meet her).  It really surprised me how open I was with her.  I guess at this point I don’t have anything to hide and I am not ashamed by anything that I have experienced.  It was just really nice to talk to someone with a different perspective, who could still really relate to my life.  The only thing that made me kind of upset was how excited she is to get married again and how happy she kept saying she is.  I don’t know if I really feel that way…I mean, I don’t know if I would ever want to get married again and the fact that she is so eager to marry her fiancé made me question whether I would want to get married if I was with “the right person”.  I’m not saying my boyfriend isn’t that person- he is so supportive of me, but we definitely have problems and her relationship just seems…easy.  Now I have definitely learned not to take other people’s lives and relationships at face value, but she genuinely seemed so happy and in love and kept saying what a nice guy her fiancé is.  I feel like I was so traumatized by my divorce that I don’t know if I would ever risk having to go through that again.  But one thing we both said is that we both saw red flags going into our first marriages (and ignored them, obviously).  She clearly sees no red flags now with her new husband, but I feel like I see some in my relationship now that would make me a little hesitant to make that commitment again.  Meeting her just made me think about how much my life has changed in the past ten years and how I really don’t know what is going to happen and maybe I just have to be okay with that right now.  I mean, I never, ever thought my father would go this long without drinking, so it just goes to show you that life has a way of throwing curveballs.

So, I am going focus on being thankful this Thanksgiving.  Instead of being too scared to travel, I am going to try to remember how lucky I am to be able to go to D.C. with my boyfriend (who I know will help me get through my anxiety to get there) and his family, who has embraced me in so many ways.

Long distance no longer!

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My boyfriend is moving in on Tuesday. In other words: I am going to be living with a man next week!!! It is a little bittersweet for me and I am feeling a lot of different emotions about it. Let me start with the good:

1. I have been living alone for over 5 years now. Even though I am (only?!) 35, I have become a little set in my ways. I think learning to compromise by living with someone again is a good thing for me.

2. Even though I am very independent and probably handier than most of my guy friends, there is something comforting about having a man around. My boyfriend is very helpful and will happily help me shovel or mow the lawn. As much as I am proud of myself for being a single homeowner all these years, I will happily hand over the shovel!! Also, there are still nights where I wake up because I hear a sound or get scared that someone is breaking in. Even though I have an alarm and I know I am safe, there is something very reassuring about having a strong guy around to protect me 🙂

3. My bf and I have been in a long distance relationship for several years and I always feel like I am missing out on things when I am by him for the weekend (we are 2 hours apart and alternate weekends)- I also miss my house and my cats when I am away. My sister has been wonderful and takes care of things while I am gone, but I’m glad to relieve her of that duty 🙂 It is nice to think that he and I will be able to spend more time together with friends and family.

4. I love my boyfriend and he is a really great guy. He is willingly leaving his job and life where he lives just to come and be with me and I appreciate that sacrifice. We have been through a lot together and I am very grateful to have him. For the past couple of years, we have gotten more serious in our relationship, yet our future together has seemed a little in limbo because of being separated most of the time.

Okay, so the “not so good”:

1. I really like living alone. I have not always liked my living situation or felt comfortable where I was living. I lived with my alcoholic father all throughout my teen years, then lived in a college dorm for four years, then lived with my best friend for several years (which was great, but sometimes it affected our friendship) and then with my husband while I was married (which eventually turned into a horrible living situation). These years on my own have been wonderful. At times I get lonely, but my house is calm and quiet.

2. I am worried about my boyfriend’s drinking. His behavior does not change much when he drinks, but what bothers me more is actually seeing him drink a lot. Because we are apart during the week, I don’t exactly know how much he drinks during the week. As you read above, my dad is an alcoholic, so I am completely aware of the signs. It is something my boyfriend and I talk about a lot and are very honest with each other about. I am giving him the benefit of the doubt, but I also don’t want to ignore red flags.

3. I own my house and it has been a source of pride for me, financially and emotionally. I am a little territorial and I want to make sure he feels like this is his home, too. But I worry about what will happen down the road, when he gets tired of just giving me money every month to live here, but isn’t on the mortgage. I am really attached to my house and after going through my divorce, I want to protect myself if things do not work out with my boyfriend down the road.

Lots going on in my head, but overall I am just really excited for us to be together!! I think he understands a lot of my fears and I am sure he is coming here with his own set of concerns. I know it won’t be easy, but it will be worth it on Sunday nights when instead of packing up his stuff in his truck to go back to his apartment 120 miles away, he is still here!