Absence is a funny thing. Being absent from my blog of the recent months means I’ve been present somewhere else. I’ve been participating in life, but just enough to get credit for showing up. I’ve been on autopilot for quite some time, though jolts of true happiness have reminded me that I am alive. I’ve been working on some pretty intense art projects, then I put them down and was reading a great book that brought me a lot of joy. After that, I started a new art project that I hated, I watched several amazing films and a couple great documentaries, then I started drawing again. I’ve mostly been working with my emotions in picture, rather than word. But my words returned to me this week as I was again jolted to another emotional space I’ve never experienced.
I’ve suffered from mental illness since I was a very young child. How young? Well, I’m still exploring that, but from as early as my memories go back, I can recall symptoms, albeit at that time, i was unaware of my affliction. I always thought I was an extremely smart person. I knew at some point in life, at least measured in book knowledge, I would surpass my parents intellect (Emotional knowledge is not even in question, I will never surpass my parents in emotional knowledge.). But most of what I mistook for smarts was really a function of my mental illness, anxiety. I believed I was so smart that I could memorize anything put in front of me and with incredible accuracy. I remembered colors, voices, details, numbers, faces, nuances, emotions of others, dialect, and so on. I could close my eyes and mentally recall any prior moment I’d lived with striking detail. As I grew older, I held it to be my “super power” of sorts. It wasn’t until I was 29 years old that I realized, I am not a super hero. I was formally diagnosed with anxiety and as a function of my anxiety, I am a hyper vigilant. Hyper vigilance is a symptom of anxiety that causes a person to try to remember every single detail of a situation, constantly input the information before them and assess any nuances or irregularities in an effort to prevent perceived impending disaster and possible death. That’s my personal definition, straight from the mouth of an anxious 32 year old.
I remember sitting in the office of my therapist (and changer of my world), Leigh Ann Peterson. Co-Dependence was already a term readily used in our sessions and so was addiction. I was then dating, and now married to an addict. Co-Dependence is a natural response, to people of my kind, in reaction to addicts and addiction. As I was recalling a recent ongoing “incident” of my husband to my therapist and at some point after I had stopped for kleenex, Ms. Peterson said, “You know, you have a really startling memory, how can you possibly remember all of these things? I think we should both do some reading about hyper vigilance.” My mind heard, “Hand over the cape, Wonderwoman, you are not a superhero, you aren’t even normal, you are below normal, you have a mental disease.” After the session I trudged lowly to my car and slunk into the drivers seat. Not only did I begin to question my perception of myself, I began to question my perceptions of others. All of the data that I have collected since remembrance has now got to be reviewed and reassessed based on this development. I found out that I owed a lot of people apologies, and that I needed to tell a lot of people that I loved them.
My relationships all changed, from friends to family, I had begun on the journey of self discovery, true personal understanding, and from step numero uno, it has been a very humbling journey. The slip on the foothold of disassociation and long decent into self awareness began with the loss of my superpower.
When I met Daniel, I was certain he was the one. Even through the initial hell we endured together, the hardest part was trying not to completely crumble in the rubble of our relationship. It was really terrible. Sometimes now when I think things are really bad, the only comfort I find is thinking back, utilizing every ounce of my hyper vigilance to feel that pain again, and realizing, that was the hardest we will ever endure. It’s a stinging comfort. We married and it seemed like such a whirlwind of life. We moved from apartments into a HOUSE that we had PURCHASED and BOUGHT A CAR. My goodness, a rush of adultness left me in a haze as I set along my newly married journey. So many life changing events happened on autopilot in the course of one year, my thirtieth year on this Earth. For almost the first year we were married, life got really bad. Daniel and I made a decision to cancel our wedding because his drinking had sunk him into an all time low. He was desperate in a job he hated, the throws of married stresses and a battle with addictions that was crippling him. He threw up the white flag and surrendered to rehab, but not out of hopes for beating his addictions, but making a major life change. He needed to hit a pause button on life and take a clear assessment. My husband did not beat his addictions in rehab, but for him, it did serve a purpose to spin him into a new direction fueled on a shut down of life as he knew it before.
The next year brought a new job opportunity, life changes again. As an additional function of my anxiety and hyper vigilance, I HATE change. Asking me to change is like asking someone who is scared of spiders to feed their pet tarantula. I broke down and became a walking void. Life was too overwhelming to control or memorize. I could no longer intake and organize the constant carnage around me. I just shut down.
Not long after Daniel took his new job, life began to tip the scale closer to normal. Things just clicked and we began functioning again, or at least I did. As I normalized, and the haze of my own anxiety began to clear, I began feeling the pangs of the nature of humans. I began having very primitive feelings of a need to nurture a baby. I began looking at children in almost a dreamy haze, so beautiful and innocent and with a clean slate. What a beautiful thing to create another human and the joy of watching it grow in such an intimate environment as a family is. Daniel and I decided to start trying to have a baby.
The last real memory that I have of the old us is the vacation we took to Panama City. For some reason we both got a wild hair to just pack up and get away. For two introverted homebodies, it was ground breaking. We booked the trip the Thursday before a big holiday weekend. The only pet friendly hotel with availability was a 70’s motor inn downtown Panama City. At least it had it’s own little inlet with a sandy beachfront and the dogs were allowed full access to the property. The cleanliness leaved much to be desired but it reduced the stress of worrying we’d destroy something. We played poker and sat on the beach all day with the dogs playing in the sand and running through the salt water. We stopped to get bonsai trees on the way home at a roadside stand.
Two months after our spontaneous vacation, I became pregnant. In the short weeks I carried my baby, I felt an overwhelming love I have never formerly known. The love I felt for my baby made me love other people more. I had a deeper more intense love for my friends and for my family and for other families. I loved everything. I had so much love coming out of me I cried almost all day, out of love. As we cried walking out of the doctors office, I felt the love completely drain out of me. I felt it bleeding out of me as surprisingly as it had come. For the past five months, I’ve ascertained that I am still alive, but I’ve been a robot of late. Generally, when one can have that understanding, a jolt of life has occurred and they have crossed into a new emotional space, looking back on the recent past with a diagnosis.
The first panic attack I ever had was in my car. I was on I-85 South traveling from Georgia to Alabama. Road construction is a part of driving in traffic in the South. At any moment on any given freeway of frequent travel, there is construction. I remember that particular day as a very rainy day, very grey and there was a lot of rain. I was on the freeway traveling at about 60 mph through puddled water and splashing mud. As I approached a bridge through the construction area, the road narrowed and there were large orange barrels sweeping my eye lashes as I drove by. Surrounded in front, behind and beside by 18 wheelers, I felt my chest begin to tighten. There was a kink in the air pipe from my throat and my belly and the air just couldn’t get through. Tears began running down my face and I stared into the face of impending doom for the first time. It was like seeing the Grim Reaper standing right in front of you waiting for you to draw your last breath. It’s completely terrifying, and each time it happens, it is equally as terrifying. That’s the thing about anxiety, for someone untreated, they live every single moment in life like I did in that car. Can you imagine that? Feeling like death and destruction is around every single corner, atop every single hill, and behind every closed door.
Last Tuesday, I awoke in my suburban bliss but feeling just overwhelmed with life. Physically, my head hurt, I could feel the sinus pressure in my face, punching just under my cheek bones. My eyes literally ached. But I made a deal with myself for this new year. I am going to push through each day, even when I can’t, because I want to save every single vacation day I have for a potential maternity leave, should we be able to get pregnant again. Again, good old anxiety tells me that babies require a lot of time and have a lot of special needs, especially when they are very small, so in an effort to be prepared, I will just stockpile all of my vacation time to try to accommodate a little bundle of joy. Tuesday morning was for you (future) baby. It was likely the first of our many sacrifices for each other, but one day it will all make sense.
I arrived at the office and immediately notified my boss of almost a decade, “I’m playing hurt today, probably won’t make it all day, but I’m here to knock some things out for our deadlines.” As an additional reprocussion of my anxiety, I have an unnatural obsession with the local news. I knew that we were expected to get a little snow, but I ran the data in my head based on prior experiences and concluded I should be fine to work until one or two and then head home for the day. As the hours crept closer to noon, I kept getting calls from a co-worker home with sick children. With a sense of urgency, she warned I should leave, that very moment. Stubbornly, and maybe a little out of fear, I stalled. I finished up a thing or two above my initial goal and sent Daniel a text. “headed home. the weather is supposed to get bad. they just closed the schools. are you guys getting out early?” I slugged out to my car with two delivery boxes from Amazon and backed out of the parking space.
Getting to a free flowing traffic situation in my regular daily commute takes a good 20 minutes and about three miles. As my longest commute on record started, things began to surmount. It took about 45 minutes to get to my usual spot of free flow. As I inched and inched, I realized something was happening, but not what, was I quite sure. As I inched, my mind kept telling me that generally, in these situations, conditions begin to deteriorate rapidly, so pressing forward and doing so quickly was always the plan. Glued to social media and local radio, as I inched my way home, I began to realize what my fate was to hold. I was stuck with the rest of the city and would not make it home by safe pavement. This realization began around hour two. I began texting my Mom and Daniel and Daniel’s Mom, constantly mentally assessing updates, running numbers, miles from home and supplies left in the car. As my fears began to snowball, I felt the signs that a panic attack was brewing.
I have become able to identify when they are coming. I can’t actually describe the warning bells, but they go off in my mind, I can acknowledge them and my immediate response is to contact my parents, Daniel’s parents or Daniel himself when it begins to happen. All three of these sets of people are knowledgeable about my condition and know how best to help me. As an anxious person, I generally always make initial contact with all three to have the best chance at catching one of them in my time of need. As I felt my eyes burn with the tears that were to come, responses from all three began to ding my phone. “Take deep breaths. Look around and see what your reality is. Your reality is not as bad as your fears. It’s just a long car ride, that’s all. Just a few extra hours cause the roads are crowded. You have to just stay calm. Breath, make sure you are breathing.” My husbands texts were a constant stream of instruction. When I start having a panic attack and he’s not around, he finds a way to coach me and even if it’s not in an audible form, I’ve memorized his voice and his emergency tone and I can recall it and apply it to the texts he sends. I read and re-read his texts in an effort to calm myself but the tears began. I think a sad song on the radio was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the tears began streaming. I quickly smacked the power button on the radio and collapsed in my seat. I began getting really hot, sweating and crying and I was starting to feel like I couldn’t take good clear deep breaths. I ripped my coat off, burning my neck slightly with the force of pulling my scarf unwound from my neck. Deep breath, a deep mechanical, non-subtle, extreme forming of taking in and releasing a breath. Focusing on doing this diverts your brain from the current stressor and gives it a different challenge to complete. The phone rang. “Honey, I c-c-c-c-can’t stop. I’m just scared Daniel. The r-r-r-r-roads are s-s-s-s-s-s-o so baaaaaaad.” “Lauren, you have to listen to me. I am watching the news and following it online. You are going to be stuck in traffic, but nothing bad is going to happen. Do you have enough gas?” “Yes, y-y-y-y-you you fill-fill-filled it up yes-s-s-s-s-ter-day.” “Okay, well you are going to be fine. Do you have your medicine with you? You need to go ahead and take that. Is the car running okay?” “Y-y-y-y-y-e-s I have ma-ma-my medi-cin-e. Y-y-y-yes.” “Okay Hunny. Just breath for me. It’s getting better isn’t it. You are just having a panic attack. You can’t control it, it is just happening and you know what it is and you have to breath in really deep, in and out, and it will stop.” “I’m just sc-sc-sc-sc-scared Daniel.” “Honey, what’s going to happen? You are going to be fine. If you feel like you can’t make it, make a decision on a good safe warm place to stop where you can get food and just stay put. I can’t get to you so you’ve got to breath and be able to be okay.” I had gained enough composure at some point to take down a quarter of a Xanax and as he further coached me, I could literally feel my shoulders lower. I felt a forced but effective relax come over me. “Honey I think I’m just making it worse. I’m going to let you go, but I will keep texting you and I will keep in constant contact with you. You just have to stay calm, please.” “O-o-o-o-o k. My med-dicine is kicking in.” “Okay good. Just relax, find a good radio station and just relax. You never get time to relax so meditate and just check out.” As I sat, infinitely paralyzed in the traffic, I thought of things I’d always wanted to do. Lots of really random but intimate moments I’d like to have. Most of them were moments alone. I sat with eyes closed thinking about being in a huge grey room, the basement of The Highland Inn. The lights were out except for a strobe light, flashing blue and red, sat atop a dj stand in the back corner of the room and early 90’s electronic music played afront a heavy beat. I danced around the room, all alone, just me and the dj. I was safe, no one was going to burst in and rob me or physically harm me. I was dancing and it didn’t matter how, it didn’t matter because no one could see me or judge me. It was just me and the loud music and I was dancing, really intently. It felt so good to expend myself so physically across the room and to be so emotionally in tune with the beat.
As I returned from my trance, I opened my eyes and it had only been two minutes since I’d closed them and traffic sat idly where I’d left it. This was the end of hour three.
Hour four struck me with a sense of urgency, like a parent in a crisis mode. I immediately began assessing supplies, only four cigs left, phone still charged with the potential for more charge if needed, good on gas, nothing to really drink though. I had no food in my car, other than some Hubba Bubba at the bottom of my purse somewhere. I recounted my route home and every stoppable location in the next two miles. With ease of exit/return to the madness was the greatest determining factor, I selected a particular gas station en route. I set it as my goal and set my sights on getting there. It is at about my half way point home, so I found it to be an emotional marker for me as well. Half way into hour four, I reached the gas station. I walked in and immediately began doing a visual scan of their inventory, looking for what would best suit a survival situation and making a mental list of supplies I would gather. As I sloshed towards the drink cooler, I saw between the aisles a lady sitting at the end. She was in a very pregnant state and she was holding the hand of a crying toddler, a precious little blonde haired girl. I began noticing that the Mom was on the telephone and she was crying. I could hear the fear and panic in her voice. I sat and looked with all the compassion in the world at this woman and her child and it was almost like I took on a little of her fear, of her panic. I took those seconds to put myself in her position and realized the terror she found herself engulfed. She was miles from home, her car was stuck, the roads to her neighborhood closed, eight months pregnant with a crying toddler, she sat in the back of that dirty gas station and wept. For a moment I reflected upon myself, how that could easily have been me (minus the toddler) should we have not lost our own baby. As I leaned down and ran my hand across the back of the child’s head, I turned and faced the crying mother with tears in my own eyes. “Is there anything I can do to help you? Please tell me, I’d like to help you.” “My husband says to stay put. I’m just so scared, I can’t carry her and my car is stuck. No one can get to me. No one can get to me here.” “Do you have money for food?” “Yes, we have money, that’s not a problem. We are just stranded and I am starting to get really scared.” Realizing there was nothing I could do to help, I gathered my things, gave them a wave bye and walked back out to my car. That was the end of hour four.
Hour five I had made my way back into traffic and mentally prepared myself for the upcoming left turn I’d have to make onto one of the three really dangerous roads I’d have to travel. There were a lot of pep talks, phone chats with friends, check ins with my parents and a phone call with Daniel, as he set out homeward. “Please, just get home safe, Daniel. I love you, I just want you to be home. Safe.” I turned onto Wigley Road and it was like a deserted town. There were people walking up and down the road, ice blanketed the pavement and I could tell that sand and salt had been poured onto this road. In my mind, I felt victorious. I felt like I had hit the point where things were beginning to clear and I would make it home soon. I drove slow but steady down Wigley Road until it turned into Jamerson Road. As I began approaching Trickim Road, I began to see the traffic come to a dead stop. I called my Mom to check in. “Yes, one of the roads I thought would be worst turned out to be no big problem. So I suspect it will move faster now, I am just sitting waiting to t…” BAM. BAM BAM BAM. I looked to my immediate left and as my mother intently asked “What was that. Lauren, what was that!” I saw a man’s face in my drivers side window. He was a white man, a few days of growth on his face, maybe mid thirties. He had on dark clothes and a black knitted hat. “Can I have a cigarette? Please, I don’t have any cigarettes, can I just have one?”
“Mom, there’s some guy banging on my window and asking me for cigarettes.” “Well, DON’T ROLL DOWN THE WINDOW. Scream if you have to.” I turned to my left and yelled through the glass “No, get away. I’m not giving you a cigarette. I’m not giving you anything.” “Fine…What the hell?” “I’m sorry, I don’t know you and I’m not rolling down my window.” As the words left my mouth, I began to see break lights illuminate and saw signs that we might be about to move. I hung up with my Mom and turned my focus again back to the road. I could see folks coming on what looked like…what…three wheelers? I saw them coming down the opposite side of the street from the chaos that awaited me and I saw the gentleman in front of me roll down his window and ask of the conditions ahead. I cracked my window a tad to get a better listen. “It’s bad up there. But hold on. It looks like an accident and there are people trying to clear it. If they can get it cleared, you’ll be able to keep going. Good luck guys. Stay safe and stay warm.” I waved as they drove past, the girl sitting behind the guy on the three wheeler looked at me and smiled, a nice warm comforting smile.
Not long after they left, I saw the man in front of me in traffic get out of his car. He walked forward attempting to assess the problem from his current vantage point. He walked a few more steps further and began shaking his head as he turned back towards his car. I rolled down my window and asked him “Does it look really bad up there?” “There’s an accident. If the person in front of me can be pulled out, we can probably maneuver around. I have on dress shoes, there’s no way I can dig into the snow to be able to help push. My wife called to warn me, but I totally didn’t realize what was happening. I have been in the car six hours, came from over at Windy Hill. I live so close to here, so close but so far, I guess.” “Yeah, I live just on the other side of Neese Road. I mean I guess I could walk from here if I have to.” As we chatted, he outside and me in safety from behind my locked car door, I saw the gentleman with the dark clothes seeking a cigarette emerge from his vehicle and walk toward the gentleman outside. I turned to look back at him as he approached, “Hey, I’m really sorry. You just really scared me and I was on the phone with my Mom and she started panicking…Here. Here’s a cigarette. Do you need a lighter?” “Yes please, I’m sorry. I am not even a smoker. And when I came to ask you earlier, I wasn’t thinking and I slid into your car. I’m sorry, I’m sure I really scared you.” “It’s okay, I’m just a really anxious person.” He bid farewell to walk to the light to try to help with the confusion. Soon after, I began seeing more people on foot, each stopping to speak with car passengers, slowly making their way toward my car. A very nice gentleman, I’d say maybe in his early 40’s, dressed to combat the weather and a shining beard to keep his face warm, he walked up to my car and I stuck my head out sideways. “You okay in there? Do ya need anything, food or water?” He flashed a granola bar across my face close enough to allow me to read the ingredients. I smiled and simply said “You know, I’m okay. I’ve got food and drinks. Thank you so much. I truly appreciate your offer.” A short while later, we were able to get around the stalled car and keep pushing further north. Hour six had ended.
The last two miles home took about an hour. By the time I pulled into my driveway, my body was tingling again from all of the stress and adrenalin coursing through my body. The comfort of arriving at my home was coupled with the notion that our equation is only half way complete, Daniel still had to make it home.
I immediately came into the house, fired up the computer, fixed myself a hot cup of tea and turned on the news. I felt like one of those movies where people have a crisis in space and there’s a control center here on Earth running data and continually assessing the situation. I made contact with Daniel on a periodic schedule, thinking that having something to expect at specific intervals would help disguise the duration of his voyage. I tried distracting myself with tv shows and with the help of the Xanax, I could zone out but I still found myself jolted back for a check in and report to his parents and mine. Social media soon became my welcomed distraction once the news began looping the same information. I joined #SnowedoutAtlanta via Facebook and began reading that people were finding themselves stuck from the time of my initial set off. I busied myself checking on co-workers and monitoring the conditions around them. One co-worker was mentally grasping she’d be spending the night on 285. Of us all, she was the most equipped to be in that situation. I was inundated with information and slowly, the Xanax faded me into sleep.
I awoke to the keys in the door lock and dogs barking. I looked down at my phone, 35 text messages awaiting me and it was 3:30 am. It was Daniel. Ten hours and twenty miles later, he had bested the odds and made it home. He came in and put his things down in the doorway, rushing over to the backdoor to let the dogs out. I had told them how much they loved playing in the snow and he was disappointed he wasn’t home to see it. He returned from the cold and I asked if the dogs were running wild outside. He sadly said “No, guess all the new wore off already.” We both retreated to bed.
The next day, I awoke at 8:30 am and immediately turned on the news. I sat and sorted through my texts as I watched the recap of the nights events in horror. It still wasn’t over. I watched as my Mayor and my Governor spoke in what almost seemed like rapid fire, repeating the same phrases, over and over. They shifted blame, they faulted mother nature, they claimed the situation was unpredictable. I read online as stories unfolded, exposing mothers with sick children stuck in their car, diabetics without medication, maybe people like me, struck by such anxiety over the situation, they are sitting in their cars waiting for the end. I saw people reach out offering a helping hand, food, water, shelter, a hot shower and a warm meal. I cried reading the stories of humans helping humans. I was overcome with a lot of emotion, of love and comfort.
I grew up in South Alabama. I was always warned of the aloof nature that becomes those who live in the big cities. I was always warned that unlike small town folks, no one in a big city cares about you, you can’t rely on them for help, they are too self consumed. Tuesday proved all of those theories wrong. Public outpouring and support did more to remedy the situation than our government did, which is a greatly reassuring and duly worrisome thought in itself. My after thoughts, as things moved toward the end of the crisis are as follows:
1. In times of crisis, I am very thankful that I “belong” to someone. I am thankful for my husband and what our love and companionship means to me.
2. I think at some point, my brain kicked into survivalist mode, searching to make lighter of this situation than it was, out of fear. At certain points, I began judging others (me who broke down in panic on hour three…). Do we live in such a culture of excess that we melt down at 24 hours of withdrawal from the world? You can live a long time without food (for the non-medical emergency situations) so a good healthy person had no real reason to fear, other than the inconvenience of having to stop life again to figure out scheduling a tow truck and maybe a brisk walk to a pick up point. I guess if you are a fan of science fiction, you could have forseen Tuesday’s events as the sign of the apocolypse and fully expected the looting and zombies to ensue. Other than that, the great fear I saw most associated with Tuesday on a physical level is a control issue, it’s a forced disconnect from life as usual and that for most was unbearable. This is not to speak for those who have children. That is a completely separate issue and falls under a whole other set of circumstances and if you had lost your shit and run through the streets screaming and looking for your child, I would never judge you. Love for a child will make you do those things, without even questioning why.
3. I think that maybe more than “losing” twenty four hours of life, we, as Atlantans, gained some much needed time for self reflection. As I sat in my car fearing the “impending doom” (aside: that is what psychologists say when someone is scared they are going to die), I created a mental summary of my life. I ran the data, considered emotions as well as giving proper weight to a historical bond and I narrowed down those who are most important to me in life. They are people who needed to know we were okay and we needed them to know that we were okay. I gathered that list of people close to my heart and I thought about all of my favorite times with each of them. If I was going to die (according to my anxiety), I was going to leave this world with happy thoughts of the people I loved most. My mind created a rhythm with the rate of traffic movement, it went something like this: Inch. “I loved growing up in the country. It was such a beautiful place to grow up. Inch. We had such great pets growing up. We had no clue how to take care of ourselves, we did the best we could for those little guys, but they sure were great. I’m glad I learned to love animals. Inch…” I inched my way home with all of the gratitude for the life I’ve lived. In hindsight, what a beautiful thing. At the time, it felt like I was saying goodbye.
4. I am so confused about how such a large system like the interworkings of the Atlanta metro could entirely fail. I have a lot of reservations about meeting my doom at the neglect of the government currently in place, given that two inches of snow and a clogged roadway caused lives to entirely stop. If Atlanta was not already atop the list, I think we just secured the top spot on the “first city to implement teleportation” list. 6 million people in the city and we were all paralyzed. If true misfortune was to rein down upon our city, I’d suggest you all start writing your own eulogy now. Atlanta showed a huge weakness in the metropolitan structure of America, we just put a bullseye right over our heart.
What a strange and wonderful trip it’s been, Atlanta. I hope that something you weren’t looking for found you on Tuesday. I hope you have a different outlook than you did when you hit the pavement on Tuesday. I hope in some way you were changed by what happened to you. Let it jolt you back into feeling, to caring about others again, about telling others how much you love them. Let it give you compassion and empathy and concern. Let it put you on guard and create a desire for community involvement. Let it change you.