Float, Not Fight

I've been neglectful of myself. Not overtly; I tend to my needs and make sure that I make time for exercise and some small self care activities that I find comfort in. Neglect can be insidious, though. Residing under the surface of a calm sea can be a volcano vast and violent in its eruptions. So while I appear calm and collected to most people, my husband sees the volcanic side that is becoming increasingly active. After some reflection, I'm realizing that I've somehow allowed myself to stop truly processing my emotions. I've professed to be "doing the work" and fallen into the trap of equating working towards healing with actual healing. I have made great strides, accomplished goals, and even experienced growth in some areas...but the truth is I've also been shrinking back down in so many others. 

I'm not sleeping well, or at all a lot of nights. It started when my son had Covid in the beginning of October, and hasn't abated since. My preoccupation with not sleeping has clouded my ability to elucidate the root cause and has been ratcheting up my general level of reactivity to anxious stimuli. If I am honest, however, my anxiety levels had been building again long before Covid came to knock on our door. But I can only say this in hindsight, as I wasn't aware at the time it was happening. So here I sit with the realization that I've once again gotten to a state of anxiety that is difficult to cope with because I missed the red flags my body has been sending me even amidst my most earnest efforts to maintain my mental health.

You see, I meet with my therapist every two weeks. I exercise and get sunlight daily. I read self-help books. I try to be mindful. I do yoga, even if sporadically. I've communicated hard truths and put boundaries where I need them. I've not overextended myself to avoid stress overload. These things help, absolutely, but I still have miles to go before I sleep (literally, it seems.) I still have to build the bridge of acceptance over the raging river of fear and doubt that races ever through my mind. Acceptance of what? Well, everything. Accepting that I have to work towards optimal mental health, instead of being blessed with it. Acceptance that I have been through hardships not everyone has and that those hardships have shaped my perception of myself and the world. Acceptance that it will take time to address and unpack all of the pent-up emotion and trauma of my past. Acceptance that I need to weed out toxic thought patterns and plant the seeds of healthier ones. Acceptance that my body is very susceptible to physical manifestations of a stressed out mind. Acceptance that I will fail. Acceptance that I can not ever give up. 

I often say to my husband that it is hard to be me and that I wish I could, for just a while, live in the confines of calmer mind. Living in constant fear and tension breeds an overly-sensitized sympathetic nervous system. It's akin to walking around a fireworks factory in an outfit soaked in gasoline. You're always waiting for the one spark that will strike disaster, and so your body is constantly in a state of near-fight-or-flight. Adrenaline, epinephrine, and cortisol (all stress hormones) surge through the body at elevated levels and once you are startled, or have an alarming thought, or someone makes a sideways remark, an emotional maelstrom ensues, engulfing you in an irrational and exaggerated storm of fear and the cycle begins anew. Normally, after a fear response, the body is able to relax and resume homeostasis via the rest and digest phase (or to put it another way, by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.) When the overly-sensitized sympathetic nervous system is in the driver's seat of your life, however, there is no returning to baseline. Never really decompressing, the poor soul (i.e.- me) is left on high alert and can not find sleep even when the body and mind are past their limits of exhaustion.

If I am really honest with myself, I've been living this way for about two years now, although truth be told, the gradual buildup to this state has been much longer than that. I digress. For at least two years I've been in an overly-activated state of existence. While it's had valleys and periods of relative comfort, I have to admit to being on a hair trigger, emotionally, for a long time. I've known it and actually tried to address it, but end up getting frustrated with my inability to relax and switch instead to overexerting myself and trying to ignore reality. De-sensitizing a nervous system takes time and dedication, neither of which come easily to a someone operating on the edge. No one is more ironic than Mother Nature, apparently. Recently, this bout of insomnia has put me into a state of, if I may borrow a line from Woody in Toy Story, "hyperactive hyperdrive." I've gone from my usual mindset of trying to ride the waves of anxiety to full on sprinting away from the physical and mental discomfort of it. I've reached for medication more often than I have in a long time, and even that puts me into a state of increased fear. I'm wound so tight now that I fear snapping all together. If I do snap, it happens in the small hours of the morning when the rest of the world is sleeping and I lay there bleary-eyed and praying for respite that never comes.

Last night in the midst of midnight panic, I decided to throw out a Hail Mary. I had read somewhere along the way about an Australian psychiatrist, a pioneer in intrinsic anxiety treatment decades ago, by the name of Claire Weekes. Author of "Hope and Help for Your Nerves," Dr. Weekes, was truly ahead of her time and considered to be unorthodox for preaching self-help during the hey day of Freud and psychoanalysis. Lucky for me she made recordings of her philosophies in order to reach a broader audience of folks who suffered with what she had coined "nervous illness." These recordings have subsequently been posted to YouTube and as I listened with tears in my eyes I realized that these recordings may be the very thing I needed to hear, and have needed to hear for a long, long time. 

Dr. Weekes preaches the need for total acceptance of and surrender to your anxiety, leaning into it rather than running from it. She explains the patterns and progression of unchecked [over] sensitization and panic, which I related to in every way. According to Dr. Weekes, the three pillars of panic are sensitization, bewilderment, and fear. These three components combine to form an unholy trinity that perpetuates suffering. Her discussions on how sensitization leads to indecision, which leads to suggestibility (even to one's own detrimental thoughts,) which breeds a lack of confidence, which leads to personality disintegration, which leads to feelings of unreality/isolation from the world, to obsession, and finally depression were earth shattering in their logic and yet shocking in their simplicity and described my own trajectory through the very worst time in my life. I've always been "bewildered" as she would say as to what the hell actually happened to me, as in, how did I go from my status quo to a nervous wreck? In the course of an hour Dr. Weekes illuminated what now seems to me a very predictable descent that so many others follow. 

After a crash course in her program, it seems that Dr. Weekes' approach is very much in line with my ultimate goals for recovery. It is similar to the mind-body approach to dealing with physical pain pioneered by Dr. John Sarno that I've researched and tried to apply in-depth to various physical symptoms I've had as a result of an overactive nervous system. Using the mind-body approach has been successful, and I've ventured to apply it directly to insomnia and anxiety, but have been less able to gain the necessary mental control/strength to make much headway.  After listening to an hour of Dr. Weekes' philosophy straight from the doctor herself, I ordered her book and have a burgeoning hope that maybe I can begin to truly work through and out of this state of being. I know that just listening to her talks last night was comforting. She de-mystifies so many of the feelings associated with anxiety and panic, and does it in a succinct and compassionate manner, without judgement or hitting you with a disorder from the DSM. That's not to insult modern providers, but so many times I've found that mental health professionals are more concerned with documenting that you're safe and reducing their own liability (i.e.-throwing antidepressants and tranquilizers at you) that they miss the opportunity to be a supportive sounding board for those of us who wish to truly heal instead of just medicate. 

I'm not damning medication, it is a necessary tool in recovery and I am happy for those who can use it to lead more healthy and meaningful lives. From my personal perspective, sometimes drugs feel more like a band-aid, a temporary respite from anguish. I aim to truly recover from this phase of my life, the phase where all of the emotional baggage I've been carrying for a lifetime suddenly became too much weight to bear. I am working towards lightness, towards floating instead of fighting through the hours of my existence. I have to hold on to hope that this is possible because hope is the only true antidote to fear. 

I sort of know what I need to do, but it feels monumental to an already-fatigued mind and body. I need to learn more about desensitization and acceptance. I need to commit to achieving both. I need to sit once in a while to take stock of and process my thoughts instead of trying to stay ten steps ahead of them. I need to give myself some grace and some credit and not just pretend I don't need either of those things. I need to learn to truly ride these waves instead of always holding my damned breath in anticipation of drowning.  


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