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? 

But What If I’m Right?

It feels like fear. Not natural reasonable fear in the face of a visible threat. It’s just this stupid nagging voice at the back of my mind, in the pit of my stomach. Sometimes, I know it is OCD and anxiety. Other times, I really don’t know! That drives me nuts, when I can’t tell what is OCD and what truly requires my attention. Why can’t I be a bit more devil-may-care!?? I admire those people. They know they are going to be alright at the end of it.

And it strikes me out of nowhere at the worst possible times. Like right now, when I am trying to study for an exam that promises to do injury to the best of students.

I can’t shake the fact that this little nagging voice ends up being my true intuition 50% of the time and OCD-related monkey business with no foundation in reality the other 50% of the time. To make matters worse, I  think that even when it is correct, that some mistake I fear I have made really happened, I can’t tell if my OCD still distorted things because the crazy devastating consequence of that mistake is nowhere to be seen. Yes, the mistake happened. Was it a horrible ending? Not at all. The event I dreaded was real, but none of the consequences appeared to be. In fact, I don’t think anybody noticed or cared but me.

Let me give you an example:

I recently noticed a new employee at work completing on online learning module that I didn’t recognize. I knew it was required of everyone within 30 days of hire, and so I assumed I had done it, but that little voice inside of me said something wasn’t quite right and I’d better check it out. But I’ve been working here for almost a year! If my fears are right, someone would have told me. So I moved on. It must be OCD, making up some reason for me to get in trouble and be fired. 3 months later, I log in to my account and see that though I have no outstanding training, I totally did NOT do that required module! I was right!!! I had done a different one. No one noticed, but I panicked. It wasn’t my fault, it was all HR, but I panicked. So after 8 hours at the office, I came home and spent 2 more hours on  Friday night finishing that training and one more just to be safe. Who does that?

Sometimes, however, I am wrong. Like the time I thought maybe it was quite possible that my scantron for the final had slipped out of my professor’s pile and she would give me an F, so I emailed her. Of course, my scantron was safe and sound.

This morning, this beautiful Sunday morning, when I have to study  and run errands and go to church, I wake up and BAM! Suddenly I remember that about 3 or 4 years ago when I was a young undergrad,  I and an ex-boyfriend had tried to set up a webpage and paypal to collect donations and raise awareness for an endangered organization in our community. I recall being very wary of the idea suddenly and then being too busy; I wanted to leave fundraising in the hands of a separate group who clearly had a better handle on the issue. I also recall before hand trying to make a donation myself and the paypal link I made not working. Finally, I recall leaving the website in my ex’s very incapable hands after deleting the link to the paypal, etc. But he wanted me to leave the account open, as he still believed it could make a difference, so I left everything with him.

Cut to the present, and my big fear is that my bank account had somehow been linked to that paypal, the the ex idiot used it unknowingly (because he would do that), forgot about it, and then when our campaign to save that organization failed and all the separate efforts in our community shutdown, that somehow some donation money was left sitting in my account or in his paypal and we all didn’t notice. Because the details are so fuzzy from time passing, I can’t be certain. I want to scan every bank statement from that year, but those statements from years ago are no longer available. I even asked my mom, who when I was an undergraduate student, monitored my bank statements as a condition for helping me through  my undergraduate education financially, & she assured me she would have noticed.  I have called Paypal and they assure me that my bank account is not associated with the paypal of my ex.  I recall a big $0 and faulty donation link. I remember tying up loose ends. But what ifs abound.  Freak accidents happen. I knew I was thorough, but…what if, what if, what if…and I go to burn at the stake. Because that is how all OCD or not OCD-related fears end in my head. I must ensure nothing bad happened.  How unjust if someone donated money and it didn’t go where it was supposed to go?! My brain can’t bear the idea. What would people think of me?! I would need to fix it. Check and fix. Check and fix.

Wow. I feel loads better writing that out. The “what if I’m right” remains, but I kind of feel like I can move on with my life today. Let’s say, worst case scenario, the odds were defied and my worst fears are true. I was a very young individual with the best intentions; my guess is I probably won’t burn at the stake for something so small and unlikely from so long ago. I have no choice but to move on. I have done all I can to satisfy my anxiety. I could go order those ancient bank statements right now & scan every line, “just to check” & satisfy OCD , but life is moving forward and I need to as well.

Mindfulness Moment: Going Where My Trust Is Without Borders

I’ve heard and read a lot of folks with OCD talk about how they feel that, at it the core of this disorder for many sufferers, we have a maladaptive and atypical inability to deal with uncertainty (here are links to 3 posts about it for further reading: by Jeff Bell, Dr. Steven Seay, and Annabella Hagen – LCSW RPT-S).  The problem with OCD, I’ve noticed, is that in avoiding all possible threats to certainty, you pretty much avoid living life at all.

It’s very sneaky, the way obeying my need for certainty can slowly overtake my life. I realized at first, that I would avoid driving near the bike lane and the lane next to the sidewalk. Then I resolved to avoid driving during times when kids walk to school. OK, how about I avoid driving in the dark unless I absolutely must? And let’s  try to avoid evening commuter traffic too.  I’ll avoid parking garages, driveways, and compact parking while I’m at it. Actually, let’s also park as far away from people as possible. And let’s only do right turns on green. And don’t go down that street where you had an OCD episode. I realized today that if I always obeyed all my “rules” in order to optimize certainty that I won’t accidentally hurt someone with my car, I would leave very few hours in the day when I would be able to drive.

Tonight, my friend asked me to go the movies. I knew that if I said yes, I’d end up driving home in the dark. Hmmmm. That would increase the possibility of not seeing a pedestrian when I drive! That’s a huge OCD trigger for me, one that could turn my 30 minute drive home into a 60 minute one as my brain spins in it’s own web of imaginary tragedy.  A little voice inside me told me life would just be easier if I said no to the movie and comfortably drove home with the sun in the sky. Just be comfy! Just do what is easy! Why risk being triggered?

The good news is, I am getting better and better at dealing with being triggered! I decided to go the movies tonight. I drove home in the dark. I had obsessions and compulsions. I checked (a few times too many). BUT I didn’t let my need for certainty prune away at my social life. I want friends.  I want to go to the grocery store at night. I have to go to class in the morning and drive home  from class in the dark. I’m not back to my old driving yet, but I can start with this.  What can I say? Uncertainty is uncomfortable, but I have faith that I can deal with the uncertainty that abounds on this earth, no matter what my OCD makes me feel in the moment.

Speaking of uncertainty and hope, there is a BEAUTIFUL song by Hillsong UNITED called Oceans (Where Feet May Fail), which I have fallen in love with because singing it is an informal mindfulness moment for me which gives me courage.   When I sing it, I forget what makes me anxious and I feel nothing but overhwhelming hope.

In particular, I feel courage in these lyrics:

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders, let me walk upon the waters, wherever You would call me

Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander, and my faith would be made stronger, by the presence of my Savior

– Oceans by Hillsong UNITED

Wow. To ask God to take me where my trust is without borders? Where feet may fail? Nothing makes my OCD more upset than the thought of that :). I think I should strive to go there.

Here’s the song and lyric video for Oceans. Very soothing. I hope you enjoy it!

Sitting in the Glue: Bravely Facing My OCD

This photo, “Glue” is copyright (c) 2009 wonderfully complex  and made available under an Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license.
This photo, “Glue” is copyright (c) 2009 wonderfully complex and made available under an Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license.

So I am supposed to be off doing homework but I HAD to blog (yay for taking time for myself!) about my wonderful counseling session today and a little something called “sitting in the glue”.

My counselor, a wonderful person who has helped me make amazing progress with my OCD this semester (let’s call her Kiki because I think that name is cute and bubbly, much like my counselor) talked to me today about “sitting in the glue”. I revealed to her that I had started this blog in an attempt to make time for myself and to find the silver lining in my experiences with OCD, but that posting the ugly truth about the content of my OCD (fears about toasters catching fire and hitting people with my car, etc) was a trigger for me. My last post took me a full week to finally post; the words “hit”, “car”, “fire”, “hurt” , “pedestrian”, “accident”, “kill” would all jump out at me and I’d worry that someone might think I was crazy. Scratch that: my OCD falsely sent me the message that the whole world would be alarmed by my blog and would come after me.  I edited that blog to minimize and eliminate my trigger words; maybe next time I will be braver.

I feel anxious even now, just typing such words. Anyways…

Kiki then told me a story from her days working in ABA. There was a kiddo who had a maladaptive tendency to perseverate on glue. He ate enormous amounts of glue while at school. One day, his therapist decided to let him sit on a tarp in a tub of glue. Glue galore! He was allowed to eat and play with the glue without any interference. The next day, he was no longer eating glue.  His glue obsession was “satiated”, as she said.

Now unlike strange glue child, I am not enamored with my OCD, but maybe it would help me “satiate” the fear, as she put it. Kiki wants me to try sitting in my glue.  To expose myself to the thing which needlessly terrifies me until it terrifies me no more. Hence, I came home and posted that seemingly sinister blog-post about my OCD around cars and driving and pedestrians.

There really isn’t a reason for those words themselves, the ones I so carefully edit out of my blog because of all the anxiety now associated with them, to  have that kind of influence over me. They are just words, which over time, thanks to Jiminy/OCD, now have the power to set my heart racing and make me retreat to safety just when I hear them on the news or see them on my blog. Those words have the power to make me hide the truth about my OCD when I know sharing helps me and could help someone else who is tormented by the same kinds of obsessions and compulsions.

Kiki actually wants me to take it a step up and soak myself in glue, typing over and over again the very words and phrases which trigger my anxiety. It’s a challenge I have accepted, but I’ll start with baby steps. I think the 7 words I typed in this post is a good start.

I guess this homework I was given is kind of like a little exposure therapy. Fletcher Wortmann, a blogger for Psychology Today who also suffers from OCD and is excellent at sharing his experiences, wrote a very interesting article about Exposure Response Therapy called Full Exposure: The Sickening Treatment For OCD

I’ll let you know how it goes! Wish me luck 🙂