I have a very difficult time with morning time.
When I wake up, it takes me like five seconds before my heart rate is through the roof. I have to talk myself through it to get it back down again.
I have always disliked mornings–felt confused and panicky. I think it’s probably this factor that contributes to the fact that I’m not in any way, shape, or form a morning person. Don’t get me wrong, I love the feeling you get after you get up, when most of the world around you is still asleep, but it’s always that 10-20 minutes of calming myself down right after I wake up that sucks.
The night, however–I feel fully myself at night.
If you know me at all, you know that anxiety has been and to some degree still is a leading character in the story of my life. Even from when I was a little kid, I have known of it, looked it in the face, accepted its presence. I know this sounds defeated, but the more you “fight it” in the traditional sense of not allowing yourself to feel a certain way, it only gets worse and worse. Much of my childhood was spent in a sort of mental survival mode, and the worst times were morning times.
The anxiety always lets up at night for some reason. I can feel it retreating around 7 or so depending on when the sun goes down. Then I’m normal, and I’m left only with the memory of how panic feels. It’s kind of like if you’ve broken your arm: in the moment, you feel the pain, but five years later, when the only thing you can see is the calcium deposit that has built up over the break in the bone, you kind of forget how painful it was. You only know it was painful, and you remember what pain rating you gave it. You know it was bad, and you can see the effects of the incident, but you can no longer feel the pain anymore.
Mental health in general (or lack thereof) is an area of health that I think people have a hard time with. I can understand too. At least with cancer or diabetes, you can look into the body and say, “Yep, your cells have mutated,” or “Yep, not enough insulin.” The body is, in that way, very much like a car. The the arm bone’s connected to the hand bone, and so forth… The brain, however, is full of finely-tuned knobs that have to be dialed in in a specific way for it the brain to function properly. To add to the complexity, if one knob is off, it affects a score of other knobs and in turn, those knobs affect other knobs. You get the idea. The brain isn’t like a car to where if something doesn’t work, you just yank it out and put a new something in.
An interesting little anecdote: when I was taking my Biology lab in college, we watched a video about open-heart surgery. I had always figured that it would be really tedious, delicate work. One minute slip of the hand, and it’s all over. Nope, they ripped that chest open, cut through the heart, and popped out that blood clot like it was nobody’s business. The body (minus the brain) it would seem really isn’t that delicate.
Scientists know less about the human brain than they know about any other part of the body. It’s just sophisticated, finely-tuned work, and I guess our science hasn’t gotten that far yet. With that in mind (no pun intended), it makes sense that our society is a bit behind in really accepting mental problems as also being viable diseases. I think too, mental problems are somewhat easy to fake. You can’t look into the brain and say, “Yep, I see anxiety!”
I think I am genetically predisposed to have panic disorder. My grandmother, a mousy, insecure, weak-spirited woman struggled with it that eventually led to a nervous breakdown which ended her marriage to my grandfather, the event which left my mom’s life in ruins. I can remember the day the anxiety hit: the morning after our Christian school’s all-first-grade lock-in. I was one of the last kids to be picked up in the morning. I remember standing outside, walking the lines in the pavement waiting for my parents to come. Nothing traumatic had happened (that I can remember anyway) the night before or that morning. I knew logically that my parents were only running late and that they would be back to get me. It just hit me. BAM. The worst wall of anxiety you can imagine. I fell apart. My parents found me in hysterics when they came to get me, and I’ve never been the same since. Second grade was spent bawling nearly every day. Around that time, I started displaying signs of obsessive compulsive disorder. No one could figure out why I covered my eyes whenever I was in the classroom: I did it so that I wouldn’t cheat because something in my head told me that whenever I opened my eyes, I was going to look at someone else’s paper.
My parents, being very good parents, didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have the kind of vocabulary to be able to describe what was going on. I only knew that I hurt for no apparent reason. None of the kids around me could understand. I was reduced to the kid who always cries for no good reason. I wasn’t well liked, and I think it was because of this, I acted out. It sounds so funny now, but they used to call me “Carrie from Boston” because I was so bossy. I look back on how I was and I think, “That’s not me!”
Third grade brought a new level of public humiliation. My teacher (whose last name was Schaffer, ironically), upon finding me crying uncontrollably in class, stood me and another girl up and asked the girl, “What do we say to Carrie?” to which she turned and in front of the entire class told me, “Bite the bullet, Carrie.” One day, I ran away from school in the middle of LA. They kept a better eye on me after that I think, but I still cringe when I hear the phrase “bite the bullet.”
I have no idea to this day what brings on the anxiety. Anxiety doesn’t have to have a reason. It just happens I guess. I do know that it is sparked or brought on by particularly stressful times in life. When I was Kindergarten, something happened to me that I don’t think my little kid brain knew how to deal with. When it came back again in middle school, a kid was bullying me at school and tried to strangle me with a bit of plastic cord. When I told the principal, she informed me that “there’s a reason why he’s here at this Christian school. We’re going to keep him here because he needs to find Jesus.” The last bout of anxiety was around five years ago when I was dating a guy who was extremely jealous and verbally abusive. All these instances made me feel terribly unsafe, and perhaps this is what sparked these episodes of anxiety.
As a kid, I didn’t have the capacity to try and figure out what was going on, but with this last episode, I was old enough that I started to reason out what was going on. This time, I also had the help of a therapist and a psychiatrist.
I have been clinically diagnosed as having Panic Disorder with Obsessive Compulsive Thoughts. What that means is: I experience some kind of dull anxiety on a daily basis (usually the morning is the worst time). In prolonged times of stress, the daily anxiety turns into panic. Panic is the equivalent of breaking your arm…but in your head and magnified fifty times. Often times, I will have no logical specific reason for panic. Sometimes, the panic will feed the panic as in a positive feedback loop. The panic, if bad enough, can lead to to panic attacks which are a temporary loss of control over the nervous system. When I had them, I often had them several times a day (usually in the morning and then several around 2 or 3 pm). Your heart rate goes dramatically, you hyperventilate, cry uncontrollably, and you would often lose feeling in your arms and legs. When I could feel them coming on, I would often have just enough time to excuse myself and go out to the car or someplace I knew I could be alone. When this got bad enough, I slipped into what my therapist called “crisis mode” which usually puts you in the hospital. I was pretty close to committing myself not because I was scared I was going to hurt myself so much as I hurt so bad that I wanted to be sedated. The closest comparison I can think of is this: if for some reason, your arm was surgically amputated, but they didn’t give you any anesthesia. You would WANT to be heavily sedated because, for that specific time in your life, you didn’t want to feel anything. During that time, I told my mom that I would rather have every single bone in my body broken than to have to go through it again, and I wholeheartedly meant it.
The OCD part of all of this looks like this: imagine that each of us is a table, a smooth, flat, clean surface. Let’s say that distressing thoughts are flies. Flies land on the tables all the time, and then they take off again. It’s normal. People with OCD have a layer of sticky fly paper covering their tables. When the flies land, they stick and struggle there.
It’s normal to have distressing thoughts, but people without OCD don’t think anything about them because they dismiss them as ridiculous and highly unlikely. For example, people without OCD may think, “There’s a kid in the street. What if I ran over him. That’s ridiculous.” And then they forget about it. Oftentimes, this process isn’t as conscious as that. However, people with OCD think, “Wait. Why am I having this thought? Is there something behind it? I must really want to run over that kid in the street if I’m even thinking about it.” I would spend hours reasoning out of it, pulling out every piece of evidence as to why I would never want to hurt another person. OCD causes you to be put on trial in your own mind–not to mention, you’re your own lawyer as well. Once I would reason out of something and I thought I had won the battle and I could be done with the thought once and for all, the very same fly would drop on to my fly paper, and the entire process would start over again. This is what they would tell me was “cycling” because you just keep going around and around without the hope of an end.
That’s exhausting enough with that one thought not to mention that there are a million different flies. My mind always went to the worst thoughts–the worst case scenario thoughts. I would literally wrestle all day with the guilt of having these thoughts. I would read years later that people with obsessive compulsive thoughts are even less likely to carry out a specific thought they worry about than a person without OCD. That brought me a lot of hope.
What helps me now to understand isn’t that I’m innocent at my own mental trial but that there’s no need for the trial in the first place (which as it might sound to you, was quite an epiphany to me). It wasn’t that I needed to find a break in the cycle; it was more that the cycle doesn’t really exist.
Five years ago, I couldn’t get out of bed–not even to go to school (and school was usually my way I could escape from it). My dad drove over the mountains and moved me back to their house. I stayed the next month on their couch watching the same movies over and over again (which is probably why to this day, I’ll watch the same movie over and over again–I think it’s an escape). I started getting better when the stress, my unhealthy relationship, ended. I took medication for about a year, but the side effects made me feel a little crazy, so I slowly weened off of it. I still can’t really stand broccoli (which made me throw up if I smelled it when I was on one medication). During the weening process, I would often forget where I was, where I was supposed to be, who I was supposed to be meeting, my brother’s name (which was a pretty good indication that I should go off of it). Physically, I had “brain zaps” which I would come to find out are typical when coming off of an SSRI. Brain zaps make you feel like your brain is twitching around in your head. It’s the craziest thing. It didn’t really bothers me when I was getting them every couple of minutes, but when I had them every couple of seconds, it bothered me.
I can say now that I don’t regret what happened. I am able to relate with people in crisis more than I ever would if I hadn’t had it. Even though I may not have gone through the same exact situation, I know I can at least reference the pain I’ve gone through in order to connect with someone else’s.
I have found people who have gone through this kind of specific trauma.
I still have a small, brown spot on the white part of my eyeball. From the research I’ve done, I’ve found that it was brought on by the large amounts of stress and the nearly hourly crying I had done. It’s my one physical reminder of that time in my life that it did happen, and as odd as it sounds, I’m grateful for it because it reminds me that I have “walked through the valley of the shadow of death” and have come out the other side.
Now, the dull daily anxiety in the morning and the spot on my eye are a very small reminder of past things.
This last fall, Seth and I took a trip to Denver to hear Rob Bell speak at his Drops Like Stars tour. The whole lecture was about the connection between creativity and suffering–and creativity that’s not limited to visual art–I’m talking about creativity in every area of life whether that be in relationships or in thinking or in understanding and using our suffering for something greater than the suffering itself.
His thesis was: The question “why do bad things happen” isn’t the question we should be asking. Rather, we should look at our suffering as a way to tap into creativity, to connect with others around us, to let it knit us together. Look at the way Christ’s suffering has connected so many people. If we see suffering as a vehicle that propels us forward…
If my family hadn’t been around for me, I know I would have ended up in the hospital or worse. We’re closer as a result of it. I remember my dad saying that he was ready to sell the house to finance my getting better if that’s what it took.
My brother had no idea what was going on with me when I would have panic attacks. I remember him basically telling me to buck up–to “bite the bullet.” It wasn’t until a couple of years later, when he started manifesting panic disorder and I had to drive him down to the college and help him drop his classes rather than fail, that he understood. And now, we have an understanding between us. A silent inner connection that says, “I know how you feel.”
“How many of the most significant moments in your life came not because it all went right, but because it all fell apart?” Sure, we don’t go out looking for suffering (because that would be “emo” of us), but when it happens (because it happens to the best of us) be thankful for the depth it brings.
I want this year to be the next step in my healing. I want to be excited about the future–to see it quivering with potential and possibility.
To not look at anxiety as a huge stone I keep tripping over.
To give meaning to the suffering in my own life.
To delve into creativity in the greater sense of the word–to greater understand the One it comes from.
To look past myself into others’ suffering and see creative potential there (and to help them see it too).
To own the words: “Joy comes with the morning.”