Treating Anxiety, Part III: Lyme disease

treating-anxiety

“I just have a deep sense, a deep inner-knowing, that I am safe in this world now,” I told my mother one day in early 2013. It was true. For a girl who seriously suffered from panic attacks and PTSD, I had gotten so far in life.  I had worked through my issues very seriously, utilizing everything from medication to meditation, and it was all proving worth it.  Life’s anxiety inducing situations rarely spun me into a panic— deep down I could feel that the Universe was my ally, not my enemy. My risk-taking, fear-facing, and spirit-searching had left me with (what seemed like) an excess of emotional and physical freedom. And I attached to that freedom like it was my identity,  endlessly exploring my options, hopping the fences that said “no entry,”  and following my heart’s desire to go to the parts of the Earth that were untouched. I didn’t want to walk away from this life unscarred, untouched and inexperienced. In an effort to affirm this preconceived notion of myself, I took a camera man and  got my photos taken while rolling around in the dirt as an expression of my free-spirt. This attachment to identity and proving myself…it got me sick. How ironic that, in an attempt to solidify myself into one small box called “free-spirit,”  I got bit by a tick, I contracted Lyme disease from the tick,  and everything I thought I knew about myself violently unraveled.  It was terrifying. That “sense of safety” I had confidently chatted about to my mother months earlier was tested and, as it turns out, fear is a whole different beast when it’s NOT irrational. But it had to be faced and overcome because if I had acted from fear when it came to healing from Lyme disease, I would have died.

A couple of days after my 26th birthday, a mysterious rash began to take up space on my skin. MY skin. Why am I powerless over what happens to my very own protective shell? Why is it my shell, if it’s so vulnerable?  One itchy bump on my thigh, one itchy bump on my elbow, and one itchy bump on my butt later, I realized I might have a little problem. The anxiety set in. I was overly attentive, looking at the newly forming rashes every few minutes, “did it go down, did it go up?” Days passed and the rashes were only expanding. I had one on my calf growing more irritated by the minute and wider by the minute. Like it was alive. I lied  in bed one night on the phone with a free-spirited young man I was loosely dating. I was scantily clad in cotton underwear and a tee- shirt. I was examining the rashes, half invested in our conversation, half obsessed and anxious about my mystery ailment. Slowly, like a hippo’s eyes surfacing on a placid river, a red bump formed on my upper thigh. I watched it come, and I watched it grow. Three more bumps then streaks overtaking the upper part of my thigh—a part of my thigh that was meant to be sexy and welcoming.  And a weighted anxiety began to torture me. “I’ve gotta go,” I quickly hung up the phone, and the googling began.

What in the ever- loving- fuck was happening to my own body? I researched psoriasis, bed bugs, impetigo, poison oak, poison ivy, and spider bites. I was impatient— I tormented myself with questions that I wouldn’t be able to answer unless I was a doctor.  I quit drinking coffee in an effort to magically cure myself. I tried every type of cream and anti-allergy pill. I did everything a young waitress with no insurance could do and nothing worked. I kept naively thinking, “once I work this rash situation out then life can just go back to normal.” I had lived my life that way and with that false idea: get over this obstacle and then I’ll coast. But, in that state,  I was constantly seeking the coast and anxious to get the hurdle over with. When so much of life is an obstacle, well then you’re really just asking to miss a lot of life, right? Part of the reason I HAD such bad anxiety was because I could not tolerate the messiness, the discomfort, of LIFE. Life is messy, hard, and full of detours and if I couldn’t tolerate that… well then life would be …intolerable.

I was desperate to FIGURE IT OUT so after two weeks of no answers,  I took myself to urgent care and was promptly told that I likely had Lyme disease. I was relieved, “cool, I’ll take some antibiotics and then go back to my normal life.” My anxiety dissipated. I was a survivor; I knew how to get my needs met and I knew how to show up for the tough times… Or so I thought.

I was immediately met with a resistance I had never known before. Part of the world seemed to be collectively AGAINST me healing. I felt like I was at war.

I instantly tried to find a doctor. No one would see me on short notice; no one would see me for a manageable price—the beginnings of anxiety, abandonment, and frustration in dealing with the medical community.

I finally saw a doctor, and the cost went directly on an already debited credit card—the beginnings of financial anxiety.

The antibiotics didn’t work—the beginnings of a deep fear that I wouldn’t get well.

My family didn’t show up for me—the beginnings of a loneliness, abandonment and anxiety full of depth. I constantly wondered if I would be cared for.

Lyme disease began affecting me neurologically— Lyme anxiety, a different beast altogether.

Insomnia kicked in and I stopped sleeping for nights on end—My anxiety took me over and I started saying, “it feels like satan is trapped inside of my body.”

I got so sick that working suffered, I had to back out of creative projects, I could barely waitress, and my debt expanded—rational financial panic, rational panic about the potential my future held.

I lost weight, I lost hair, I lost color in my skin—Anxiety about losing my looks, my most used coping mechanism in this life. Also, the “I might actually die” anxiety.

I traveled around the world seeking treatments—I was afraid of needles, afraid the treatments wouldn’t work, afraid I’d disappoint people, never work again, and the list goes on.

I cried all of the time—Anxiety that I would lose my boyfriend to this disease, anxiety that I would end up in the psych ward, that I was actually losing my mind.

I wasn’t sure I’d survive OR, God forbid, what if  I would have to LIVE WITH Lyme disease.

 I would have rather died. In fact, I wanted to die. 

I’m glad I didn’t.

I’m glad that I kept calling the doctors even when they disappointed me.

I’m glad that I put the treatments on a credit card; I’m glad I faced the fear of doing a fundraiser and let my friends and family support alternative treatments.

I’m glad I tried the antibiotics, and I’m glad I was willing to do alternative treatments. I’m glad I faced fears of each new treatments and jumped in with a zest and a need for life.

I’m glad I felt the rage and the heart-break caused by my family’s initial absence, I’m glad I talked about it, I’m glad I took my mother to therapy, and I’m glad I have the option to forgive.

I’m glad I never stopped seeking new solutions to my sleep issues, and I’m glad I found one.

I’m glad I kept my creativity alive by allowing myself to be imperfect. I’m glad I faced the fear of backing out of projects, putting work on hold and resting for a while.

I’m glad I quit waitressing and trusted the universe. The universe provided.

I’m fucking glad that I showed up no matter how I looked or felt. I looked you in the eye when i was pale in the face and 97 lbs and needed a wheelchair, I looked you in the eye and said, “I’m so fucking afraid, but let’s keep going if you don’t mind pushing.”

I’m glad that I stayed in bed when I was afraid I’d miss out on something cool; I’m glad I got out of bed when I was afraid for you to see my face; I’m glad I said “yes” as often as I could and “no” when I knew it would disappoint you.

I’m glad I yelled at doctors and asked for help and risked losing everything— including my own life— in an effort to get well and thrive.

Because now I’m out on the other side and it has all been worth it. And I’m not just saying that because it’s kind of a radical thing to say—I mean it.

Sometimes I think about anxiety: the pumping heart, tingly body, erratic thoughts, paranoid eyes, and I think, “that’s a body that really really wants to live.”

Maybe my anxiety is my desire to live run amuck. Maybe it’s my anxiety that I have to thank for pushing me to fight for life.

I love being alive, I desperately want to live.

Lyme disease, in many ways, birthed my greatest fears into reality. And I faced them head on, sometimes with an army of people behind me and sometimes alone. But I made sure to face each and every one. And I feel like I have a brand new life. I do not have some identity I’ve wrapped myself in, some identity I’m trying to prove. Today, I live more free than I was in the first place: I am deeply in touch with the softness, the fragility and truth, of my humanity (and yours), but also now I  really  know what the fuck I am capable of.

Go show ’em what you’re made of. It’s worth it.

fun and love,

Jackie

Treating Anxiety, Part II

Part I here. 

treating-anxiety

My hips led me around a Montauk boutique. My jean skirt was too short, my acrylic nails too long, and my shirt too tight. I drank too much, smoked too many cigarettes and cursed more than a “young lady should.” I was too wild, too antsy, too dishonest, too sexy. I was monitoring my movement around the store, looking for mirrors so I could watch myself sway by. Deeply immersed in the passion of self-obsession, I could hear my mother’s muted voice trying to pull me out of my too-cool-for-you attitude, “Jack, jack, this is cute, isn’t it?” She held up a beige shirt,  “Ugh, no mom,” immediately dismissing her excitement, “I don’t like it.” “Well, it’s not for you, it’s for me,” she said annoyed. “Oh. Well then sure.”  I was 15. My mother and I were vacationing in Montauk and we were killing time shopping. At the register,  I spotted a brown leather bracelet. I picked it up to see what was inscribed in it and read, “feel the fear and do it anyway,” written in italic script.  I was cosmically drawn to the saying. It made me feel like the badass I was determined to be. My life had been so overtaken by mood altering substances and experiences that I was numb to my childhood, numb to my passions, numb to love. SO, when I saw that bracelet, I thought, “yeah, feel the fear of overdosing and take all of the drugs anyway, yeah feel like you’re going to die from the insane adventure and do it anyway, be afraid of drunk driving and do it anyway, feel the fear of mixing all of the booze, of fucking the wrong guy, and DO IT ANYWAY.” It was with that M.O that I begged my mother to buy me the bracelet. Because she was in denial of my M.O, she agreed. I wore it everyday,  I followed its direction, and it got me into trouble. That is, until I learned how to use that saying to my life’s benefit.

By 17, just two years later, crack addiction had devoured my father, my parents divorced, my mother was horribly depressed, my brother was absent in mind and body, and I was… numb—a passionless shell of myself.  Brene Brown brilliantly says, “you can’t selectively numb.” All of the things I used drugs, sex and fantasy to mute—like my anxiety—were muted. But so was everything else.  In an effort to feel alive again and have the future I always imagined for myself, I quit. I quit drinking and doing drugs and I was left with a surge of confusing emotions. I still had that bracelet, but it had no meaning to me if I wasn’t getting high.  I tucked it away in a drawer, and a new wave of panic attacks commenced.

It was the summer of 2006, I had just quit my waitressing job without the safety net of a new job. I thought it would be nice to just “have some time off.” That was a big mistake. My main coping mechanism for anxiety and depression had always been to stay busy, distracted,and/or self-medicated so quitting a job to “just chill”—when I had never once had the experience of “just chilling”—was a recipe for disaster. New York City was hit with a nasty heat wave that summer. It felt like hell was sitting directly below the sidewalk shooting fireballs up to cause a suffocating, torturous heat (Disclaimer: I’m also very dramatic). It’s hot. And sticky. And dirty. Sticky with your own smelly sweat and with the sweat of strangers who keep bumping into you while unpacking both their bodily toxins and the days pollution. The air is so thick it’s like moving through quicksand—quicksand crowded with people.   There were some manageable blackouts happening around the city. Nothing too major. But in the same way that I ran with “Mama Cass choking on a ham sandwich,” I ran with the blackouts. WHAT IF, while I’m on the subway, in the tunnel, there’s a blackout, and we get stuck,and I potentially die,  I thought. That did it. That one thought resulted  in  months of unbearable panic attacks.

First,  I couldn’t get on the subway so I opted for long and inconvenient bus rides.  Before I knew it, I couldn’t get on the bus. So I walked. And soon enough I didn’t want to go outside. I couldn’t take the elevator either because my brilliant anxiety- based -mind was smart enough to know “a blackout would fuck with elevators, too!” I was edging on being agoraphobic. Fortunately, due to my earlier experience with panic, I knew not to give in to the fear. I kept trudging. I cried every time I had to go outside, but I went. I listened to soothing music on the subway when that was my only option for transportation.  I even got a job during this time. A good job. I was late to the interview because I took the bus and got stuck in traffic, but I got the job. It didn’t really help— all of the contrary action didn’t serve the same way it had seven years earlier. It wasn’t as simple and rewarding as my seventh grade field day when I faced my fear and my fear evaporated magically. Nope. This time, the fear was hanging around like a monkey attacking me that I kept trying to fling off.

It was repeatedly suggested that I get on a small dose of a pharmaceutical (SSRI) to help ease the suffering. I rejected the idea until—after many months of useless torture— I realized that I was missing out on my life. I was in so much inner strife that I was missing all of the invitations to joy and freedom that my life had to offer. I wanted to feel alive; I didn’t want to simply survive. After much thought,  I decided to get on a  small dose of an SSRI with the intention of using it as a tool. Not as a way out, but as a way IN. I needed just a little bit of emotional freedom in order to explore the other more holistic options at my disposal:  meditation, therapy, exercise, joyful work, diet, etc. And I did exactly that. And my life opened up completely.

I explored different jobs, paid my way through school, traveled, developed new friendships, played around with romance, and I met every opportunity to learn and grow with passion. I felt fear with every new change. I actually felt fear everyday. It just didn’t control me.  In 2010, when I was packing to move 6,000 miles away from home (yup!), I came across that bracelet, “feel the fear and do it anyway.” I chuckled at my younger self’s interpretation of that saying. I sat down on my floor and reflected on all of life’s scary moments: moving, marriage, following dreams, traveling, loving, having children, taking the big jobs, saying no to the wrong jobs, saying no in general, saying yes in general, and, you know, telling the truth/being vulnerable. And I realized that I possessed such freedom. I COULD do anything BECAUSE I could tolerate fear. In fact, I came to realize that “feeling the fear and doing it anyway” was  a core value of mine.

And it’s a good thing,  because I needed to be extremely brave in order to heal from Lyme disease.

…to be continued.

Fun and love,

Jackie

Treating Anxiety, Part I

treating-anxiety

In 1998, at ten years old, I discovered that Mama Cass died choking on a ham sandwich. Maybe I heard it on TV. Or maybe I was eavesdropping on some random adult chatter. Or maybe my mother told me during one of my relentless questioning sessions about all of her favorite musicians.  It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that with that news, I was hit— for no rational reason— with life-changing fear. My brain grabbed onto this idea of “death -by -choking” like a shark grabs its prey: What if I choke in the school lunchroom,  nobody hears me over the chatter and I die? Days passed as that thought flipped and flopped and tossed and turned restlessly—violently—through my brain. Choke and die, choke and die, choke and die.  I sat through school lunches half invested in the innocent adolescent conversations about lipstick and half obsessed with my imminent death. One March day, the thoughts were so overbearing that when I took a sip of my peach flavored Snapple, it went down the wrong pipe, coughing commenced, and I came into contact with my first debilitating panic attack.

“Are you ok? Jackie, are you ok?”  The teacher spoke to me over the microphone, “stand up, stand up.” I stood up. I was overheated from both embarrassment and physical stress. I was already unpopular, but now an entire cafeteria of cruel ten and eleven year olds were staring at me.  I gasped for breath and simultaneously considered my poor wardrobe choice that day. If I had known I was going to be the center of attention, I wouldn’t have worn that stupid pink cardigan and those unbecoming gray sweatpants. “Nod your head, nod your head,” the teacher was saying, “do we have to do the Heimlich?” I knew they didn’t have to do the Heimlich. After all, it was only Snapple that I was “choking” on. But I certainly wasn’t going to admit that, not after the spectacle I was creating. My coughing slowly subsided, and a  breath of relief rippled through the couple hundred kids in the cafeteria…  immediately followed by an outburst laughter. I sat down, wanting to hide, and suddenly—just like that— all of the ease I had previously lived with was gone. Who knew that it was a luxury to be able to interact with your peers, go to school, eat lunch, and exist in the world without a consistent feeling of impending doom holding you back?  I tried to act normal. I walked with the herd to my next class, took my seat, stared at the chalkboard, and wrung my sweaty hands seeking some sort of solace in myself. Something was infinitely unsafe, but I didn’t know what so I couldn’t even protect myself. The walls were closing in on me, my friends looked like enemies, words were muttered, faces were fuzzy, and I burst into tears.

I was sent to the nurse’s office. I could barely speak by the time I got there. Sweating through that stupid fleece cardigan, I was crying so hard that I could only gasp out one  comprehensible word at a time, “I—choked. and. am. —scared.” The nurse looked at me confused and harshly, got me a five ounce dixie cup of water, and led me to a small, poorly lit,  corner room. There was one beige metal folding chair meant for me to collect myself on. “Sit in here and calm down,” she said.  I took the seat thinking I’d rather be anywhere else or maybe nowhere at all. I wanted a hug desperately. That is what I wanted. As the nurse closed the door, I heard her say to her colleague, “I mean, seriously, she should be able to control herself, she’s ten years old. What’s wrong with her? My God.” Did she think I couldn’t hear her? I was so embarrassed, so ashamed.  I didn’t know what was wrong with me, and if I could have controlled it—like she was suggesting— I certainly would have.

By the time I got home that day, I had decided that I should probably never leave my bedroom again and that I should definitely never eat again. If it was up to me, I would have lived a very small life. My parents got in the way of my ideas.

I cried through dinner one night, trying to spoon a small amount of plain broth into my mouth but every time I looked at the bowl of liquid, I was hit with the memory of “choking” in the lunchroom. I just cried and shook until my father lost his cool, dropped his fork and said, “What’re you gonna do? Never eat again? If you went outside and tripped and fell, would you never go outside again?”  I felt pathetic. What I was experiencing was NOT logical and could not be beaten with logic.

My mother held me in bed that night as i sobbed and sobbed. I said, “I wish I had some physical illness. Even cancer. Anything but this. It’s so scary.” And I meant it. I was in unthinkable pain. Thankfully, my mother understood what I was experiencing due to her own turbulent history with panic attacks and, as a by-product, she pushed me. She wasn’t going to let me become a slave to my anxiety. It was strategic, and it was brilliant. She sent me to school everyday, she denied me medication even though doctor’s suggested it, and I was forced to take part in all daily commitments whether I sobbed through them or not.  To this day, I consider it the greatest gift my mother gave me. To this day, I consider it her shining moment as a parent.

When my seventh grade field day came around, I was hit with a new deepening wave of panic. Who knows why. There was no real why. At 7:30 am, I hid in the closet sobbing, “I’m not going. Please, please, please don’t make me go.” I begged for an hour until the bus came and my mother lovingly pushed me out the door. I went. I mean, I WAS forced.  I went full of terror, but I went. And, as the day went on under the suburban sun, the fearful pangs subsided. The distraction was helping. The sun was helping. Exercise was helping. I was easily able to take part in field day activities, and I even won a flimsy second place ribbon for a short-distance race. By the end of the day, I felt great, and I was deeply proud of myself.  I sprinted through my door that afternoon, impatiently shouting at my mother, “mom, mom. I had the best day ever. Thank you for making me go! Look, I won 2nd place in the sprint!” She was so proud of me. In that one day, I had instanteously grown muscle where there wasn’t any, I had a new life experience that would forever change the way I lived—a reference point for what it felt like to feel the fear and do it anyway which remains a saying I try to live by. Curiously—or not so curiously— I didn’t have another panic attack for seven years.

At nineteen years old, everything I had learned about coping with anxiety was put to the test. My panic attacks came back, and this time they were not so easily defeated.

To be continued….

Love,

Jackie