My First Panic Attack

The morning sun was shining out from behind an occasional cloud. The air was cool – it was a typical Wisconsin Springtime day. The indirect sunlight meant I wore sunglasses, but the sun wasn’t glaring, just a little hazy.

The men were meeting at the north side Perkins to carpool to the airport, which was closer than all those days I drove him there. He’d been traveling a lot lately, but I was used to it. No big deal.

After he got into their car, I pulled out of the parking lot. I turned right instead of left and headed toward the water. My heart was beating a bit fast, and my stomach felt a little funny. “What if something happens?” I drove in a circle and back around into the parking lot. Now my hands were shaking, so I clutched the steering wheel a little more tightly. “What if something happens to the plane?” “Nothing will happen!” “But what will you do if something does?  What will you do? Who will you call first? What if..? What about..?”

The thoughts came suddenly, not even distinctly. They were more like a flash across my brain – in and out, here and gone. But they were enough to start the panic process.

I suddenly needed to walk, somewhere, anywhere, and fast. Walk fast. I pulled back out of the parking lot, and my hands shook harder. I drove down to Riverside Park and looked for a parking spot at the end of the walkway. Now my chest felt like it was shaking, like my whole body was going to convulse from the center.

I got out of the car, dropped the keys in my pocket, and grabbed my phone. The sun came out from behind the clouds, and I could feel it heating my skin. It shone down on my face, and reflected off the water and back up into my eyes. I squinted, even with my sunglasses on. The water was beautiful with the sparkle of the sun shining, with pinpricks of very bright light as it hit the river’s ripples. I hardly noticed.

My head was pounding, my hands were shaking, my heart was thumping hard and my breathing was getting shallow, as if there was a weight on my chest. I tried to dial my therapist’s office, but my fingers were too fat for the correct numbers. I tried again, and got his voice mail. I was desperate to hear his voice, to talk to him and have him talk me down off the ledge I was clinging to. His voice mail message helped – I could at least hear him. I stumbled over words. “I’m not sure what’s wrong. Please call me. I can’t think. I can’t breathe.” I hung up, dialed again, and hung up again.

Now my hands were shaking almost too much to hold the phone, my eyes were filling with tears, and I couldn’t catch my breath. My thoughts were coming too quickly to stop them, all negative. All ridiculous. Of course nothing was going to happen. No reason to plan for it. Stop that. Actually, it was more like, “Nothing…plan for it..stop.” all in one thought. No individual words or coherent ideas.

I remember praying, but the prayers were like my thoughts – arrows shot towards heaven with no clear-cut thought other than “Father God, please help me!” Later, I remembered how the Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we don’t know what to pray (Romans 8:26), and I was thankful for that.

There were other people in the park and walking on the path. I couldn’t really hear them, though, and hardly saw them. It’s as if they were muffled and fuzzy, and their words were unintelligible over the sound of my heartbeat in my ears.

And then all of a sudden, it was gone. The panic, the racing heart, the sweating – stopped. I was better. Exhausted, but better.

I went back to my car and sat in the driver’s seat, trying to figure out what had just happened.  How had I lost the abililty to reason? Why did my body and thoughts go spiraling? I had been trying to breathe, to focus, but there was no way – I was out of control.

I sat in the car, trying to sort out my first panic attack, but not realizing that’s what it was. The sun continued to warm the dark seats, and I got hot from sitting there, so I drove to work, a little shaky yet. I was very tired and my legs were heavy, like I had just run a great distance. I slowly entered the elevator – there was no way I could walk the stairs to my office. Once I sat at the desk, I typed “Panic Attack” in the Google Search Bar, and read all about what had just happened. Sure enough.

 

Coloring Grays

Yesterday on the way up the stairs to my therapist’s office, I wondered if she would want me to play with color. We’ve done that sometimes when talking about my mood, which we were going to do since I had admitted to feeling depressed again. I suddenly wanted to color – a simple pattern or design with all the shades of gray that I could find.

We didn’t get out the crayons, but she encouraged me to color when I got home. I forgot about it until after dinner, and when the TV was on and I wanted something to do, I remembered my wish to shade in grays.

I looked through my coloring books – I have 5 or 6 – and picked a paisley with very few flowers. I’m not feeling flowery. I’m feeling gray.

I chose what I thought was a black colored pencil and started at the center – it was actually blueberry, which came out on the paper as dark purple. So much for a picture in all grays.

I pulled all the pencils I could find that would give me the gray continuum, and a few complimentary colors, I had five blacks, one gray, one dark blue, one bronze yellow (it looked olive gray), two violets, one blue-violet, and one blueberry. I added honey gold for a dull yellow.

When I finished coloring, I sent a picture of it to my therapist. She asked why the purple and yellow. Yellow for a little light, but no idea why purple – really just because I didn’t have enough gray pencils. But she pointed out that the purple is in the center.

And then I realized that purple and yellow have always meant Jesus to me. Christ’s royalty as the Son of God, Christ Divine, Easter Sunday – yellow as sun breaking through symbolizing Christ’s triumph over death, or of Easter Sunrise Service, or even Christ the Son (sun). When I see purple and yellow together, I think Jesus.

(No “gray” in the last paragraph. Pretty cool how that happened, not by my plan at all. Just like the picture.)

Mood.

 

Reaching From Mental Illness to Mental Health

Many weeks ago, in commenting back and forth with fellow blogger Dawn Liz Jones, she challenged me with:

I would be interested to know why or in what ways it is hard to reach from mental illness to mental health. I know for me, it was definitely hard work, with God’s help and grace. Only if you’re ever willing to share. Would make a very helpful and insightful post. – dawnlizjones

Be sure to check out her blog – great Bible insights and personal stories – Inspiration with an Attitude!

How can I reach from mental illness to mental health? Why is it hard?

A major part of my struggle in reaching toward mental health is that health feels gradual, and my descent into mental illness – particularly Major Depressive Disorder with some anxiety – felt very sudden. Looking back on it, it wasn’t sudden; it was a slow decline over many months. But it was life changing for me. It’s easy to spot the negative, to see the low points – my hospitalization was a huge “defining moment” – and to focus on the illness part of my diagnosis. In many ways, I’ve allowed depression to define me, to become part of my identity. I have life before depression, the diagnosis and later hospitalization, and then the “ever since.”

My therapist Ted always wanted me to speak of depression as a different entity, not a part of me but separate, and name the friends depression brought with it (ie, anxiety, loneliness, negative self-talk). He wanted me to see that this was not me, not part of who I am, but instead an unwanted outsider who desired to take over my thoughts and emotions.

That’s great to say, and much harder to put into practice. My depressive episodes – for over 8 years now – are part of my lifetime experiences, and they help shape me. Whether I should or not, I define myself by them. I identify myself as a Christ follower who struggles with depression, may have it all of my life, and so am learning to live with it. That means recognizing my symptoms, my markers, and my triggers and responding appropriately to keep depression away as much as possible.

My mental health is not easy to define except as the absence of mental illness. Illness is much easier to name – depression and anxiety. So health must mean something different, or I will never again be mentally healthy, since I see myself as one who struggles with mental illness.

For me, then, mental health is more about learning how to live in the better moments of my illness or when symptoms have subsided and when I’m in remission, like now. Health also means learning to recognize those steps I can take that help with it – eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, following my treatment plan. Finally, health means recognizing signs that show something might be awry, that depression is fighting for a way in again. Recognizing those markers and triggers can help me take other steps needed to keep it away – giving myself permission to do less and rest more, bumping up my exercise, being more forgiving of myself and more gentle with myself in my own thoughts.

There’s another piece too, and that’s reminding myself to see me the way God sees me. He doesn’t define me as mentally ill. He defines me as His adopted daughter, His precious child, wholly and dearly loved, forgiven. Walking in this world with its troubles, but walking with His Holy Spirit as my Guide. Not alone. Not a mess. But beautiful in His eyes.

The awareness ribbon color for mental health is lime green, for depression it is green, and for mental illness it’s gray. Into the first few years of my depression diagnosis, I had my good friend Carol make a bracelet for me, a mixture of green and lime green stones – it is beautiful. I wore it proudly, as a reminder and hopefully a conversation starter about mental health and depression awareness. But then a few years later I read someone’s comment about the need to bring attention to mental illness, not specifically mental health, because mental illness is the taboo topic. I thought on that a long time, and it makes a lot of sense to me. We can talk about mental health, but that isn’t the issue – mental illness is. So I asked Carol to make another beautiful bracelet – this one is gray for mental illness awareness. I wear it a lot.

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And they look good together, too.

My Plans for 2016

Thanks to Dawn for asking the question that prompts this blog post! You can check out her writings at INSPIRATION with an ATTITUDE – great thoughts and ponderings as she draws lessons from daily life and God’s Word.

Anyway, she asked me at the end of my last post if I had any plans – not resolutions, but plans, for 2016. I appreciated that she phrased it that way – I gave up resolutions a long time ago. I’m not sure when that happened – probably when the word began to mean failure for me. Or maybe not failure, but “goals set unrealistically high.” Or “too lofty,” or “not well-defined.” Whenever it was, I stopped setting resolutions because I knew that my life wouldn’t change from December 31 to January 1, and so why bother.

That’s not to say that I don’t have plans. I do, almost always – by personality, I’m a planner. I have plans for the future – like before I moved across the country – I had great pictures of when and what that would look like. Plans for the week – when is that chiropractic appointment? Plans for the day – gotta get the laundry done. But again, not plans that I’d really consider life-changing. Not plans to introduce new habits into my days or weeks or year.

I think this means that I react, but am not always proactive. And when I’m depressed (which I am not right now – yay!), I’m too tired to be proactive. I don’t have the energy to do more than respond to my circumstances. It’s too hard to make changes. Which makes getting well really difficult, because my thought patterns during depression have to change to bring about healing.

It’s at times like now, when I’m mentally healthy – this is when I need to put new habits into practice. This is when I need to think about steps I can take to bring healing, or to stay healthy. So when my mood shifts to the negative, I already have good things in place to combat the depression that wants to take over.

That’s why eating well and exercising and taking my medication and meeting with my therapist regularly and having daily time in prayer and God’s Word are critical – I’ll need all of these to be part of my routine when I get to the point that I can only function within my routine – when I can only react.

And times like now, mentally healthy times, are a great time for me to try something new – add something from my wish list. What would I like to do when I am mentally healthy that I might not be able to do otherwise?

Beginning in 2013, I have 1.5 years of my timing, my plans, that didn’t line up with God’s plans and so didn’t happen according to my timetable. I became so frustrated, aggravated, and I became further depressed when things didn’t happen when I thought they should. From that, I learned that my plans can’t be written in stone. I must plan with my palms open, not gripping too tightly, because God’s plans are always better, but often don’t match mine. So plans are good as long as I keep them in perspective and am willing to let them go when God leads me into better plans, His plans. And His plans are always for my good.

I plan to keep that in mind for 2016!

Other plans, ideas for my future year:

  • Continue blogging. My last post of 2015 was my 100th one!  I’m pleased with that for my first year as a blogger. I’d love to develop a consistent blogging calendar, but am afraid to commit for fear I’ll miss a deadline! Maybe I should have a plan for publishing, but not tell my readers, so then no one is disappointed. But then where’s the accountability in that?
  • I’ve decided to write a memoir of my depression years and the lessons I learned of God’s faithfulness through it all. I’ve read a couple of books on writing memoirs – now I need to discipline myself with daily writing assignments toward this goal. I sure hope it doesn’t cause conflict with my blogging efforts.
  • I want to volunteer a couple of hours per week in a memory care or assisted living facility. This is a great tool for fighting depression – investing in someone else. It takes my focus off myself and allows me to reach out to others.
  • I plan to find a Bible Study where I can meet other women who love Jesus. I think this is important in my effort of making friends, which has been slow to develop in the 10 months since we relocated here. And I’m tired of being lonely, so I plan to do something about it!

So, those are my plans. But like I said, only if they line up with God’s plans for me.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  Jeremiah 29:11, NIV 

What are your plans for 2016?

Semicolon;

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I got this tattoo a week ago. I’ve wanted one for years, and finally decided to just do it! I incorporated the semicolon; it’s in response to Project Semicolon. “The goal of the project is to restore hope and confidence in people who are troubled by addiction, depression, self-harm, and suicide.” The idea is that instead of a period, where life would end, there’s a semicolon – life continues. Like their website says, “Your story is not over.”

Back in 2009, the medication I was taking that caused the serotonin toxicity made me think lots of suicidal thoughts (suicide ideation), to the point of having a plan of how and where (but not the detail of when). While I was never truly suicidal (my level of suicide risk was not high enough – I didn’t have all the markers), at the worst all I could think of was that I didn’t want to live in pain anymore, didn’t want to be “here” (in this life); I just wanted it over.

I had those “death thoughts” for days and nights and weeks, increasing in frequency. It reached an intensity that the idea of death ran through my mind constantly, even in the background when I was busy with other distractions like work. I was so incredibly miserable, so hopeless, and I couldn’t imagine that I was ever going to feel differently. The ache in my chest was all-consuming, and felt like it was eating me from the inside out, wearing me down, gnawing at me. My plan was to take all my pills, but when I was driving I would fantasize about plowing head first into a large on-coming truck or driving off the edge of a cliff. I had these thoughts, but the plan never went anywhere because I couldn’t imagine putting my family through the aftermath-pain. I never got completely to the point where I assumed everyone would be better off without me. I thought it a few times, but quickly pictured faces of family and friends crying, and knew I couldn’t do that to them. So technically, I wasn’t suicidal. But it sure felt like it to me.

One evening before bed, I poured a handful of my sleeping pills into my palm and looked at them all. “How easy,” I thought, “to simply take them and go to sleep and not wake up. ” I scared myself a little by having them in my hand, and so I poured them back into the bottle, all but those prescribed on the label.

Several days later, I called my therapist and told him that I was feeling very out of sorts, rather hyper, and that I wanted to hurt myself. He asked if I had a plan, and I told him yes; then he made me tell him what it was. I told him that I would take a huge handful of pills, probably all of my sleep meds, and just go to sleep and not wake up and the pain would all be over. He asked me where I was. “At work.” He told me to call my husband, at his work, and tell him to go home immediately and gather up all of my medications and hide them – he would be the only one allowed to give them to me. I promised my therapist, hung up, and sheepishly called my husband and told him what I needed him to do. I think it was the first time I had to openly admit the seriousness – the depth of pain – of my illness to him. My husband put all of my meds in our safe in the closet, and carried the key with him from then on.

The suicidal thoughts felt very real – they were in my head – but my therapist and psych doc and husband and friends kept reminding me that they weren’t my thoughts. They were caused by the wrong medication and resulting chemicals in my brain. They would eventually go away as my system got used to a different med and as I began to feel better. I didn’t believe them, but I trusted them, and so I started telling myself that when I would begin to think hopelessly. And it did work – took awhile, but eventually I could see that the thoughts were caused by the meds and the depression, and were not really my own.

But I wonder sometimes if they ever go away. Completely I mean. Once I’ve had those thoughts, they are somehow a part of me. I have to be cautious to fight to keep them away when depression comes and brings hopelessness. And even though I still have those safe-guards that will keep me from following through (concern for those “left behind,” promise of God’s Presence – my personal faith in Jesus, fear of the physical pain, and the shame that would remain – I’d be worse than just depressed, etc.), I know the thoughts could come again.

I later became friends with a person who had tried to kill herself with meds, and I learned that my plan would most likely not have worked, but would have made me incredibly painfully sick, perhaps throwing up blood as I tore apart my insides and in a coma with breathing difficulties. I would have had a whole other layer of shame to deal with – not just the shame that often comes with depression, but shame that comes from putting loved ones through such trauma as a suicide attempt.

I now look back on this time and thank God for saving me, for putting my husband and therapist and doctor and friends in my life who didn’t give up on me, even when I kept thinking about giving up on life. I thank God for different medications, for keeping me safe, for His Presence. I thank Him for the semicolon, and for the way He can use my depression now in helping others because my life goes on.

2 Corinthians 1:8b-10, personalized
“I was under great pressure, far beyond my ability to endure, so that I despaired of life itself. Indeed, I felt I had received the sentence of death. But this happened that I might not rely on myself but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered me from such a deadly peril, and He will deliver me again. On Him I have set my hope that He will continue to deliver me, …”