Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: High Anxiety and Panic Attacks.

Boo after her Sunday night bath

See the little girl in the foreground of this photograph? Looks like she’s fresh out of her Sunday-night bath with her wet hair, a white cotton towel draped over her tiny shoulders like Superman’s cape. In the background is her older brother, sitting at the kitchen table, and fully engaged in a game of cards with one of his friends. They don’t notice her or that Ma is taking their photograph. Looks like she’s warming herself by the ancient oil heater in the living room at 204. But she is not.

This little girl isn’t cold.

She is in a full-blown panic attack. Racked with anxiety. Tormented by a faceless nameless terrifying Boogeyman that pops up unexpectedly out-of-nowhere. Boo. What’s the “tell” in this photograph? Look closely and you’ll see her hand over her tummy. Look closely and you will see the fear in her dark eyes. Look closely and you will see the clenching of her distraught jaw.

In this photograph I’m nine or ten years old and just beginning a life-long battle with anxiety and panic attacks. My hand is over my tummy because my guts are churning and I feel like throwing up. I’m not cold like the photograph suggests. My teeth aren’t chattering because of the temperature in the room. I don’t shiver because I’ve caught a chill. I shiver and shake uncontrollably because my body, mind and emotions are under assault. And I don’t know why. I don’t understand any of it. I’m constantly overwhelmed with a gnawing feeling of dread, afraid of everything and nothing. My mind is on high alert, relentlessly watching and waiting for “it” to come back. I just want “it” to stop.

Eventually the immediate panic ceases. It always does. But the low-grade anxiety lingers.

It took years to fully understand this. When I was the little girl in this photograph I just suffered through it. Physical exhaustion eventually played a merciful hand. When I was a teenager I wanted to be carefree and happy like everyone else, and I continued to suffer through each attack, praying it would never happen again. Pleading with God to make it stop and asking, “why me?”

I confided in Ma of course. She understood what I was going through because over the years she too had suffered from “bad nerves.” Apparently these were the kind of nerves that required punishing. So Ma did so by dispensing Carter’s Little Liver Pills. They were the cure-all for everything back in the day. Ma found them helpful but they did nothing for me. As I got older, I started hiding the attacks from Ma because it was only making matters worse, for the both of us.

By the time my son was born, and I was in university, I had had enough. I had to figure this out, if not for my sake, then for his.

I became a student of my own physiology. I read and studied everything I could get my hands on about the nervous system, cognitive behavior, anxiety and panic disorders, psychology and spirituality, environmental factors, nutrition and physical fitness. Through this journey, I discovered that it was actually an amalgam of factors that were contributing to these panic attacks and prevailing anxiety. Bit by bit, and slowly over time, I unearthed a host of possible causes and triggers – everything from the very physical nature of the beast to the gut-wrenching emotional fabric of my life story. What I ate and when I ate it, being the daughter of an alcoholic, family shame and feelings of inferiority, extreme shyness, sensitivity and introversion, lack of confidence in social situations, hyper-creativity and an over-active imagination, intelligence and obsession with achievement, the need to be perfect, to be a good girl, to not make waves. I was tailor-made for this disorder.

But I was also tailor-made to overcome it. In addition to all that stuff, I’m also tough as nails, strong-willed, gritty, determined and optimistic. And above all else, I don’t feel sorry for myself. I stopped asking “why me” long ago. Now I ask myself, “why not me?” I’ve looked for the silver lining, the blessing in this experience and found it.

I’ve taken a holistic approach and I do the things I need to do to stay well – emotionally, physically and spiritually – by eating food that fuels my body and spirit, practicing yoga, going for long walks, reading and writing, doing work that has meaning, helping others, and most importantly, spending time with people I love and cherish. If not for panic attacks and anxiety, I doubt that I would experience life to the full depth of emotion and richness that I do today. Silver lining.

When I was in university, and in one of my deepest darkest periods of anxiety, I read a beautiful little book called Hope and Help for Your Nerves by Australian physician Dr. Claire Weekes. This book quite literally saved my life. I read it and re-read it until it was practically in shreds. It was full of practical intelligent advice and down-to-earth wisdom that I could actually do something with. I learned to desensitize my nervous system, to overcome the bewilderment that accompanies panic attacks, to change my internal conversation in order to stop the fear, and the fear of the fear, and to ultimately call its bluff.

And my biggest take-away, and what became my mantra for many years, even to this day – “shaky jelly legs will still get you there!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Don’t be a Hater.

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I hate haters.  If that’s you, then please leave.  Now.  I mean it.  Get out of here.  Get off my cloud.  Off my blog.  Off my Facebook, twitter and tumblr.  Get lost.  You’re not wanted here.

That liberating mini-rant was inspired by a Facebook post by Cheryl Strayed, who wrote a book called WILD and a column in The Rumpus called Dear Sugar. Here’s the post in its entirety because Cheryl’s a much more effective and brilliant ranter than I.

“Sometimes I’m asked how I deal with the haters. I don’t deal with them. I pity them. I don’t expect everyone to love my books. In fact, I frankly expect the opposite. (In the history of books, there isn’t one everyone loves.) But I must say I marvel at the ugliness it takes to gather one’s forces in the direction of what one loathes rather than loves–to go out of one’s way to say to a writer: YOU SUCK. So I send out a little silent non-God-connected prayer to the jackass who felt the need to share his or her jack-assed-ness with me. And then, without comment, I zap them forever from this page.”

I understand how she feels.  I’ve been lucky. Most of the reviews of my novel and the comments left on my blog have been kind.  Perplexing at times.  But generally magnanimous and insightful. Then again they’re mostly from friends, family and nice strangers.  I haven’t sold millions of books, nor do I have thousands of Facebook fans and I don’t write a column, do public speaking or author readings, like Cheryl.  Essentially I’m an invisible writer so I’m safe.  So far.  But I fear the haters are out there.

I’ve been writing since I was a kid.  It started with diaries.  If you’re a girl from my generation then you know the kind I’m talking about.  Pocket-sized, with a leatherette cover, and a tiny gold lock and key to keep a young girl’s private thoughts secure and safe. The pages were ruled and had shiny gold leaf edges. I had to write very small and neatly because the spaces between the lines were narrow and the pages no bigger than a 5×7 photograph. The diary’s compact size, however, didn’t diminish the size of my ideas, thoughts and dreams. To this day, I keep a diary.  No longer under lock and key.  Simple utilitarian Hilroy notebooks filled with some of my best writing.

Then there’s this blog. One big mother of a diary.  Out there in cyber space for the world to read.  To love.  And to hate.

The last two years spent writing this very public diary have been an interesting ride. Big eye opener. A revelation on intent, perception and interpretation.  Here’s the thing.  I’ve been sitting at my computer every Saturday thinking I’m writing sweet straightforward stories about my life, past and present.  Nothing edgy, not at all controversial.  But every now and then I read a comment left on a post and I think, what the fuck?  What’s really going on here?  What did I say that offended you so?

Take my post last year on Halloween for instance.  I thought it was just an amusing tale about how I hate that particular holiday and all the reasons why.  For anyone who has been to Northwestern Ontario at the end of October, you know what I mean.  Think of the early sixties, sad costumes cut from sheets, snow, slush, snowsuits, parkas, molasses kisses, snot streaking across your feverish face and you get the picture.  But some readers didn’t get it. Nor were they amused by my satirical tongue planted firmly in my facetious cheek.  For them, I had violated everything that was sacred about playing dress-up once a year. I was the Halloween version of Ebenezer Scrooge.  An angry fun-spoiler.

Even when I thought I was writing an deeply empathic story about the tragic death of a young boy riding his bike for charity, and how my heart broke for his mother, one person read something completely different. I had somehow insulted her.  She sent me a private message (thank God) to chastise me for not writing about her suffering. “What about me?” she essentially asked.  I was gobsmacked, and like Cheryl I zapped her from my Facebook page.

My all-time favorite head-shaker came when I read the comments to my post on “Regrets.”  Some people couldn’t handle that notion at all.  It made them squirm with discomfort. Complete strangers left their sage advice on how I shouldn’t regret anything in life. Little mini pep talks were posted to inspire me to rise from my funk of regret.  Nuggets of homespun wisdom on the virtues of living a life free of regret flooded my inbox. “You did the best with what you knew at the time,” brand of pop psychology was offered up like manna from heaven.  What I found most disconcerting about all this inspirational well-meaning advice was the judgmental and admonishing overtones.  But their comments also made me smile.  Like Yoda.  I know all that shit.  I know it and I still have regrets. I’m okay with that. So there.

The act of authentic writing is like performing open heart surgery on yourself.  Without anesthetic. You slice open your chest, rip apart your flesh, hack into your bones and pull it all out.  You have to be willing to be vulnerable.  Fragile.  Breakable.  Frightened at times. Scared out of your wits.  Where did this come from?  Where is it going?  But to write this way you also have to be courageous. Fierce.  Raw.  Genuine.  Willing to take big emotional risks.  Go to the dark and scary places of your soul. Tell the truth.

I not only write from the heart.  I give you my heart.

Don’t trash or break it.  Just because you can.  Like Cheryl said, what we write isn’t for everyone.  I don’t like every writer, story, blog, book, novel, essay, email.  How could I?  I respectfully put what I don’t like aside and seek other things to read.  This doesn’t mean that something I don’t fancy isn’t well-written or worthwhile either.  It just means it’s not my cup of tea.

One of the big reasons I pass on a lot great literature is because it’s beyond me.  It’s either written in a style I’m incapable of comprehending or I find laborious and tedious. Like reading the Bible from cover to cover as my husband did one year.  That was sheer madness to me but he found it engrossing and meaningful.  Often it’s a genre that doesn’t fascinate me.  My son loves Tolkien, for example.  I can’t get past the first page, although I do love the movies.  We both agree on Harry Potter.  I love Anne Tyler.  I don’t think he knows who she is.

Just so we’re clear here, I have many different opinions and contrary thoughts on writers and their words. And if asked, I’ll offer them. (Sometimes even without being asked.)  But a carefully considered and thoughtfully crafted perspective on any given piece is far different from a reckless and careless comment spit out like stale bubble gum.

How does saying, YOU SUCK advance humanity?  How does that make us better?  How is that comment meaningful to anyone? What does it have to do with anything?  Does it encourage dialogue and advance the conversation? Does it connect us with compassion and empathy? Of course not.  It serves no purpose.  So the only intelligent thing to do is to zap it like Cheryl does.

I’m not a super genius.  I’m not even all that smart, frankly. Perhaps wise on occasion.  I’m a work in progress for sure.  So is my writing.  I like to think it gets a bit better every day.  Just like me.

Who knows? Maybe I SUCK.  But let me be the first to say it.

Link to Cheryl’s website to learn more about her: http://www.cherylstrayed.com/