I don’t think I have always been an anxious person. I am a high energy person and have been for as long as I can remember. For most of my adult life, though, I managed to hustle through the day and carve out 45 minutes to journal every night. I did it on minimal caffeine and without the assistance of Tylenol PM to sleep. Even after my rape in 2006 I don’t recall experiencing higher levels of anxiety. I was extremely depressed and low energy. I don’t recall it being hard to walk alone at night. I avoided the neighborhood I was raped in for a time but wouldn’t have and didn’t say no to dinner with friends when it involved being in the vicinity of the bar in which I was assaulted.
My anxiety began very early in my pregnancy. My then fiancé, soon to be husband, made me terribly nervous when he drove. It got to the point that I was hesitant to get in the car with him because I was afraid for my baby’s safety. Every time the car would accelerate my chest would tighten and my hand would grip the arm rest or the seat below me, wondering if this was “the time.” It was during my pregnancy that I began walking on eggshells anytime XN was around. I knew that if I said anything that might be interpreted as critical, if I asked for help, or if I showed any sign of how miserable I was that I would have to deal with his wrath. Occasionally I would assert myself and my needs with a shaking voice, afraid for what kind of a response I might receive. Despite the childhood sexual abuse, the teen sexual assault and the rape, it took living with an emotional terrorist to make anxiety a regular part of my life.
Strangely enough my anxiety worsened after we separated. I should have been relieved to not be under the same roof as the man who physically threatened me on a regular basis and who constantly attacked my character, besieged my looks, and made me question my own sanity. But by the time we separated I had seen the damage he was capable of and I was scared for my safety and for that of my infant son now that I wasn’t there to protect him during time with XN.
Being separated gave me the illusion of being free and safe. When he would show up at my door unannounced, would send me text messages filled with insults, and send long emails blaming me for all of our problems and insisting I was worthless, I was not prepared and I think this heightened the reaction. I sent all of my journals to my parents’ house for fear that he would come into my home and take them, trying to use my quarter-life angst and crisis journaling against me.
I had stopped journaling early in our relationship because my XN insisted that we go to bed at the same time and when I bought a book light so I could write in bed he said it was too bright for him to sleep. The few times that I would try to journal after he went to bed I censored myself, for fear that he would read what I had written. Now that I had part of my life back that part of me, the writer, had completely shut down.
It wasn’t until I enrolled in a positive psychology course that I began to journal again. As an assignment we had to keep a two-week journal where every day we would write “Three Good Things” that happened that day. The tricky part was that they couldn’t just be things that happened TO us. Along with the good thing we had to come up with a “because” statement of what we had personally done to make this good thing happen.
After a few days of writing, I started exploring my feelings beforehand. I had tried writing about my fears and regrets but found that it left me feeling worse at the end of the day, making sleep even more difficult. I tried writing for relief of some of my anxieties and fears then followed it up with my three good things. It was remarkable. I was suddenly feeling free of some of the demons that I hadn’t been able to shake and was reconnecting with the good parts of myself that I knew existed by crediting myself for the positive things in my life. Putting my anxieties and fears on paper was remarkably helpful in getting them out of me altogether.
I have avoided writing about this guidepost, Cultivating Calm: Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle, for weeks because I am horrible at this right now. Anxiety is my best friend. Well, maybe not my best friend but it is something I can count on right now. If I find a calm place I wonder what it is that I am missing. If I am not constantly working on court papers or reading about dealing with a narcissist or learning about family law practice I feel like I might come unglued. Everything has to be productive. Stillness is very, very hard.
Because the anxiety had gotten so bad after being served XN’s latest motion to the family court, I called upon my therapist who I hadn’t seen in many months. Therapy is not in the budget right now, but Oliver and I recognize that managing my anxiety is an absolute necessity to maintaining our marriage and home life.
My first session back with Sarah was incredible. I cried in therapy for the first time with her and I needed it. She pointed out that I wasn’t breathing. Remember the obnoxious breathing calm people? I am not one of them and Sarah helped me to breathe into the tightness that has clenched my chest like a vise for the last month.
My boss is a reiki master. I have several friends who are yoga teachers and lots who meditate. Reiki is so far beyond where I am right now that I can’t even entertain it but have told both my boss and a reiki friend that I am open to it down the road, but I have work to do first.
The idea of meditation makes me anxious. It sounds like an oxymoron but yes, meditation makes me anxious. I can get two, maybe three breaths in before thoughts start to filter into my calm space.
I have tried to maintain a regimen of turning out the lights, shutting out the dogs, and stretching my back with an apparatus while cradling my head in this plastic brace that magically erases my neck tension. Even that doesn’t last for long these days. I maybe get a few breaths in before I decide “Ok, I’m good.”
At the height of my divorce anxiety I decided to explore equine therapy. I have always loved horses but never really rode. Though I love the city, I long to get away from it all more often than I do and driving out to the beautiful New Jersey countryside was just what I needed.
Horses are incredible mirrors of human emotions. If you are anxious and scared, the horse you are working with knows and will tense up himself. I found that being in the stable with Ginger, my equine therapist was exactly what I needed to start to ease my anxiety levels. When I rode, she let me know when I wasn’t breathing or was stiffening. With brush in hand, I would spend hours stroking her sleek hair and she would remind me anytime my mind wandered.
Brené Brown says that “stillness is not about focusing on nothingness; it’s about creating a clearing. It’s opening up an emotionally clutter-free space and allowing ourselves to feel and think and dream and question.” That’s good. The mental nothingness is too much for me. But short bursts of clutter-free space I might be able to do. And since I found it such a relief to be at the Equine Tranquility Wellness Center, I am going back. And this time I am taking Liam with me.
So what have I done to try to bring calm into my life? When I am in the car I try to give myself a few minutes of quiet. No audiobooks, no NPR, just me and the hum of our hybrid. I have cut back to one cup of coffee most days and am trying to get to bed a little earlier. I am trying to allow myself more time to get places so I am not frantically pulling things together. And I am more often putting the phone away instead of constantly checking email and Facebook. The breathing is still hard. It is really hard. But I am practicing breathing into the tightness in my chest and hoping for the best.
A recent study found that women who have suffered domestic violence often have chronic health conditions such as headaches, gastrointestinal disorders, difficulty sleeping, and hypertension. All of these things are true for me now. With the help of my wonderful community and Brené’s Guideposts for Wholehearted Living, maybe I can change the long-term impact. Thanks again for joining me on this journey.
While working with the team at Equine Tranquility Wellness Center two years ago I was asked to participate in a film shoot. Check out the segment here.
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The following PDF of the below image is linked to all posts related to my journey with Brené. Enjoy the trip! 10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living