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…

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.

The doctor will see you now…

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I am a high school teacher and adjunct college professor and have worked over the summer for my entire 17 year career.  This is the first summer that I have had entirely off.  It wasn’t my choice…coincidentally all the classes I normally teach did not run.  I was nervous at first, not so much about the money anymore, but more about all the idle time. The saving grace is that my sister and my newborn niece live 2 miles away and I have been with them- and my mother- almost every day.  This is also one of the rare summers where I don’t have any trips planned.  I assumed that my anxiety level would be on the lower side because of not having to travel.  I guess that isn’t how anxiety works, because I feel like I have regressed a little over the summer.  When I first started having anxiety in my early 20s, it was really linked to my health.  I was very much a hypochondriac.  In fact, it was my gynecologist who strongly recommended me seeing a psychologist.  Over the years, that type of anxiety subsided and was replaced with the travel anxiety and agoraphobia tendencies.  This summer, though, I have gone to a doctor a half dozen times.  I joke that I am like a retired 85 year old woman…like my grandmother who went to the doctor at least once a week (*I am not even 40 yet).  To be fair, one of those visits was due to having really bad poison ivy, so that one shouldn’t really count 😉

I can tell my anxiety is bad because some of the physical symptoms that bother me have been exacerbated in the past few weeks.  My boyfriend has been really overwhelmed at work and he doesn’t have the best stress management skills.  He tends to bring his work home with him and when he is stressed at work he also drinks way too much.  His behavior- and drinking- has been affecting me more than I have acknowledged- to him or to myself.  My cat has been sick, which has also been stressing me out…I know that sounds kind of silly, but I do not have children and my cats and dog are extremely important to me.

I think that when I go back to school in September and get back into a routine, the anxiety will subside (I hope!)  It is just sad that I was really looking forward to this time off and I feel like I have kind of squandered it by focusing so much on negative things and feeling unwell.  I still have four weeks off, so I really am going to try to relax and enjoy them.  When I go back to school and all my colleagues ask me what I did over the summer, I don’t want my only answer to be that I went to the doctor 15 times!!

We are not cleared for take-off…

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Many people have a fear of flying…then there’s me.  I actually feel anxious when I see an airplane on television.  I have to close my eyes in order not to watch the flight attendant closing the plane door on the screen.  Strangely, I flew often as a child.  I have flown alone and I have flown internationally.  My fear did not start until I was in my 20s and I had a panic attack on the flight home from my honeymoon (I am now divorced and the irony is really not lost on anyone).  In the years that followed, I flew as seldom as possible and my anxiety grew to include any type of travel.  In recent years, with the help of time and therapy and a supportive boyfriend, I have worked hard on overcoming my fears.  I also was medically hypnotized two summers ago to help conquer my fear of flying, which actually did help a lot.

Regardless of how far I have come, the overwhelming panic still affects me every time I have to fly.  It settles in a few days or a week before and keeps me up at night.  I reason with myself in the dark, telling myself that I have successfully flown before and I know what to expect, even as the electricity of an anxiety attack courses through my body.  I shiver and sweat and try to work through it.  For me, the anticipation of flying is the worst part…that and not being able to control my environment.  I often said that I preferred driving because “I can stop and get out of the car if something happens, but I can’t get out of a plane”, to which my therapist asked, “and why would you have to get out of a plane?” (to which I’ve never had a good answer!)

So this time I felt prepared.  I had the tools from therapy and hypnotherapy and several successful flights to aid me.  I knew the anticipatory anxiety would be there and how to deal with it.  And I had Xanax, something I rarely take in my every day life, but that I use generously on travel days.  The flight was only an hour and a half and the plane was on time.  My boyfriend and I breezed through security and got settled on the plane, as I waited for the Xanax to help me fall asleep (I look ridiculous when I fly, wearing an eye mask and a hoodie pulled over my head).  The plane pushed back from the gate and took its place to taxi out to the runway.  Then we waited and waited…and waited.  Finally the pilot came on and said that all planes were grounded because of a power outage in Washington D.C. I felt myself get hot and the panic start to rise uncontrollably.  I turned to my boyfriend and told him I was going to freak out (poor guy!).  In my head, I could picture myself standing up and running towards the plane door, yelling for them to let me off the plane.  I took a couple more Xanax and then closed my eyes and focused on slowly breathing in and out, in and out, in and out…for three hours.  This was literally my WORST nightmare- being trapped on the plane with no way off and zero control.  It was horrible and terrible and traumatic and yet, I survived.  After three hours of sitting on the plane, we finally took off, so in total I was on the plane for almost five hours.  Even writing this now, two weeks later, I still remember how awful I felt and how scared I was.  If I think about it too much, I actually start to feel anxious about it, even while sitting in my own family room.  But just a short week later, after enjoying a wonderful vacation, I got back on the plane to fly home (thankfully with no issues!).  I am actually really grateful that it happened on the way to our vacation location and that the flight home was easy, because I don’t want to use that experience as an excuse to not fly next time.