(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?

‘Tis the season

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Normally, my boyfriend and I do not go to my parent’s house on Christmas Eve, because they come to our house on Christmas Day.  The past couple of years, my sister, her fiancee and now their baby still go up there…I think a lot of it is out of obligation on my sister’s part and so my mom is not alone with my dad on a holiday.  Over the years, I have opted out, mostly because my boyfriend doesn’t enjoy going there and because my dad is a wildcard when it comes to his drinking, although he usually stays sober on holidays and if he knows he is seeing family.

For the past few weeks, my boyfriend has had a tough time dealing with his depression and my mother has been very understanding and supportive of him.  I think to show his appreciation, he surprised me by suggesting we go to my parent’s house to surprise them on Christmas Eve.  I told my sister we would be there about an hour after them (we both live about 45 min away from my hometown) and to keep it a secret.  My boyfriend bought my mother a beautiful plant and I picked out a couple of special gifts to have my family open early.  I was actually looking forward to it- my parents have a beautiful home with a big fireplace and I knew how happy it would make my mom to have us all there together.

As my boyfriend and I were getting ready to walk out the door, my sister called me in tears. “Don’t come. Dad’s drunk.” I hung up with her and burst into tears.  I should not have been surprised, but I was really disappointed.  And I felt so bad for my sister, who tries so hard around the holidays to make everything festive (and we were supposed to celebrate her birthday, too- my sister said there was a homemade birthday cake for her on the counter). What made it 1,000 times worse was my mother was crying as my sister left (she literally walked in the house, my dad was yelling, she saw he was drunk and immediately left.)  My mother NEVER cries.  To know that she got everything all ready, made appetizers, baked my sister a birthday cake and waited anxiously to see her granddaughter, just to have my dad ruin it by drinking is so sad.  Even though I am sure she was heartbroken, she told my sister to leave and go home.  I called my mom to see what was going on and she kept choking back tears during our conversation.  But she also told me not to come- that my dad didn’t deserve to have his family around him if he was going to act the way he does.

My sister sat in her car in their neighborhood, unsure of what to do- she felt too guilty to leave my mom alone on Christmas Eve, but didn’t want her 18 month old daughter exposed to my father if he was belligerent.  After I finally called my dad and assessed that he did, in fact, drink, but was not “that” drunk, my sister decided to ignore my mother’s pleading and went back.  My boyfriend and I jumped in the car and got there as fast as we could.  I was definitely anxious on the ride there, imagining the possible outcomes in my head.  I guess we figured if my dad started acting up, we could all just leave.  Luckily, he behaved himself for the most part and the night was salvaged.

It just sucks.  I just wish I had more normal family and a dad that wasn’t an alcoholic and holidays could just be less drama-filled.  I know everyone has issues with their families and no one’s is perfect, but when I talk to my friends or look on social media, most people appear to have relatively normal families and holiday celebrations.  I am so grateful it turned out okay and that my mom was happy in the end, but I know in the back of my mind that night could have ended very differently and it definitely put a bit of a damper on Christmas.

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.

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!!

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.

Nature v. Nurture

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During my therapy appointment on Monday, we discussed the concept of nature versus nurture.  I was curious about where she stood professionally on the topic.  She believes that it is a 60/40 split (60% nature/40% nurture), although she emphasized that an individual’s personality is a makeup of multiple factors.  I agree with this, but I think I have been affected more by “nurture” in my life, rather than “nature”.

My family moved to NJ from TX when I was in the 6th grade.  Shortly after settling into our new home, it quickly became apparent that something was different about my father.  My dad actually moved almost a year before we did so that he could begin his new job and supervise our home being built.  During that time alone, my father’s social drinking became full-blown alcoholism.  Once our family was reunited, things seemed to change overnight…for the worse.  My fun, easygoing dad had turned into a monster.  I would get into bed at night and wish that we never moved.  In my mind, if we had stayed in Texas, nothing would have changed.

I have wondered a few times in my adult years what my life would be like if we had not moved.  Would my dad be an alcoholic? Would my sister and I be as close as we are now? Would my parents be happily married? These are questions I will never have answers to.  I do believe I would probably be a very different person, though, had we not moved.  I am a type A personality.  I like things organized.  I am task-oriented.  I prefer things to be done a certain way (aka my way).  Those aspects of my personality, the “nature”, would most likely remain the same.  But my anxiety, my desire to please people, my need for control, my inability to make decisions…I know that is all “nurture”.  I am a pretty textbook case of a child of an alcoholic.  I have never wanted to blame things on the fact that I was raised in an alcoholic family, but there is no way to deny that it affected me very deeply.

Where do you stand when it comes to Nature versus Nurture??

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.