I learned to swim when I was 2 and I remember the rigorous lessons still. Actually, both Mike and I remember them and often imagine we must’ve met when we were 4 after panting for breath along the pool edge eating soggy crackers from our ‘dedicated’ Coach, Mrs. Marian. Growing up, I spent countless hours in that Country Club pool – living off of snacks on my Grandma’s tab and basking in the sun most summers. I truly loved being in the water and to this day, the smell of chlorine brings me instant comfort and memory of a time when my afternoons consisted of the Simpsons and lessons at the Long Center.
I quit swimming for CAT when I was in 7th grade and I remember the disappointing phone call to tell my Dad that I was done. My Mom, historically-and-still the most lenient parent-cheerleader on the planet didn’t offer any resistance, but I knew the news would break his heart. My Dad swam all of his life too and till at least my high school years, he could swim 6 laps underwater without coming up for air and held unbeaten records at Dunedin High School. The man was and is a complete fish out of water most days.
But the thing of it is, I don’t remember if anyone asked me why I was quitting swimming. I quit swimming because I became terrified of swimming. Being the oldest of five cousins, I was the back my younger cousins latched onto during their own Mrs. Marian drowning-you-for-crackers stages when playing Marco Polo together. The fear of taking my last breath started logically – when there’s a two-year-old on a five-year-old, whoever’s on bottom might have taken their last breath. I have two vivid memories of this happening, coming up, and realizing no one was really watching for me because I knew how to swim. By middle school, on a competitive swim team (of which my mother thinks it hilarious to say I’d only get first if everyone else got disqualified because of my form and lack of speed), that Baby Fear grew. I’d do a 500 fly, get out of the pool, feel light headed, and think – what if I passed out while swimming? Who would see me then? I’d surely drown. That Buddy Thought grabbed onto my Baby Fear and fed itself lap after lap until it grew big enough to terrify me to swim and quit for good.
My fear of drowning robbed me of my love of swimming. I can’t even do butterfly anymore and it breaks my heart – it was my stroke for so many years of training and practicing (no matter how slow I was). Now, at 30, I love to workout. I do spin and I do weight lifting (however, I’d still nearly rather be shot than run). The point is I stayed on land to exercise, and while I found new passions, I was still hiding from a childhood-long fear – not just drowning, but of not breathing.
Enter Thursday, April 13th, 2017 at my favorite spin class. It’s worth noting that I don’t do any workout for the fun of it especially spin. I do spin for the taking out of all of my emotions on a bike for one hour. It’s me against the world against those pedals and it feels as though I can take out all of the frustration and disappointment I’ve felt this year one rotation at a time. It’s better than cursing at my sewing machine or getting frustrated at Mike or being short with my kids; endorphins are a disgruntled girl’s best friend! But back to this moment…Nearing the finish line, Julia throws out one last message to give it your all – let’s sprint to the finish! Sprint I did. I sped with everything I had and then, I couldn’t breathe. I slowed my pedal stroke and it didn’t give – complete and utter chokehold around my throat. I immediately strategized how to not pass out in a classroom of people and how I’d handle getting my kids out of childcare if I did. As my heart rate slowed, the grip started to loosen. I left feeling confused and scared. My fear of not being able to breathe came on land.
Over the next week, I’d catch myself not being able to bike too fast in spin to the severity of not being able to carry the groceries up the stairs. If my heart rate went up, the knot in my throat returned. I began to connect the dots and I realized that this was more than likely panic symptoms. Not considering myself an anxious person, I felt my self-knowledge suddenly shallow and misplaced. Two weeks later, on a Monday night, for the first time ever, I understood the difference between pain and suffering.
Penny Simkin talks about this when she considers the sensations of childbirth. I always wondered what she was getting at – surely, there’s enough natural tools to help someone cope with what they’re experiencing in a spontaneous birth. And now, I get it and I am so much more empathetic to the mental battlefield that is birth and that is life. And I am also so much more prepared to fight back than I was that night.
I tried everything. I mean, loony-bin-level everything. I slapped my legs to ground myself. I sang songs I made up. I worshipped. I prayed. I tried distraction. I read my Bible like it is true. I took a shower. I tried to sleep. I tried to breathe. I tried to go up a mental elevator each floor meaning a deeper inhale or a deeper exhale. I tried to go to a meadow and the seashore in my mind. I watched Parks and Recreation. And no matter how at peace I could get my physical body, my mind could not turn off. It was wound so tightly and so confidently that I could or would wake up feeling like I couldn’t breathe that I couldn’t sleep. I went from sleeping consistently within 5 minutes of my head hitting a pillow to being up until 8:30 am after trying for hours and hours to go to bed.
I ended up going to the ER once the kids were up (and at a friend’s house). I must say, I have never been so happy to be medicated in my entire life. I slept. Overall, the experience itself was fine and helpful, but the fear of making the wrong decision about my health care moving forward was most overwhelming. My blood pressure came back excellent. My levels and thyroid were perfect. My presentation cheerful and sane. And here I was, in an ER with panic-level anxiety that seemingly came out of nowhere (although, it obviously did not) and knocked me out for the next week.
I didn’t want to be on a regular medication. I still wanted to get pregnant and I didn’t want to be on something that I would need to get off of by my third trimester (which not surprisingly, makes me seriously question its safety for any other trimester). I didn’t want to deal with side effects. I didn’t want to go on something and not want to get off of it (because let’s be real, it is so, so, so much more enjoyable to not live with the fear of a panic attack or learn how to cope with anxiety symptoms naturally). I didn’t want to have the cushion of not having to deal with my life and make adjustments. But I did want a serious backup medicine should things ever get out of hand again. And I agreed to go to therapy. That became my immediate treatment plan.
Honestly, I found touch, essential oils, Calm Now supplement, and acupuncture to be the best things to help with my anxiety. I was truly amazed at how much they each worked. I went from having a fear of night to a fear of not going to bed with Mike to a fear of staying up too late to a fear of new surroundings to feeling like myself (when I started going to acupuncture). Before then, I’d feel like I could make it through the day ok on the terms of my anxiety, which was like I was living my life in a cage. Anything that made me feel like I couldn’t breathe fully was trying – hugging, nursing Isaac against my chest, eating food that would make me feel very full or create mucus (especially bread and dairy), finishing a meal (I once had a panic attack from eating broccoli), hiking in higher altitudes. I learned intimately how important sleep was to my ability to mentally fight what I was feeling. The exhaustion to curb each ridiculous fear with seemingly obvious truth – something I’d simply taken for granted before – wore me out to the extent that I’d burst into tears from a mix of frustration and confusion. How did this happen and was this going to be how I had to live the rest of my life? There were often moments where I’d wished my results came back with a physical problem that felt specific and obvious.
I didn’t know how to explain to my friends or my family that something was going on that I couldn’t explain and that previously wouldn’t have affected me at all. I recognized that part of my problem was that I actually cope at a high level often, if not, always. I live at a 9 and I went to a 10 so fast that it felt like a bus hit me out of nowhere. I missed friends’ parties, slipped up on emails and felt like I couldn’t commit to anything well. I laid on a couch for the first week doing nothing but reading my Bible and then abruptly, headed back into reality. Mike helped however he could around the house, but the reality was that I was still with our kids all day, committed to attending some births, and felt lost in the chasm of this experience all the while. I was really searching for the finish line of summer and heading down to Clearwater where at least the go, go, go lifestyle included a break from our usual routine and far less dishes.
To be truthful, I almost cancelled our trip. It got bad enough when we were camping that I thought I couldn’t possibly bear two weeks without my Mike Safety Net. Or trying to explain to my family in the middle of an anxiety attack what was happening while simultaneously trying to not instigate my symptoms. But I knew I couldn’t because I learned something key in this process that has been pivotal for me – if you don’t fight fear, fear wins. Everytime. The rule of ongoing fear is that the more you feed it by telling your mind it’s a real threat or problem, the more you think it is and the harder it becomes to convince yourself otherwise. I had a lot of choice words for My Fear by the end of our Boston summer, and as downtrodden as it got me, time and time again, I knew it wasn’t going anywhere if I didn’t subject myself to it. I had to become susceptible to triggering my fear enough to confront it, but not be overwhelmed by it. I now knew it didn’t just live in the deep end of a pool. I knew it didn’t stay on a spin bike. I knew it crept and would creep as far as I let it. And I now had the tools for the times I didn’t want to fight alone and for the nights my mind couldn’t be put to rest on its own.
(To be continued in my The Summer of Getaways)