Anxiety. How I hate that word. I hate it with every fiber of my being. It robs my days of presence. It robs my time with my family of joy. Thoughts spin round in my head with no where to escape. They start as soon as I open my eyes, only to leave when they shut for the night.
If you have ever dealt with anxiety, you know what I’m talking about. The racing pulse, the heart palpitations, the sense of dread, adrenaline rushing. Today, I want to talk about my worst enemy, someone who is always beside me, no matter how far I try to run. Anxiety.
Where Did It All Begin?
I suffered my first panic attack in September of 2008. I was about a month into my new job as an admin assistant and was sitting at my desk. There was only about a half hour left until the end of the day, and I was compiling a report for one of my colleagues. Nothing stressful, I wasn’t racing the clock, just doing my job.
Without warning, my throat started to close, my head began to spin, and my vision faded. I laid back in my chair, feeling faint, and when that didn’t help, I felt the adrenaline rush through my body. What was happening?! Thankfully, the work day was over, so I shut down my computer, and headed home as fast as I could.
The discomfort I felt from having a lump in my throat lasted for days, first bringing me to the Urgent Care unit to see if I was having an asthma attack (asthma runs in my family), and finally, to my doctor, who finally confirmed to me that I had had a panic attack.
I was dumbfounded. Why had I had a panic attack when I wasn’t stressed or overwhelmed? I know how adrenaline works (the whole fight or flight response), but couldn’t understand what had triggered the attack. That was the beginning of my now long history with Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Learning to Live with Anxiety
My first line of defense was medication. Because these panic attacks would arise out of nowhere, there was no way to predict when they would erupt. Often, they would happen around 3:30am; I would be in a peaceful, dead to the world, dreamless sleep, and would suddenly wake up, heart pounding, adrenaline running, fear flooding through my body. Because SSRIs take time to work, it was about six weeks until I started to feel like myself again.
About four months after that first panic attack, on the recommendation of my doctor (who thought that this may have been caused by my mom passing earlier that year) I began grief counselling. The counselling that was available was in a group setting, and the people I met there were all dealing with the loss of a parent. As we got together over the next few weeks, we told stories about our loved ones and learned to deal with the loss that we had all endured. I came through those sessions feeling like there was some light at the end of the tunnel.
Hormones and Anxiety
In January 2011, Gaby and I decided that we wanted to start trying to have a family. At this point, my anxiety was well under control and I hadn’t had an attack in almost two years. I decided that for the health of our future baby, I would attempt to come off my medication. After talking to my doctor, we decided to start weaning my dose down until my body no longer needed it.
Off my medication, though my stress levels were slightly higher than they had been, I still felt pretty good. That March, I became pregnant with Katrina, and by the end of the month, my panic attacks were back. By the first week of April, I was in my doctor’s office, with Gaby by my side.
My doctor was extremely sympathetic and helpful. She explained to us that in my case, medication was necessary, as it was safer for the baby than the effects of extreme stress I was putting my body under. She also assured me that the medication and dose that I needed were considered to be the safest in pregnancy, based on the studies conducted at the time. And so, with medication in hand, I finished my first trimester. By the end of those first three months, I was myself again, and happy to be feeling better.
Within days of giving birth to our first child, the panic attacks were back. (More than likely due to my hormones returning to normal levels.) At the time, Gaby and I were going through pre- and post-natal classes at our local hospital. Through our teacher Kathy, we learned of a group called Families Matter. They are a fantastic group of people in the Calgary area that work with moms and families going through post-partum depression (among other things). With their help, and the help of my doctors, we once again got my anxiety under control.
Pregnant Again – Anxiety Returns with a Vengeance
As we went through our second and third pregnancies, we learned that my body just doesn’t adjust well to the influx and outflow of hormones. With each pregnancy, and subsequent birth, my medication dose would need to be tweaked, and I would work with the counselors at Families Matter. (If you are in the Calgary area, and feel that you may be dealing with postpartum depression, or any other mood disorder pre- or post-birth, please, call them. I cannot say enough good things about the counselors that I worked with there. That being said, call your doctor, Health Link, or even 9-1-1 if you feel you are in crisis or distress. There is absolutely no shame in admitting you need help.)
After Hunter was born, we began to make our plans to move back to Manitoba. We were extremely busy through the spring of 2016, so busy, in fact, that there were days that I forgot to take my medication. When I talked to my doctor about it, she felt that I had weaned myself off again, and that the amount I was taking was pretty much just acting as a placebo. At the time, however, I wasn’t quite ready to take myself off the medication completely (I did not want to be dealing with panic attacks after the move, in case they came back!), so I stayed on that low dose.
I continued this way for the next six months, and was feeling fantastic. But that’s the funny part about anxiety. Unless you deal with the underlying causes, and change your coping mechanisms to deal with it, it will rear its ugly head again, every single time.
By now, the kids and I were living in Manitoba, and Gaby was still working in Calgary. I guess the stress of being a most-of-the-time single mom to three kids began to take its toll. Anxiety was back in my life again. Thankfully, I had found a new doctor here in Manitoba, and on her recommendation, upped my dose yet again.
Grief and Loss
After the loss of our second baby this past summer (read our miscarriage story here), I requested a referral for grief counselling through my doctor. Two weeks ago, I was finally accepted into the program. I have been dealing with anxiety, on and off, for the last nine years. The medication helps, but I know that in order to be completely free of this demon, I need to deal with the grief and loss in a healthy way.
I have been burying these feelings, running away from being sad, and my mind and body are tired. I can feel the panic attacks waiting just below the surface, ready to erupt at any time. My only coping mechanism seems to be busyness. If I’m busy, that means I don’t have time to think, which means that I don’t need to deal with the grief.
It’s ironic. Eight months ago when Gaby and I started this blog, we had a vision in mind. We wanted to chronicle for our family the simpler life we were trying to lead. But because the losses that we dealt with this year, and the subsequent busyness I endured to run from them, life has become anything but simple. No longer can I see the life we envisioned. I need to get back to that. So now, finally, I am going to deal with this once and for all. I will work to make sure that anxiety no longer has a place in my life.
Where Do I Go from Here?
As homework this week, my counselor gave me the task of remembering what my values were for my family when we first moved back to Manitoba. Thus, this post. This post is an account of life from the time I started this journey with anxiety until now. A record, if you will, for me to look back on as I go through counselling, and learn how to deal with the grief instead of run from it. And in doing so, learn how to cope with the anxiety in a healthy way, so that I can be present in my life, and in my family’s lives, again.
For those of you living with anxiety, please, don’t let your lives pass you by, living in constant fear. I know what it’s like, and living like that is not living. Dealing with my issues hasn’t been, and won’t be, pretty in the coming months, but I know that in order to live the life I crave, I need to heal. And the only way to heal is to stop running. And I want to stop running.