**Note to the Reader: I started writing this post a couple of weeks ago, while in the throes of a severe episode of anxiety. Ultimately, I found writing the post at the same time I was experiencing these symptoms too triggering, so I set it aside. I finished the post just recently.**
In the last 72 hours, I have felt more anxious, uneasy, fearful, on edge, [insert additional synonyms for anxious here] than I have felt in months, maybe even since I left treatment. We’re talking, “Hold please, I think I’m going to have a panic attack now . . . uh, okay, I guess not, that’s a relief. Let’s . . . wait, I think it’s really going to happen now; I just need a minute to sit down, maybe lie down actually . . . ,” kind of anxiety. Every single waking moment. I have been so eager to be alone in my bedroom the past three days, I have gone to bed directly after tucking in my four-year old.
I don’t know why this is happening. I mean, I know I have a mood disorder, so duh, I have crazy mood swings, but usually there is some sort of identifiable trigger — like it’s the weekend.
I remember when I used to love weekends. I would be so excited for that two-day break in my work-week to exercise, hang out with friends, go out to eat or see a movie. After our oldest was born, weekends become more complicated but my husband and I managed to maintain most of our prior activities, by taking turns with the baby or having one of my husband’s parents babysit. Sure we went out less but we still managed one or two dates a month, including dinner and a movie, if we could stay up that late.
Weekends are now the hardest part of my week. They involve two adults trying to keep three very mobile, loud and irrational toddlers from maiming themselves or each other, shattering eardrums or eating things that are not food. For me, it is the perfect storm of wanting to keep everyone safe and happy and nobody being safe or happy (at least not at the same time). While I constantly feel like I need to do something, I also feel like I can’t do anything right and that it’s going to be this way forever because we will always be outnumbered and the kids will only become more willful and unpredictable. Basically, I get super freaked out, am no fun at all and spend most of our family activity time wanting to run home and hide in my bedroom closet until Monday.
So weekends are a trigger. But the last three days have been a Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. These days are usually pretty low-stress for me (unless I have to go to the pediatrician’s office three times or find out my husband is flying to the Middle East for work next week). I have gone running each morning, to therapy and to visit a good friend. I have spent time outside in the warm weather, played with the twins in the backyard and taken them for walks. We went to baby swim lessons and watched the Muppets during lunch (yes, I am raising my kids to appreciate the classics). I even sat down and finally made a list of potential book projects.
But none of this self-care, socializing or meaningful activity has helped. I am jumpy, my heart races constantly and I am always too hot. My hands shake and I have trouble sitting still. I am impatient with everyone, including my children, so I find myself spending as much time alone as possible. I don’t want to eat. I don’t want to listen to anyone talk. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I don’t want to make any decisions. Every single thing feels like too much.
Living with this level of anxiety for the past three days has been particularly frustrating because I saw my psychiatrist a few weeks ago and we tweaked my meds to specifically address my anxiety symptoms. And I felt better. I really did. But now I do not. Definitely not. So I suppose it could be a meds thing, maybe we tweaked too much, or not enough. Medicating a mental illness involves a great deal of trial and error and, unfortunately, the errors affect your brain, which is a pretty big part of who you are and how well you function.
Another possible reason for this spike in my anxiety is that my mom and step-dad are here to help out while my husband is out of town. Last year, when I was still misdiagnosed and improperly medicated, I would often have my most severe panic attacks and most debilitating episodes of depression when my parents were in town. I was spending most of my days holding on for dear life, trying to manage work, a household of six and mothering three small children. My husband works a billion hours a week, so I was responsible for the lion’s share of household management and parenting-related stuff. But, when my parents showed up, there was suddenly, magically two additional people whom I trusted to do much of the work I was doing. And once that safety net was in place, I couldn’t help but let go.
It wasn’t that their visits made me more sick; the anxiety and depression had always been there, I just held them in as best I could because I had to take care of my family and perform well at my job. Once I felt my most important people, my children, were safe without me, I could stop trying to hold it all together and instead fall apart. My parents’ visits were like a safety valve for my sanity. So maybe having my parents here now, despite all the positive changes in my mental health, weekly schedule, self-care, etc., is triggering a relapse to the anxiety symptoms I had before; a sort of pavlovian relapse (because clearly I wasn’t enough of a science experiment already).
There is also the fact that their visit has completely thrown off my weekly structure. My brain, like all Bipolar brains, really, really benefits from structure, structured days, structured weeks; we just like knowing what’s going to happen next. But my parents really, really like helping, so they basically took over 90 percent or more of my regular, daily tasks. While this sounds lovely and was certainly done with the best intentions, it definitely threw me off my game. The tasks they were doing were part of my daily schedule and my contribution to the household. Suddenly, I had nothing to do and having nothing to do is a very bad thing when your mind is your enemy. I ended up spending far too much time in my mind, which, as Anne Lamott once quipped, “. . . is like a bad neighborhood, I try not to go there alone.”
Another possible factor is that my husband was away for almost a week. His absence can be hard and anxiety producing, especially in the evenings and at night. Being the only parent in the house, even when there are other adults present, feels like so much responsibility — sometimes more than I can bear. At night, every cry, every bump, every “mommy” makes me jump out of my skin, and the quiet feels even worse because I can only anticipate the next noise. It’s excruciating. When my husband is home, even if I am the one on night duty, I don’t experience any of this agitation or fear. Having another parent present makes me feel like I can screw up and someone of equal responsibility and love for our kids will be there to fix it. Also, our oldest child will freely harass me with bedtime-related requests for hours and won’t stop no matter what I say or do or refuse to do. But my husband shuts that kind of thing down like a boss. Particularly on days when my anxiety is really high, knowing I have a human hammer when it comes to bedtime is a huge relief. And after my husband got home, I did start feeling somewhat better.
I talked with my therapist the following week and we agreed that the lack of structure, or the significant, unanticipated change in my structure, was likely the biggest contributing factor to my anxiety attack. Although I’ve known for some time that I feel better with structure, I did not realize, until now, that lack of structure or a significant change in structure could be so devastating.
It seems I will need to create alternative structures or schedules for any visits, vacations, schools breaks, etc., of sufficient length to throw my brain into its unhappy place. In other words, my life is now, in large part, an administrative project. Fortunately, I enjoy making tables and spreadsheets more than the average bear. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are also nice.