How Anxiety Changed my Life: Part 2

Dad (aka Santa Clause) and I at Christmas.
Dad (aka Santa Claus) and I at Christmas.

My dad suffered from anxiety since his early 40s. He was not alone. His siblings, his father, and his grandfather suffered from anxiety, too. Their legacy was to continue with me.

When both my father and mother realized I was showing signs of anxiety, they shared with me the techniques Dad had learned from a cassette tape and video he acquired from his doctor. Dad taught me the breathing techniques that worked for him. He taught me how to use them to help control my sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight or flight response in your body. I tried it and it helped… but many years later. At the time I was like the typical person that wanted instant results. The video, on the other hand, was supposed to help relax my mind and body. Instead, It was like tie-dye in motion and it made me feel more anxious. It was not a good solution for me.

I knew I needed to find solutions that worked for me. I didn’t want to rely on synthetic drugs and I wanted to take a holistic approach to relieve my symptoms of anxiety. I did some research on the internet on how to deal with it. One website suggested repetitive motion, like sweeping the floor. Other suggestions were meditation, yoga, or cardiovascular exercise.

I took the simple approach and started with kids coloring books and crayons. The repetitive motion of coloring seemed to calm my nerves. Then again, once I graduated, left my job, and got married the anxiety was happening less. I thought, “Yeah! I’m cured!” Unfortunately, this was not the case.

After the wedding we lived with my parents. During this time the movers came and packed up John’s apartment in Salem and my things at my parent’s house in Lowell. Our stuff was on its way to West Virginia. In the meantime, we lived at my parent’s house yet spent a lot of our time traveling back and forth between Massachusetts and our new state. Eventually we found a place to live in: a quiet neighborhood in Martinsburg about 15 minutes away from John’s new job. It would be ours for the next three and half years.

New Year’s Eve of 2007 came quickly and my brother Albert and his beautiful wife Stacy had a party. I was excited to be closing the year with my family because we were leaving soon after. We spent the following day with my family. It was bittersweet. I was starting a new life with my new husband but I was going to live 500 miles away from everything I knew.

January 2, 2008, was a cool brisk day in New England. John and I loaded up our vehicles, said our final goodbyes, and drove 8 hours south to Martinsburg. We each had a walkie talkie so we could communicate while on the road. After a couple of stops and many hours later, we finally arrived. We took refuge in a hotel off the I-80 in Martinsburg courtesy of my parents.

The next morning we woke with great anticipation and excitement. We were off to sign papers for our first house and get the keys. That night we slept on a blow up mattress and ordered take out. The next day we were ready for our belongings to be delivered to our new home. What a mess…ugh!

The next few months were dedicated to cleaning, opening boxes, and finding a place for our stuff. It was a bigger challenge than I anticipated. This was my first move after all. I decided not to work right away because I wanted time to recover from my burn out.

After a couple of months I was getting bored staying home all the time. I wanted to poke my eyeballs out so I started the search. I was looking for a volunteer job that would support my recently acquired degree in graphic design. Let’s face it folks, there are not a lot of graphic design jobs in “Wild and Wonderful” West Virginia. I most certainly was done with retail.

I found a volunteer job with the American Red Cross. I met with the local chapter and they gave me a chance. When I met the other employees there was one person that I got a bad feeling about. I dismissed it because everyone seemed to like her. I put that aside and focused on my work. I helped design a billboard, did layout for an advertisement book, helped with Red Cross mailings and so much more. One day I was asked to do cold calls to try and raise funds. The thought of doing this made me nervous but I felt I had to do it. This trigged the start of a long run of anxiety and panic attacks.

It was terrible.

I couldn’t leave the house. I was a hermit. It was so bad I couldn’t go grocery shopping. I would have to tell myself I was going for John so I could fill the fridge with food.

Around this same time I was having physical issues. I would eat something that was fatty and couldn’t stand up straight after. The pain in my left side ran across my stomach to my right side. I had pain in my right shoulder. I slowly stopped eating foods that were high in fat. I started to loose weight. I finally went to the doctor and they determined I had a diseased gallbladder. Bottom line: it wasn’t working. The gallbladder stores bile. When you eat, bile is transferred to your stomach to break down the fats in the food. That was not happening for me.

On February 6, 2009, I had my gallbladder removed. After that my diet was limited. I could only eat plain chicken, turkey, rice, noodles and potatoes. That is all I ate. My acid reflux was a nightmare and my digestion was way wonky. Over the next year, I lost more than 70 pounds. The doctors could not figure out why I kept loosing weight.

Although the doctors could not determine why, I thought it was because 3 years earlier I had half my thyroid taken out. Although I only had half, I suspected I suffered from hyperthyroidism. This disease increases your metabolism, makes your heart race, and so much more. They wanted to put me on medication but I said no. Instead, I tried to handle it on my own. However, my anxiety got even worse. So much so I had to drive myself to the emergency room because my arms would go numb and I thought I was having a heart attack.

But I didn’t.

I became more sheltered in our home and was nervous about every little pain or twinge in my body. It was about a year and half since we moved to Martinsburg and my “condition” was wearing thin on my husband. He didn’t know what to do. I was an exposed nerve and there was nothing that comforted me. Unfortunately this provoked a fight between us. I won’t get into the details but lets say it wasn’t pleasant. The silver lining was that it was a turning point for me.

Me in massage school before graduation.
Me in massage school before graduation.

I cried myself to sleep every night for the next two weeks begging God to point me in the direction I needed to go in. One night, out of the blue, I had my “AH-HA” moment. I wanted to be a massage therapist. I could work with people and help them in an environment that wouldn’t be stressful.

I found a few schools in our area. There was one school that stood out to me. It was a 7 month program and the cost of tuition included everything. The only thing was that it was an hour away in Frederick, Maryland. We visited the school and signed me up. I was excited and nervous but ready to move forward with my life. I was excited to learn a new trade that I could use wherever I went.

About 2 months into the program, I allowed a fellow student to perform energy work on me. Energy work is defined as “the techniques originating from ancient traditions and recent discoveries that are used to manipulate the bioenergy of the patient with the goal of restoring harmony or removing blockages from within the body.” She was not trained and I shouldn’t have let her. I didn’t feel the effects right away. It wasn’t until after I got home from school that I started to feel the symptoms. I started having pain in the center of my stomach. My eyes felt like lead weights and it seemed like I was looking through a fish bowl. I couldn’t stop crying and shaking. She worked on me on a Friday and by Monday I was a mess. I had to call John at work and ask him to come and get me at school because I couldn’t drive home. John immediately brought me to my chiropractor and he balanced my energy and realigned my body.

I was not the same after I had that energy work done on me. There were certain students I couldn’t be around or bare to have touch me. Every day for two months straight I had anxiety and panic attacks – two to three times a day. It always seemed to happen when it was time to get on the table and get a massage. Someone would touch me and I would start to get nervous and want to run.

One day a new instructor came in. She knew our current instructor because she taught her the art of massage when she was in school. She saw me having trouble and had me lay on my back. She held my feet and took hold of my toes. One by one, she gently squeezed each one, moving from my little toes to my big. It was weird but I felt better. She told me she was performing zero balancing on me. The definition of Zero Balancing is: A powerful body-mind therapy that uses skilled touch to address the relationship between energy and structures of the body. Following a protocol that typically lasts 30 to 45 minutes, the practitioner uses finger pressure and gentle traction on areas of tension in the bones, joints and soft tissue to create fulcrums, or points of balance, around which the body can relax and reorganize.

A week or so later, I was having another anxiety attack. Out of nowhere, my new instructor said, “You know this is a gift?” I thought, “Are you nuts? I can do without the anxiety gift, thank-you very much!” As it turns out, she was right. I’ll get into that more later.

I still had no idea at this time I was an empath. My instructors suggested I try acupuncture. That also helped my anxiety. Later on, I also took a class called Energetic Core. It was all about different meditations and how to keep myself centered and balanced.

After a long 7 months in massage school, I finally became a certified massage therapist. Two months later I passed the National exam and got licensed in the state of West Virginia. I got my first job with a chiropractor and then a second as a sub contractor. For the next 7 months I worked as a massage therapist. Unfortunately I was still having anxiety and panic attacks.

In June of 2011, John received orders again. This time we moved to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to the island of Oahu in Hawai`i. Moving to the island was like moving to the center of an energetic tornado. But I’ll explain more about that next time.

To be continued

Tips for Dealing with Anxiety

IMG_0187In 2010 I was living in Martinsburg, West Virginia and traveling an hour to Frederick, Maryland to attend Central Maryland School of Massage.
My fellow students and I were excited about exploring a new way to make a living and I looked forward to it. During one of the classes, one of my friends thought it would be a good idea to introduce me to energy work. I didn’t know much about it so said yes. Unfortunate for me, she was not trained or had much experience. As it turned out, I did not respond well to the experience. The energy work opened me up to months of extreme anxiety and panic attacks. Needless to say, I take responsibility for not asking questions and probably shouldn’t have given my authority away to someone else.

Word of caution: You should not practice any kind of modality on your friends and family without proper supervision if you are just learning or without proper accreditations. By modalities I mean energy work, massage, and chiropractic. You can seriously injure someone if you don’t understand the proper and safe ways to practice. 

As a result  of my bad experience, I was desperate to find ways to deal with what I was feeling. One day after school I came home in complete terror. It was a major panic attack and I was crying uncontrollably. I had to find a way to ease my pain.

IMG_0197I found a blank journal I had bought years ago. I grabbed scissors, glue, a few old magazines, and some paint samples from the back of the drawer. We had already painted the rooms in our house so we’d probably throw them out anyway. I started cutting out positive words and images. I glued them into the journal in such a way that they created positive messages to focus on. It represented my wishes, hopes, and dreams for myself. I wanted these words to reflect the person I was wanted to be in the future. I wanted affirmations to inspire and to illuminate. I wanted these words to lead me down that dark tunnel and into the light – even though I wasn’t fully convinced it would at the time.

I often pull out that old journal and remind myself of the future I imagined. I think it’s been helping, although there is still plenty of room to develop that dream further. Since staring it, I have added messages to myself, song lyrics, and thought-provoking quotes.

IMG_0206I encourage my readers to do the same. Find ways to express yourself and how you are feeling. If a journal isn’t your style, you can take up painting, poetry writing, playing a musical instrument, hiking, exercising or even blog writing. Tap into your passion for life and express yourself in ways that are healing and for your highest good.

Much love and hugs!

The Anxiety of Living with Someone with Anxiety

usOnce upon a time I met a girl named Christine…

She was funny yet direct, demanding yet loving, and had a sparkling spirit that manifested in a very busy life. She worked full time at a retail store in Nashua, New Hampshire yet attended Salem State College full time. She was working on her second Bachelor’s degree. Christine spent much of her off-time commuting between the two locations, working on her degree program, visiting family in Lowell, and supporting a very needy boyfriend: me.

We were two peas in a pod: highly motivated but dangerously passionate. I was working full time with the Coast Guard in Boston and looked forward to attending Brandeis University in the fall. My employers were going to fund my Master’s degree as a fulltime student. I was looking forward to the change.

We fell in love. For a short time, everything was perfect. We ate pizzas at my apartment while watching American Idol. We’d throw in an occasional horror movie and cuddle on the couch. We even spent a weekend looking for covered bridges up north. Romance was in the air and we loved it.

Christine started to show signs of strain when she called me one day in tears from the highway. She said her heart was racing and felt as if she were dying. Not fully understanding the problem, I stayed on the phone with her until she arrived at my apartment. Later on that evening, when the symptoms didn’t subside, we went to the emergency room. After the usual long wait, she finally saw the nurse. “You just had a panic attack,” she said as if it were no big deal.

I felt the same way: it was no big deal. Christine was just tired and needed to rest. She’d be fine the next day. We’d get back to eating pizzas and watching scary movies in no time.

But we never did. Instead of getting better, she only got worse. Looking back on it, I was no help whatsoever. Instead of patience, I pushed. Instead of support, I demanded. Her expressions of fear led to resentment. “We had plans,” I’d say. “Why do you keep screwing up my plans?”

It was her fault that our life wasn’t going my way.

Despite my nasty disposition, she still agreed to marry me. However, instead of starting our new life in wedded bliss, it was horrible. The Coast Guard relocated us to Martinsburg, West Virginia, away from her family and away from her support system. All three of us were thrust together in an alien landscape: she, her “issue”, and I.

Someone had to go.

Within the first six months, I thought for sure it would be me. I even threatened to leave if she didn’t get her act together. But I didn’t. Neither did she or it.

It’s been part of our life ever since.

There is nothing wrong with feeling anxious. We feel it all the time. Sometimes we are afraid or nervous or concerned. It’s our mind’s way of protecting ourselves from harm. Problems happen when normal anxiety turns into something more: a disorder. Disorders are mental or behavioral patterns that impair a person’s ability to function from day-to-day. Christine most likely suffers from what’s called Panic Disorder. Panic Disorder is defined as “…spontaneous seemingly out-of-the-blue panic attacks and are preoccupied with the fear of a recurring attack. Panic attacks occur unexpectedly, sometimes even during sleep.”

Science is vague about what prompts anxiety disorders in some people but not in others. It could be chemical, it could be environmental, it could be lifestyle, or it could be genetics. Sometimes it accompanies other disorders like depression or substance abuse and sometimes it doesn’t. It could be all of these or none of these. Nevertheless, it is real.

The most important thing to understand about Panic Disorder, or any other anxiety-related disorder for that matter, is that it’s completely outside a person’s control. Worse yet, it can’t be avoided. In other words, you either get it or you don’t. It can happen unexpectedly, too. It’s not age or stress dependent. If it happens, it happens.

There are methods for managing the disorder but none can cure it. Pharmaceuticals, the easy out, are not necessarily the right answer. Many come with side effects that are significantly worse than the disorder itself. Just ask my wife.

Living with someone with Panic Disorder is not easy because you need to readjust your life to accommodate his or hers. For someone like me with a long history in the military, it’s even harder. All that structure, planning, and control is tossed out the window in favor of pure chaos.

And I hate it.

Do you have any idea what it’s like to leave for work at 5 a.m. in the morning as your wife is weeping in your arms because she had a panic attack while she slept? Or when you get a phone call from school because she is so panic-stricken that she can’t drive?

Do you have any idea how hard it is to convince someone they are not going to die?

This is what it’s like to be married to a girl with anxiety. It’s a day-to-day battle where everything and anything goes. The worst part is its unpredictability. Christine could be doing exactly the same thing today as she was yesterday but react completely different. She could be laughing one minute and crying the next. It’s frustrating and painful. It leaves me feeling highly stressed and completely helpless.

I don’t like that, either.

The big question is why I didn’t leave her in West Virginia and avoid the whole mess completely. It’s a difficult question to answer but its roots lie in one simple fact: I had been married twice before and was not going to have my third fail. I was determined to make it work regardless of the consequences to either of us.

And I’m glad I did.

Although the last 8 years have been a roller coaster of highs and lows, I learned a lot about my wife’s anxiety disorder and myself. I learned that these disorders are very common and affect other people I know. More importantly, I learned that the girl and the panic are two separate things. Christine is a loving and charming person who happens to suffer from panic attacks. It’s not her fault. She didn’t ask for it and I shouldn’t blame her for it.

Yes, life has changed. I’ve had to reconsider my long-term plans in favor of singular events. But even those need a contingency plan so I’m always prepared to walk away. I’ve become more patient and supportive. Instead of resisting massage, acupuncture, and holistic healing, I look at them through her eyes: methods for bringing relief and better understanding. I’ve learned that it’s okay to do things on my own and not feel guilty about it. I’ve also learned to always carry a cell phone.

The moral of this story is quite simple: Love is not easy. If you truly care about someone, you have a duty to remain steadfast and determined yet remain open to change – regardless of how big or how broad. There is absolutely no way of knowing what the future will be like and you can’t run from it. A strong person will persevere, a weak person will not.

I am very proud of Christine. Despite her struggle with anxiety, she, too, has remained steadfast and determined. Her willingness to share her story with the world – a very tough choice to make, by the way – is admirable. Like her, I hope her story can help others suffering with similar issues.

In the end, I can think of no better person I’d like to spend the rest of my life with than Christine.

Thanks, Snuggle Bunny, I love you!