Like coughing-so-hard-i-might-turn-inside-out sick.
I haven’t slept in a week and when I have slept it’s been interrupted (repeatedly) by hacking fits.
Last night I laid in bed sitting straight up for two hours waiting for the cough medicine I took to settle into my lungs and help a girl out. Two hours. Two hours I coughed and coughed. I finally fell asleep only to wake up at 4:37 am. I wasn’t coughing — yet — but I was wide awake. I tried to will myself to sleep, I closed my eyes, refused to pick up my ipad where my book was tucked away waiting for me to open it back up. I had to pee, but didn’t want to risk coughing so laid there with my bladder feeling as full as it did years ago with a nine pound baby laying on it. My side was numb, but moving would mean waking the giant in my lungs so again, I obediently stayed as still as I could, taking shallow breaths as not to disrupt the coughing monster lurking in my chest. The whole scene felt vaguely familiar, uncomfortable.
It occurred to me this uncomfortable, don’t-move-stay-still-so-nothing-bad-happens is the physical manifestation of how I feel when my anxiety comes. (My night time imagination is quite creative!) I stay still, try and maintain a status quo. I search for balance, breathing shallow, quick breaths so I don’t wake the monster in my head. I avoid thoughts that take me down the slippery slope of what bad thing my imagination is sure is going to happen. Maybe you know those thoughts? The ones that if you said them out loud they would make absolutely no sense or would sound so outlandish the minute the words escaped your mouth they would feel foolish and extortionary.
I finally did have to roll over and a small cough rose from my belly … any chance of falling back asleep slid silently into the morning. I got up, used the bathroom, came back and tried again to lay down. This time slipping a cough drop in my mouth and propping myself up. I took shallow breaths and tried to find that peaceful bliss where I was nearly sleeping, only gently aware of the pressure in my chest. And you know what? I fell asleep! Not for long and not completely restful but I did actually fall asleep!
When I woke up to get As on the bus the thought I had equating the gruesome coughing I’ve been doing for the past week to the anxiety I have felt for most of my life was fairly accurate. You know what I also realized? I have actually been making headway taming that anxiety!
When I was a little girl I was terrified of fire. Well, to be honest, I was terrified of everything … the dark, the alley behind our house, walking to school alone, being left alone, new foods (yes, honestly, whose afraid of trying new food? I don’t mean like i-don’t-want-to-try-anything-new I mean … afraid), making friends, looking people in the eye.
When I was maybe five years old I was laying in bed–the bottom bunk–and became overwhelmed with fear that the house was going to burn down. I was so certain my house would be imminently engulfed in flames I snuck out of bed (which I was also afraid to do … see, scared of everything!) found my favorite robe and collected my beloved books … quietly crying all the while. I laid my robe flat on the bed and arranged my books like puzzle pieces trying to fit as many in as I could. I pulled at the corners of the fabric and tucked them into my little hands, making an awkward looking hobo bag and I sat and waited.
Now, the house didn’t burn down and after my mom heard me not so quietly wailing in my room she convinced me that I was safe, my books were safe and I needed to go to sleep. I have no idea if I did or didn’t sleep that night … but I know I am forty-six years old and I still lay in bed at night afraid the house may burn down or some other equally devastating event will come. Sometimes I cry, sometimes I don’t, but the fear still comes.
For most of my adult life I have accepted the fear, worry, anxiety as a part of who I am. Nothing I can change or work with, just a part of living in my head–which honestly I find to be exhausting on many days. About a year ago when the anxiety was at its peak, when life around me was as challenging as it has ever been and when so many things hurt and made me sad and worried me and made me afraid I decided I needed to find a way. Find a way to tame the cough in my chest, the fear in my belly, the out-of-control worry in my mind. I wasn’t eating, couldn’t sleep and found that only walking could give me any relief at all and it wasn’t much.
I wasn’t convinced initially that I could find anything more to help, but something inside me … a small voice whispered … what if? What if I don’t have to live like this all the time? What if I could find something to help?
I searched everywhere. I wrote emails to people I admire asking for advice, I asked friends, I forged new friendships with women who have found the other side of the anxiety river. I listened to pod casts and read articles and blog posts. I learned about the brain, fight or flight, the sympathetic nervous system, the adrenal glands and stress response. I armed myself with books (my go-to … remember my robe and my books? Yeah .. I love my books) and read and re-read words that helped soothe me. I am careful about what I eat and I exercise, most days twice a day. It’s a lot of work, I have to stay focused every day, pruning my energy to grow where I plant it and cutting it down when it’s taking over my garden.
I found quotes and collected them. I wrote them in places I could see them … on my mirrors and the refrigerator. My planner is full of quotes both printed and hand written. And I write. I write every morning. First thing. I write down the fears I wake up with. I just write them down. And you know what? They lose their power. Even the ones that are legitimate, really honestly things to be worried about … they aren’t as scary when I say them out loud. Even if it’s just to myself. I also write down my truths. Things I know I can count on. Things that give me power. One thing I learned? Thoughts and ideas that go unchecked in my head run around like a hamster on a wheel. They allow me to think of little else and the wheel spins faster and faster until I am certain that there is no answer, no way out and the worst will happen.
My new motto: Change your thinking. Change your life. Sure, I’ve heard that a hundred times and I know you have too. It wasn’t until recently I realized how powerful those six words really are.
To be fair, I also learned that my anxiety has a physiological link to the auto-immune and collagen disorders I have. Finding a rheumatologist that has been a God send in helping me medically opened the door for me to help heal myself. I believe that was the corner stone that I could build on, if that had not happened I would still be soaked in anxiety and worry. I know that to be true.
So, while I am sitting here coughing (and coughing and coughing) one thing I am not sitting here being … is anxious. Now, I’m no fool, I totally realize that I could lose my tenuous grip on this shit ten times faster than I actually gained control of it. And I also know that last week I spent an entire night awake, the entire night. Wide. Awake. Reading, trying to tame my racing heart, shallow breathing and toxic thoughts. I’m not saying I’m cured and anxiety isn’t a part of my life anymore. I’m saying I have taken back my control. Most days, I’m not governed by fear. Some days, I am and I try not to get too upset by that.
I hadn’t remembered the story of my robe, books and fear of fire until a few months ago. It came after listening to a pod cast where a famous therapist (who I had never heard of) gave her theory that our brain’s job is to protect us and it listens very well to what we tell it. If we continue to tell it the same story, it will listen. From the time I was five I believed in my fear. I believed the world was fearful and anxiety was my shield. I could protect myself from the bad stuff by believing it was going to happen–I could prepare. When the fact of the matter is no amount of preparing would ever prepare me for some of the things I am afraid of. None. So, I am learning to let that go. Until early this morning, when the sensation of physically trying to push down a cough that wanted to surge through my body, I hadn’t looked up from the work I was doing to see if any of my efforts were helping. It’s a lot of work. But you know what? So was living with constant fear, worry and anxiety. I’m not saying I have all the answers, but sure enough, I’m making head way. By inch or by mile, forward progress is all I need to focus on.
Now if I could just get rid of this cough …