Exposing Myself to Exposure Therapy

I've been sitting on the fact that over these last months I've built up a pretty intense fear to go for long drives...desolate drives, as well as plane rides. Even though I've regularly been working through my anxiety, this is one aspect that is kind of hard to work out logistically...committing to a day spent driving or having the funds to fly somewhere for really no other reason is kind of hard to make happen. I've been hesitant to set up any real trips in fear that I'd have to back out or that I'd end up being incredibly uncomfortable. Neither of these outcomes are appealing.

I absolutely hate feeling like I can't do something. I especially dislike my recent feelings of being trapped and isolated when people mention activities that in some way requires travel.

While my dad was here this last summer we all decided to head up to Payson to check out Arizona's Natural Bridge National Park. Tyler and I visited before and really liked it. It's an absolutely beautiful spot, a little expensive for entry; but nothing like the desert that immediately envelops us.

Leading up to our departure, I had had some pretty good days. At that point, the good days were few and far between the bad. The string of good days provided me the courage to take on a trip like this.

I felt ready up until we stopped at the gas station to fill up. I started to experience discomfort in my chest and heart. I was scared I was going to have a panic attack. I didn't really know how to help my body relax at that time. I was still learning...I still am. And so instead of being excited for the day like I initially was, I quickly began dreading the drive. I fully believed the panic attack would occur in the middle of nowhere and I wouldn't be able to reach help if needed.

I've since learned that this type of thinking is the opposite of helpful.

By the time we passed Saguaro Lake, a mere 10 miles from our house, I was already pretty uncomfortable. In addition to the weight on my chest, my arms and legs began to feel numb-like, tingly. We started traversing over a series of small mountain passes. I felt unable to breathe. I began to acknowledge the desolateness of our drive that I previously dreaded from our road trips earlier in the summer. My vision narrowed. A small pickup truck with a trailer hitched on to the back got a flat right in front of us and pulled off to the side of the road in a ridiculously awkward manner. My head was pounding.

I tried to access my meditation app on my phone and somehow hadn't considered that I'd be unable. We were completely out of cell service. The knowledge that we couldn't call for help if needed did nothing to help my concerns. My discomfort just kept building (as I convinced myself it would) until I was deeply immersed into a full fledged panic attack.

When it was clear that I was no longer in a good space, Tyler asked if I wanted to turn around. I should have said no. I should have kept on keeping on and pushed through the day's events keeping in mind that the "panic attack would end as they always do". But instead when Tyler asked I considered it for maybe a second before nodding my head yes. I believed going home was going to make me feel better. It didn't.

According to my "research" on anxiety, I did the exact opposite of what I should have done. I made the choice for immediate comfort. The irony is that even though I made the decision to turn around, we literally couldn't. There was no way to cross over the median to the other side of the highway. We were stuck going the wrong way, further away from where I believed I could be safe. It was an awful feeling.

By the time we were able to turn around, we were less than ten miles from reaching Payson. I completely believed I couldn't go any further. Throughout the drive I was consumed by the thought that my panic attack was going to be so severe I'd have to go to the emergency room for oxygen or require something to bring down my blood pressure. I was in a bad place in my mind and with each new thought I felt shittier and shittier.

The worst feeling though? The moments after I made that decision not to keep going.

When I made the decision to turn around, a sense of relief initially flooded in. It didn't alter the physical feelings I was experiencing. It simply entered my mind and embraced my thoughts with healing arms that told me I would be safe soon. The problem was I wasn't safe. That warm embrace was an impostor. A faux friend meant to trick me into thinking I made the right decision. That's how anxiety works. That's how anxiety fucks you into thinking a situation is too scary to proceed normally.

After that first wave of immediate relief, I felt nothing but disappointment. Disappointment...and embarrassment...and fear. I was so upset that I had us drive all that way only to turn around. I felt vulnerable and kind of guilty that I was unable to function through normal activities. I felt terrified that I was always going to be this way...that I'd never be able to go anywhere again.

That may have been my lowest low. I was crushed. I felt so completely different from who I thought I was and none of it made any sense to me. It was at this point I really started to deal with what I can only describe as debilitating depression in addition to the anxiety. The helplessness was overwhelming. Not only did I dislike who I was for myself, I felt like I was continually letting Tyler down.

Guilt over how our summer was spent, embarrassment over all the little things that now proved difficult for me, and a steadfast fear of the future began weaving a cloak so dark and heavy...I did not believe I would ever be able to pick myself up from under the weight of it.

*                                                 **                                                         **                                           *

Yesterday I decided to go back to Payson and try again. The idea that I can't go places has been hard for me to accept. I cried for probably a half hour before we left. I was scared.

This time though, I made sure to be well armed. I brought my anxiety workbook and binder. I drove instead of being passenger. I rubbed some lavender under my nostrils. I relaxed my hands of tension throughout the drive. I did my belly breathing at various times and I mantra'd the shit out of that ride. I repeated a bunch of lines I've read like:

"Discomfort now for comfort later."
"It's okay to be uncomfortable."
"Thoughts are not facts."
"So what if I have a panic attack?"
"All panic attacks end."
"Just because a panic attack begins, it doesn't mean I have to let it finish."

And Tyler and I talked. Not that this is unusual, but I could tell he was making a concerted effort to keep us me occupied. That man that I married is unreal. He has dealt with an awful lot over these last months. He doesn't always understand what I'm going through, but he sure as shit tries to be there for me.

I don't know what my goal is at this point..."to try and be a better version of myself than I was before all this started" perhaps. More in touch with the world I live in. More grounded. More grateful. More helpful. More vulnerable. More accepting. Kinder to myself.

I'll think about it.

What I do know? Yesterday was a big step toward reaching that version of me.


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