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At night when I was 10 years old, I would sit in my bed and stare out the window. I looked down the road at the flagpole to see if the flag was blowing. If it was blowing this meant imminent doom. It didn’t matter that there were stars in the sky. I still had the unrelenting, yet unrealistic notion that a tornado would come and sweep us all away in the middle of the night.
How Do You Get a Tornado Fear From a Fire
Oddly enough I lived through our house burning down just months before I developed my fear of tornadoes. Our two-story home burnt to the ground. We were asleep in the middle of the night and barely escaped in time. Luckily we did escape completely unharmed but we lost everything. It was scary. It was a moment that played out so fast yet also in slow motion.
While my little sister and I stood in the kitchen, my mom struggled to open the door due to a back-draft effect. I remember looking into the dining room and seeing the fire blazing up the curtains, trailing down the carpet, and noticing how fast it was spreading. Finally, my mom was able to bust the glass door with a chair; simultaneously blowing out all the other windows in the house now that the seal of the draft was broken.
So why this obsession with tornadoes all a sudden I never could understand. But the idea of not assessing the wind every night made me uneasy. It was very illogical and I knew that it was. Apparently, the trauma from the fire manifested into fear of tornadoes. Looking back, I realized there are several things in my childhood that laid the ground work for my anxiety. Sunday night syndrome being the first.
It Was In The Calm
The actual panic attacks happened much later. In the calm after the storm, I like to call it. Because it wasn’t in the fire or after. It wasn’t in the moving back and forth as a teenager. Or the extremely dysfunctional relationship I was in after I left home. But in the quiet. On a night so many years after the last bout of chaos and devastation. It was in the quiet of my own living room with my loving husband sitting beside me and my sleeping toddler down the hall.
It came full force as if it had been building up all those years before. One second, I was oblivious to what a panic attack felt like, and then the next I could hear, see, and feel my heartbeat in every piece of my body. I felt disoriented and lightheaded. Never once did I think it was a panic attack. I thought something in my body had gone terribly wrong and I was dying.
The next day following that horrific episode the doctor enlightened me. This new feeling I was experiencing was an anxiety attack. The next several years it was relentless. A switch had been flipped and I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off.
Lack of Control
Everyone’s anxiety manifests differently over a variety of things. I think it all boils down to feeling out of control. I spent years in survival mode, fight, or flight, getting through one traumatizing event after another. Once I had survived all the chaos, my mind apparently decided it was time to deal with all that had happened. It’s funny how you don’t actually have control over your subconscious.
I had such a huge fear of not being able to be a good mother. I’d never had anyone dependent upon me before. The more I tried to be the best version of myself, my mind crumbled under the pressure. You know the trick when you tell yourself not to think about something then it is the only thing you think about?
I didn’t realize the inner dialogue I had going on every day, “be a good mom, you have to keep your life together, don’t mess up, be dependable, there’s nobody else that can help you, you have all this responsibility you have to figure out.” Until my mind retaliated making me become everything I feared…an undependable mess.
Grocery Shopping- A Huge Trigger
During that time, I developed a tremendous fear of grocery shopping. Dread would set in the day before. Shopping was the perfect concoction for a debilitating panic attack. I would walk through the grocery store so ate up with anxiety that it literally felt like my head was detached from my body. It was impossible to concentrate on the task at hand, looking over my huge grocery list feeling like there was no way I could make it through.
It was always the same. I’d look at my half-full cart, look at my list at all I was still lacking, and then look at my toddler sitting in the cart with what always felt like an expiration date. My palms would sweat, my legs would go numb, and my head was so disoriented it felt like I’d been drinking all day. The symptoms always demanded me to focus on them above anything else.
The pressure I put on myself always made it worse “you have to finish this, you can’t go home with nothing, if you abandon your cart and run out people will stare at you, what will everyone think?.” I’d be frozen in fear trying to make a decision to flee or push through.
Either decision felt like a lot of work. I could either try to make it to the car and hopefully feel coherent enough to drive. Or try my best to finish without losing it completely.
Sadly, both of those options feel absolutely dreadful when you are in the middle of a panic attack. The only thing you want to do is curl up in a ball away from all stimulation. Feeling responsible for someone in the midst of a panic attack seems cataclysmal and downright impossible.
This Can’t Be It
I think that is one of the most debilitating parts of anxiety, how it instantly makes you incompetent. I have run out of jobs before, called into jobs, pulled over on the side of the road while driving, hid in the bathroom away from my kids, opted out of numerous events, and basically have spent years hiding away from the world to avoid triggering it. For a while, I thought this is how it would always be. I thought anxiety would control me, which left me feeling even more out of control and…anxious.
(STAY TUNED FOR PART 2-Learning to thrive without anxiety medication)