Losing Emmett has made me much more introspective lately. Recently, I’ve found myself examining a lot of the facets and experiences during my life and behavioral health much more closely. Sometimes, it’s triggered by something really innocuous, like a song or a movie. Other times, it’s because the insomnia is bad and my mind is racing in the wee hours of the morning and I’m grasping for a sense of normalcy from something in my past.
The other night my road down memory lane was prompted when Brett and I were watching the most recent installment of the “X-Men” series. It had me thinking back to a night more than 13 years ago in Spring 2003 when I was a senior at UW-Milwaukee. I remember going to see “X2”. It was opening night and me and some of my closest friends nabbed tickets to the midnight show.
We made it to the theater just as the trailers were starting. We ended up watching the film from the front row, and two hours later, our necks and eyes were strained and blurred from staring at the on-screen action so closely. But, it was one of the most fun evenings I had with friends in my four years of college. It was just before graduation and all of us were going to head our own ways. I’d be leaving in a few weeks for grad school in Boston. Another friend was taking a job at a university. Another was taking a job at a TV station. It was like one of those last “hurrahs” of youth and frivolity before we had to start living real-life. The friendships that I made in those last two years came at a very important turning point in my life, just after my adopted mom passed away, leaving me and my family reeling, and also when I had finally started to discover who I was as an individual.
It also was a time that had me scared about my future. What was life going to be like out on my own, in a new city. Would my roommates like me? Would I do well in school? Could I find a job to help pay my rent? Underneath all of the fun that night provided for me and my friends, I was an anxious young woman who was unsure about everything that was coming in the weeks and months ahead. I was frightened I wouldn’t graduate because my advisor told me I hadn’t taken enough science courses (I really had but something wasn’t credited properly). I was skeptical about leaving my family behind for the first time. There were so many thoughts and emotions that were bubbling below the surface.
There have been a lot of discussions recently online about the “high-functioning depressed person.” While I would say I have definitely been a happy, optimistic and positive person for most of my life, there’s a part of me that I haven’t let others see until recently, or more accurately, I didn’t want others to know was there because I tried to keep it hidden. It’s the part of me that is hesitant, unsure, troubled, broken, anxious and sad. I’ve spent most of my 35+ years trying to make everyone else happy. Trying to be the perfect daughter, sister, wife, student, employee and friend. I’m a fixer at the root of everything. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I started to experience panic attacks again on a regular basis that I started to realize how afraid and distressed that I had become after trying to be perfect and strong for so many years.
The first panic attack that I truly recall was my senior year of high school. Just like that article link above, I was an over-achiever in school: school newspaper editor, member of band and orchestra, National Honor Society, Spanish National Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta, swimming…the list goes on and on. Looking back, I don’t know how I fit it all in and still managed to get relatively good grades and scholarships to college. One of the last weeks of school, just before graduation, I was driving in my car, suddenly overcome with such intense waves emotions because everything I had ever known was coming to an end. Most of my friends were going off to UW-Madison for school. I’d be staying home and commuting to college every day. I thought I was a failure for picking a smaller D1 school and saving money by living at home. I sat in a nearby K-Mart parking lot for almost an hour, trying to compose myself, trying to breathe. I drove home and quietly walked into the house. Walked past my mom and just said, I got sick on the way to school and went to bed. That was it, no following me, no questioning. Just OK with my answer of “being sick.”
For me, panic attacks are like being in a fish bowl. I feel like everyone is staring at me, pointing, and criticizing. My chest gets heavy. It’s hard to breathe, almost like I’m having an asthma attack. I cry profusely. I get very chilled and shaky. It’s scary and very dangerous, especially when you’re behind the wheel of a car, typically where a lot of my panic attacks happen. For that 18-year-old me, I just want to go back in time and hug her. Let her know it will be OK. You don’t have to be perfect for everyone. You just have to be happy in your own skin. But sadly, I still have those panic attacks. While I haven’t had one in over a year, I don’t think you ever truly “recover” from that kind of anxiety. I’m forever going to be filled with those same fears and triggers.
As I’ve been recalling those early panic attacks I had as an adolescent, I’ve also thought about more recent times. I haven’t had a panic attack since Emmett’s loss. A part of me is scared by that. I should be panicky and worried by that kind of loss. Why wasn’t this a trigger for me? Was it because we had a little time to process what was going to happen?
There still are those days where I feel very anxious and emotional about the future. It scares me to death to think about trying to conceive again. That’s why we haven’t rushed into starting to try again, even though, we’ve had the green light for months from our OB team. There’s that little bit of doubt in my gut that says, “What if this happens again? Are you prepared to deal with that.” The truth is…I’m not. I don’t think I’m strong enough to go through something like this again. I don’t want to lose another baby, and in turn, Emmett, all over again. So, certainly, there’s that other part of me that doesn’t even want to try again on the off-chance things don’t go well even though all of the experts have reassured us that the chances of that are highly unlikely.
What it all comes down to is “control.” I’ve always wanted to be in control of my life. How things have gone. I have issues and the most anxiety with the unknown and things that I don’t have control over. As much as I want to say that I’m a free-spirit and casual and easy-going and do-what-I-want, I’m truly not. I’m a very methodical and calculated person. Things have their certain order and I want them to all fall into place neatly. I want to be liked by everyone, I’m a people-pleaser and their opinions of me, particularly my family and closest friends, are the ones who cause me the most anxiety because I don’t want to be a disappointment in their eyes. When none of that happens, my world is overwhelmed by chaos.
Maybe I haven’t had a panic attack after Emmett’s passing because we were in control of how we let him go. We chose the manner, the time, the hospital. Maybe if everything had happened naturally, I would be experiencing panic attacks right now. There’s a piece of me that is certainly relieved that I haven’t experienced a panic attack so maybe some of the relaxation and mindfulness exercises that I’ve worked through with my therapists has helped me be more in control of what triggers those attacks. However, I’m just scared that there’s a piece of me emotionally that hasn’t fully experienced the breadth of this loss yet, and I’m not sure when that will happen or if it ever will.
Like that teenage girl about to embark on a journey to college who was scared and crying in a K-Mart parking lot almost 20 years ago, I wish someone would just hug me and tell me everything is going to be OK from time to time. I don’t get a lot of hugs these days and really could use them. I wish someone would reassure me, You don’t have to be in control of everything all the time and it’s unrealistic to think you will be for your entire life.