Stigma Fighters: Dr. Margaret Rutherford

I didn’t want to have something “wrong” with me. Certainly not a mental disorder.

March 1984, The night I opened the doors into a big hotel lounge in Dallas, filled with friends, mostly strangers. All just having a good time. My heart started racing. My hands were sweaty. The walls of the room seemed to cave in where all I could see was a mass of people. No specific faces. I couldn’t breathe.

I turned around. Practically ran out.

I was having a panic attack.

Not my first. I had had them for at least 3 years. I didn’t want to admit there was a problem.

My 1st? Occurring when I had a solo in my hometown church. I was working at the time as a professional jingle singer. Justified that one by saying that I hadn’t sung in church in a long time. Must have been a weird case of nerves.

The 2nd. Auditioning for a solo in a studio. My legs started shaking. I remember the producer looking at me curiously. “You all right?”. “Just tired”, my response.

I didn’t get the solo.

I was in my mid-20’s. The typical time for panic attacks to begin. They started happening not just at times I was truly “performing”. Other times when I would feel somehow, irrationally, pressured. A need to do something incredibly well. Even if that was just to listen to a friend.

I needed to be all things to all people. Never disappoint. Always be at top performance.

Interestingly, this all began occurring when the reality of my life was far from perfect. Divorced. Living a more chaotic lifestyle, with a relationship that wove in and out of my life that was confusing and belittling. I seemed addicted to choices that led to my own unhappiness.

I had been in therapy. But had never admitted the full extent of the panic. I went to 3 different therapists in the end. One used hypnosis, which I think now would have worked, had the rest of my life been a little less provocative. I didn’t really give his techniques much of a chance.

The second therapist was just bad. A nice enough guy. But we never got down to anything concrete.

Finally, I got to Larry. I remember distinctly what he said.

Me: “I want to get rid of these attacks. I hate them”.

Larry: “The more you hate them, the more power they will have. You have to try to have compassion for the part of you that shakes. That trembles. She is just as real as the part of you that you find acceptable.”

I didn’t like hearing what he said. But suddenly it made sense.

Acceptance. Of all of me. What a novel idea.

I am sure that I no longer remember his exact words. I have now said something similar to so many patients, that I probably am quoting myself. But his message made a strong impact on me.

Basically, I could quit trying to be all things to all people. To be somebody I was not.

Some kind of perfect human being.

My mother had full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder. From some newspaper clippings I have found, it sounds like my paternal grandfather had panic attacks. So I was genetically set-up to have anxiety.

It’s just what I have. I no longer feel shame about it.

I wish that I would take the time, like Dan Harris details, to learn a technique like meditation. I would probably lick the attacks themselves. He has written about his journey in the excellent book “10% Happier”. I don’t think he would define it as a technique. More like the adoption of a lifestyle.

Maybe I will get there.

It can be awkward if it happens. Irritating. Like getting a cold on vacation. But I don’t hate it any more. It’s just something that I manage. I cope with.

I fairly frequently realize I haven’t “panicked” in a situation where I might have, in earlier times, automatically grabbed for the beta-blockers I keep in my purse. My “just in case” meds that can be helpful in a pinch. (It should be noted that this class of drugs is not for everyone and is no cure for anxiety. It’s a quick fix. A short-term solution.)

The more open and honest I am with myself – the less I am invested in being something I am not – the less anxiety I have.

Plain and simple. So the perfectionism – the anxiety – is not running me anymore.

And I am not running away.

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You can read more of Dr. Margaret @ http://drmargaretrutherford.com! Or email her with question and comments at askdrmargaret@drmargaretrutherford.com. And please, it you are experiencing symptoms of panic or anxiety, either reach out for the help of a therapist or take steps to address them yourself. You can feel better!

Dr. Margaret Rutherford is a clinical psychologist who has been practicing in Fayetteville, Arkansas for over 20 years. She began blogging in 2012, coining the term “NestAche” for her empty nest experiences. She launched Dr.MargaretRutherford.com in 2014 and now can be read on the Huffington Post, Boomeon, BetterAfter50, Midlife Boulevard, BlogHer, WeWantMoreNow and other online magazines.

  • Kathy Radigan

    What a great post, thank you so much for sharing! I started having panic attacks in my late teens and they were terrifying. I too tried hypnosis and it helped a little. But it wasn’t till I really started going to therapy and dealt with the issues of always needing to be perfect that I started to get real relief. After I had my second child and I experienced PPD I finally went on medication and I could not believe the relief I felt, not just from the PPD but from the anxiety that I had learned to lived with. I think the more women who share bravely about their past the more we can help others. Thank you again!

    • http://drmargaretrutherford.com/ Dr. Margaret Rutherford

      The thanks go to you Kathy for responding so beautifully and personally. What is it about that perfection thing? Damn… You are welcome and let’s just keep unperfecting the world and ourselves…

  • Deborah

    They started in my early 20’s. Now I don’t have the attacks, but always get some somatic something or other as the holidays approach. It always catches me off guard. The struggle I have had over the years is that I know many techniques for self care but often get judged by my family or friends who take it personally when I say I need to stay home or get to bed or whatever it is that I might need at that particular time to rest myself and be my best self. I think we often fall into the pleasing others syndrome because often they expect us to always be pleasing. So liberating when we break the cycle. Great post!

    • http://drmargaretrutherford.com/ Dr. Margaret Rutherford

      You point out Deborah that our families are often highly invested in us staying “perfect”. Or perfectly there for them! It takes consistently handing back the responsibility (age-appropriate of course) for their lives, or chores or whatever. And then do those things that we know refill us. Thank you for writing!

  • Kitt O’Malley

    Dr. Rutherford, thank you so much for sharing your experience with panic attacks. I agree with you that acceptance is incredibly important. When we accept our imperfections, we forgive and love ourselves.

    • http://drmargaretrutherford.com/ Dr. Margaret Rutherford

      You are welcome Kitt. I never thought I would tell anyone, about those and other issues in my life that might carry a stigma. But I do now. It just rolls off my tongue. And I am so relieved to not be pretending anymore. Thanks for commenting!

      • Kitt O’Malley

        Bravo for doing so. Good for a mental health provider to acknowledge that providers, too, are human and struggle with mental health issues.

        • http://drmargaretrutherford.com/ Dr. Margaret Rutherford

          I talked with my patients long ago, when helpful to them, about my having panic. I also have had eating disorder issues. I am so fatigued with the mental illness stigma that I think I would shout it from the rooftops at this point! Thank you Kit however for your support.

  • Hasty Words

    I relate to so very much of this.

    • http://drmargaretrutherford.com/ Dr. Margaret Rutherford

      Thanks for letting me know. I am so glad to hear it. Take good care!