Walking On Land Mines
I once described my anxiety as aneurysms, or mines, just below the surface and ever ready to explode, with or without warning. Mostly, that foresight is miles away. Walk and live one way, and I’d never set off a single land mine. Walk and live the other way, and it would be filled with multiple explosions. Sometimes I fear I chose the path filled with the most mines set for someone like me – the life of marriage and parenthood. I’ve been setting off the ticking time bombs, one by one, that would otherwise never be awakened. Otherwise never detonated. Until they are.
I’ve always thought of my anxiety as situational and lifelong, but somewhere along the way, the definition of situational got murky. Sometimes life itself is a giant situation or a series of situations and it’s in the intricate details of a giant and rich life, that I get caught in the wildfire. That’s when I remember what it is that sets off the battle fire. That’s when I fall this way and that, if only to confront the aftermath.
Other than an existential crisis when my daughter Scarlet was two-months-old and in which staring at her tiny baby socks made me openly weep with the knowledge that they would never be so small again, I was one of those annoying women who made it look easy. It felt easy. It felt right. My pregnancy had no morning sickness and my labor and delivery were textbook and gorgeous. My first child was so serene that when the doctor told us to call if she for more than an hour, we laughed. We laughed because our daughter had never cried for more than five minutes.
Tiny baby socks for tiny baby feet made me question life and the point of everything but that didn’t seem farfetched for a sensitive new mother to think about. Mostly, I was rosy. Life was rosy with a healthy new baby.Motherhood empowered me in ways I had never known existed. I remember the first time I went to the dentist after childbirth. My hygienist stopped the cleaning and asked me if it hurt. “Hurt?” I nodded in the direction of my daughter. “I gave birth. Nothing hurts me now.” I felt unbreakable. Little did I know that I was still walking towards the pain, growing closer and warmer to the landmines I had laid.
Early in the weeks leading up to Scarlet’s first birthday, I felt the stretching, growing pains of time and change. I would look at a newborn baby and feel my heart rate speed up. Life and time felt so delicate. There was something ancient and afraid inside of me. I had felt bits and pieces of it throughout life, but little did I know that there were still so many mines ready to explode. Bigger ones than I knew.
Just before I turned four-years-old, my father died tragically of a heart attack. He collapsed in the house after a nap while I was eating dinner, and the pictures on the walls shook with the impact of his body hitting the floor. He was taken away in an ambulance and he never came home again.
Within a year or so, my mom fell in love again and married a man with three children. My mom, sister and I moved into his house and gained a new family in a new town in a new school district. This was just before kindergarten.
The impact hit me in strange but expected ways in childhood. I would get very homesick and I didn’t want to let my mom out of my sight. I was afraid of movie theaters because of the loud thuds. It was hard for many years to bond with my (new) dad because I didn’t understand that my father wasn’t coming home again. I was too young to process the heaviest loss. I would occasionally get queasy or nauseous when I was scared or upset. I remember a teacher telling me I had to learn to let things go or I’d wind up very sick one day. I never forgot her words, but there were so many long years of feeling strong, that it made me forget the land mines.
Every time I was confronted with an impending major change or uncertainty, the anticipatory anxiety would set in. It got worse with age. It hit me when my sister left for college. It hit me when I left for college, and the fear made my throat close for days. It hit when I graduated college in a recession and moved back home right before my parents sold our beloved, childhood home. It hit when debt settled around us one terrible winter, and there were losses of loved ones. It was whenever I felt like a strong foundation was being ripped under my feet, that symptoms would start – nausea or queasiness.
Each time, I would get back on my feet and live a calm existence. Each episode, as I called them, would last a limited time – days, weeks, months, but never years. Each time, I would fight my anxiety like you wouldn’t believe. I would stand straighter.
And then the hits came on faster. The changes. I moved to California and got married. We moved back. We had a baby. That baby turned one. I got pregnant again. We bought a house and moved. I mistook my morning sickness for anxiety, or my anxiety for morning sickness, but I’ll never really know which was which.
I do know that having my second baby, Des, strengthened me again for a long time. Maybe it was a distraction. At birth he was put in the NICU for six days for a suspected infection. I processed the event through EMDR in counseling.
The land mines kept exploding, though. I was hitting nerves left and right. I was working to build a photography business. My children were turning two and five. I was scared, but the anxiety was manageable. We went to Disney World and had a wonderful time, and then I came home to the biggest land mine as of yet.
It was time to register for kindergarten. The same age and stage I had been in when my mom moved us into a new family in a new town with a new school. It’s when so many changes happened at once, that I had to see what was true all along. My father really wasn’t coming back, if there was now a new dad and new family in his place.
I have very little memory of kindergarten and I imagine it was horrendous for me. I didn’t even see the signs at first. I thought I was doing okay. I had survived two flights with two kids, and four days of crowded theme parks without so much as a blip of anxiety. Almost immediately after we got home, I attended a kindergarten information session. I felt restless at the Q & A session, so I left before the school tour. When I walked out into the cold February air, I realized I was gasping for breath. I drove home with the windows open.
Weeks later, I showed up at kindergarten registration/enrollment on the first day it opened. I was lugging Des through a parking lot to get there, but I don’t think that’s why I was gasping with a racing heart when they welcomed me inside. I felt like a heavy object was sitting on my chest, and it didn’t disappear until I sat down and wrote my daughter’s name on the start of the paperwork.
Life went on, but I would get occasional gasping moments of not being able to sit still or relax. I didn’t recognize these as the almost-starts of panic attacks, but clearly that’s what they were. Since I’d only had one true panic attack in my life, right before I moved to San Francisco, I always prided myself on not having them. Instead, I had what I called anxiety attacks. Short bursts of nausea. This was different.
As the start of kindergarten drew near, the breathless and petrified moments came frequently. I was so proud of myself for getting through school drop-off intact, but it was at school pickup that I experienced the worst panic. My heart was racing and I was dizzy and could barely walk. My husband was with me for that first day and he raced ahead of me to bring her into his arms, while I ambled behind and hoped for the panic to subside. It was that day that I realized something was really wrong.
I became afraid of school drop-off and pickup, even though I was doing it twice a day for two children – one starting kindergarten and one starting daycare. I became afraid of social plans and events, because I never knew if or when the trapped, breathless, fearful sensations would envelop me.
I started to live my life in fear of panic attacks, even though they had never happened to me before this time. I had to stop separating myself as someone who doesn’t suffer from panic. Clearly, I was suffering and needed help.
I got the official diagnosis of having Post-traumatic Stress Disorder from what happened to me as a young child. When my daughter approached the age I had been when everything changed so suddenly, I experienced the ultimate trigger that my bodily memory had been waiting to remind the rest of me about.
This is when I realized I had reached a point in which my usual method of silence and waiting for anxiety to pass wouldn’t cut it. It’s when I started to talk about my mental illness. It’s also when I started to call it one. I had always called anxiety a quirk – a situational and passing annoyance. And even if that’s true, and even if I will discover that the super-heroic powers to fight this are within me, that doesn’t mean this shouldn’t be talked about. It should be yelled about and shared. I suffer. A lot.
Maybe you do too.
Now that the school year is well underway, and I have managed to both have fun at and make a speech at my sister’s wedding and still make and keep regular social plans, I wonder where the next land mine is hidden. Maybe I’ve already fought the worst of my battles and nothing else will ever explode under my feet.
Somehow I doubt that. I will always fight anxiety. These days, I treat the cause and not the symptoms. I am learning to tell people when I feel panicked, instead of just after the fact, and to ask for space when needed. I listen to music loudly, and although this sounds silly, I find success in putting essential oils on my wrists.
In a different life, maybe my land mines would never detonate. I’ll never know. At this point I’m happier to step on the land mines, rather than just wait for them to detonate, one by one, and to throw my life off-balance. I’d rather let them explode, even into my face, if only to see what develops when I’ve washed away the ashes.
Tamara is a professional photographer at http://tamaracamera.com/, a mama of two, a writer/blogger at http://tamaracamerablog.com