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

Down Day

I used to get really scared when I was having a Down Day. You know the feeling, the one that many of us call the “Sunday Scaries?” It’s that, “I feel sad and I don’t know why” on a random Tuesday feeling. When this happens to me, I typically run through my checklist of usual worry suspects – kid stress, work concerns, sleep deprivation, familial arguments,  friendship issues – to identify a culprit. On a Down Day, the check list typically comes up empty and what’s left is a case of the Unknown Scaries.

The Down Day feeling is a gnawing heaviness; a general malaise perhaps, to put it fancifully. My husband asks, after observing my quiet and distant behavior, “Are you okay?” and I answer, “Yes, I’m just having a Down Day.”

On a Down Day, a tear sits at the ready, waiting to emerge at the tiniest bit of distress or even a kind word.  Not a heavy duty, cleansing cry.  Just a few damp escapees down my cheek that expose hidden sadness to those who may cross my path. Tears, those traitors.

Most of my life was spent white-knuckling my way through a Down Day. Ever fearful that if I stopped moving, stopped numbing, another D, depression, would overtake me, beat me down and exile me. I had to move faster than the depression, like a storm you see in your rear view mirror that is quickly catching up to you.

GO GO GO. DO DO DO. Anything except FEEL FEEL FEEL. Feeling was scary and brought with it too many unknowns. I had convinced myself that my feelings were too much and way more than I, or anyone, could handle.

“The cure for pain is in the pain.
In Silence, there is eloquence. Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves.”        – Rumi

One gets to the point, however, where white-knuckling, busy-ness or any other false coping mechanism no longer work as “feeling avoidance strategies”. That storm in your rear view mirror catches up to you because, as Rumi says, the “cure for pain is in the pain.” We must sit in and then go through pain in order to get to the other side of it. Going around it? Not an option.

I have experienced adverse life experiences that span in time from early childhood through adulthood. No wonder on a random Tuesday the effect of this accumulated trauma may periodically show itself, often times without warning.

What I have learned in sitting with the pain, whether that is in a therapist’s office, in meditation, or in a mindfulness practice, is that when the deep pain and hurt reach out to you on a Down Day, they need to be attended to with compassion and love.

Our tendency is toward avoidance or covering up of the pain. Put on a mask of happiness and go on with our lives. However-

“What we resist, persists” – Carl Jung

Avoidance and numbing strategies create resistance to what is presenting itself, which then results in increased anxiety and depression. If we want to minimize Down Days, we need to do the opposite of resist: accept and allow.

So, what does it look like to “Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves” per Rumi? How do we stop doing and start feeling? Stop numbing and start healing?

For me, it’s an acceptance of, and sinking into, the flow of life’s ups and downs, acknowledging my feelings through stillness and meditation, along with a combination of self-compassion and self-care.

Self-compassion as defined by Kristin Neff, PhD., “requires the we stop to recognize our own suffering. We can’t be moved by our own pain if we don’t even acknowledge that it exists in the first place.” So, on a Down Day, I try to increase awareness, decrease avoidance and offer up some love.

For example, in meditation, I send love to the hurt parts of my emotional and physical self. I literally put a hand over my heart to comfort myself, and then connect with the love and light I send to those hurting places. Some times tears flow as a part of this practice, but when acting within the realm of self-compassion, I no longer think of them as traitors. Instead, they are truth – the truth and authenticity of my story. I feel you. I see you. And I honor the pain and suffering that I share with you.

Self-care can come in any positive action that feels comforting. For me, self-care is crawling into my bed with a good book or to watch a silly reality show, being with my family, snuggling with my dogs or even a mani/pedi. For others it may be a bath, watching a movie, or a phone call with a friend.

Self-care is also prioritizing my own mental healthcare even when my bank account, fear or life’s unexpected circumstances say I should cancel. I have stuck to this self-imposed guideline for the better part of three years and it’s the best gift I’ve ever given myself.*  Healing was not possible for me without intensive therapy.

Instead of being scared of a Down Day, I now know these times are the indicator that my innermost self needs a little love and attention. Sometimes there is a clear cause of the darkness; other days not-so-much as a clue. If you get a case of the Down Days, I hope that the combination of avoiding resistance through mindfulness and mediation practice, self-compassion and self-care will help you feel less scared too.

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*I highly recommend therapy for anyone battling anxiety, depression and PTSD. Keep looking until you find someone you can afford, who takes your insurance, etc., and make it a top priority for yourself. It took me multiple attempts over the years to find the “right” therapist, but when I did, it positively changed all aspects of my life.

Top Ten Lists

Five years ago (2013) I came across an article on the wholistic living website, Mind Body Green, that changed my life because it caused me to examine how I looked at the world, the way I lived in the world and how I understood myself. The article took up residence in my psyche and planted a seed that snowballed into years of reading, research and intensive therapy.  Sometimes the message was in the forefront of my brain affecting all of my decisions. At other times, it was deeper and harder to access but it never was far from my consciousness. The truth of that article resonated so deeply within me that I knew my life’s work was somehow centered around the information contained within the 500+- word post. I had no idea how,or what my “life’s work” looked like, only that the content activated within me a need to know and understand more of the topic.

I was drawn to the article because of the title, “10 Ways to Become Your Most Badass Self.” Who couldn’t use more bad-assness in their life?? Immediately I was sucked in, as a good title should do. At the time, I was feeling anything other than badass; more like fearful, anxious, lonely, disconnected, unworthy and borderline depressed.

Just like any “Top 10 Tips to X, Y, Z,” article, the headline conveyed that it had the answer – all the answers. A few tweaks here or there and I’d be “fixed.” Fine-tuned, Bad-ass-Jane, at your service! Super-sized, please! I’m in.

But, alas, the information that followed the headline was much deeper than any 10 step, quick fix program. Damn it. Sold me a bill a goods.

What I wanted:

  1. Wake Up at 7:30 am.
  2. Do 20 sit ups.
  3. Walk a mile.
  4. Make a to-do list.
  5. Less Netflix.
  6. More healthy foods.
  7. Go to bed by 11 pm.
  8. 9. 10. More of the same: clear cut, unambiguous steps.

What I read:

To become our most badass, we must live the most authentic version of ourselves in order to transcend states of anxiety, stress, fear, loneliness or unhappiness. W-T-H. Then more: The balanced center between our inner and outer worlds is found in our Spiritus, which is Latin for spirit, breath, soul, courage, and vigor. When feeling sad, confused, uninspired, tighten the S-Link.  “Tear down the wall that fear built inside you which clogs your passageways to reach The Spiritus.” Spiritus, then, is the truest expression of who we are.

Balanced center of inner and outer worlds. Balanced center of inner and outer worlds. The phrase repeated over and over in my brain. What does that mean? What does that look like for me? Where are my easy and actionable 10 steps!? Instead, this seemingly rag-mag style headline asked me to:

  1. Figure out who I am.
  2. Go slow and steady.
  3. Trust my path.
  4. Be fearless.
  5. Tell my truth.
  6. Move and sweat (finally, a step I understood!)
  7. Look with love.
  8. Practice patience.
  9. Remain in the moment.
  10. Practice gratitude.

Item number one threw me. The writer suggested I “peel back the layers and let yourself be seen…Behind the body, behind the spiral of your overactive mind, deep inside where you feel your breath, that is where you will find yourself.”

I realized for the first time, I truly had no idea what an authentic version of myself looked or felt like. I had lived as a chameleon, changing myself to match whatever was presented to me externally.  For 40+ years, I allowed the outside world to dictate who I was and how I felt about myself. Faced with this reality, it was no wonder I felt like I was spinning out of control, drowning, and miserable.

These daunting 10 steps were not what I was looking for when I pulled up the article, they were, however, exactly what I needed.

This is my story of a deep, deep dive into the truth of my life story; excavating all the way down to my most authentic self and finding worthiness. Finding a woman who has value in all her cracks and flaws. Finding a woman who loves to love and loves to laugh. Finding a woman who forgives. And finally finding FREEDOM through the balanced center of my inner and outer worlds.

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Inside the cover of my first major writing notebook – 9/23/13. Drawing and doodling concepts I read helped me process the information.

dipictionofspiritus

First page of notes – 9/28/13. Top line references the article referred to in post above.

first spiritus link notes