On Tuesday afternoon, at approximately 4 ‘o’ clock, I dropped my basket of meagre foodstuffs and collapsed to the floor of a Coles supermarket. It was all I could do to stop the tears from cascading as I struggled to regain enough composure to stagger from the store to the nearest public toilet. Once safely entombed, I dropped to my knees, vomited the contents of my stomach into the toilet and burst into tears. Suffice to say, the sight of a grown man with a sick-streaked beard, blubbering like a baby, was not a pretty sight!
I have no idea how long I sat on those cold stone tiles, nor how many people I was inconveniencing with my far-too-public-for-my-liking panic attack. I couldn’t even tell you what was racing through my mind during those long, lonely minutes, though I would make an educated guess, based on previous attacks, it was am I dying, please God let me be dying liberally mixed with you’re useless, worthless, pathetic, what the frack is wrong with you man self-critical thoughts and a seasoning of both intense physical pain and intolerable emotional anguish.
That’s the problem with panic attacks; they are completely irrational reactions, but when they’re happening, when you’re trapped by their power, all thoughts of rationality and reason are replaced with the all-consuming belief you are literally in the process of dying. The speed in which your heart races, the tightness of your chest, the uncontrollable urge to vomit, the way the world spins out of control and you slip in and out of consciousness with your life’s regrets, pain and failings playing back before your eyes.
Eventually, somehow, I was able to get it together. I picked myself up, threw some water on my face and made my way home as quickly as possible. The moment I ensured all doors and windows were locked and I was completely safe from the evil of the world outside, I curled under my doona and allowed the memories of being safely ensconced within my mother’s womb to sooth my bleeding soul.
This singular event – which in hindsight lasted no longer then twenty-five minutes – has become the defining moment of my entire week.
On Wednesday, I refused to crawl out from the safety of my doona until my urge to urinate overwhelmed all else. For the first time, I missed my 8-Ball pool group, choosing instead to move my computer under the table where I built a fortress of books to hide and protect me. I crouched in my darkened solitude for the majority of the day typing a post about biopsychosocial models in the hope it would distract me before finally crawling out into the darkness to procure myself some capsaicin cream.
For those of you who are unaware of capsaicin cream, it is an ointment used to relieve the pain of arthritis and shingles. Capsaicin, as with several other capsaicinoids, is derived from chilli peppers and used, amongst other things, in the production of capsicum-spray; that delightful riot-controlling weapon of choice. As such, when it comes in contact with the skin, it can be quite painful due to the amount of heat it produces.
Although I am not (in any way) advocating its use, after discovering this information many years ago, I began occasionally using it when the urge to self-harm overwhelmed. As I am currently trying to reduce my invasive self-harm, after such a terrifying panic attack, I needed the distraction that only capsaicin cream could provide. Thus, upon returning home, I crawled back under my doona and applied it to the body part of my choice, before closing my eyes to allow its fire to burn the pain from my soul.
Regardless of your opinion of this action, without this cream I would still be lost to the nightmare of that panic attack. Without nurture, without comfort, without support, I have long had to resort to more ‘creative’ ways to cope with the ever-increasing and painful setbacks in my mental health. The fire burned to such a degree that by the time Thursday rolled around, I was able to leave my doona, demolish my fort and approach the day’s activities with far more focus and determination.
One such activity was an appointment with my support worker. Expecting to be interrogated about the post I had written on Monday, I was initially reluctant about attending, but decided sharing this particular trigger – especially after the reaction it had provoked on Tuesday – was probably the best course of action.
However, although I shared that it had been a bit of rough week, I fell back on the usual but everything is okay appeasing attitude that I was forced to perfect throughout my abusive relationship. I said nothing of the horrifying nature of my attack nor my resorting to capsaicin in the absence of hugs or someone to talk to. Even though I had spent hours working out how I was going to explain the nature of my trigger, the insecurity I have over how this will come across prevented me from sharing it.
Instead, we continued with the Maastricht Interview before discussing my inability to exist in anything other than a heightened state of anxiety and fear.
“When was the last time you were functioning around a 1 or 2 on the anxiety scale?” They asked, following my admittance that my base-line was usually an 8 or 9.
“Probably early April 2008,” I replied, thinking about, but not sharing the details of my day in Glasgow with Samantha.
“Do you remember what it’s like to feel happy, contented and relaxed?”
“No,” I replied without hesitation. “I really don’t,”
Later that night, as I worked through my Mi Recovery and Victim to Victor workbooks, I realised that exchange had perfectly summed up my primary issue:
It doesn’t really matter how much effort I put into controlling triggers, reducing anxiety, stabilising my mood, fighting self-harm urges or combatting the debilitating panic attacks that can strike at any time or place. How can I expect to accomplish anything – to live – when I can’t even remember what happiness or relaxation feels like?
The problem is, even though I’ve had this epiphany, I have absolutely no idea what to do about it.
Incidentally, what is happiness?
Since 2007 my life has revolved completely around survival; every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year has been about getting me through the next second, minute, hour, week, month or year. It has been about discovering creative new ways to control my pain and diffusing the anguish of whatever aspect of my mental health has decided to rear its ugly head. It has been about appeasing all those around me – be they friends, family, support workers or strangers – into believing that I am fine, where in reality I am vomiting in public toilets and isolating myself from the terrors of the only world that could bring me any solace.
How does one allow themselves to relax when they’ve been conditioned to believe they must work continuously in fear of being seen as ‘lazy’?
How does one share their problems and pain with the world when they’ve been conditioned to believe that no-one cares and they must fight everything alone in order to prove their worth as a human being?
How does one find happiness when they have no real memory of what this mythical state-of-mind feels like?
If this week has proved anything it’s that regardless of how far I thought I’d come…I still have an awful long way to go!
Six things I’ve learned this week:
- Don’t be afraid to be honest about how you feel; for the trap of “always putting on a ‘brave face’ when in reality you’re dying inside” is almost impossible to escape from!
- If you are going to attack a trigger head-on; make damn sure you have a network of support in place who know what you’re doing, for if you don’t, chaos will ensue!
- Women have a much, much, much, better selection of clothing (especially underwear!) than men do. In fact, I’m so jealous I’m considering becoming a cross-dresser! :p
- It is much easier making a fort out of doonas or blankets than it is books. Especially if you decide to read a book you’ve used as a foundation stone.
- Do at least one thing every day that makes you happy. For the longer you go without happiness, the harder it will be to find again.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. And don’t let anyone make you think otherwise!
Six things I want to do next week:
- To give myself permission to do something I enjoy and enjoy it! (i.e. to not allow my negative self-talk and fear of being perceived as lazy prevent me from doing it!)
- Share my trigger with my support worker, regardless of my insecurity over how insane, pathetic and weird this will make me look.
- Stop scaring people away from my blog with talk about voices, pain and badly written blog posts. It’s starting to look like a ghost town around here! :/
- Complete my Mi Recovery homework assignments; what are my beliefs about mental illness and how did I learn those beliefs?
- Catch-up on my favourite blogs as I’ve been incredibly slack of late, sorry! :)
- Brainstorm ideas of what I could do to bring some happiness, joy and relaxation back into my life.
Have a fantastic weekend everyone! And remember…there is nothing wrong with allowing yourself to be happy! :)