On Getting Lost and Found

IMG_0499I’ve always been afraid of getting lost.

I don’t mean just a little afraid. I mean the kind of afraid that sits in my gut and makes me want to run and hide. Sometimes it feels as though I can’t breathe. Thoughts race through my mind resulting in confusion. I don’t know what to do. Driving in a place I’ve never been before, I’ve sometimes had to work hard to keep my cool and keep going, rather than freezing in place.

My panic attacks can happen anywhere. They can arise in a crowd of people as I’m being pushed, shoved, and bumped along. I’ve had them walking through Times Square in New York. I once had one at a wedding where I didn’t know any of the other guests. Traveling to places like Greece and Portugal where I didn’t speak the language have also been times of panic for me.

These seemingly uncontrollable reactions seem to be about my fear of being abandoned, of looking stupid, and my having a low sense of self esteem. They’re about getting lost in life … fear of the unknown, of being alone and unable to take care of myself.

As a kid, I rarely felt capable of doing anything right. My parents were very critical. I never mowed the lawn properly, or got the dishes as clean as they wanted them to be. And I rarely got the perfect grades they wanted me to get in school. Getting a C on a test was like flunking in their eyes. I didn’t think much of myself either. I followed the rules, tried my best, but always felt like a loser. Sometimes I just plain gave up trying.

As a result, I’ve wasted a lot of time and energy searching for things I didn’t think I had … approval, love, and a purpose. Without them I was continuously lost, unsure of myself, and prone to painful moments of panic.

Part of the problem was that I didn’t know what approval, love, and purpose looked like. I was too busy watching my back, or preparing to run or fight back, to see that I was loved, that many people respected me, and that I was not broken.

A year or so after I was married, I was parked diagonally in front of a pharmacy where I had to pick up a prescription. While I was inside, the person who parked next to me opened his car door, slamming it into the side of my car, leaving a huge dent. After we exchanged insurance information and I was on my way home, I started to panic. I was convinced that Bill would be mad at me for putting a dent in our newly purchased car. I was expecting his reaction to be like my father’s would have been … blaming me for “letting” this happen by parking to close to the car next to me.

By the time I got home I was in tears. When Bill came out to help me carry packages in from the car, I tearfully started apologizing for the dent. He calmly asked me how it happened and when I told him, he held me in his arms and told me it wasn’t my fault. He asked, “How could you think that?”

After our son was born, I spent a few months battling postpartum depression. When I saw a therapist to get help, he realized I was suffering from something more than mixed up hormones. His big question to me was, “What are you so afraid of?” My response was, “I don’t know.”

But his question began to haunt me and I began the slow process of trying to find the answers to his query.

As I examined old memories and explored the road I had been traveling, I found the cloak of victimhood I began to wear as a child and tore it to shreds. I started taking responsibility for who I was and what I did. I began to see that my parents had done the best they could … that they had their own difficulties to overcome … that I didn’t have to live by their rules or limit myself to what they would approve of.

Fear still occasionally jumps out of the shadows, finding me vulnerable, and sometimes ready to run. But it’s more easily banished now. I know what love looks like, and that the only person’s approval I need is my own. I’m no longer afraid of getting lost. If I don’t know where I happen to be at any given time, I know that nothing terrible is going to happen, and that I’ll soon be back on track in the direction of where I want to go.

Meltdown: What Happened After A Recent Trip And How Not To Let It Happen Again

Lily and Sam taking a nap.

It’s Tuesday. I just walked in the house after a six-hour plane trip from Vermont.  It was a fast paced and emotion filled trip seeing friends, family members and revisiting old haunts.  I’m tired, but before I can sit down and pull all my lose threads together and get back to my ordinary life I need to make a list of groceries so that Bill and I can have something to eat for dinner.  Out the door I fly, back into the car that just delivered me from the airport and head out to Whole Foods.  I’m back a little while later with fresh local produce and some Thai spiced chicken breasts from the deli counter.

The older I get the more exhausting travel seems to be. I’ve been up since five AM and it’s now three in the afternoon.  I need to lie down for a quick nap, but my suitcase lies open and unpacked in the middle of the bed. Sam is sniffing around in the dirty clothes trying to figure out where I’ve been. The easiest thing to do is to do the unpacking now and take a nap later.  I haul the laundry downstairs and since there is so much of it and tomorrow will be a hugely busy day, I set the washing machine on regular and walk away as the tub fills with water. Upstairs there is a pile of mail for me to sort through and I notice that the answering machine is blinking. There are eight messages to listen to.  My feet hurt. I have a headache and that list of places I need to be tomorrow is attacking me.  I need to take a nap, but there is so much to do. I only have two days to get my life back in order before a good friend comes to visit.

It’s now Sunday, almost a week since I’ve been back. Susan, a friend I haven’t seen in several years left an hour ago. This weekend was the only time we could fit in some time to see each other. We spent our days together talking about what we’ve each been up to, enjoyed delicious food together and stayed up way past my bedtime.  In between conversations, thoughts and feelings about my trip to Vermont kept whispering in my ear, telling me they needed to breathe. They wanted out of my head and onto the pages of my journal. But it will most likely be another few years before I see Susan again and I didn’t pay any attention to what I needed to do.

I’ve watered the garden, checked emails and Facebook and just finished lunch.  My head hurts and my stomach is churning like a cement mixer and I feel my eyes begin to fill with tears. My weekly calendar, a page I print out every weekend so that I know what is ahead of me for the coming week, sits in front of me.  Tuesday and Wednesday, days I always set aside as “My Days,” are filled with things that won’t necessarily be relaxing or creative  There is no time for sitting in the garden, reading or writing the next piece of my memoir.  I’m still playing catch-up and on Friday another very dear friend will be arriving to spend a good piece of time with me.  I so look forward to her visit.  We met two years ago at a writing retreat and we’ve become fast friends ever since, talking by phone every week and trying to come up with plans so that we can get together.

I’m feeling the first pangs of an incoming meltdown.  I start breathing deeply and envision myself on an empty beach. As I inhale fresh air into my lungs I say, “ocean” to myself.  On the exhale, I say, “wave,“ and find myself breathing to the rhythm of waves washing up on shore and then returning to the sea.  This is what I do when I meditate and also when I’m feeling unsafe and highly stressed.  But today it’s a struggle and my mind rushes back to all of the things I need to do before Sharon arrives. I’m shaky and I find myself entering that no-man’s land of panic, all alone and unable to pull myself back.

The tears start flowing. I am impatient with Bill and my world seems to be collapsing around me.  I still haven’t written much about my trip except for a brief blog post, which is more of a travelogue than anything else. It doesn’t cover what being in Vermont meant to me.  I feel as though time has boxed me into a cell without access to paper, pens, or my computer.  I want to write it all out but as I sit down to do it, my Inner Critic arrives, seating herself on my shoulder. She starts hammering, “You’ll never  write your memoir, so why bother feeling so glum.  Just turn the computer off and go clean out the refrigerator.”  My Angel of Sanity, who just flew in says, “Your tired. You need some alone time. Cancel all of your appointments for the next week. Be calm. Trust the process.”  I take a nap, then a walk, wondering if I will ever write again.

A week has passed and all is well.  I had a meltdown.  Sharon knew as only good friends do, that I needed to be by myself.  It wasn’t the perfect time for her either, so we bagged our get-together and decided to do it another time.

I’ve spent the week taking it easy.  Being alone, naps and going to bed early help a lot. I cancelled some of my appointments and I started writing. Slowly at first. A day or two later it began to flow and I feel as though I’ve returned to the land of the living.  Ms. Inner Critic has been banished and my angel is sitting over on the book shelf, looking smug, trying not to say, “I told you so.”

Three days ago Sharon called and asked if she could take me to lunch.  She and her daughter, Amy, were on their way to New York for a workshop/retreat.  She arrived too late for lunch but we had a wonderful dinner together.  They stayed the night and went their way early the next morning.  I loved seeing them and they didn’t intrude on my recovery.   Actually, seeing Sharon, helped a lot.

What I’ve learned:

  1. I need time after a trip like this last one to rest and process what just happened.

2.  I need to take plenty of time to be alone.

3.  I mustn’t fill my calendar with appointments right after a trip.  I need to give myself time to readjust.

4.  I need to be aware of how I’m feeling and be honest with myself and those around me who need to know what they’re up against if they plan on hanging out with me.

I have another heavy-duty, emotionally challenging trip coming up in October, when I go up to Long Island where I was born and spent my childhood. I will scatter my mother’s ashes in the places she loved the most during her lifetime.  And I will hopefully visit with cousins I haven’t seen in fifty years.  Before I leave I will revisit this post and take heed.

 If like me you suffer from overstimulation and have meltdowns when life gets too busy and emotional, how do to keep yourself from going ballistic?