The First Panic Attack

I had my first panic attack last night. Over something ridiculous. I am ashamed to post this (luckily, I blog anonymously).  A lot of people will read this post and roll their eyes in disgust. 

Ever since I was a small child, school has been my identity.  I need praise. I need perfection. I push myself to the extreme to get it. That was true when I was 7, and it is true now, and I am nearly 24. I don’t know how to define myself with anything else. It is my life. I have been superhuman in the realm of learning for basically my entire life. I suck at sports. I don’t make much money. I’m not the pretty one or the funny one. I even suck at being a Christian.  I have no talents or hobbies. As my good friend told me today, I have put all of my self-esteem and identity into one very familiar and, for me, stable bucket.

The problem is that when you are 24, you have other things you need to juggle besides your university coursework. Life happens, and you sometimes need to give your school work less attention and effort than you want to. Most people don’t have panic attacks about that. They just realize that paying the bills or maintaining relationships have much heavier consequence than messing up an assignment or exam. They make choices.

Last night, I basically fell short of my academic standards by a looonnnggg shot. It was pathetic. And the moment I realized it, I felt light-headed, my stomach hurt, my hands felt numb and shook, and my throat closed up. I felt out of control and wondered if I would die if I did not calm down.  I found out that this was a panic attack. According the definition, I think I have technically had lots of small panic attacks while driving, but this was the first time I wondered if I was having some kind of allergic reaction and my throat was closing up. 

I am alive. The point though, is not to share that I had a panic attack. I guess the point is for me to ask what is wrong with me? What kind of distorted worldview do I have that submitting something one minute late and sloppy for the first time in my life is what it takes to make my throat close up? Let’s not even go into the crying myself to sleep and then staying in bed all day today. I felt like my whole being was about to crumble with this one incident. I was no longer Supergirl in the only part of my life that has consistently gone well for me. I don’t know why my reaction to this objectively tiny event is maladaptive, over the top, and so uncontrollable for me . Probably sleep deprivation and the loads of coffee were not helpful. Clearly something needs to change. My entire well-being can’t reside in the basket of academia. My brain needs to see the world differently. 

Can I learn to be happy without things being OK? Perfect? What really matters in life? How do I start to teach my brain to see the world and myself in much healthier ways? 

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Coffee Art & Other Happy Things (To Ward Off My OCD)

I’m not entirely sure if bad things must always have a purpose, but I think it’s adaptive to observe and appreciate the good that can come from the darker things in life. So in terms of finding the silver-lining of my OCD, I have to admit that before my journey to master the OCD beast, I never knew that the following were so valuable to me! I’d say that’s a pretty worthwhile epiphany. These are things which help keep me grounded and help keep the dark clouds of anxiety at bay.

The surprise in my latte :)

1)  A good coffee or chai latte,no rush. I like the idea that sometimes, I have nowhere to be. And when it’s a good coffee place, you may get surprise coffee art from your barista 🙂

2)  Listening to NPR while getting ready in the mornings. I like to know what’s happening in my world; helps me put my “problems” in perspective.

3)  Crooning along to Tay-Tay Swifty during my morning commute.

4)  Camping! When you have no cell phone service, no internet, and no choice but to stay put, it’s a really great situation for being forced to ignore compulsions. Let’s not forget the soothing power of nature and a good campfire.

5) Journaling/blogging. I feel much more centered and balanced after some self-reflection.

6) A little netflix. Yup. Something about catching up on Doctor Who for one hour and forgetting the real world helps knock you back into shape.

7) Self-care. For me, taking the time to do my hair or put together an outfit is about more than image; it symbolizes that I care about myself enough to take some time for myself.

8) Last but certainly not least (in fact, most): people! I used to think I could do everything alone. I had a skewed perception of independence. Now I openly admit all the time how much I love and need people; the genuine people in my life :). My family, a few good friends, and my boyfrend/best friend. The people who see the good, the bad, and the ugly, and have carried me throughout my OCD. I’m no longer concerned with appearing perfect and strong in front of these individuals, and it’s the most liberating and joyful new favorite thing in my life.

Learning to be present. With the help of cupcakes, whimsy, & other things.

This photo, “zen*!” is copyright (c) 2011 Rocío Lara and made available under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license
This photo, “zen*!” is copyright (c) 2011 Rocío Lara and made available under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

When my psychiatrist told me that my first homework assignment for learning to cope with my Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder was practicing mindfulness meditation, I felt myself deflate. I had been waiting months for the right psychiatrist, one whose long list of alma maters is composed of reputable research institutions and one who has had lots of clinical experience. It was like waiting to see the great Wizard of Oz; I had all of my hopes pinned on this greatly anticipated appointment! It was the visit that would turn the tide in my battle against my anxiety disorder and I had decided that this person would give me the magic answer and restore my brain to logic and reason. Of course, the road to successfully treating OCD is a long one usually characterized by more than learning to live in the present and breathe; some combination of cogntive-behavioral therapy and SSRIs appear to be the usual course of treatment . It had been determined by my particular healthcare team that I was not yet a case that required SSRIs and so began the process of learning to restructure my thinking and my reactions; my journey to mindfulness.

Meditation is hard for me.   The gears in my head are constantly turning.  Give me any scenario and I will pick it apart and show you every facet and every possibility, no matter how small the statistical likelihood; my brain will not stop. How can my mind and body be still enough to meditate? I think most Americans can relate.

Living in the present is even more impossible. My mind goes off on very long tangents to unnecessary places, such as what I would do if I were to suddenly find myself homeless or some other great and unlikely drama. At this very moment, I am fighting the compulsion to read and re-read this blogpost to ensure that I have not accidentally and unconsciously revealed the identity of my psychiatrist (would that even be a problem? In my head it would be).

I have, however, had a few rare moments in my life of truly being present  and those moments were so beautiful and freeing that I am convinced that this mindfulness thing is worth pursuing. Tonight is one example: I have just returned from volunteering at a local non-profit that serves refugees and helps them transition into their new lives here in America.  For the hour that I am there, my brain stops it’s unnecessary buzzing. I am fully present.  I am feeling connected to the world around me, rather than isolated within my own neverending thoughts.  I smell the yummy food from our potluck. I feel the chill from the open window nearby. All the while, I am fully immersed in helping someone understand American culture while I learn about their culture. This moment is for me, what art, dance, sports, and music are to others; I feel happy to be alive and privileged to witness the beauty of this human interaction. For that hour, I do not worry about whether my house is burning down because of some appliance (one of many themes in my OCD, as you will see). For that hour, I have no compulsions or obsessive thoughts. While this may not be meditation, I think it is an example of the happiness and inner peace that comes with being fully present in the here and now.

Why wouldn’t I want to strengthen this ability? And how many other beautiful moments in my life am I missing because of my anxiety?

My journey to mindfulness will not be one that has a destination; I’ve been informed that there isn’t some final point I can reach at which my OCD will be forever gone. I also know that it’s highly unlikely I will achieve some zen-like state of mind that will make me impervious to stress and worry.  I do  think, however, that in strengthening the mental muscles that help facilitate mindfulness meditation, I’ll have more moments like the one I had tonight. I also have such moments when I am decorating cupcakes, learning new things, when I am grocery shopping, and when I am involved with anything that happens to have glitter, fairy tales, Taylor Swift, and other elements of whimsy:)

So, for starters, here are some really great links to about mindfulness meditation and other interesting blogs I have stumbled upon about OCD:

How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation

The Mindfulness for OCD Blog

Exposing OCD