Like a lot of other people, I’ve been having a rough spring and summer. There’s the pandemic of course, making an inescapable impact across America.
But I had a big personal challenge in late April when my father passed away. Grieving is never easy, and I’ve found that it’s doubly difficult during the pandemic, since I wasn’t able to attend his funeral service in person. I live 2000 miles away from where I grew up and where my nuclear family still lives. And I also wasn’t able to go out and do things as much as I might normally because of the health risks.
I was shocked by how much it physically hurt me to lose my father. I had attacks of chest pain. One night my epiglottis swelled without warning and I choked up while eating dinner. And as I choked up, I started to literally choke.
It was scary.
I’m no stranger to anxiety. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I was diagnosed with PTSD on a psychometric battery, likely a combination of garden variety PTSD (I had 3 major traumas between 11 and 19) and complex PTSD (I grew up in a strict authoritarian household and endured abusive behaviors).
I haven’t been hospitalized for 20 years, and I generally do a good job keeping myself feeling well. That’s not an accident. My anxiety is something that needs constant maintenance and attention from me. These days it’s mostly in the form of short mindfulness meditations and forced perspective taking.
But I’ll be honest: It’s been ages since I had attacks that were so sudden onset that I had zero warning. Where there wasn’t at least a sliver of a cognitive component preceding the physical symptoms, something that could be acknowledged and reasoned with.
I got a false sense of security. I felt like I was better, permanently better.
And then my father died, and I started having panic attacks.
It’s Humbling to Regress
When the attacks started in late April, I had no choice, really, but to find a safe place to have them. This usually involved hiding somewhere in my home. I’d crawl under the covers. One time I got under a chair in my office, trying to read the print on the bottom of the seat, hoping it’d distract me and foreshorten the event.
There was no thinking, just reacting, and when I’d calm down, I’d discover myself in this odd predicament, confused and ashamed.
In the early days that I was grieving, I was glad that my husband was the only person who saw me in person. I communicated with others but via text, which was excellent since no one could see my face or hear my voice. And if I had to run off and have a panic attack, it would look like a normal lapse in communication.
I couldn’t handle much more. Not confidently. I was always in risk of breaking down without any warning and embarrassing myself.
As the weeks wound on, I had fewer attacks. And the ones I did have were lower in intensity. As I write this essay, I can really only remember one attack clearly, as the rest happened too long ago.
I’m getting better. Time is helpful. And whatever part of my midbrain that was screaming at full volume is (mostly) settling down.
But I’m left with scars from the experience. Because 20 years of having my shit mostly together was a source of pride for me. And recent events have made it hard for me to trust myself.
I Wonder When I’ll Fully Trust Myself Again
I mentioned it briefly in passing in another post, but right after my father passed away, I had a bunch of people approach me asking for me to do some remote speaking engagements related to the pandemic. And I had to turn them all down because I was a mess.
The other day, I was approached again. And I thought about it really hard, but I realized I still don’t quite trust myself. Not the way I did before.
It doesn’t help that the past few weeks have had fresh stress in them, exacerbating the original issue (my cat was hospitalized and diagnosed with diabetes, a close relative had surgery and a complicated postop recovery and I was having trouble getting updates from my family about it, etc.).
The person asking about the engagement accepted my refusal graciously. I know it’s the right move, that I need to be patient with myself.
But I felt a pang after we spoke as a heavy thought entered my head: I wonder when I’ll fully trust myself again.