Monday, April 23, 2012

My Panic

I have panic disorder. I have to be really careful about my stress level. It's difficult to get other people to understand the disorder and that it's real--what it means to not truly be in control of your brain, of your emotions, of your heart rate. A few people have witnessed me in the middle of an attack, several have seen the after effects, probably without realizing it. An attack's after effects can last for days, sometimes even weeks. A succession of attacks renders me pretty much useless as a human being. Since becoming a mother, that last statement is pretty scary. I am intensely lucky that I have Birch. He knows me and has learned over the years to watch me closely in situations he has learned to be stressful for me. He knows how to relax me and knows when he needs to step in, telling me to walk away, telling me when I need to re-prioritize. 

A panic attack makes my stress feel like a heart attack. It makes me breathe so quickly and forcefully that I feel as if I am about to die. It took me over a year to convince my own brain that I wasn't actually dying when this happened. That it was something outside myself. That it wasn't real and that if I just kept breathing I would be fine. 

Back before I knew what these attacks were I was a mess. Understandably, at the time I felt crazy. Loony-bin crazy. After an attack I would spend days wondering what had just happened to me. Was I losing my mind? When "Girl, Interrupted" came out, I was terrified. As a teenager I looked for comfort in the WRONG places. My high school boyfriend didn't know what to make of my attacks anymore than I did, so we both feared them without knowing what they were. We both thought I would actually die during one of them. I never told my parents how bad things were for me. I never told my siblings. 

Finally, in college, I went to a therapist. She figured it all out pretty quick. I'm pretty sure all I said was, "So I have these anxiety attacks where I feel like I'm really going to die..." 
She stopped me, asked how long this had been going on. 
"Umm... for a really long time. At least since sixth grade." 
She stared at me. "How old are you?" 
"Twenty-two." I explained more about what each experience was like, that I was prone to having these attacks several times a week, and in especially bad times, several times a day. 
"You have Panic Disorder."

Since marrying, I've become more open about the fact that I have the disorder. I'm better at recognizing the symptoms before things get too crazy. I'm a pro at warning Birch when my heart rate starts to accelerate for no apparent reason. I don't take medication for it. Not yet. For now I seem to get through it okay with breathing exercises I learned back in high school. I've promised both my doctor and the kids' pediatrician that if things get to be too much I will start medicating. 

After nearly four years of marriage, Birch and I are starting to figure out how to truly cope with the disorder. It affects the whole family, so it's Priority One in this house. When "outsiders" see us coping with it, I feel they often misinterpret it as me being the classic ball and chain, etc. But, marriage is hard. Relationships are hard. You learn little tricks about each other that others won't understand. When a comment is made, Birch and I tend to look at each other knowingly and laugh good-naturedly (we hope) at the observation. Sometimes it's just not worth tackling at that exact moment. Since having Frida, both Birch and I have been struggling to keep up with the demand. Learning to juggle two children, a dog, chickens, work, cleaning house, bills, taxes, etc., has been a serious struggle. Especially considering the serious lack of sleep. We just had Keats' second birthday party. It was a wonderful day and everything went quite well, but the lead-up was excruciating. At least for me. That is why my disorder has been so on my mind lately. Birch congratulated me several times on Saturday, remarking on how well I was doing, keeping myself from stressing out. The first hour or two of the party was crazy town, but other than that it went well. It felt really good to feel the stress build then just melt away as I decided to not let it stress me out. This was new for me--this control.

I think that working to create a routine in my daily life has really helped me prioritize and figure out what goals are practical and in what order they should be tackled. Figuring out how to do this has been vital to my mental health and I'm quite grateful to this project for helping me reorganize my house and my brain!

I'll probably write about Panic Disorder again in the future, so stay tuned. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. I'll try to compile some sources I feel are helpful to understanding the disorder, etc.

These days "stress-free" seems like a lot to ask, so I'll wish you a "managed stress" day instead. ;)

All love and hope you and yours are doing fabulously.


  1. Kristine! I don't know if you know this, but I have panic disorder too. I had agoraphobia with daily panic attacks for a year and was housebound. I actually briefly hospitalized myself because I didn't know how to cope. My whole life is geared toward managing my anxiety. I think most people don't get this. I *have* to be conscious of sleep, nutrition, and even sometimes what stories or news I read. I also use herbal teas (I have a big day tomorrow, so I drank a pot of mint and catnip), tinctures, meditation, prayer, sobriety, all sorts of stuff! And I was in lots of therapy, the longest and most recent was for four years. If you ever want to talk about this stuff, I'd be happy to talk with someone who can understand. (I'm happy to talk to folks who don't understand, too, but it's so rare and awesome for me to talk to someone who gets it.) Love, R

  2. I deal with this stuff too. Social anxiety disorder, so said the therapist when I was younger. Cognitive behavioral techniques helped a lot, but what's really helped more than anything else is educating myself on a few Buddhism-oriented tenets and techniques. I've read a handful of books on the hows and whys of being present, letting go of expectations, and approaching everything with an open, compassionate heart. It's hard, and I fail most of the time, but it's there for me when I need it. I find that the vast majority of my stress is borne out of things not going the way I wanted, planned or expected. Even the tiniest thing can send me spiraling, but if I let go of all that and just BE, then there's nothing to be stressed about, because all there is is that one moment. And you have to enjoy it and smile, because that's literally all there is. I meditate too (sometimes), and that's helping my mind slowly but surely start to clear out and calm down. The books I read on how this is all now being proven by traditional western medicine techniques were startling and invigorating. You can truly rewire your brain.

    Anyway I'm sure I'm starting to ramble now, but like I said, it's helped me more than any other technique, any therapy or any medication. I don't have your life, so I can't say what would work for you -- and I think you're smart, brave and bold, and can't imagine trying to juggle what you have. But I wanted to share anyway. <3 juli