Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Absurdity of Anxiety

I have to find the humor in this, because sometimes (always?) anxiety is just ridiculous. Let's set the scene. Yesterday morning I had been to the cardiologist for a very real reason. My heart recently has decided it no longer likes it's cozy little home, and occasionally lets me know this by either trying to pound right out of my chest (aka palpitations), or taking off like a jet engine (aka tachycardia). Being someone who has GAD, I can assure you that it's no small feat to conquer the fear that every time this happens, I'm having a heart attack and am going to die. The cardiologist, being a good doctor, told me my condition most likely something called Supra ventricular Tachycardia (SVT), and that it's not fatal. He ordered some tests to confirm the diagnosis. So, whew. SVT might feel like I'm having a heart attack and dying, but I'm not actually. For once, my anxiety listed and CTFD.

So, not having anything to obsess over health-wise, my GAD found something new. I had also been to urgent care, because I had the worst sore throat in my entire life. During my visit, the NP apologetically told me that I had a virus, and I had to let it run its course. She offered me steroids (NOPE), to which I stared horrified at her, at which point she realized that I was one of the lucky few who had terrible side effects. Oh, did I mention that steroids exacerbate SVT, and being on those is when I had my first episode? No? Ah, well. Chicken, meet egg. But I digress.

Being a good NP, Stella graciously informed me of things for which I should be on the lookout as signs that my virus has morphed into something worse. "Aha!" my GAD said. "I'm going to subconsciously file this away and freak out about it later!" One of those signs was swelling in the neck behind the jaw.

So, fast forward a few hours. Last night's episode of "What is Brooke's anxiety induced hypochondria think she's dying of now?" was titled "Is that a double-chin, or is my tongue trying to kill me‽"

I spent 5 minutes staring in the mirror, poking and prodding at my double chin, which miraculously
The culprit.
before last night, I had never noticed (lucky me?). The entire time, my mind is racing. The thought process went something like this:

Is that a double chin, or is that swelling from my tongue? I didn't know I have a double chin. Poke it. Does it feel like swelling? Move your tongue up and down with your mouth closed. It moves up. Would it do that if it were swelling. Pinch it. Push on it. If that's a double chin, how come I haven't noticed it before? I surely would have noticed. It's not a double chin. That's swelling. I know it. Should I go to the ER? What if I go and they tell me how stupid I am and that they're examining a double chin?  Oh! I'm bound to have some recent pictures of myself. Better go inspect those to see if you can see your double chin in any of those pictures. Best be sure before you find yourself stuck with a $200 ER bill for a double chin.

At that point, I spent the next ten minutes combing through any recent picture I can find. I checked the pictures on my phone. Not surprisingly, most of those were selfies with my kids. As we try to put our best face forward, I could see no sign of a double chin. "Well shit." I thought. "Check Facebook." None of those are good. "Check Oscar's Google Photo stash." Eventually, I convince myself that I do, in fact, have a double chin. Of course, the entire time, I'm also putting my breathing under a microscope to determine if I'm being choked to death by my tongue. "Is my tongue closing up?" "Am I really having a harder time breathing than before?" "Is that soreness new, or is that still residual soreness from my throat?"

Finally, I decide not to take myself to the ER. Instead, I hop in bed with my handy-dandy cell phone and spend the next 20 minutes Googling pictures of swollen chins, necks, and tongues in a last-ditch effort to convince myself my tongue isn't trying to kill me.

So, for those keeping track, I spent about 35-45 minutes obsessing over whether or not my double chin was trying to kill me.

This, my friends, is anxiety. I can laugh about it now, because as a rational human being I recognize the absurdity of it all. But I can assure you that in the moment, it's no laughing matter. The feelings, thoughts, and fears are real.  And it's completely absurd. 

Friday, January 26, 2018

From the Broken to the Sublime
Image courtesy NASA
Since my revelation earlier this week, I have been inundated with people who have not only offered words of support and encouragement, but also their own heartbreaking stories of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. Stories about parents who should have protected their children, but instead couldn't fix their own issues and resorted to abuse. The stories are all strikingly similar; parents are dealing with their own issues and took it out on their kids. Kids who were the ones who shouldn't have had to shoulder the burden of their parents' emotional scars, but were taught otherwise. We learned that parents aren't to be trusted for emotional well being or support. Some of us came to the realization at a young age, and thus had to grow up way before their years. Others had family who appeared to support them, only to reveal in their early adulthood that their love was conditional on them fitting a prescribed mold the parents decided they needed to fit.

My heart breaks for each and every one of these (now) adults. Each and every one of us struggle with the emotional scars of our experiences. Yet, somehow, we have all found a way to move forward; to be more than the sum of our upbringing. To figure out how to make ourselves whole, despite the numerous holes that have been left in our souls. We have looked at our emotional scars and have decided that, although they make up the fabric of our being, they don't have to define us. Some of us are parents; some are not. We are all in various stages of acceptance at our situations. Some are in the throes of trying to salvage what remains of the the parent-child relationship. Some of us have realized that there is nothing left to salvage; that it's better to write it off than try to fix that which is unfix-able.

What I have learned through all of this is that humans are far more resilient than I could have ever imagined. Many of us have overcome our parents' betrayal. We have realized that we are worth more than our experiences have led us to believe. It has been a humbling and encouraging experience to realize that not only am I not alone, but that so many have had to overcome their experiences to become some really amazing human beings. For those of us who are parents, that struggle becomes multiplied, if only because we have to overcome our lived experiences to realize that they weren't what was needed to create healthy, thriving adult human beings. We have to struggle with our built-in, gut-check experiences to realize that what has been so ingrained in our minds is not the way to protect our own loved ones from repeating the cycle. So, for every survivor who has overcome, I humbly bow down to you. You give me hope that it is possible to objectively observe, evaluate, and discard the default setting that was prescribed to us by the very people who were supposed to protect us.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Decisions, decisions, decisions

House gutted.Sunday night, while driving from one social occasion to another, a notification lit up on my phone. I barely saw the message "Is everyone in your family alright?" before it dimmed out of sight. "That's weird. I'll take a look when I get to my destination," I thought.

I arrive, turn off the car, and pick up the phone. "Is everyone in your family ok? Here in town?" It was a message from a high school friend who still lived in the area. "Uh, what?" "Oh shit. I thought you knew." "What now?" Knowing my family, it wouldn't have surprised me if something had gone terribly wrong. "The house is on fire? It's pretty bad." A linked Facebook video and a phone call to my stepmom later, I was calling area hospitals to find out where my dad was airlifted. AIRLIFTED.
People close to me know what a tortured relationship I have with my family. I haven't seen or spoken to my father in almost 10 years, and here I was on the phone with his doctor, being made primary point of contact in case of any problems. Being asked about medical history. I wasn't mentally prepared.

I feel like some context is needed. I moved out of my parent's house at the ripe age of 17, a mere 2 days after I graduated high school. I wasn't even old enough to vote, but I knew that for my own sanity I had to get out of there. My dad was an absent alcoholic who consistently beat up my stepmother. My stepmother was a physically abusive, emotionally neglectful parent. My house was a living hell. I was emotionally abandoned, to raise myself, when my oldest younger half brother was born. I was 11.5. I was desperate to have some sort of normalcy in my life, although I didn't have any idea what that meant. I have had minimal contact with anyone in that house since I left, nearly 22 years go. Since then, I have gone to college, gotten an advanced degree, found a career, and started a family.

So, that brings me to 48 hours ago. I get the message. I'm thrust into the drama, to no fault of my friend, who was only trying to be a good messenger. I text, and then get a call from my stepmother. Knowing my stepmom and dad have been separated for a few years, I get to hear all about how her belongings may have been ruined by the fire. Followed by how she wants a relationship with me. In the five minutes I've talked to her, she's managed to try to emotionally manipulate me, and not even figure out to which hospital my dad has been flown. The next day, she and my dad's twin sister go to visit him. He's stable, which is amazing, considering he was physically pulled out of the house by a neighbor. I get a call from an insurance collector, despite the fact that I had told my stepmom that I was done, and she needed to make sure she was the point of contact. Today, I get a text that stepmom has blocked my aunt from finding out about my dad's medical condition. My aunt. My dad's twin sister. The only person who has actually been a constant in my dad's life (see above about me not talking to him due to his alcoholism). And my stepmother, who has been legally separated from my dad for a number of years, has denied my aunt any information about my dad. I've had enough.

I set boundaries with my dad a long time ago. He was told, repeatedly, that as long as he succumbed to his disease, and was drunk, I wouldn't deal with him. And I've held to that. But there has always been a small part of me that had hoped he would get his shit together, and that one day we could try to have a relationship again. With my stepmom, it wasn't so straightforward. It took me a long time to realize that attempting to have a relationship with her wasn't a good idea for my psyche. There's too much damage there. Any attempt to have a 'normal' relationship with her would have been a farce, and for what? To say that I have an inauthentic relationship? No thank you. I was abused for way too long, and the damage to our relationship is irreparable.

I'm not convinced this episode will be my father's 'rock bottom.' The man is 65 years old, and has damage to his own psyche that he has never chosen to deal with or otherwise recognize. I can't say that he will actually sober up and deal with his emotions as a result of this incident. In fact, I fully suspect that I will one day get a call that his alcoholism has ended him. Whether that call is a week, a month, or years from now is anyone's guess. 

So there it is. In the words of a friend, I've chosen to orphan myself (my relationship with my biological mother is a completely different story, and a subject for a different post). It has been an extremely difficult decision to make, but I know it's the right one. I am becoming more comfortable with the idea that my dad will never get his shit together. The hope has faded.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Teaching Respect from an Early Age.

Bear with me. This was written about a month ago, but it's still relevant.

It has already begun. My child, not yet in kindergarten, now has a “me too” story. She told me last night about a boy in her class that is constantly calling her names that had to do with her butt. When I asked my daughter if she responded to the kid and told him how it made her feel, she said yes, but that he continues to do it. Cue the momma bear instincts. My child is 4 years old, nearly 5. I cannot believe that I’m having to help her through this at such a tender age. Her father and I counseled her to tell the boy that she didn’t like the way he talked to her, and to tell him that if he continues to talk to her that way, he will be ignored. That wasn’t enough for me, though. I had a talk with the kid’s teacher. The teacher assured me that it will be addressed, and that it’s not the first time this behavior from the kid has been called to her attention. The school in which our kids are enrolled has “character trait of the month” where kids learned different traits of being a good human. Apparently my daughter’s harasser missed the entire month where respect was being taught.
            And before you get all “they’re just kids being kids on me,” listen. This is where it starts. At 5, we dismiss a young man’s behavior as “a kid being a kid.” When kids get older, it’s “boys will be boys.” All of this conditions these children to believe that they can say (and sometimes do) whatever they want, regardless of how it impacts others, and without consequence. That has to stop now. As parents, it is our duty to enforce respect from the beginning. We do it when a young kid tries to take a toy away; we tell them they need to wait their turn. It should be no different when a child decides to call another a name, pick on, or otherwise tormeNnt another kid. Anti-bullying campaigns are a thing now. Because for years, parents outright dismissed bullying behavior.
As a society, we’re smarter now. We know the damage that can be done by leaving bullying unchecked. The same needs to be said about sexual harassment. A 5 year old might not be able to identify or explain sexual harassment. But by turning the other cheek and dismissing the behavior, we’re enforcing the seeds that enable harassment later in life. Now I’m not arguing that every 5 year old boy that calls someone a name is going to turn out to be a habitual harasser. But if we don’t teach them now that it’s inappropriate to call someone a name, particularly when the other child has already expressed that it makes them uncomfortable, then when will they be taught? We’re now seeing the outcome of rampant sexual harassment going unchecked in our society. These harassers have been conditioned that it’s their privilege to violate someone else’s space. I’m guessing none of them woke up at twenty and decided “You know what? I’m going to start sexually harassing people today.”
            It’s time we enforce the idea with our kids that everyone deserves to be treated with respect. That means if a person has told you a behavior is bothersome, it needs to stop. Even among siblings, a firm line should be set. What might seem ‘cute’ now has a chance to snowball into full on sexual harassment later. Now I’m no perfect parent. I struggle with drawing the line between sibling arguments and harassing behavior. I tend to be stricter with my children’s behavior toward kids that aren’t their family. But a near-5 year old might not be able to understand the subtle nuances between when it’s “okay” to taunt and when it’s not. I also realize my complicit enabling of this behavior with my son. He has picked up on the verbiage from his and my daughter’s classmate (my kids are twins, after all) and has said it to his sister, his father, and me. It took my daughter’s words to make me “woke.” It also forced me to recall all the times I was called names, particularly sexual in nature, by kids in my neighborhood. When I told my parents about it, guess what they said? “Oh, he must like you,” or “Oh, that’s just how boys are.” I certainly never condoned my son using the same words, but by not shutting it down, I was subtly telling him that it was ok to behave that way. This ends now. So, parents, I implore you to stay vigilant. Even words that might seem ‘cute’ now can be cutting, and behaviors that go unchecked from an early age can snowball. Let’s work together to change the narrative of sexual harassment.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Things that Make you go.. Hmmm.

I'm sitting on my couch, watching house remodeling shows on HGTV when a commercial comes on for Lowes, touting the 'need' to remodel a bathroom for a household of 4 people with 1 vanity. And I was struck in the face about the dichotomy of my life. Growing up, there were times that my family used food stamps to make ends meet. I lived in a trailer for some amount of time when I was in 1st grade, where we had to walk down to the shower house to get bathed because there was no running water in the shower in the winter. When we finally lived in a house that my family owned, it was a 3 bedroom, 1 bath, 1,200 square feet, 100 year old duplex that didn't even have a shower. As a teenager, I was privileged to live on the other side of the duplex, where there was at least a shower. Being the oldest and the only girl, I even had my own bedroom on the 3rd floor.

Flash forward to this evening. I'm sitting comfortably in my larger-than-needed, 3.5 bath house, and I'm watching this commercial going "WTF?. Since when does more than one bathroom sink in a house of 4 people become a 'need?'" And I feel so hypocritical. At what point in time did my norm of living go from a single bathroom for 6 people to a toilet for every member of my 4 person household? When did I drink the Kool-aid? I realize that I'm not alone. Average single-family houses have nearly doubled in square footage in the past 50 years1. So it leaves me with this question: What constitutes a 'need'? Clearly. My family doesn't need a toilet-per-person to survive. But somewhere along the lines, that became a just-what-you-do kind of situation. Am I ruining my children by providing them more than what they need to thrive? I'm already acutely aware that they will grow up way more privileged than me, given the contrast between my own and their upbringing. They will never experience what it's like to be made fun of because they went to school in ratty clothing. I'll never forget the moment in grad school, when a well-to-do roommate of mine asked me the question "Is this the nicest place you've ever lived in?" I had to think about it for a minute. I assessed the state of our 5-year old, builder grade2 townhouse and responded with a resounding "Yes." 

So here I am. Wanting to offer my kids the opportunities I never had in life, but also struggling with the feeling like I'm betraying the hard-learned, but very important lessons I learned about the true difference between "wants" and "needs." And I suppose I'm not really looking for an answer, per se. Because however we choose to teach our kids those important life lessons will all depend on so many different variables that it's impossible to predict them all. 

This is just the most recent instance of what I call "Things that make you go.. hmm."3

1. There are many statistics on this. I've seen them, but at the moment, I'm too lazy to go look them up. But don't take my word for it. Feel free to Google it yourself. 
2. The very fact that I know the definition of that phrase means one of two things - either I watch too many home renovation shows, or my privilege is showing. I think it's both. 
3. If you don't get this reference, you're either too old to too young to read my blog. ;-) Just kidding. It's a real thing though. I swear.    

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Processing the 2016 Election

Ironic that the name of my blog is "Nothing funnier than an angry muppet" and that's exactly who has been elected as the 45th POTUS. And in this instance, there's nothing funny about it.

I sat in disbelief as I watched the election results pour in last night. I thought, as I have all year, that I was living in a dream world - in joke land - and that at any moment the joke would be over. I went to bed before all of the results were in, but it wasn't looking good. The first thing I did this morning was check the election results. I was, and am, still in shock. Based on the news feed on Facebook today, I see that I'm not the only one.

It's taken me all morning to process how I feel about all of this. The shock is still there, but is wearing off, and it's giving me head space to untangle the web of emotions and fears that are swirling inside my brain.
My first thoughts were to start flexing my stoic muscles, and use these results to practice. I made a sign to remind me to let go of what I cannot control. I meditated on that for awhile. So far, it's not working. There's too much inside. So I took the approach of thinking about judgment. And the idea that things and events aren't inherently "good" or "bad" but it's our judgment about them that makes it one or the other. That has helped my perspective a little, but it hasn't quieted the voices that are screaming about these election results.

In any case, the voices aren't going to quiet down until I let them out. So here's where my ranting begins.

First and foremost, I'm afraid. Genuinely afraid. I'm afraid for myself, my family, my friends, and my country. I'm afraid that the fear-based violence that has gripped this country is only going to get worse. That people who are not able-bodied, cis, white, christian men are going to be targeted more virulently due to the empowerment that has been given to hate.

I'm also angry. So very angry. The thought that someone so vile, so narcissistic, so disgusting as Trump has been selected as the representative of our country. He embodies everything that is wrong with our society, all wrapped up in one neat orange package. Intolerance. Bigotry. Misogyny. Racism. Hate. Xenophobia. That is not who should be representing our great nation. I'm not denying that these qualities exist in some of our citizens; what infuriates me is that it has been brought to the front and center of our country, to be put on display as if it's something that we should be proud of. Especially when so many people are working so hard to eradicate these qualities in our country.

I'm also angry that some Trump supporters are touting the "it's not what he says, it's his platform that I'm behind." First, Trump has yet to put out a consistent, coherent, detailed plan about anything. So for someone to say that, all I hear is that they are projecting the qualities they wish Trump would embody and ignoring what is slapping them in the face. Trump's vitriol gave a voice to and empowered hate. Because of that alone, Trump should have never been given an ounce of validation. But he was featured non-stop because of his inflammatory and shocking comments.  There is no reason to have gone beyond this first deplorable layer to even try to understand a platform.

I'm also sad. Sad that I lack the words to explain to my young children what has happened. How we tout the values of respecting one another, being kind to people, and sticking up for those less fortunate, all while electing a man who has done none of the above. Fortunately, my children are a bit too young to understand Trump's explicit disregard for women as human beings. But if his presidency actually lasts four years (and let's hope it doesn't), I am certainly going to have to try to explain how this man is supposed to represent all of us - the best of us - sooner rather than later. And I have no tools in my toolbox for that.

I could go on. There's so much more that I am feeling, but I don't have the capacity to sort it out at the moment. Adding insult to injury, I literally just read how Trump has put a climate skeptic in charge of the EPA transition. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. I'm cried out for the time being. And now just numb.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Living with Anxiety

Image from CS Photography
It has only been about a year since I have realized that I have a serious problem with anxiety. There were signs years ago, as a young adult, but I had no idea what it was or that I was living through it. I have only made reference a few times, because it's not something that's easily understood by people who don't suffer. But, I wanted to give everyone an idea of what it is like to live through an anxiety disorder.

Imagine yourself lying on the ground with a 200 pound boulder on your chest. As much as you try, you cannot get up, and you cannot remove the boulder from your chest. On top of that, you have a constant buzzing in your head that feels like a series of electrodes that are strapped to the front, top, and back of your skull. You try to relax it away, but it doesn't stop. You try deep breathing. Meditation. Mindfulness. No matter what you try, it doesn't go away. You're angry. Irritable. Pissed off at your significant other, the dearest person in your life, for no reason.  Everything they say, do, or offer does nothing but make you madder. You feel like you might snap at any moment.

Those are the physical symptoms. Then there are the cognitive symptoms to deal with.

Your rational brain tells you that you're stupid.  That you need to just snap out of it. Your life is perfect. There's no reason to feel the way you're feeling. You suck at your life. You suck at your job. You're a fraud and it's just a matter of time before everyone figures that out. Every time you hear someone whisper, it's about you. About how you are fat. Or ugly. Or aren't dressed the right way. Every email you receive from your boss is hidden with innuendo. About how you're not really doing your job. About how you're not good enough. At any moment, you are going to be fired (see above about being a fraud).

Not every day is like that. Some days have the physical symptoms. Some days have the emotional ones. The worst days have both to such an extreme that you cannot focus, for it's nothing but fear that makes you function. Fear of failure. Fear of having real physiological problems (hello heart attack?). At the most extreme, you shut down completely. Unable to engage. You sleep, or sleep walk. Going through the motions. So overcome by the symptoms of anxiety that you are like a walking zombie.

And the loved ones that surround you only want to make you better. They want to offer words of encouragement. Words of love and help. And as much as you understand where they are coming from, you can't help but feel that they are coming from a point of pity. Because the anxiety tells you lies. That you are unworthy. That everyone hates you. That everyone thinks the worst of you because of that one thing you might have said or done that one time. Events from the past become instant replays that play over and over and over again. Obsession about what you did (or didn't do) become the forefront of your mind.

If you're lucky, you witness this as if from an outside party. You watch yourself go through these symptoms and think "just snap out of it." "This is ridiculous and not reality." "There is no reason to feel like this." Except that you can't. The obsessive thoughts and physiological symptoms are uncontrollable. As much as you will, breathe, mentally stop yourself from being there, you're there. There's nothing you can do about it. You have to live it and deal with it.

I like to believe that I've gotten quite good at recognizing when the anxiety monster is taking over. But sometimes, the side effects of anxiety take over and you are unable to see it for what it really is. Those days are the ones where you want to be somebody, anybody else. To not be the person you are. You yell. You scream. You retreat. You shut down. You scare your family. Anxiety robs you of your fundamental self. Of your carefree, loving, understanding self. You hope that one day, maybe, your family can understand what it is that you're going through, and that it's not your fault.

I have had some family members and friends to thank for helping me realize that I have been struggling with this demon for too long, and that these thoughts, actions, and feelings are all part of the anxiety. I am in the process of understanding and dealing with my anxiety. I say 'dealing' because I have come to quickly realize that there is no real control. As much as my cognitive, rational brain would like to believe it, this is one particular area of my life under which I have absolutely no control. If I did, I would not continue to live through these symptoms the way I have for at least a third (if not half, at this point) of my life.

I want to let people know that if you suffer with anxiety, it's not your fault. It's not within your control. It's not even rational. And all of that sucks. But understanding it and dealing with its consequences will be key to living a fulfilling life, anxiety and all. I am on my journey. It will be a lifelong journey, filled with peaks and valleys. And I am dealing with it the best I can.