Friday, June 22, 2012

Daily Reprieve - Working on Panic and Anxiety

I've been thinking a lot about my dual diseases - alcoholism and cancer. For lack of better terminology, I'll say I'm a survivor of both, at the moment.

The anxiety I have been grappling with since my last post is reminiscent of early sobriety in so many ways, not just the physical symptoms (racing heart, difficulty breathing, racing thoughts, feelings of impending doom) but the emotional symptoms as well.

As an alcoholic, especially one in early recovery, I fought these bad feelings hard.  I'm sober now, this should be gone, I shouldn't feel this way, maybe I'll always feel this way, what if this never goes away.  The harder I fought the feelings, the louder and more powerful they became.

It has been the same with the cancer anxiety.  I keep thinking I shouldn't be feeling this way, I'm in remission, I should be on-my-knees-grateful all the time.  I'm pushing and pushing at the panic and anxiety, feeling guilty that I have them at all, because for the moment I'm okay.

Because I'm hard-headed, stubborn and like to think my way out of problems, it took me falling off a cliff in a heap before I applied the same things I did in early sobriety to my current problem with anxiety/panic.  I finally picked up the phone and asked for help.  I talked to other cancer survivors.  I joined a cancer patient/survivor group.  I joined a yoga class for cancer survivors.  I'm doing a lot of reading of stories of others that have gone before me.  And I'm going to see a professional oncology psychiatrist as well.

When I met with the cancer survivor counselor, he helped me see how I was trying to push the fear away, how hard I was working to avert my eyes.

"I'm afraid of a cancer support group," I told him.  "It makes me feel afraid to think of sitting in a circle with other women whose cancer has come back, or who aren't going to survive their disease, because that could be me some day."

"Yes, it could," he replied.  "You have a choice.  You can keep averting your eyes, keep pushing it away, or you can face it.  Embrace the fear.  Lean into it. And give yourself some time.  It can take a year or more to get over the daily fear of the cancer returning, and you HAVE to talk about it."

This is when the bell went off, when I thought about early recovery and how hard I pushed to keep the fear at bay, to push away thoughts of a drink, to think I should just be better already.  And how it wasn't until I opened my stubborn mouth and told a roomful of strangers who totally understood how I felt, that I started to get better.


Anxiety and fear are my biggest triggers.  Thoughts of a drink pop into my head with regularity these days.  I find myself thinking "I HATE this. I should be beyond this. Why am I thinking this way?"

Of course I'm thinking about a drink.  I'm an alcoholic who doesn't like emotional pain, and I'd much, much rather go around it than sit through it or talk about it.  I am prideful and want to be strong enough to manage it on my own.   I finally realized that the core of my suffering lies in this prideful unwillingness to face fear.

So I'm talking more.  I'm trying to pick up the phone and call people when I feel itchy, but I'm still terrible at that (I don't want to interrupt them, what if they tell me they can't talk, I don't want to impose) but I'm working on it.   I'm meditating again.  This morning I got up at 5:30am (the house is so peaceful, beautiful and quiet at this hour) and meditated for half an hour - just watched my thoughts go by.  What I observed were a lot of thoughts about my treatment, how scary it was, and I realized I have to give my mind space to process these things, but without fear or judgement.

I'm reading a lot of Buddhist literature, learning about meditation techniques and accepting, even embracing fear and panic.

It's all helping, little by little, but I know it will take time.  As I was walking the dog this morning I realized it took months for the thoughts to calm when I got sober, for me to accept, and it's going to take months again.  And that I can fight it, or accept it.  And get help.

As I meditated this morning it also occurred to me that with alcoholism, in recovery we get a daily reprieve.  All I have to do is not drink, for one day, and I get a reprieve from my disease.  I started thinking about being a cancer survivor the same way - as a daily reprieve.  I'm here now. I'm healthy now. If I can stay in today, like I learned to do in recovery, and be grateful for my daily reprieve from cancer, maybe the peace of mind and gratitude will replace the fear with time.

It's hard to admit vulnerability.  I write about it all the time, and it does help me feel better, but I realize that writing about it isn't enough.  I have to put into practice these private actions - like counseling, yoga, support groups and intimate conversations with trusted friends.

For a while I thought I had to stop the blog; that it was too ego-driven, too externally focused, and that it was endangering my peace of mind.   But now I'm not so sure, although I'm still open to the idea that maybe the blog is too much and I'll have to give it a rest at some point.

I think, though, that if I can maintain a balance between the writing and the private, soulful things I do to care for myself - put my own oxygen mask on first - that the two can coexist.

I guess we'll see.



20 comments:

  1. I am in early recovery, it's amazing how different we think we are and we all have similar thoughts. My group and sponsor are ALWAYS telling me to call someone. Every meeting they laugh at me to at least send up smoke signals and it's the same thing - I don't want to bother anyone, I don't know what to say when they pick up the phone, all of this anxiety! And, logically, I know how silly it sounds, but I can't seem to get over it. One of the men in my group told me that people who don't reach out eventually stop coming and I cannot go back to having to drink. It's been four months and as much as I still get the urge to drink, I don't wake up with the very first thought in my head being how, when and where am I going to drink today. That, in itself, is such a miracle. So if you have figured out the secret to calling someone every day, I would love to hear it!!!

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    1. Yeti -

      Congrats on four months - that's HUGE. And there is no secret, as I've learned the hard way. The only answer is to just do it, even if you don't want to, until you get used to it. I know how hard it is. But when I do it? It helps SO much, and leaves me with a feeling of connection rather than isolation and anxiety. Good luck. We can do it!! -xoxo

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    2. Thank you - and thanks for your story, it was the first mom/alcohol story I read. Until I found your blog and then entered rehab and then AA, I thought I was the ONLY "normal" mom that drank wine instead of coffee in the morning (and wine instead of diet pop in the afternoon, and wine instead of water in the middle of the night...) Who knew?

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  2. Ellie -- Thanks as always for your openness. It always hits right at that tightness about mid-chest that I carry around with me all day, and eases it. I've been in early sobriety for about two years now -- kept that way by judiciously timed slips; perhaps I'm keeping myself in this chrysalis state for some unconscious agenda of my own, even at the same time that I recognize I don't and can't control my disease -- and I feel all of the things you describe. I want to be strong, I want to be done, I want to "get it". I want to go off on my own and get sober, then say "ta-dah! I did it!" and of course by definition this is an impossibility. Without connections and vulnerability, sobriety doesn't happen. And I'm still fighting this. --Kate

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    1. Thanks for your honesty, Kate, and boy do I ever know what you mean. I love the way you put it .. "chrysalis state". I read a great quote from a book I HIGHLY RECOMMEND called "In The Footsteps of the Camel" by Lorna Kelly (with a big shout-out to Lisa H. for turning me onto her) that said "the butterfly never looked by at the chrysalis with envy" (or something to that effect). I loved it, because it's so true. Breaking free - spreading your wings and flying - doing the brave thing and getting sober - will be the hardest and best thing that ever happened to you. But MAN. It takes guts. Don't look down -- just keeping flying. You'll get there.

      -xo

      -Ellie

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    2. I meant "the butterfly never looked BACK at the chrysalis with envy"... sorry.

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    3. I heard Lorna qualify in Manhattan! If the book is anything like she is, and I have to assume it is, I look forward to it. I'm going to go Kindle it right now (two cheers for instant gratification!).

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  3. It is so wonderful to "see" you again, Ellie. I've been thinking about you often and sending you care and comfort.
    Something you said here reminded me of a passage I read yesterday in Elizabeth Lesser's book Broken Open. She talks about feeling so unsettled, fearful, sad and how she finally sat still, soaked all of that in, listened to her thoughts within to reveal just what it was at the heart of the fear and sadness. She likened it to swimming against the current for so long and then finally surrendering, letting the sadness wash over and cleanse and once she did that it was so much easier to go forward. Of course, things aren't always rainbows and sparkles from that point on, but once you stop fighting the current and listen to and learn from it, you're better equipped for forward motion again. I've found that to be true in my own situations as well.

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  4. Thanks for sharing this with us Ellie. This speaks to me and is what I need to be told right now. I thought if I stopped the drinking, that would be enough. I mean, I knew there was more to it than that, but I did believe that I would feel much better and cope better and be a better mother and be more productive, etc., etc., etc. I'm still working on putting all of the things into action that I know I have to do to get through the hard work of early sobriety.

    The link you found between early sobriety and what you're going through now is brilliant. And as with alcoholism, the answer is simple, but not at all easy. So proud of you for taking those steps rather than isolating. And grateful that you decided to write about it here.

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  5. Oops, just realized it had my old profile name & pic. Just seeing if the changes will show up.

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  6. So glad to hear you’re reaching out and getting help with this anxiety. Let it outta your mind as much as possible, it’s the best thing to be done – however you are able to do it. And really, a HUGE kudos to you for contacting all these options and following through. That takes not only determination, but courage as well.
    Hope it becomes easier as each day passes.

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  7. I have anxiety, too, and meditation helps so much. You might like the Open Heart Project emails from Susan Piver http://susanpiver.com/open-heart-project/ She's a meditation teacher who lives in Somerville. She has a basic program that is a free email a few times a week with a short talk and then a 10-20 minute meditation, sometimes with instruction and sometimes just quiet.

    I remember when I first heard the suggestion to "lean into" the feelings, I was so skeptical, but it really does work. My anxiety tends to center around work and clients and that I've screwed something up. Its funny how it just clings to whatever it can find in us.

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  8. All my life I was taught never to trust my feelings, never to feel them especially if they were unpleasant. I grew up burying them, hiding from them, suppressing them. They festered and came out in other ways. Phobias, obsessions, doormat-itis, whatever. Learning to feel what I feel has been so important for me - not to wallow in it but to acknowledge that it's there and that it's mine to deal with. Getting help also helps - as long as it's in a safe place (away from judgment). Brava Ellie. Thank you for writing about your journey. Very little - if anything - can negate the power of experience.

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  9. Ellie - I just started following your blog a month or so ago and you have helped me already! My son suffered a severe (potentially life threatening)hockey injury in January, he had surgery and is now fine. But after the crisis was over I started having anxiety attacks worrying about what could have happened, how close we were to losing him, what if the stitches in the artery didn't hold? I was a mess. As you said in your blog it was PTSD and it was not until I talked it all out was I able to deal with it. You are so right, keep talking to people, never feel as though you are bothering them. You are an amazing and strong person and can help more people than you will ever realize with your blog. God Bless you!

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  10. Yesterday I went to my local cancer center for my 2 yr 8 month check... I always have a long wait. Sometimes those visits go well and are pleasantly encouraging... yesterday, I sat for over an hour in the waiting room looking at men and women who were at various stages of treatment and recovery (or not) waiting for oncologist appointments. The more I sat, the more uncomfortable I felt. Seeing other patients, some of whom were in distress and discomfort... seeing the ports for chemo... seeing the wigs, the walkers, the canes the worn-out look... Finally I saw my oncologist ( 90 minutes after the scheduled time for the appointment.) I was with him maybe five minutes and everything is fine. When I got back to my car in the parking garage, I sat there and wept. I wept not just for the sadness of it all, but because I was flashing back to how sick I was a few years ago - every face I looked at in that waiting room was mine. I'm glad that you are seeing a counselor... I should have. I feel like after all this time, no one wants to hear any more about my lingering emotional issues that still pop up now and then... I get the unspoken message... "move on"... "get over it" So... I apologize for using this comment section to vent, but every once in awhile, I feel a flood of emotion, and, well, I feel like I gotta release it somewhere.

    thanks Ellie, for your honesty... You can decide about the blog the way you do the program... just one day at a time... you don't owe anyone here and decisions about that! I appreciate you.

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Steve. Especially because you have gone through the exact same thing I did, I always gobble up your words. I'm sorry for your experience, the wait, the anxiety, the sadness, but it helps me so much to know I'm not alone. That we're in this together and our feelings are the same.

      Thank YOU for your honesty. Over and over your words help me so much.

      -xo

      -Ellie

      P.S. - HOORAY for a great check-up! :)

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  11. Your inner-critic would have you believe that once you've had the baby, not only should you be a seasoned parent, but that baby should probably be ready for college.

    Love you. xoxo

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    1. So true, Ann. Great perspective. :)

      -xo

      -E.

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  12. Ellie, oh my goodness, I can only imagine how gut-wrenching the anxiety is. Thanks for the shout-out on Lorna K. I'm SO grateful that her story touched you. It's one of my absolute favorites. It was oddly passed on to me by my old best friend whom I ran into at a women's conference. We had no idea the other had gotten sober and it was such a gift. She mailed me the cd one day and I've been sending it out ever since.

    One thing that came to mind reading this post was a blog post my friend, Jennifer posted one time. After I read it, I never looked at my anxiety the same way again. Here it is and I hope it will help:

    http://tinybuddha.com/blog/the-gift-of-anxiety-7-ways-to-get-the-message-and-find-peace/

    Such beautiful, insightful food for thought. Sending so many blessings of love and peace and calm. xoxo

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  13. Yes!! Please keep writing your thoughts. You are an amazing writer...and person!
    THanks!!!

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