Monday, March 9, 2015

Hiding made it worse

I haven’t done this in a long time. At least not publicly. I’ve written several times in the past several months, but I’ve kept my various musings to myself. Often I’ve been private with my thoughts out of respect for the new players in my story – most notably my now live-in boyfriend.

I’ve kept my thoughts hush-hush because they were often so personal it seemed foolish to post them for all to see. I’ve even sometimes kept them quiet because I thought maybe no one cared.

But most importantly, I kept my thoughts on the DL because I no longer thought they were helpful to anyone but me. When I started the blog, I did so because I wanted to write my thoughts, in painful, agonizing honesty. I could have done that privately and the effect would have been all the same for me, but I felt obligated to do more than that.

I put my deepest, darkest, sometimes most embarrassing thoughts out in the world of the internet because I thought maybe someone, somewhere was experiencing something similar to me. Maybe knowing that I felt bat shit crazy at times might make them feel a little less bat shit crazy. That seemed a wonderful solace to an otherwise unimaginable situation.

Give back, my brain kept willing me. So I continued to tell the world that my still grieving mind became obsessed with literally replacing Jon. It’s something I cringed to admit, but I bet I wasn’t the only one in these shoes to feel that way.

I talked about missing sex. Yeah, try putting that out there for potentially millions of people, including people like, say, your grandparents or parents, to read. It’s not an easy thing to swallow, but I did it because maybe someone else wondered why they would think about sex when they should be grieving.

Throughout the past nearly 20-months I have thought just about anything you can imagine to avoid feeling the pain that came with Jon’s loss. Sex. Companionship. Work. New careers. Going back to school. Lavish vacations. Random hobbies. Anything but facing that lingering lump in the back of my throat. Anything to take away the image of blue lips and fading life.

Anything but that terrifying night.

So, why am I writing again? Because I now realize the cost of that avoidance. It took falling in love again and hundreds of dollars in therapy (that tab will climb into the thousands no doubt) to figure out just what my fleeing mind was buying me.

Let’s start with anxiety. I had my first panic attack a couple of months after Jon’s death. I couldn’t tell you what triggered it in that moment, but what I know is I thought I was going to join him in the afterlife. It took two very good and loyal friends and a couple of cups of hot tea to finally feel like my chest wasn’t going to collapse.

More followed. Over and over. Each time I thought I was going to collapse never to wake up again. Just like Jon. The feeling sent me to a strange emergency room in Orlando. It sent me to a walk-in clinic for a round of un-necessary tests confirming that, no, I was not dying. It took me to the pharmacy to fill a prescription of Xanax to push the anxiety out of the way.

More avoidance.

By the time a new love came into my life I had become so good at avoiding I thought I was better. I savored every single second of falling again. Falling in love with him was the most incredible feeling I think I’ve ever experienced, save maybe for childbirth. Not that I love him anymore than I love Jon (I’m intentionally not using the past tense), it’s just that it was so much more savory the second time around. I never thought I would feel that again, yet there I was, enamored, speechless. My heart fluttered and it wasn’t because of panic. My stomach did flip-flops when I saw him and it wasn’t anxiety.

I got to enjoy that feeling for far too short a time before the panic and anxiety overcame me again.

We had made the decision, probably far more prematurely than conventional wisdom holds, to move in together. One day when we were shopping for paint colors for the home we were planning to move into it hit me again. Like a violent punch to the head the dizziness came rushing back. The world spinned and I was on the verge of losing consciousness. Probably not really, but that’s how it felt. My chest tightened, my breath grew shallow and my heart raced while simultaneously feeling like it had stopped altogether. And it all circled and overcame me in unison. I was powerless to stop it.

It happened like that for months. It would come on in the most unexpected of places and scenarios. There didn’t seem to be triggers. Over time I learned to push the anxiety down. I learned how to not let it turn into a full-blown panic attack, but it became, more and more with each passing day, a constant struggle to keep it at bay.

I was never at peace, always waiting for the next panic attack. Sleep was my only solace. But then that got taken away.

The panic and anxiety started creeping its way into bedtime. My pillow became a prison where the second I lay my head down, no matter how good I felt, no matter how tired I was, dizziness and fear overcame my every thought. Each time I got close to drifting to sleep, my mind jerked me back to the dark room.

It was worse at that hour. There was no one to talk to. Nothing to distract me from the panic. The house was quiet and I couldn’t snap to my typical therapies to trick my mind. Doing the dishes at 3 in the morning would surely wake and worry someone in the house. Laundry was out of the question. I was too tired to work. So I just laid there most nights, staring at the ceiling, trying to learn how to live with the panic.

The nights when I did sleep, there were nightmares. Sleep evaded me nearly every single night. It made me irritable to my kids and to my new partner in this world. It made me distracted during work. It made my quality of work suffer. Everything around me was falling victim to my unrelenting anxiety.

One morning I couldn’t take it anymore. The exhaustion of going months without a decent night’s sleep had made it literally painful to function. I was so tired all I could think of was sleep. But I couldn’t sleep because my brain wouldn’t let me.

That’s when I decided to swallow my pride, admit that this isn’t normal, or OK and get help. Enter the expensive therapy.

I’m about a month and a half in at this point. The weekly sessions were giving me a decent amount of relief. I fell asleep just a little sooner and woke up in the middle of the night just a little less often, but sleep was still a place I feared. I still wasn’t getting the rest I needed.

We spent time talking about stress I could control. We talked about getting into healthier sleep habits. The bed is for sleep and sex, I was told. No more laptop in bed. No more episodes of House of Cards late at night to entertain my insomnia. If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and do something supremely boring until you can think of nothing better than sleep.

No more caffeine. No alcohol past dinner. Chamomile, OK, but the honey in it no. Establish a bedtime. Get up at the same time every day. It was a long list. But it helped even though I cheated from time to time.

And then there was this realization: I’m afraid to sleep.

Falling asleep is something people don’t really notice happening. Kind of like you don’t notice your brain telling you to breath or your heart to pump. These are basic functions of life that just happen. We know our brain is at the control panel, but we don’t actually feel it happening.

But I could when it came time for bed. I could feel every beat of my heart and every compression of my lungs and when I started to drift off, I felt it happening. The second I felt it, I would become – still become – filled with fear. That’s when I’d jerk myself back into the land of the living. Sleep, I had apparently decided, is where people go to die.

This all came out today. I won’t get into too many more specifics, but the revelation led me into a two-hour session instead of a one-hour session and hosted in a series of exercises aimed at redirecting my thoughts. Replacing the bad with the good. Keeping good memories and learning to cope with the bad.

To do that I was hoisted into that terrifying night over and over. I was told to remember it in pain staking detail. The parts that most terrified and upset me, remember those the most. Feel them. Let them consume me. That’s what I had to do.

I was in tears, inconsolable. It hurt like a thousand knives tearing into the flesh around my heart. My throat ached with dread. My brain reeled painful memory after painful memory and for the first time since Jon died I truly confronted what I had avoided for nearly two years.

I wasn’t able to stop it. I wasn’t able to slow it. I couldn’t get up and wash a dish or go for a bike ride. I had to sit there and let it consume me. When it was all done I sat on a couch in my therapist’s office with a lap full of soaked tissues. My eyes burned from crying, but I still wanted to cry more.

I was consumed with heartache. But the one thing that wasn’t there for the first time in as long as I can remember was anxiety.

I imagine it will come back at some point. But for now it’s gone. I’m still sad. I took myself on an emotional rollercoaster confronting demons I had spent months and months warding off. The panic was a result of that.

I don’t know how long it will take me to really beat this, but I do know one thing. I’ve never been so happy to cry. The liberation of living, for the first time in months, without constant panic and anxiety, is worth a good cry. I don’t like remembering what happened that night. It hurts like hell to think about and fills me with sorrow, but sorrow, I’ve learned, is better than panic. And the best part is, if I just keep letting the sadness come out, eventually it won’t be so painful.

I thought being sad was some sort of loss. I thought I had somehow been defeated if I didn’t carry on like the good little trooper everyone thought I was. But I was fooling you all and, worse, I was fooling myself. I’m not being defeated by being sad, I’m healing.

I just wish I had discovered this much, much earlier.