I Do

I had my first full blown panic attack on my wedding day. Well, to be more accurate, it began at the exact moment that I was to walk down the aisle and meet my betrothed at the other end.

All of a sudden I was completely alone. After having people fussing around me all day long, everyone assumed their positions and I was left to cross the daunting aisle all by myself. To this day, my mother and I wonder why we did not think to have her escort me down the aisle. My father, who would have been the traditional choice, was not in our lives and, frankly, my wedding was planned at a bit of an accelerated pace. We just never really discussed that aspect of my wedding. It was a blind spot.

The expeditiously arranged event was not due to a bun in the oven or any other sort of potentially scandalous plight. It was just love, plain and simple. A 6 month whirlwind romance that had two 25 year olds longing to start their lives together.  That, and the fact that my sister had an enormously grand affair planned for her own wedding three months later that we did not want to encroach upon, had us moving at a rapid organizational pace.

I didn’t care about many of the details of planning my wedding, unlike most brides. I just wanted to be married. I had met a man who made me feel safe in the world and who lived his life with uncommon morality. Characteristics that I was longing for in my own life.

We had approximately zero dollars and zero cents allotted to throw a wedding. My father had left our family essentially bankrupt and as much as my mother wished she could contribute financially, she had been burdened in all aspects of her own life as a result of my father’s actions. After designing and building the home my sister and I grew up in, she had to sell her precious abode at a huge loss, find her first paying job in 20+ years and move into a rental property.

My wedding dress was second hand; “vintage,” if you will. One of my mom’s church friends sewed the alterations and created the veil. She even took some of the lace from the dress and appliquéd it to my shoes.  Payless brand, dyed pumps, if I remember correctly.

None of that really mattered to me. I wanted to be as far away from the chaos of the life that I had come to intimately live over the previous years and start a new one. No more Jane O’Flaherty. I was to be Jane McDaniel from this day forward. New name, new life. If I could only get across the chasm of red carpet between my future hubby and me.

Standing alone in the narthex of the church, my heart began to feel as if it was going to jump out of my chest. The pounding was almost unbearable. My ears tingled and my eyesight grew blurry. The congregants stood and all eyes were on me. I tried to remember what we practiced at rehearsal: Step. Together. Step. Together. Except, instead of “Step. Right foot forward. Together. Step. Left foot forward. Together. Step. Right foot forward, etc.,” I could only move one leg: “Right foot forward. Together. Right foot forward. Together” and on and on down the aisle. I was the most ungraceful, lurching bride ever to traverse a wedding aisle. My sister and I can reenact this ridiculous walk until tears of laughter stream down our faces.

By the time I made it to greet my wedding party, I could barely remain standing.  Using the sister-eye-contact-that-needs-no-words for communication, I summoned her to my side. She and my future husband put one arm under each side of me to keep me standing upright during the ceremony. With their literal and figurative support, I made it through. I said, “I DO.”

I never talked much about that first panic attack.  It was easily negated in my mind by stories of traditional ‘wedding nerves’ and the frequency of brides and groomsmen fainting on their big days. Nothing to worry about.

But what I didn’t know then was that there was so much more to come. More pain and suffering, more panic and fear. And most often in silence and alone. Because, you see, we can not just leave one life behind and instantaneously become something else. One way or another the issues and pain we wish to suppress will rear their ugly heads.

There were long stretches at a time where I thought I had “it” handled. I was intermittently consumed with child bearing or child rearing or traveling or house hunting or volunteerism or mom’s clubbing or buncoing or partying or helping other people with their own problems to stop and pay attention to my own internal struggle. But when I did have quiet moments, the panic could set in. Not always but enough to say, frequently.

My husband would leave to go on a business trip or a weekend away and I felt scared, alone and incapable of handling all of my responsibilities. Frozen in fear, consumed in panic. And completely alone. Surrounded by friends and family, but alone. No one knew. I couldn’t let anyone know. I would be judged and rejected. And worse yet, I would have to face the reality of my own mental health struggles.

Believe me when I say, this went on for years and years and years. Not even those closest to me knew the depth of the struggle that I faced. I strived to be the embodiment of the perfect wife and mother. And I in fact loved being a wife and mother, much more so than I could have ever imagined. I tried everything I could to not allow my own personal issues effect my children. They were and are the best thing I have ever done with my life. I tried to give them the best parts of me and keep the darkness to myself. I also knew that I would do everything within my power to keep them from experiencing the scary stuff that I went through as a child and young adult.

I was living those days with anxiety, depression and PTSD and I leaned heavily on my husband for support. His presence was like a safety net and a buffer between me and the outside world. He was my safe person. In his absence I felt like I couldn’t stand on my own two feet. When he wasn’t there, I had lost my crutch and I wasn’t strong enough to bear this burden, whatever it was at the time, alone. Come to find out this is very common among people with trauma. Finding a safe person and limiting social activities to those in which the safe person can participate.

Lots of therapy was needed in order for me to understand my diagnosis of trauma, PTSD and the resulting anxiety and depression.  Once I allowed myself to open up to my therapist, the pieces of this mind-puzzle all started to make sense.  Instead of feeling like a freak show living inside a normal looking person, I began to understand and accept myself.  Gradually, I was able to build my own reservoir of self-sufficency through practicing mindfulness, meditation and self-compassion.

My husband left this morning for a long business trip and I was able to say goodbye without any of the old fear and anxiety creeping up. My two feet felt solidly planted on the ground. I feel strong and capable. And I feel proud of myself for navigating a very difficult course.

If you suffer from anxiety, depression, trauma or PTSD like I DO, or know someone who is struggling with these issues, I hope the articles below will help you learn more about these issues and how mindfulness, meditation & self compassion can soothe the symptoms.

3 Ways Mindfulness Decreases Depression

Link Between Self Compassion & Anxiety Reduction

Why Don’t PTSD Survivors Feel Safe

Inner Critic on Blast

I’ve been amazed by the support and outreach that I received after posting Down Day here on my blog and on Facebook.  Feeling propelled by the positive responses, I have had a million thoughts racing through my mind about what I want to write about next. My desk is surrounded by writing notebooks, old journals and a stack of books that guided me along my journey, any of which provide a hundred or more writing topics.  I can’t turn on the T.V. or open the internet without seeing an article on mental health. All incredibly inspiring – so what’s the problem??

I realized today that I had acquiesced to a self-imposed pressure of “perfect writing” (no such thing) for the “perfect reader” (anyone who I may be able to positively effect), after going public last week with some of my innermost thoughts and struggles.  Instead of writing for healing, I was frozen in perfectionist fear thoughts: “How is this story going to be interpreted?” “Who is going to judge me if I share this?” “Who am I to be writing with any authority on mental health issues??”  “My writing SUCKS and I have nothing of value to say!” DELETE YOUR BLOG, YOU BIG.FAT.DUMMY!!!”

Whoah. That escalated quickly.  The Inner Critic had armored up and was using FEAR as her weapon of choice.

I think I have my topic.

The Inner Critic wants us to stay small and quiet in order to feel safe. She hyperbolizes negative thought patterns and seeks to minimize growth and healing. Fear and the IC rely on one another, just a like a couple of BFFs, and they love to treat us to episodes of “Lifestyles of the Anxiety and Panic-ridden.”

So what can we do to quiet this Inner Critic in order to live more joyful and authentic lives? We must first learn to take away her power, which thrives in fear, shame and feelings of unworthiness.

“The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our FEAR of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.” – Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

Sometimes I need to break things down very simply in order to fully process them, so let me do that with this quote:

  • The dark = traumatic experiences, things we keep hidden from others & sometimes ourselves
  • does not destroy = has no power over
  • the light = joy, love, happiness, shared common experience
  • it defines it = through our processing, acceptance and integration of the most difficult times of our lives, we are able to fully live as we are intended; our highest purpose & most authentic selves
  • It’s our FEAR of the dark = our worry over possible outcomes or side effects of dealing with the scary stuff
  • that casts our joy into the shadows = we are deprived of a life of joy if we allow fear to define and control us

So, in applying this quote to my writer’s block:

  • The dark = my inner critic
  • does not destroy = has no power over
  • the light = helping others through shared common experiences, personal healing
  • it defines it = years of accumulated negative self talk and personal judgement want to keep my in my safety zone, but I no longer want to live in that constricted space
  • It’s our FEAR of the dark = if I “go there,” share too much will I be rejected? what does the future hold if I continue on this path?
  • that casts our joy into the shadows = swirling thoughts, distraction, the voice of the inner critic could win out over the light, if I let them

I used writer’s block somewhat lightly as an example of how we can quiet the voice of the Inner Critic, but this process works in breaking down deeper issues as well.

For too many years my joy was cast to the shadows because I was afraid of the repercussions of acknowledging my real life struggles. I honestly didn’t think I could handle the reliving and retelling of some of those traumatic experiences, so I listened to the voice of the Inner Critic who affirmed my fear and feelings of unworthiness. But suffering endured and true joy was cast aside.

The good news is that the Inner Critic is disarmed in the face of mindfulness, love and self compassion. Now, when she starts yammering away, I acknowledge her: “Oh hey there, IC. Let’s have a chat. I really don’t need you here anymore. Fear does not control me. I am not ashamed of who I am. I am driven by the light. And light overcomes your darkness.”

If you struggle with the loud, obnoxious voice of an Inner Critic, disarm her. You can learn how to take a few steps toward deescalation by listening to this short guided meditation: “A Basic Meditation to Tame Your Inner Critic.” There is such relief to be found in the silence. You deserve to rest.