Monday, February 27, 2006

Social anxiety, panic attacks, and very NOT-helpful people...

For those of you who don't want to know tremendously personal stuff about Mel, stop here.

I have a mental disorder, just NOT the one I've been diagnosed with for the past 10 years.

When I was 15 I was diagnosed with depression because I slept too much, ate too much, and attempted to run away from home. 10 years later I was finally diagnosed with the right disorder.

But of course some background first...

I'm a very independent intelligent person. I am more than capable of taking care of myself and my kids without any help. But for the past 6+ years I have been "off" and just not myself. People close to me who have known me long enough certainly know that following a certain event in my life I just "changed". An ex-boyfriend referred to it as "the fire going out of Mel's eyes" and that's certainly an apt description. But I married, had kids, and struggled through. Sure I knew that something was wrong, but I assumed it was still depression and was directly attributable to my life situation (which admittedly sucked).

Then I met Chris, who has paramedic training. Then one night I became so very upset over something (at this point it doesn't matter what) that I started shaking and just couldn't stop. And for the first time ever, someone knew what was happening to me. I was having a panic attack.

Now for my entire life my panic attacks have been passed off as:
1. Overreacting
2. Melodrama, or
3. Crying for manipulative effect.
Then I find out that I can't control my panic attacks, and therefore they are not intentional. Plus, they are a symptom of a completely different disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder.

Social Anxiety Disorder is pretty much a weak version of Social Phobia, which is a fear of public places and new situations due to a fear of embarrassment or inability to escape. People with SAD are overly concerned with what people think of them and are sure that every little fault of theirs is on display. Yes, it's kind of like being a teenager all over again. Fear of public speaking is a very specific offshoot of SAD called performance anxiety, and a lot of the time someone with SAD just shows the disorder in certain areas of their life.

Now I was raised in a very traditional environment. I learned about right and wrong and sin at a very early age, and was also imbued with guilt over my shortcomings at a very early age. I learned to be a perfectionist and a procrastinator at the same time (no point in doing something if I can't do it right) and an approval addict. Add to that a very socialist education which taught me that there is no moral code save inside myself, and that everyone's feelings must be respected and coddled, and I have the ideal SAD mix. Lots of internal guilt and self-effacement, with an absolute lack of expectation of decent treatment from others. Yes, I have been known to be a human doormat.

I fought these tendencies for quite a while, out of anger more than anything else. I lived with the anxiety, though I didn't know it was there. Sure, I knew I was shy and I fought; actually I fought all of the anxiety pretty well, though in large part I had help from my best friend (K) throughout high school. We went to college together, and I effectively fought in then as well.

Then between the two semesters I had my heart broken in a very not-nice way. My family is overly fertile, and I held out on intercourse because there was literally no form of birth control that worked. My fiance at the time was under the influence of very not-helpful people, who justifiably wanted me out of the picture (a cult actually, and K and I weren't buying into it). So with their encouragement and a good dose of "be a man" my fiance ended up cheating on me, and though I was angry and consistently told myself otherwise, I thought it was my fault for "not meeting his needs". So I found someone who swore he loved me (since I couldn't trust who I loved, and I needed to punish myself) and got married.

So I started meeting everyone elses needs and "punishing" myself for what had happened. I just wasn't myself, and though I was still talking to K, she could tell there was something wrong. Two kids later I talked to my ex-fiance and figured something out, and my brother had a near-death experience and was diagnosed with a kidney disease, so I left my husband (supposedly temporarily) to go get tested for a possible kidney donation. I took the kids and moved in with my parents and sick brother. A month later I knew I wanted a divorce. I finally started to get my head on straight.

The kidney donation didn't happen (I wasn't compatible), and though I was away from my husband things were still "off". Admittedly my parents home wasn't the best place to be, but I was working and doing my best to take care of my kids. So I took a job in the Valley and commuted 180 miles round trip a day for a while.

During this time I was introduced to Chris, then moved to the east valley (reducing my daily commute to 60 miles round trip); and oddly enough he and JohnOC helped me moved into the apartment I recently vacated. We started hanging out, and you know the rest.

Now anyone that has been reading this blog for very long or who knows Chris knows two things about him: he is too damn smart and competent for his own good, and he has a very strong personality.

I was never trained to do housework. Ever. Really. My mom's mom had Alzheimer's and a mental disorder; she couldn't remember where anything was so everything was everywhere. My mom therefore had a hard time learning housework, and I was never really tought. I just learned to get by as best I could.

Chris expects the best out of me, and rightfully so. Since I wasn't working outside of the house and he was, we decided that I would watch the kids and keep up with the housework. But since I knew I couldn't do the work right I put it off and put it off. Plus I have a very painful condition called endometriosis (which I'll elaborate on another time) that was flaring up, which caused... motivation issues. Chris couldn't understand why the work wasn't being done, and I just thought I wasn't measuring up.

Enter the panic attacks.

The panic attacks happen when I get so anxious that I can not control myself. I can literally take a criticism, an offhand remark, or even a compliment, and think it's the end of the world. There were times I swore Chris was going to leave me because I wasn't good enough and I couldn't meet his needs. Granted this wasn't true, and he quite often told me that he wasn't going to leave, but I thought it was true, and that was enough to send me spiraling into panic attacks on a daily basis (sometimes hourly).

I've actually been able to trace the start of my panic attacks to what happened when I was 19; I "learned" that I was inadequate and that what other people thought mattered. And, face it, when faced with someone who is competent at EVERYTHING it's easy to feel even more inadequate. I'd been having low-level attacks for forever and hadn't known what was going on. I merely thought I was being "manipulative".

While this was happening I was panicking, and worried that Chris was having flashbacks. The absolute last thing I wanted was to be like his ex in any way.

I've known for a while that Chris brings out the best and worst in people; it's like looking in a mirror sometimes and seeing all of your faults displayed. When faced with so much competence from one person, it's easy to feel inadequate. But Chris has no sympathy for the anxiety arguments:

1. I'm not good enough for you
2. You're too much for me or
3. I'm pathetic

As far as he is concerned he loves me, I'm too good for him, and I'm strong enough for him and that's enough. So he wasn't about to feed into my self-hate.

At this point, I had exactly two options; treat myself and get better, or continue being someone I didn't want to be... and getting worse.

Guess which option I have chosen. I have been researching and treating this condition for over a month now, and I'm making progress. I can stop panic attacks before they happen (most of the time) and I'm re-learning how to be myself; and be competent enough.

I'm finally coming out of the fog I've been in for the past 6 years, and things are better. I recently started talking to K again (we'd fallen out of touch since she moved back to Connecticut). Hopefully upon seeing this she'll understand what has been going on.

And I'm me again.