I used to think that the worst thing that might happen in the night would be an emergency phone call, a horrifying nightmare, or the dreaded stuck-in-that-in-between-sleep-and-wake stage, where you’re aware of what’s happening, you’re terrified, but you can’t do anything about it.
Whenever I get “trapped” in that state I usually try and scream as loud as I can. I feel like I’m yelling my head off. After three maybe four times my husband will take a hold of me to rouse me.
If I ask him what he finally heard that made him wake me up, his reply is almost always something like, “I heard a muffled cry.” Meanwhile, I’ve broken out in a sweat then shivers from sheer exertion.
Back when I was a teenager there were a lot of nights when I awoke with terrible leg cramps. I could imagine my calf muscle all hideously contorted with the pain.
I’d cry out and my mother would come, using her deft hands to massage it and soothing words to calm me, later I had to learn how to quickly turn it just the right way to relax the tightened muscles. Time was of the essence.
Both my boys went through these nighttime leg cramp episodes when they were younger, too. I would massage their little calf muscles and promise them it would go away. Vowing that they needed to eat more bananas, and drink more water.
As the kid or the mom, wasn’t fun from either perspective.
But that’s the thing about perspective, sometimes it can become skewed by our circumstances.
I don’t think that anyone assumes anyone else has anxiety or PTSD, with the possible exception of someone returning from combat. But this is a face of anxiety:
Had you not already been reading this would you have guessed? Probably not.
It doesn’t show because it doesn’t leave a visible mark. I still often smile, belying inner turmoil. It’s not something that is thought much about. I’d never really experienced it before, except for being scared to drive after a car accident nearly a decade ago. People don’t usually associate me with having anxiety issues apparently until I tell my story, then they nod their heads very understandingly, and realize how and why it fits me.
The gist is that I awoke at just after two am in the midst of a stroke, and naturally at that time I was in my bed, my safe place, my refuge. In fact this is frighteningly common and an alarming percent of people who experience this in the night ignore the signs and go back to sleep. Hoping to sleep it off, I guess.
Since once again, and much more seriously, time is of the essence, ignoring it can be very detrimental.
So three weeks later, when I returned home from the rehabilitation center, I had to go back, to sleep in my bed. The very scene of where everything had happened.
The anxiety that I experienced upon returning kept me awake. I was so afraid to go to sleep and have it happen again. Even though, medically speaking, there were no reasons that I was in any danger of a recurrence.
Logic did not defy anxiety. Anxiety did defy logic.
That first night was almost unbearable. I cried tears of fear and desperation, not knowing how or if I’d make it through the night. It’s been 15 months now, and it has gotten easier but it hasn’t gone away completely.
Although I’m hoping it will, just when I think that maybe it has, I’ll have a night when it hits me again. Those can be some pretty rough nights.
I have to shut down my mind. I mean shut.it.down…fast. If I actually feel it bubbling beneath the surface, I’ll listen to some great audio meditations before going to sleep, to calm down and clear my head.
But in the deep, dark middle of the night, when I can’t play one or I’d awaken my husband, I will lay there forcing myself to think the same words over and over again, hoping to block the panic.
For me I replay a mantra of sorts in my mind: “I am safe,” “It’s okay,” and “No…you can’t get in” or something similar. Then I keep repeating the words over and over, trying to keep the anxious thoughts from forming.
Most nights in the beginning and sometimes still, I would wake up from dreaming and immediately move my leg and my arm, and then my foot and my hand, toes and fingers, to make sure that they all worked and it wasn’t happening again. It’s such a terrible feeling. Sure makes for some disruptive sleep.
Two months after I got home I was prescribed a benzodiazepine medication, a muscle relaxant and sedative. I’ve only used it a couple times when I could not quell the waves of panic, and it worked.
But I don’t want to need it and I’m a little scared to use it. It’s been over a year since I’ve taken it, now I carry it with me as a safety net.
Just over a year after I had the stroke I got an opportunity to travel to Sweden when my husband had to go for work. I almost talked myself out of going because I was so anxious and nervous. About being that far from my doctor, the thought of losing my medicines, the very thought that I might have another emergency.
What if I had an anxiety attack on the plane? Washington, DC to Copenhagen, Denmark is a thirteen hour flight! What if I couldn’t sleep for fourteen straight nights in the hotel? Because of my still recovering left arm and shoulder I need to sleep on my back, and at home I have the proper set-up!
It’s very easy to let anxiety take over and dictate what you can and can’t do with your life. Thankfully I have a very loving, supportive, and quite persuasive husband, who never for a second stopped encouraging me. As determined as I was that I couldn’t do it, he was even more determined that I could and should.
With his assistance (and insistence) I did go, and it was wonderful. This time I cried tears of joy and victory, literally and figuratively for coming so far. To think I almost missed out on the chance to experience Stockholm is jarring.
But anxiety can make us miss out on a lot of things.
It’s described as an “unpleasant state of inner turmoil, often accompanied by nervous behavior, such as pacing back and forth, somatic complaints and rumination.” And furthermore, “it is the subjectively unpleasant feelings of dread over something unlikely to happen, such as the feeling of imminent death.”
Technically, fear is the response to a definite threat, real or perceived, about to happen, while anxiety is “the expectation of a future threat”. Hmm, all I know is that when anxiety strikes, I’m afraid, worried, uneasy, and yes, it’s usually an overreaction. Sigh.
Apparently there is a time and place for anxiety to be considered normal and appropriate, but if it continues for too long, and grows in size, you may suffer from an anxiety disorder.
Not to harp on the stroke thing, but yet another aspect of my anxiety might be even more unexpected. A few months into my recovery I started having a really strange relationship with food and eating.
Believe me that I know how this sounds, but right after I would eat food, I would feel sick with worry and certainty that what I had just eaten was going to result in me dying.
I could picture some aspect of whatever I’d eaten attacking once inside me. Whether it was the sugar, the salt, the fat…every food had something sinister and I’m talking about healthy fruits and veggies, quality meat, homemade meals, in other words the “good stuff”. It was really awful, there I was trying to keep my anxiety levels down and this was happening.
It went on for months. I knew that it wasn’t rational, but the mind is a very powerful and tricky apparatus. I felt very conspicuous, even though no one could have known what was happening unless I told them.
And as with so many disorders in our minds, fighting it was exhausting and I felt defeated by it. Some days it seemed to be winning.
The other morning I got to thinking about the 1986 film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, and specifically the character of Cameron Frye. He goes into the pool and sinks like a stone down to the bottom and stays there until Ferris saves him. How does he do that? I have a major fear of drowning, having had two close calls when I was young.
Talk about a guy with a possible anxiety disorder…
I was thinking of that pool scene while writing this because of that other scary phenomenon of seemingly drowning while you’re kind of asleep. And you fight it, knowing you need to wake up. You’re actually fighting for breath…another of the worst things that happen in the night.
Naturally I poked around online reading any info about this character once I realized he was also a face of anxiety…well it turns out there’s a whole raft of people out there who believe a theory about the movie where Ferris does not exist? It’s called “the Ferris Bueller Fight Club Theory”. Watch it here.
They theorize that the entire movie takes place in Cameron’s head. Either Ferris Bueller is completely made up or he’s modeled after a boy that Cameron wishes he was like. Additionally the beautiful girlfriend Sloane Peterson is probably a girl he had a crush on. And he never actually leaves his bedroom.
This explains all the fantastical events that occur such as Ferris singing in the parade, being on the jumbo screen at Wrigley Field, and the city of Chicago rallying around an unknown, ailing teenager – Save Ferris!
(Man, I love John Hughes movies!)
The movie had kind of a storybook ending for Ferris and Sloane, as if Cameron was imaging the perfect life. As if this was his attempt at a fantastic alter-ego.
An alter-ego with an idyllic, charmed life: a great home, loving parents, he was adored by just about everyone, with the exception of his vindictive high school principal, and his slightly loopy sister, Jeannie, and even she comes around by the end.
Ferris Bueller always manages to have fun and get out of trouble, he has a tremendous amount of confidence and charisma for someone his age; he’s the symbolic “golden boy”. The total opposite of Cameron Frye: with his troubled father-son relationship, his sterile house and his rampant hypochondria.
All of which, among many others, are classic risk factors for an anxiety disorder.
But of course everyone with an anxiety disorder doesn’t need to create a Ferris Bueller doppelgänger to enable them to confront their fears head on. Unless it helps…hey whatever gets you through the night, right?
Seriously though, when I think of how many of us human beings are fighting these battles with our anxieties, not to mention missing out on wonderful experiences because of them, it makes me sad.
I don’t want us to keep our worlds small because we’re afraid. I don’t want us to have regrets. I want us to be able to fight through them, coming out stronger. Then taking life by the horns and hanging on for the ride.
This is a wonderful world, with amazing things to be discovered and enjoyed left and right. Louis Armstrong was really onto something, lyrically speaking. Well, actually I’ve read it was written by two other guys and first turned down by Tony Bennett, but anyway…you get me.
And yes…I’m thinking to myself…what a wonderful world…
― Raina K Morton, June 3 2014
To all anxiety sufferers across the globe:
“I will not die an unlived life
I will not live in fear of falling
Or of catching fire
I choose to inhabit my days
To allow my living to open me,
Making me less afraid
To loosen my heart
So that it becomes a wing, a torch, a promise
I choose to risk my significance.
To live so that,
that which comes to me as seed
Goes to the next as blossom.
And that which comes to me as blossom
Goes on as fruit.”
— Dawna Markova
*All the above definitions and descriptions of anxiety are quoted from Wikipedia