Let’s Talk About Stress, Baby

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Athletes don’t often discuss general anxiety or the depression that follows major races, and they sometimes turn a blind eye to weakness of any kind because the mind can overcome everything. Sometimes though, you need professional help, and you should get it without being ashamed or made to feel weak.

For me, anxiety is like the volume control on a radio, and without proper care, it’s turned up way too loud and manifests itself in the form of panic attacks. I basically can’t hear anything else except for the myriad of things I have to do. Calm down? Just relax? I can’t. So don’t bother saying those things to me or anyone else with anxiety. Just let them know you’re there and that you understand. Talk to them.

I turned to running and triathlon to help alleviate my anxiety, but it didn’t always do the trick because I would actually get panic attacks while running, which made me feel like I was going to die. I decided to get help and write about it. Below is an excerpt from my memoir that I plan to publish, describing what my day to day life was like before getting help for my anxiety and depression. I hope that by sharing my experiences, others will not feel so alone.

Excerpt: 

I run past sit-down breakfasts and take breakfast out the door, sipping my smoothie with my right hand and balancing the bags piled onto my left shoulder—work bag, laptop, purse, lunch. The curve in my spine renders my right side useless for carrying something as light as a purse. In photographs, my whole right side appears as if someone is pushing me down into the ground while my body fights to keep it upright and straight.

The first time I noticed this was in a photo my mom took while we visited the Washington coast on Ruby Beach. My baggy red windbreaker billowed in the stiff west wind on the pebbled beach, yet my right shoulder angled into the sand like a beach umbrella. My smile is uneven too—the left side is slightly lower, and, depending on how you look at it, I could be snarling instead of smiling, but that’s better than not smiling at all with my angry resting face.

I’m one of those people who always appear angry even when I’m not. Whenever I’m at work with the windows to my back, the sun occasionally hits the laptop screen just right so my reflection squints back at me, my face stiff and unyielding. Realizing this, my right shoulder faces the camera more often, hiding the slope and the snarl. I thought I stood tall on the beach, making a conscious effort to do so, but I’m lopsided, the left shouldering the burden of work, kid, house, and family—not always in that order. This morning, I fumble for the car key in my left hand and attempt to open the door without scratching it up. I put my smoothie cup down, but then all the bags come cascading off my shoulder, twisting my torso while releasing my neck.

Still, I run behind the wheel on the highway with each tilt steering my way through traffic. I run through first-second-third-fourth class—lunch! I run with lunch boxes in hand before I trade them for a piece of bread in each palm for tomorrow’s lunch. I run carrying pots and pans and soapy sponges from dinner dishes. I run around bath time and laundry. I run while grading essays with my left hand on my temple like I’m angry about something and my eyes squint behind my glasses. I read and run at the same time until my body has reached the point when it’s had enough of running and collapses on the couch. Then, I get up the next day and run again.

Let me start again—like rewriting a list to make it neater, but only resulting in more time lost. I should know. I have a phone that keeps track of my numerous lists, but I still insist on writing items on sticky notes haphazardly clinging to the case and falling off like crumpled leaves.

Here goes: My mind starts running from the moment my alarm clock goes off. The only reprieve is sleep, and I wish for sleep when my mind is no longer running. I hit snooze for an hour to avoid getting out of bed, only to lie in bed with my eyes shut too tight to plan out my day despite the lists I already made. Sometimes sleep is not restful, and I wake up with a gasp and my heart racing at 130 beats per minute or more. I keep track until it falls to somewhere around 90 beats, elevate my head, breathe in and out slowly to avoid hyperventilating, and try to sleep. If it increases beyond 130 beats per minute, I pace around the house and drink water or start walking on the treadmill at 4:00am. Jumping jacks help if I think walking or running on the treadmill in my bare feet will startle everyone in the house out of sleep. I run barefoot because my heart beats too fast to even think about lacing up my running shoes. If I can raise my heart rate through exercise and then cool down, my heart rate will sometimes drop on its own, otherwise, I end up at the ER.

This morning, the night’s thunderstorms rumble in the distance; I go outside and walk in the cool humid air before the sun rises, listening to the slap of my flip-flops against the pavement. The wet calm that settles in after a storm clings to my skin too as I breathe in the moist air. My flip-flops throw water from the puddles up to the backs of my knees, and I feel the water slap, then drip down to my heel. The mosquitoes still sleep under the mist where a fox roams around the development, away from the dogs trapped behind fences. The fox is aware of my flopping around the circle of the development so early and hides in the brush where a house will be built soon. What was here before in this endless loop I walk, a modern day Sisyphus, walking with nowhere to go but around and around. I reach another fence, visible markers around the half-mile loop. Good fences do make good neighbors as the poem goes—it’s hard to talk when eight feet of solid wood fence stands between you and your neighbor.

The kids know better and stand and jump on swing sets to see and yell and play despite the fence. They’ll scale the ninety degrees to touch a friend’s hand or peak their little eyes over to glimpse what lies beyond in the other back yard—forbidden until a much anticipated “yes” lets them come over, opening the gates.

Mornings like these mean my whole day will be off kilter. I’ll be in what I refer to as “zombie mode” where my body is functioning and preparing lessons at my desk, but my mind is somewhere at home, sipping coffee and reading a book on the sofa. The real me checked out. I can listen and converse with family and friends, but I’m really not paying any attention to them—my mind is using all available energy to remain calm and detached from situations.

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