Cheerleader.

In the morning or evening when everyone is inside I sit under the sky and I write. I do it on my phone, on the laptop, sometimes I scrawl it along pages in a worn notebook. The more I write, the more I see a theme emerging. The more I write, the more I see that my words are me attempting to cheerlead myself on. I’m standing outside myself looking at a crumpled me on the floor and shaking my own shoulders, whispering words of encouragement into my own ear, spooning bits of hope into my own mouth and hoping I will stand up again. I pull out memories of the past and show them to myself, offering them up like jewels and wait to see which one will spark determination in my eyes.

This hopeful me, she is like a mother – fierce and gentle at once. She refuses to give up and let me rot away in defeat. Her words are gifts to me. I am equally shocked by how broken I am as by how determined I am to fix myself. I am awed by the part of myself that diligently drives to therapy every week and walks through my fears while my eyes follow the lights on the EMDR machine. That pushes to eat another mouthful. That says, “Get up. What else are you going to do?” That opens the door and steps out. At first I was horrified and ashamed by my own fragility. More and more I am aware of my own strength and bravery. And every time I write, every bit of hope I swallow down, I get to know her better.

This last week was a good one for me. For the last three months I had been waking hours before sunrise, nauseated with anxiety, trying to gag down a banana (I could tolerate very few foods) and reading to try to put my mind anywhere but in my own body. My brain wouldn’t shut down, it felt like an old Rolodex flicking through thoughts rapidly, never settling on a single thing. Sometimes I would physically be sick. By the time four hours had passed, the sun had risen and I had pulled myself together enough to wake the children and get them ready for school, faking the morning until I dropped them off and could retreat back to my room and my books until I needed to fake the pick up. I felt physically and emotionally fragile. I never really understood that word until that time, when I had absolutely no mental strength at all. I went no where. I mean – NO where. I literally went only to the school for pick ups and drop offs and therapy. I didn’t go to shops or see family or even for a walk around the block. Nothing.

Last week, after hours of therapy it was like I suddenly woke up. I got up one morning and said, “I’m going to clean the car.” I drove several suburbs away and vacuumed and shampooed the carpets. I went to the shops and bought new mats. The next day I drove 400kms to drop off the kids to their dads. The next day I took my second eldest daughter to lunch. The day after that I took the teenagers to the plant nursery and we bought herbs and house plants. I visited with my grandparents the day after that. I ate food sometimes without even thinking about what I was eating. One night I looked down and realised I had finished my entire dinner. I got seconds. I challenged myself to eat ‘trigger foods’. “Eat the ice cream, it’s therapy, just do it.”

I woke up one morning happy and realised I hadn’t actually been happy in months. It was as though all those months of cheerleading myself on had finally come to fruition.

Part of me is terrified of relapse. I worry I will wake up and find I have flicked the switch back to survival mode. I know there will probably be steps back sometimes, that it’s expected. But this little glimpse through the looking glass of what recovery feels like is so amazing in it’s brilliance that I’m hoping I can carry it’s light through the darkness if the sun goes behind a cloud.

This is what I want to tell myself if that happens, I’m going to write it here so I can read it if I need to:

Recovery exists. Magic exists. Happiness is real. You have worked so damn hard for this and you can feel ‘well’. You are brave and you are strong even if you feel fragile. Underneath that delicate exterior you are a fighter. Don’t listen to the lies your fears tell you. They’re not real. I am real. And I am telling you – you got this.

image

Dawn.

The Facebook memories feature is one of my favourite things. It delights me to see where I was on that day years ago. Oh look, here I was worrying because my newborn wasn’t letting me put her down completely oblivious to the fact that five years later I would practically have to bribe her for a cuddle she was so full of vibrant energy and couldn’t stay still.

Now my Facebook memories is silent because this time last year I deactivated and took a month long break to experience my existential crisis. I had just pulled through some of the worst days of my life mingled with the best days. The fact was, the best thing in my life had opened the door to the worst thing in my life and I was struggling with reconciling those. I kept thinking, what was the point to life? Not in a totally depressed way – although that question can be completely depressing – but in a ‘is there an actual point to all this’ way. Is life literally just a series of moments until you die and there is no big pay off? In those moments I truly understood why people turned to religion because the thought that the universe is a random, chaotic place is – frankly – terrifying.

The good things were brilliant and fantastic. The bad things just HURT. I kept thinking that my whole life had basically been a lie. Because I had believed that good things happened to good people. That life was supposed to be fair. And at 33 I had been rudely awakened that life isn’t fair. That good people can have awful things happen to them for no reason. That people were sometimes hateful. That if life were a scale occasionally it tipped in favour of the cons. It just seemed so stupid. Who would want to willingly go through life expecting pain as par for the course? I read philosophy searching for answers and it depressed me. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing with my life and did it even matter if I did anything at all? We are all just tiny invisible blips on an insignificant planet circling a sun in a vast universe. How could any of us feel that we mattered?

I wasn’t suicidal exactly. I just wasn’t sure it mattered whether or not I was alive.

Then I had this major epiphany that if it didn’t matter whether or not I was alive or not then I may as well live. What else was I going to do? It was less of a conviction (Yes! Choose life!) and more of a shrug towards life (Why not?).

Now is the part where you’re probably expecting me to say, “And then a remarkable thing happened and life became great!” except this isn’t a click bait article and that is exactly what DIDN’T happen. Instead life got even tougher. It felt like I was moving from crisis to crisis, putting out fires and playing catch up instead of getting ahead. Every small victory was hard won and on its heels came three times the trouble. I felt like standing under the stars and screaming at the sky, “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!”

The universe will constantly give you the same lesson until you’ve learnt what it’s teaching you. Trouble kept finding me because I refused to submit to its schooling. I was trying so hard to steer my own course – to be in control – the universe meanwhile working the currents that pulled me in a different direction. How many times did I need to be dashed against the rocks before I learnt to LET GO and float on the tide?

I hadn’t been having an existential crisis. I didn’t believe nothing mattered. I was despairing that perhaps EVERYTHING mattered. Despair can look a lot like apathy to the untrained eye.

Every morning for the last three months I have woken 2 hours before dawn. I sit outside in the dark under a nest of quilts and I watch the sky. The night shifts imperceptibly to morning, beginning with a lifting of the black to grey on the horizon. In the beginning the sun rises so slowly that you don’t even realise it’s happening. Forms rise from the shadows. And then – all at once – you blink and where there was a grey band there is now golden and pink light stretching out like fingertips across the sky. A sudden shift from monochromatic to colour.

I know how the sun rises. I know to watch for the little changes. A tiny hand slipping into my own. A warm cup of tea. Sunlight on my bare arms. A shutter click. A lover’s caress. The smell of rain and old books. It will steal over my sky like a thief, lightening the night.

Dawn will come.

image

The Door.

image

The first door I remember belonged to my grandparents house in suburbia in the city I was born. I don’t remember my first entry obviously, but there is a photo of me having my first bath in the bathroom sink, a pale green fashionable in the 70s that had fallen out of vogue by the time I was old enough to look at that photo and be intrigued. I lived there with my mother and grandparents and my two aunties who were 2 and 5 years younger than my mother. I remember my time in that house as a carefree existence. I must have run in and out of that door hundreds of times without giving it a second thought.

Later there would be other doors. The door to the caravan we lived in by the sea. The old door of the house we rented before my brother was born. The door of my childhood home. I walked in and out of them never really sensing a barrier between me and the outside world at all. I barely even registered their existence.

When I was newly pregnant with my second daughter and she was barely bigger than a lentil, tucked away in my womb, I went for a walk. I wanted to go to the library – a place of comfort for me my whole life. Bookstores and libraries were like church for me, I could spend hours breathing in the calm that surrounded them. I was a child that drove my mother crazy with the state of my room, clothes and toys strewn everywhere, but my bookshelf was immaculate. I would carefully alphabetise the authors and arrange them by genre. I pushed my eldest daughter in a pram to the library, I was excited to introduce her to the written word. Her father accompanied us. It was summer and the midday sun beat down on us during the walk home. I felt a little light headed. My heart rate picked up. I felt ill. I thought I might throw up or pass out and we were still a good fifteen minutes from home.

It was an anxiety attack.

I didn’t know what was wrong just that I was suddenly ill. I had to lie down – right now. He went back with our daughter for the car, I lay in the shade of a struggling sapling on the grass by the footpath.

When I returned home I rapidly became much better. And I was terrified it would happen again. Better to stay at home than experience that kind of crippling experience in public. I was embarrassed and horrified. I still didn’t know what happened. I thought maybe heat stroke or morning sickness. I should take it easy. I should stay inside.

The door became a terrifying thing. Suddenly it was no longer a benign presence in the house, barely given another thought. Now it signified the very real difference between ‘safe’ and ‘unknown’. And I have always been a cautious person.

Agoraphobia took me under it’s wing like an old friend. It whispered fears into my ears and wound it’s fingers into my hair. It seeped into the marrow in my bones.

I was housebound. I left only a handful of times for antenatal appointments. I didn’t go see my family. I didn’t go to the shops. At my worst, I didn’t even go to the letterbox. I would watch as the postman dropped our mail into it and suggest my eldest daughter toddle down to it. I told myself she enjoyed her ‘big girl job’ while I stood at the threshold of the doorway, unable to cross the line to the outside.

When I finally reached out for help after my second daughter was born, when I could no longer pass off my fear as related to pregnancy, my counsellor came to the house and visited me bedside. At that point, at my very worst, I left the bed only to go to the bathroom. The day I made it to the couch she cheered. And I was so frustrated and confused because who gets praised just for making it to their own goddamn lounge room? That’s insanity. It’s depressing.

Slowly, I learned to MANAGE my fears. That is very different to overcoming. Managing means you learn ways to deal with it, not that you are no longer frightened.

Some days I could step out that door without giving it much of a thought. Some days it would loom before me like a threat. Some days the very act of turning the doorknob and stepping into the sunshine felt like rebellion.

Because I learnt how to manage it so well and I could hide it so effectively, I had virtually forgotten I suffered at all. Until one day a few months ago I found myself staring at my front door unable to step past it. Until I retreated back to my bedroom and refused to leave. Until my lover brought me flowers and begged me to leave the room to put them in a vase in an attempt to coax me out and when I cried and said I couldn’t he fetched a vase himself and put them by my bed so I would have something ‘beautiful to look at’.

Then I knew. It had never left, just gone into remission. And now here it was again, ruining my life.

But see, last time I just bowed down. Last time when the door would threaten me I would retreat. This time, I’m fucking angry. This time I am committed to getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. This time – no remission. I’ll cut it out myself. This time when the door stands in front of me, I will call it’s bluff.

Hand to handle.

Pull it open.

Just one step.

Outside.

Foundation.

12354326904_ae219aa8ed_o

Anxiety is the most debilitating thing that has every happened to me.  To be fair, I have led a fairly healthy life with most of my health issues only ever arising in pregnancy (HG, SPD, GD – a little alphabet soup that spelled uncomfortable and unpleasant but in most cases not deadly).  I have been depressed before.  The kind of depressed where I lay on the floor because sitting upright felt like I was committing too much to life.  But during my worst anxiety I felt like even that numbness would have been a relief because the anxiety made me feel everything.  It was overstimulation of the highest order.

It effects everyone differently, of course. For me, this is what happens…my palms sweat, my heart races, I clench my jaw, I shudder violently, I can’t sleep and the nausea…the persistent, severe nausea that was unrelieved by even the strongest of anti-emetics.  During this period at the worst of it, I would be physically ill.  And I was frustrated because I knew it was my brain making my body sick.  I wanted to get up…I couldn’t get up.  I wanted to be able to eat something…I couldn’t eat anything.  I was scared I would die…I was terrified I wouldn’t and this would be my life, day after day stretching out before me for years.  I was angry and bitter about the circumstances that led me here.  I was furious with myself for allowing them to do so.  I was guilty because I wasn’t being the best ‘me’ for my kids.  I was guilty over the patience of my lover who would watch me cry big, ugly sobs and stroke my hair and bring me flowers to attempt to coax me out of bed.  God.  I was a fucking wreck.

He drove me to the psychologists on the day after my worst day.  I wanted to go in alone but when I got in there I could barely concentrate enough to fill out the forms.  I went and hid in the toilet for ten minutes before my appointment and cried because I had just gotten my period and in my anxiety riddled state I had forgotten it was due and packed nothing in my handbag for it’s arrival.  I finally found a rogue tampon in the very depths of my bag, dusted off the wrapper and sent off a silent prayer of thanks.

When I emerged from the bathroom, she led me to a tiny room filled with toys, clearly used more frequently for small children.  It had a sandbox in the corner.  She asked me why I was there and I had to confess I was having an anxiety attack right at that minute.  This would be the first time in a long list where I would be forced to just ‘come clean’.  It makes you very vulnerable to tell people because you are already so fragile that the smallest criticism or judgement can reopen healing wounds.  Sometimes I would just tell people, “I’ve been sick lately,” and they would glance at the anti-nausea bands on my wrists and accept it.  Other times I would just come out with it.  Amazingly, people are kind.  What brought me to this place was the opposite of that, you see.  It was cruelty and senselessness.  So I didn’t really trust anyone anymore.  But when I would tell people, “I’m not in a very good emotional place right now,” or maybe I would give them the diagnosis my psychologist handed me that first day and say, “I have PTSD, I’m working on it,” people for the most part sent me support and love and understanding.  And this made me cry all over again because I felt so undeserving of this.

That day, my psychologist immediately placed tiny vibrating paddles into my hands and when I said, “I can’t talk about what I’m anxious about right now.  I can email you though,” she didn’t push me.  She walked me through breathing exercises and gave me homework and – bless her – said she thought she could fix me.  At that point I didn’t even care if she couldn’t.  She gave me hope.

I am not well.  I am still a work in progress.  I am still delicate but there is a strength in me too.  When I began my homework I would imagine myself as a landscape.  Here are the woods and here stands a house.  Or what was left of a house because it had been burnt to ashes.  I would walk through this landscape and pick at the wreckage, charred and broken. Therapy was me clearing the debris.  Therapy was me uncovering the solid foundation beneath.  It was tempting to immediately begin construction but I needed to ensure I was building on solid ground.  I would picture me sweeping off a stone floor.  Examining crack and holes.  Carefully reconstructing and renovating just the foundation.  I would make it as strong as I could.  I would not rush any part of my rebirth.

For weeks I rose hours before dawn and while my house slept I would watch the sun rise and complete breathing exercises and power affirmations and eventually worked my way to bi-lateral brain stimulation to gather energy for my day ahead.  I looked like I was doing nothing but lying there.  Inside I was healing as best as I could.  I was fighting for my life.

I am not well.  Not yet.  But I am healing.

~

For more information about anxiety please head to Beyond Blue.  Always reach out, people are kinder than you realise.

Apps that my psychologist recommended and have helped me are Breathe2Relax, ACT coach and Anxiety Release based on EMDR (this one appears to not have an iPad version but you can get it on your phone).