Don’t Let Anxiety or PTSD Rob Your Freedom
Image credit: Courtesy of Andre Zollars
Don’t be like me; seek treatment sooner rather than later
I stepped off the floatplane like I was on a movie set, confident in my looks, proud of my accomplishments, and having already decided I was in love. Everything about the place appealed to the romantic adventurer in me; from the rough-cut pilot who dipped the de Havilland Beaver just above the icy bay for me to get a closer view of the humpback whales breaching to the feeling of being on the edge of civilization in this tiny fishing village perched on an inlet off the Gulf of Alaska. The handsome, gray-haired man standing on the dock, yellow Lab at his side, didn’t even have to open his mouth for me to know I’d landed in the next chapter of my life. I was the most grounded and strong I’d ever been. At 36 years old, I was a high school teacher, owned a beautiful home on a couple of acres in Montana, and was a company commander in the Army Reserves. I believed that I knew who I was and what I wanted. I was beginning a five-year adventure that would give me the very best and the very worst experiences I’d ever had in life.
Fourteen years later, I am only one year healed from the damage that man, standing expectantly on the dock, was to inflict on my mind and spirit. But this is not about how that happened; rather, it is to share why it took me so many years to admit I was sick and needed help.
After leaving him, the warning signs came early—when I first drove off the ferry. Facing rush-hour traffic for the first time in years, I drove off the interstate, my heart racing and panicking at the thought of being trapped among all those cars. My brother took over driving for me until the bottom of Snoqualmie Pass, where he sent me off on my own, believing I would have no trouble from there to Montana. With my Lab riding shotgun, my one- and two-year-old in the back seat, and the cat splayed out on top of the black plastic garbage bags full of my belongings, I had a moment of absolute terror at the top of Snoqualmie Pass. Heart pounding again, I pulled off and told my kids, “I can’t do it,” to which they responded, and I’ll never forget this, “Sure you can, Mom. You can do this.” So I did. Because Solo Moms do, despite all of our fears: if it’s for our kids, we find a way.
When I arrived at my parents’ house, they didn’t understand—how could they have—what had happened to me. My dad would yell at me and my children, frustrated with my tentativeness and their emotional response to this sudden insecurity. But all his anger and upset only triggered a response in me I’d never felt before: complete withdrawal. I’d just shut down, terrified, and only wanting to do one thing—escape. I even considered going back to my abuser because life with my parents didn’t seem any better than being with him.
In a few months, I bought a house on the other side of the state, thinking I could still be within striking distance from my folks. Unfortunately, I had no idea how much the emotional abuse of the past five years had inflicted on my mind, eroding my self-confidence and security. I couldn’t ride in elevators, I panicked in drive-through lines or at stoplights (in a town of 7,500 people with two traffic lights). I couldn’t drive more than 10 miles out of town without feeling absolute terror and the unbearable desire to get back to my safe place. When I drove, if someone got behind me, I pulled over until the road was clear again.
The world, which had once never been big enough for me, suddenly shrunk to a-few-miles width, an area that I designated a safe zone. I would later draw an analogy to a balloon. I felt like I lived within a balloon, and even when I pushed and tried to stretch it out, it always snapped back to its original size. At home, I was full of anger that I had to find a place to channel. My solution was to work hard physically every day, refurbishing an old Victorian home I’d bought. I’d work until I was so exhausted I couldn’t feel anything. I didn’t know what else to do but pick a project and tackle it. And when I didn’t have a project, I’d get out and run, punishing myself and dropping to 115 pounds because if I didn’t move my body, I would suffer from complete inertia. Each day was a chore, just putting one foot in front of the other. My only salvation was my two children who kept me focused and busy, and were a vessel to pour all my love into.
Except for my children and my animals, I felt nothing for anyone else. I didn’t care if I talked to or saw anyone besides them. I believed that I couldn’t trust anyone and that I was all alone. In the process, I built a fortress around not just myself but my children. I raised them to believe that no one could be counted on to save us three. I thought that would make them safer and us more resilient. I began to live one day at a time, never counting on the next, and completely unable to imagine a future for myself.
Finally, when I began to date, I was incapable of handling any emotional discord. Anger triggered fear and complete emotional shutdown in me. I would escape into my mind, which was a terrifying place of unfeeling. Somehow, if I went deep within myself, I believed that no one and nothing could harm me. I was incapable of communicating what I was feeling or why, and I was unable to control my response. This was understandably confusing to the man I was dating, and I eventually ended things—blaming him for our problems and resolving to never again let anyone close to me. I told myself that I didn’t need anyone. What I couldn’t see was how this repetitive negative thinking was just making me sicker.
Fast-forward five years, and not much had changed. The only constants were the anxious and alarming thoughts that kept me on nonstop alert, day or night, in full-on fight-or-flight mode. On some level, I realized my world was getting smaller, so I took baby steps. I told myself that I was getting better, but in hindsight those steps seem ridiculously small. For example, it had taken me a year and a half to drive two hours from home. When I did, it was a cathartic experience. I yelled curses at the man who’d ruined me, and I claimed to have finally thrown his shackles aside. However, I was still very much in the clutches of the man I wanted so desperately to escape. When I look back on all those years, I can’t help feeling hurt and angry that those closest to me, my family, didn’t recognize how very sick I’d become. My mother only offered the same tried-and-true advice she’d had for years, “Get your hands busy, and your mind will follow.” My dad didn’t seem to know what to do with his frustration at my weakness, so he turned to anger and berating me for my inability to show the strength I used to have. If I hadn’t met my current husband, a 25-year career Army man with multiple combat deployments, I’d undoubtedly still be in the same place. But the first time we had a disagreement and I withdrew from him, he nursed me through it and diagnosed it on the spot—post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Since I’d never been in combat, I didn’t accept his assessment at first. But PTSD certainly seemed a lot more credible than just anxiety, which is what I’d thought it was. I spent a great deal of time reading about PTSD and buying self-help manuals. I slowly started to move a little ways down the path of healing, mostly by getting in the car and driving—facing the fear of going somewhere that didn’t feel safe. Still, after a year of increased driving, I wasn’t that much better off, and I had merely increased my radius by a couple of hours. My thoughts still raced with irrational fears of every illness that hit the media and threatened the one thing I loved the most—my children. I still had trouble getting to sleep, and when I woke up in the middle of the night, I would be filled with dread. I’d developed an unhealthy thought pattern when it came to bedtime, and it had become a time of day that was just another mental battle. On top of it all, I’d pushed my body so hard for so long that I suffered a rare accident that caused my carotid artery to tear, and I’d nearly lost my life. Now I faced years of recovery from that injury, which limited my activity level drastically, robbing me of the one thing I’d found which gave me some solace. It was more trauma for my poor abused mind to absorb and cope with.
While I’d dealt with the symptoms, i.e., the inability to drive, I’d not done the heavy lifting of tackling the underlying thoughts that drove my behavior. Unfortunately, my thoughts had had years to develop neurological pathways in my brain. What I still hadn’t done was seek out professional help to figure out how to change those thought patterns. Ultimately, I didn’t find the courage to do that until I faced a heart-wrenching choice: get help so I could see my father before he died or live with my inability to get to Arizona to visit him. I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t get on a plane and go see him. But I also knew I couldn’t do that without help. Faced with that choice, I did the hardest thing I’d ever done: I called my doctor, and I made an appointment to talk about the anxiety and PTSD that had kept me trapped in this small town for eight years.
When I did go see a medical doctor and confessed the fear that corralled me for so many years, I’ll never forget her response. “My God,” she said, “You are amazing. I know people who are basically paralyzed in your condition.” She recommended a homeopathic dose of an anxiety drug, as well as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The medication, I found, gave me enough space and calm to begin to recognize the destructive thought patterns I’d developed over time. Although I have never seen a therapist, I did a ton of reading on CBT on my own and began to apply its basic principles. For example, when I wake up in the middle of the night now, I say to myself, It’s OK; you’re at home, safe in your bed. Everything is fine. You’re good. It sounds easy, but trust me, if you’ve been sick for any amount of time, it takes a lot of conscious work even to recognize your underlying thought patterns. When it came to driving, it took me quite awhile to realize that every time I left home I would begin an internal dialogue questioning my decision to make a trip. Now when I head out, I tell myself what a great time I’m going to have, how beautiful the weather is, or how happy my friends are going to be to see me. I am learning to replace old, negative anxiety-producing thoughts with pleasant, reassuring thoughts that support my decisions. Doing so reduces my stress and bolsters my confidence.
I’ve been working for a year now to change my thought patterns. With the help of medication, I’m happy to say that I’ve taken several plane rides, can now drive without fear, and am learning to control my worry.
It is not easy; I still have work to do, but my self-confidence is slowly returning. If I’d sought help as soon as I recognized my symptoms, though, it would’ve been so much easier. Instead, looking back, I am confounded by the time that passed before I got to this point. The only comfort I find is that my children have wonderful memories of those years, and I managed to keep my illness from them. Still, how much richer my life could have been if I hadn’t been fighting an internal battle every day. Whether it’s anxiety or PTSD really doesn’t matter, but seeking treatment sooner rather than later does.
A fourth-generation Montanan, Andre Zollars is a former U.S. army major who has also held management positions in marketing with MCI and the Sacramento Bee. She now resides in Lewistown, Montana, with her husband, four kids, three dogs, a cat, and a horse. Andre has published in print and online publications, including USA Today Travel, Yahoo! News, Livestrong.com, Big Sky Journal, and more. You can connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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