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My parents’ new home.

Three weeks ago, my parents moved out of my childhood home, where we lived as a family for the most part of twenty years. Although I recently turned 30 and live on my own, this was tremendously difficult for me to cope with. I visited my parents a few times as they were packing, and each time, I would break down sobbing. The last time I had gone to help, I narrowly avoided a massive panic attack, and excused myself to leave after barely two hours. I began to break down almost immediately after going through my old things, when I threw away a framed painting that I had made as a young child.

Why was that such a trigger?

Because it meant that the safety of my childhood was over. Not only that, but I was losing my safe place.

That house was my safe place. We moved in during the summer of 1996, and I lived there continuously until I started college in 2006. Then, I returned during summers and breaks for the four years between 2006 and 2010, and during breaks from grad school through 2014. I moved back in for a year and a half after graduation, until I found a job that could sustain me.

I returned there many, many times, for many, many reasons. I would come home to be consoled from breakups, to be cared for when I was sick, for comfort when I was first dealing with my anxiety, and as a refuge when I was unable to make it on my own as a professional.

I spent a lot of time there. It was my safe place.

Home is where the heart is.

I was very upset about my parents’ move. But then something happened. The week that they moved, my boyfriend broke up with me in a very shocking and eventful day.

I was so upset, I didn’t want to be alone. Our relationship had been stable! Or so I had thought. I could not stop crying and I needed comfort. So, I called my parents and asked if they needed help with unpacking. I came over that weekend to assist. And then, a few days later, I returned to help with something else. And then a few days later, I asked if I could come over again. They weren’t sure if they had anything else I could help with, but that was ok- I said I’d bring over my laptop and work on things, and as my mom came up with tasks, I could take a break and help out.

I’ve been visiting them a few times a week since. I pack a bag of work, and I work quietly while my mom writes in the other room. I don’t even have to be in the same room with her- it just helps to know that she’s around. I’ve spent so much time there that the new house just about feels like home.

My safe place wasn’t a place after all. It was, instead, wherever my safe people were.

“Home- I’m coming home. Home is wherever I’m with you.”

Home, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

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Out with the Old, and in with . . . Something

Last week, I wrote about how I felt my life was up in the air, like a pile of leaves that had been disturbed by a child or a leaf blower.

But, I’m not the only one.

Just as my life has been disrupted in a major way, so are the lives of many of my friends and family. Jobs, relationships, and homes are all in upheaval.

I can’t help but think that it’s not a coincidence. This fall, we are being called to let go of the old and to release what isn’t working for us, in order to make room for something new.

Why? I don’t know. What we’re moving to, I don’t know. I’m inclined to think that it will be something better. Not just for us as individuals, but as a society. As a world. A lot of “new-agey” sort of people seem to believe that we’re moving into a new era, that humankind is going through a sort of moral and spiritual evolution. I don’t see any evidence to the contrary.

Everything is in upheaval because you need to get rid of what isn’t working in order to start anew. And in order to know that something isn’t working, you need to see it not work. 

It’s painful, but it’s for the best, if we make the best of it.

Music to Uplift

Any music therapist will tell you that music is medicine.  Here are three artists who uplift me, and songs of theirs that I find healing.

Matisyahu

Sometimes in my tears I drown,

but I never let it get me down.

So when negativity surrounds

I know someday it will all turn around.

Matisyahu is an Orthodox Jewish musician. Much of his music, (ex. “King Without a Crown”) incorporates religious themes. Matisyahu said, “All of my songs are influenced and inspired by the teachings that inspire me. I want my music to have meaning, to be able to touch people and make them think.” Although he no longer wears a beard, yamulke, or tzitzit, he still remains invested in his spirituality.

After days and days of waking up with negative music in my head, I cannot explain just how relieved I was a couple of days ago when these were the lyrics I heard instead. This was how I knew I was starting to regain hope.

India.Arie

I am light, I am light.

I am not the things my family did,

I am not the voices in my head,

I am not the pieces of the brokenness inside.

India Arie released her first album, Acoustic Soul, in 2001. This album, and her single “Video” were met with critical acclaim. She was the center of controversy during the 2002 Grammy awards, as India and her album were nominated for seven awards, but won none. Her music has always had meaningful themes, but now, her music has taken a spiritual angle.

“I Am Light” is the perfect reminder that we do not need to identify with our circumstances or even our physical attributes, and I have listened to it hundreds of times. All of her music is amazing and uplifting, but I highly recommend her albums SongVersation and SongVersation: Medicine, which were independently produced.

MC Yogi


When I’m lost and disconnected,

searching for a way to heal,

I remember the message you sent me-

only love is real.

MC Yogi is an independent musician who unites hip hop with eastern spirituality. Some of his songs incorporate Hindu chants, while others teach concepts such as the Eight Limbs of yoga or the story of the Buddha.

MC Yogi has also collaborated on a song with Matisyahu, “Heaven is Here.”

Although he focuses on eastern philosophies, this song, “Only Love is Real,” reminds me of one of the core teachings of A Course in Miracles- that only love, and not fear, is real. It is a very comforting concept to someone like myself who is plagued by anxiety.

These three artists come from different spiritual orientations (India Arie refers to God and angels in some of her songs),  but the meaning in their music has the ability to speak across religions and cultures. I hope these songs help you like they have helped me.

Fall

Fall is THE season of change. Nature is transitioning from the warm lushness of summer to the bitter chill of winter. The trees release their leaves as they prepare to conserve their resources in order to survive the harshness of the year’s last season.

It’s funny, however, how our lives often mimic the changing of the seasons. Like the trees, I, too, am in transition.

This fall, my life has felt like a pile of leaves that someone has tossed up into the air, each leaf to scatter and fall newly askew on the ground.

(The pile of leaves, of course, was perfectly content where it was.)

My career leaves have been tossed askew. Due to a traumatic work experience, I have had to quit a steady, well-paying, full-time job in order to piece together part-time and independent contractor opportunities.

My mental health leaves have been upset as well. My anxiety has been at its highest level in ten years as I cope with traumatic stress from my previous job.

My social relationship leaves have been thrown about. My parents have moved from the family home of over 20 years to a new house. This transition has been very difficult for me, as that is where I grew up. And, my boyfriend broke up with me on a shocking day where he also lost his job. Our relationship had been secure, or so I had thought.

In a book to which I frequently return, The Way of the Happy Woman, author Sara Avant Stover describes how, in the autumn, “we too are in the process of letting things wither and fall away to gather only what is essential for the winter months.” This fall has forced me to let many things go as many of the things I had come to rely on were disrupted. She continues to explain that “grief and sadness are the primary emotions of the autumn season, which, when tended to, are transmuted into courage.” This fall, I have experienced much, much grief.

May it develop into much, much courage.

Two Essentials to Help With My Morning Anxiety


Because my anxiety is at its very worst first thing in the morning, it has occurred to me from time to time that I might need to examine how I sleep. This seems to be paying off. Here are two of my bedroom essentials for a low-stress morning.
Memory Foam Pillow

The first thing I bought was a memory foam pillow. I had noticed months ago that my anxiety seemed to reside in that little knob where the neck connects to the back. I would begin to feel a tingle or a burn there, and it would then spread to other areas of my body. After several nights, I noticed that, with my regular pillow, I was sleeping with my neck and shoulders all scrunched up. Spending eight hours in that position certainly couldn’t help. So, as this was an experiment, I went to Target and purchased the cheapest contoured pillow that I could find. (Specialty pillows can be very expensive!) I’m pleased to say that it seems to be doing the trick! I’m waking up with less anxiety in my body. It’s not gone, but it is noticeably less.
Weighted Blanket

Weighted blankets and vests have long been used by occupational therapists working with autistic clients. Wrapping a child up in one of these items has the ability to calm them during tantrums, often to the point of sleep. Similar are thunder shirts, which are manufactured for pets who become anxious during thunderstorms. Temple Grandin pioneered the use of Deep Touch Pressure, the concept these blankets are based off of, with the invention of her squeeze machine.

Lately, I had been seeing advertisements on facebook and instagram for weighted blankets, not marketed for children, but for adults with anxiety and PTSD. Studies have been done on the use of blankets for both autism and ADHD as well as anxiety. Scientists hypothesize that when pressure points of the body are stimulated that the brain produces serotonin, an important neurotransmitter.

The recommendation is that the blanket weigh 10% of the user’s body weight. This blanket is only 12 lbs, but I find that to be sufficient.

It may be premature to say, as I only received this yesterday, but I LOVE THIS THING. I slept very well last night. I woke up in the middle of the night, as my cat likes to disturb my sleep by grooming my face, but I was able to fall right back asleep. And, for the past couple of weeks, my body has been waking me up by 5:30 AM, and I try to keep myself in bed until 6:30. This morning, I woke up at 5:00 AM, fell back asleep, had a dream, and then awoke at 7:00!

Well, maybe you were just tired, you might say.

Nope! No matter how late I had been going to sleep or how tired I was, my body was waking up consistently before 6AM. Then, I would just have a very tired day.

The anxiety in my body when I awoke was also significantly less. I would go as far as to say it was 40 to 50% less. I almost didn’t need my walk to release my jitters this morning!

Attending to my sleep has proven to be just as useful as keeping a morning routine.

Monsters, Demons, Exorcisms, and Clouds

As Miley Cyrus crooned on Saturday Night Live last weekend, “I wake up in a bad mood.” Every morning, I wake up with thoughts that trouble me and scare me. They set the wrong tone for my day, and it takes me awhile to redirect my thoughts and to become focused and productive.

In popular music, artists often refer to their dark thoughts and mental health issues as “monsters” or “demons.”

“Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide.”

Demons, Imagine Dragons

 

“A monster, a monster,
I’ve turned into a monster,
A monster, a monster,
And it keeps getting stronger.”

Monster, Imagine Dragons

Many cultures of antiquity believed that mental maladies were literally caused by demons. They thought that the sufferers were possessed, and were treated through prayers and exorcisms. (For an interesting article on this topic, go to Psychology Today.)

If all it took to make the thoughts go away was an exorcism, believe me, I would go for it in a heartbeat. But nothing is that easy.

A few mornings ago, somehow, in my sleepy state, I was able to remember a basic tenet of mindfulness. As I’ve read in The Untethered Soul, “you are not the voice of the mind– you are the one who hears it.” Don’t become attached to your thoughts- let them go by, like clouds being guided across the sky by a gentle breeze. So I used that image- my thoughts were clouds. Some were white and pure. Some were a dreary gray. Some were as black as soot. (Those were the “bad” thoughts.) But, they were all together, in the same sky, and they came and went at the same rate. I was able to let them go.

This was able to relax me.

I’ve only read 20 pages of The Untethered Soul, but it is clearly making a positive impact on me already. This book was sent to me last month when I won a contest. I think maybe it came to me at the right time.

Sights from My Daily Walks

I continue to take daily walks in order to manage my anxiety. I don’t vary my route much, but I continue to find interesting and beautiful things. Here are some of them.

I posted another entry with images from my daily walks. You can see it here.

This little guy sat still and let me take his picture!

Ivy-covered mums

A . . . tumbleweed?

The church lit up at night.

A local bookstore decorated Harry Potter style for Halloween.

Two types of lovely flowers:

And a chicken faucet!

Don’t Panic- An Essay I Wrote in College

I wrote the below essay six years ago, as an assignment for a college writing class. I chose to share my experience with the class in this way because I feel that transparency is healing, as it is the only way we can connect with others who have been through similar things. Then, not only do we help ourselves, but we help others as well. I share it here today with the same intention.

I lay in my bed at 12:30 on a Monday afternoon in February, heart pounding, body shaking, stomach turning, dizzy. Every breath I took became more and more difficult. I felt like I was choking on air. My mind was cloudy and dense, thoughts flowing like mud, but I tried to weigh my options, fight or surrender. I began to cry, my tears an expression of fear, frustration, and dismay.

I can’t take this anymore! My hand inched toward the phone.

If I got out of bed now, I could still catch the bus to make my 12:50 Spanish class on North Campus. If I stayed here and garnered the courage to pick up the phone, I would end up skipping Spanish again, something I never would have done a year ago, but I could be done with all of this, and I could be done with it now.

I thought of the previous class period: after trudging up the stairs to the third floor end-of-the-hall classroom in Comenius, I quietly slipped into a desk off to the side. And then that choking feeling started again. I tried to breathe deeply, but the familiar tingling feeling crept into my fingers, and I began to feel lightheaded. My heart began to pound, faster and faster, and I could hear its heavy beating. My stomach churned, and I began to shake and fidget and sweat profusely. Time began to slow down as I tried to concentrate on something, anything, other than my body, but I felt as if I wasn’t even a part of the outside world anymore, drawn inside myself, every little sensation feeling one thousand times larger than it actually was. I wanted so badly to leave the classroom to return to my bed. I felt safe there.

And then, I was jerked violently out of my alternate reality by the sound of Profesora Mesa’s voice:

“¿Señorita Lang, qué te gusta en la fín de semana?” What do you like to do during the weekend?

“A me gusta tocar la música.” I like to play music. As soon as the statement escaped my mouth, I recognized that it was grammatically incorrect. It was “a mi me gusta.” I knew that. Immediately embarrassed by my Spanish faux pas, I re­entered my alternate reality. Class had only started ten minutes ago, but it felt like two hours. I had no idea how I was going to survive until 2 PM.

12:40, still lying in bed, stuck with that all too familiar image, I chose to stay and admit defeat, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. I sat up, wiped my cheek, picked up the phone, and dialed home. I chose to do it now because I knew my roommate wouldn’t be back for at least two hours, and I needed to be alone.

“Hello,” my Mom answered.

“Mom,” I sputtered out, tears flowing even faster, “I think I’ve been having panic attacks.”

“Are you sure? How do you know?”

I had self-diagnosed myself back in October, with the help of WebMD. I was trying to survive the panic attacks on my own, without counseling or medication. To allow myself to become medicated was to surrender. I had read about some people who were successful at handling them this way, and I figured that all I needed was a strong will to cope. After all, I had been experiencing symptoms since my sophomore year of high school and had been coping just fine. It had never limited my scholastic achievement or participation in extracurricular activities. However, at that point, I was only experiencing a handful of anxiety attacks a day, typically only during certain times of day or certain classes. Now, in my freshman year of college, there was no limit to how many I had, when they would occur, or how long they would last. The anxiety in between attacks was unbearable, not knowing when the next one would strike or where I would be, or what would happen to me. Some days it was so bad that I could barely swallow. It was so bad that I lost the “freshmen fifteen” instead of gaining it.

I spent my classes counting down until the end of the day, and my free time counting down until the frequent weekends I would visit home. Then I would cry my eyes out on the car ride back to school. This was no way to live, and I knew that if I didn’t do something to take control of my life soon, it would only get worse.

My mom made me a doctor’s appointment for that coming Thursday, thankfully possible due to a lack of classes until the afternoon on that day. My Dad came up and got me that Wednesday night, and as we drove away from Bethlehem, he said,

“Your mother wanted me to pick you up today so we could talk.”

“About what,” I inquired, puzzled.

Then, my father proceeded to confess to me everything I had never known about him before: he had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and depression when he was my age. He had been where I had been, and knew how I felt. He was taking 40 mg of Paxil every day to manage his condition because counseling and other treatments didn’t work for him.

It all made sense now: the condition was genetic. It was biological. As against medicine as I was, I knew I would have to give in because my ailments were related to my brain chemistry, and not to anything in my environment. And for once, I was okay with that.

For some reason, there’s an awful taboo that surrounds mental illness in America. If you have a mental disorder such as panic disorder like I had, bipolar disorder, or depression, you’re often labeled as being weak, crazy, dangerous, unable, or at fault in some other way. Many think that mental disorders aren’t “real” diseases even though they too are often genetic. None of these accusations are true. For this reason, more than half of young people with mental disorders won’t own up to it or get help, and therefore close themselves off, and leave themselves feeling alone. As a result, a very high percentage of the untreated resort to drugs, alcohol, or suicide. However, more than one in four people have mental disorders, meaning that no singular sufferer ever needs to feel alone, and no one ever needs to resort to such drastic measures.

I struggled for months until I finally let myself see a doctor because of these fears and taboos, and also the idea that maybe I could tackle this myself. And yet, this surrender didn’t leave me with a feeling of weakness. Sure, the month of February 2007 was the hardest month of my life, as I had to battle the worsening anxiety for a couple of weeks until the Paxil began to take effect.

However, I singlehandedly prevented myself from becoming a shut-in or a college dropout. I singlehandedly gave myself the chance to follow through with my dreams. I was able to empower myself and alter the course of my life through one phone call. I know plenty of mentally healthy people who have never felt that kind of empowerment.

Now, here I am sitting in my dorm room, almost exactly three years after I was officially diagnosed with panic disorder. And I am far stronger than I have ever been before.

Bounce Back

A few weeks ago, I was explaining to a frustrated friend about how healing is not linear. She was distraught because she felt as if she was having another breakdown.

I, too, have felt that way this week. I found myself crying after a week plus of not having cried once.

Oh, shit. I’m moving backwards. All that progress is lost.

I had to remind myself of what I told that friend.

“The most important thing,” I said, “Is the bounce back period. How quickly can you pick yourself back up after you break down?” It’s unrealistic to expect that we will stop being upset by something that shook us so deeply. But, what’s more important is, how long after experiencing the strong emotions are we able to return to our normal life.

Almost a month ago, well, it took me about a week to “get back to normal.” I had no routine, because I resisted one.

I’m too distraught. I can’t simply do anything. Not when I’m this upset. 

All I could do was pace, and curl up in my bed, and cry hysterically, and call a friend, and then try to eat. And worry. A lot.

That was three weeks ago. And I got it back together because I tried. I started small in putting the pieces back together.

This morning, I became very upset and sobbed to my friend on the phone. “I’m so overwhelmed!” But then I was able to get off the phone with her and do the things I needed to do. A week or more ago, it would have taken me two or more hours to pull it back together.

I’m bouncing back faster. And that’s how I know I’m healing.

Childhood Anxiety Revealed

Property of Nickelodeon

If you grew up in the 90s like I did, you likely remember the show Rugrats. Tommy’s best friend was a boy named Chuckie Finster who had messy red hair, purple glasses, and was afraid of everything. Especially if someone implied that he should be afraid of something.

Looking back on my childhood, I’m not sure I was much different. I was never afraid of something until someone suggested that I should be. For example:

I was never afraid of the dark as a young child. Until, one day in preschool, we had a lesson about being afraid of the dark, and why you shouldn’t be. After that, I slept with the lights on until I was eight. When I learned that other people were afraid of the dark, it validated the fear.

My mom has told me the following story: One day, I was watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. He was doing an episode about kids whose parents were divorced. I came running up to my mom in tears. “You’re going to get divorced!” I sobbed. She comforted me that that was not going to happen.

A fear of fire began in elementary school during fire safety week. I became petrified that the house would catch fire while I was asleep. Some nights I was so scared, I’d sleep in my sister’s room. I would lie awake, looking at the ceiling, my mind creating images of dark, whispy smoke floating above. My parents tried to help by creating and reviewing a fire evacuation plan with us.

I was never afraid of something until I started to think about and analyze that thing. It’s all in the “what ifs.” The same thing is true of me today, but now, I am able to recognize that as a symptom of my anxiety. Now I know that I am trying to confront patterns that I have had since I was very young. Of course it’s hard!

The irony is not lost on me that, like Chuckie Finster, I also have red hair and purple glasses!