Posts Tagged ‘Anxiety’

Visiting Seattle is a strange experience for me sometimes. I lived here for four years, but for most of that time, my anxiety prevented me from getting out and exploring the city in any meaningful way. When I come back, now, it’s a strange mixture of familiarity and newness.

Boyfriend has a work conference this week, so I get to stay for free in a suite at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel. It’s lovely. It comes with designer-brand sheets, an assortment of bath goodies, plush bathrobes, and $8 bottled water. It’s the kind of place that I usually feel out of place in – like I’m pretending, because I can’t really afford this stuff.

It’s nice to be in Seattle and be able to get out an explore it now, without feeling anxious or overwhelmed at every new turn. Last night, I met up with one of my roommates from my undergraduate years. It’s always interesting to see people who knew me back then, and hear their observations of the person I was. I compare that girl to who I am now, and sometimes I wonder where she went. Other times, I feel like she’s looking over my shoulder, waiting to see if she can force her way back in and turn this new life I’ve been building upside down. She’s the voice of self-doubt that always wants me to give up on things; who tells me it’s not worth it to keep trying whenever the slightest hint of disappointment crops up.

I’m doing a much better job, lately, of shutting her up.

I had a very interesting conversation with former roomie, over a Dry Blood Orange Soda and a delicious snack platter of roasted nuts and olives:

What was most intriguing to me, on this particular night, was her view of me, from back then.

When I look back, on the girl who struggled through undergraduate school, I don’t see much that’s positive beyond the school part. I was an excellent student. I earned grades commensurate with the hours and hours I spent locked up in my bedroom, or the library, or (on really good days, when I was feeling adventurous) a coffee shop. That part of my being then tends to fade into a background of student loans, bad fashion, damaged skin, anxiety, and bad decisions. I didn’t know how to function in that world, away from my parents’ dysfunction. I didn’t know how to be social, or how to have fun. Literally – that was a new phenomenon to me, when I worked through the walls OCD and anxiety helped me put up so early in my life.

When I look back at my undergraduate years, I tend to only see what I missed. In reality, there were parties at my house that I didn’t attend…even when I was in the house. I’d lock my door, stuff in ear plugs, and do homework. Not because I didn’t want to be social, but because I genuinely didn’t know how.

I look back, and see that girl – alone, and isolated, and miserable. I knew then, even before I got help, that I wanted something different, but it took time to make those changes. Time that I tend to look at, even now, as lost years.

I looked at my roommates as my polar opposites – friendly and outgoing; smart and funny; fearless and uninhibited. I wanted to be like them, but I assumed it just wasn’t possible.

When I finally started to unravel the deep dark secrets that hoarding and anxiety had kept hidden in my past, I learned there really was a whole new, big, exciting world out there. When I moved to Seattle, I was filled with that excitement and wonder, because back then, at 18, I really thought that if I could just get out of California, everything would be different. I would be different, because people in Seattle were different. Something had to change.

It wasn’t that easy. But it is more rewarding now, in a strange way, to come back to Seattle and see it with brand new eyes. What I wasn’t expecting from this conversation was to hear that my smart, funny, beautiful, fabulous roommate had found things to admire and envy in me, too.

While I was wishing for just a tiny bit of her talent for navigating the world, she was looking at my dedication to my studies. While I was hoping to learn from watching her how this business of making friends worked, she was watching me push through classes. She tells me I did a very good job of hiding my misery, and loneliness. Which is also interesting to me, because I assumed I must be transparent; that everyone could look right inside to see how pathetic I really felt most of the time.

Which led to another turn in the conversation. One I won’t talk about here, because there is too much at stake for too many people in its revelation. But I will say that it made me consider just how far I’ve come, that in the course of this conversation, I felt capable of doing something I didn’t feel like I could do for most of my life: I told the truth, even though it was scandalous and ugly. And I didn’t feel bad about it, because being able to take responsibility for my mistakes while also recognizing that not everything that goes wrong in the world is my fault is a big accomplishment for me. It’s been a long time coming.

We moved the conversation to a nearby sushi restaurant, where little bites of heaven came to a dark lacquered table on fancy white plates:

We sat there, talking about our hopes and dreams, and it came home to me that I’ve turned a corner here, somewhere, when I wasn’t really paying attention. The past is still there, and still a part of me, but the future is brighter and more promising now than it ever was in my wild, desperate dreams when I first left California almost a decade ago. Being realistic about the future used to mean giving up on long-shot dreams to me. Now it means finding new ways to harness and build upon them. That something real, and worthwhile, could come out of all this has been a hazy, troubling thing to try and wrap my head and heart around for a long time. But it’s there now, and real, and it’s been worth fighting for.

Boyfriend is wrapped up with conference duties all day, so this morning, I took myself to breakfast at the same little coffeehouse that served me a delicious Dry Blood Orange Soda and wonderful conversation last night:

Boyfriend seemed a little surprised that I left the hotel room by myself this morning. He’s still catching up to the place where my being alone is a choice and a treat, and not a byproduct of being too afraid to make friends. I already have dinner plans this evening… with myself.

And as for the scared, anxious, girl that spent so many nights alone when she lived in Seattle – maybe I’ll take her too. To tell her one more time to look around and appreciate how far she’s come. And that, above all else, even though she still holds me back sometimes, I’m proud of her.

What 9/11 Means to Me

Posted: September 11, 2011 in anxiety, healing, rape, trauma
Tags: , , ,

This time of year is always emotional for me. September 11, 2001, impacted me in the same way it did many Americans – it shook my sense of security, made me nervous about my personal safety, and made me wonder if things would ever feel “normal” again. I wrote an article on patriotism for my high school newspaper and fully embraced my pride in my country. A few months after it happened, I watched the first images of the Iraq invasion on the news and knew the world had changed. Not too long after that, my only brother joined the Army National Guard and moved to Georgia for boot camp. I got to see him three more times before he shipped off to Iraq in 2004. He came home safe, but deeply troubled. It took a long time for us to start rebuilding that bridge.

But in the grand scheme of things, that isn’t what 9/11 means to me. It was more personal; a deeply painful and harshly transformative moment. It happened, I survived, and life went on, but nothing was ever the same.

In August of 2001, I met a boy. He was the singer in a band, and I was supposed to play bass on some demo tracks they were working on. Instead, he wrecked a car. Instead of playing the bass I ended up driving him into town to call a tow truck. Instead of starting my senior year excited about going to college, I started it wracked with anxiety about a relationship that everyone (including this boy) said was bad for me. But I was in love with a boy who knew exactly what to say to keep me coming back to him, even when I knew it would hurt.

This boy and I were total opposites. He drank; I didn’t. He did drugs; I refused to try them. He smoked cigarettes; I pretended to. He stole; I felt guilty and looked the other way. He went to jail; I accepted his collect calls and promised to do anything for him.

I bailed this boy out of jail. With $1’s and $5’s collected over the course of months working nights as a waitress. He disappeared. I waited through weeks of unanswered phone calls and rumors floating around school that he was seeing other girls.

Then one night I ran into him on my way home from work. We went back to his house. It was late. We kissed and he swore he loved me. He took my car keys and cell phone and gave them to a friend, and took me down the street to an old abandoned limousine that was a favored location for getting high, and where, I assumed, we’d make out some more before I went home. Which we did, for a while.

Then he pulled up my dress and he raped me.

I begged him to stop.

He didn’t.

He slammed my face into a window so hard it cracked my teeth.

He pinned me down, and raped me again. And again.

When I was too tired to cry anymore, he told me to put my clothes on and took me inside, to his room, reminded me that his friend would have my car until the next day, and went to sleep next to me like nothing had happened.

The next morning, I got up and wandered into the living room where his mom and her boyfriend were watching TV. The first plane had just hit the twin towers, and I stood and stared, numb.

I spent the day in San Francisco, waiting while this boy bought drugs. The streets were empty, like a ghost town. I felt on the inside the way they looked – dirty, and damaged. Late in the afternoon, he led me down inside a crypt in the middle of an old cemetery and I watched water dripping down the walls while he did meth with a friend. I wondered briefly if he planned on leaving me there. When we got back to his house later that night, my car was there – my purse and cell phone on the seat. He told me to go home like nothing had happened and watched me drive away. I remember the glow of his cigarette standing out against the charcoal gray of a foggy California sky.

I went home.

My parents barely looked up from the news when I came in; paid little attention when I spent two hours in the bathroom, washing away the blood caked between my legs with dirty, lukewarm water. A few days later I finally worked up the energy to take myself to the doctor, where I learned I had Chlamydia. The nurse handed me a prescription and a brown paper bag filled with an assortment of condoms in shiny red and orange wrappers and told me to be more careful next time. It didn’t really occur to me then that what had happened wasn’t my fault, so I nodded and left.

That’s what 9/11 means to me. The end of something – innocence; a belief that I deserved to be treated with respect.

When a teacher finally figured out something was wrong and convinced me to go to the police, almost two months had passed. In that two months, even though I had told my parents what had happened, I don’t remember a single word of comfort. I don’t remember being told it was going to be okay. Ever. I holed up in my room and focused on my homework. I cleaned the house. And I cried a lot, alone.

The police detective in charge of my case eventually called my mom and insisted that she come down to the police station after work one day. She did, but she wasn’t happy about it. At home that night, my dad insisted that going to court was a bad idea – it would be my word against a boy’s, and no one was going to believe me. That was the closest thing to comfort I ever got.

A few days later, I learned from a mutual acquaintance that just before he’d raped me, this boy had had sex with another girl, who had since tested positive for full blown AIDS. I vowed then that if I survived, I’d get the hell out of California. I signed up for the SAT’s a week before the final deadline, worked feverishly on college applications, and waited for the results of my blood work to come back.

In April, I turned 18. I learned I didn’t have HIV. I accepted an offer for an out of state school, enrolled in early admission with no idea how I was going to pay for it, packed up my car even though I was absolutely terrified to leave, and watched California disappear in my rear view mirror.

It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years.

Months of therapy finally helped me see that what happened then doesn’t have to define me now. I’ve survived, and I’ve grown.

In some ways, it still feels like yesterday.

Like a few months ago, when, during a particularly intense fight with my brother, he insisted I’d never been through anything “that difficult” in my life. I reminded him that at 17, I was raped. One of the ultimate violations.

“Yeah,” he responded after a second of consideration. “But you deserved that. You put yourself in that position.”

I cried all the way home.

A few months later, my brother finally started seeing a therapist. I doubt he’ll ever say he’s sorry.

Ten years.

I’m a few months away from earning a PhD. I owe $100,000 in student loans, but I have a life that’s worlds away from what I knew in California. No matter how things turn out, I don’t ever have to go back to that place where nothing feels safe. I’m still learning how to be happy with me, but at least I’m learning.

The boy who raped me still lives in California. I don’t wonder what he’s doing now very often. I don’t need to, because that doesn’t define me anymore. It helped me grow. It made me stronger. It pushed me to get out. But it isn’t who I am.

I mean more than that.

Today I got yet another reminder of how importance persistence and tenacity are, as well as another chance to work on not letting my trauma brain take over. It’s amazing how the littlest things can trigger trauma brain to kick in and start raising my anxiety levels. It’s a little surreal to find myself in the position of middle manager between my healthy, intellectual brain and my trauma brain. Now that I’m capable of recognizing when trauma brain is trying to take over, I can generally calm myself down without having an anxiety attack. Reaching this stage in my healing process makes me feel confident that I’m prepared to ease off my medication soon, which is a goal I’ve had for a long time. I’ve been taking Effexor for about 2 years now, and for the past six months or so I’ve been on an extremely low dose (37.5 mg per day). For the first few weeks that I took the lower dose, I did notice some moodiness and heightened anxiety, but that gradually balanced out. I’m expecting that when I go off the medication, I’ll experience something similar, but knowing that it’s going to get better gives me a lot of confidence that everything is going to be okay.

Back to today.  I got a text message this afternoon from the girlfriend of the bass player in the band I joined asking if I could meet up with her for drinks. She characterized this as “girl talk,” but insisted that it was nothing bad. Still, somewhere in the back of my head, even though I knew that the most likely situation really didn’t involve anything bad happening, I was nervous. Really nervous. My stomach tightened up and I could feel the anxiety coming on. My mind instantly went to the worst case scenario – that this was going to be an uncomfortable talk that somehow involved something going wrong with the band. I recognized that my trauma brain was taking over and told myself to breathe and work through it. Trauma brain insisted that practice last night wasn’t that great…we learned a lot, but it was a difficult night for me vocally. I jumped right to worst case scenarios…my voice just wasn’t strong enough to allow them to keep me in the band; they just really weren’t feeling it; I needed way too much work…

Flash forward to a few hours later. I arrived at the bar for drinks, composed, but still nervous. The conversation started off in a direction that made me nervous, but as it progressed it finally sank in for me that I was making myself a wreck on the inside for nothing. While we were talking about personalities in the band and how the group dynamic developed, I wavered between waiting for the hammer to fall and telling myself that I was reading too much into things. Then she insisted that she had been meaning to have this conversation with me for a couple of weeks and I relaxed…it had nothing to do with last night’s practice, or any other practice. She was trying to give me friendly advice and insight because she wants this band to work, and so do all the other guys in it. They wanted to make sure I was comfortable. Not only was nothing wrong with the band, but she was trying to reassure me that all of the guys in the band (who are guys, and therefore will probably never tell me this on their own) are really and truly excited about having me join. They’re nervous about being too critical or pushing me too hard – which is reassuring in a strange way. I’ve been so worried about making a mistake that would screw up everything I love about this band, I haven’t taken as much notice as I should have of the things that are working well…and there are a lot of them. This goes back to my trauma brain, which tells me not to get too excited over anything, because my past experience tells me that any time something good happens to me, something bad will follow. I’m in a healthy place now and making healthy decisions based on thoughtful consideration, so I have every reason to believe this won’t be the case. Yes, there will still be disappointments and challenges, but those are part of life. It doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the good things too as they happen.

I left drinks feeling much better, and also more bonded with my band mates, even though none of them were actually present. Learning that they were getting disillusioned about the prospects of finding the right lead singer at the same time I was getting disillusioned about finding the right band mates was a strange sort of reminder that timing does happen at certain times for certain reasons. I truly do believe that we end up in the places we need to be at the times we need to be there for a reason, and this is a case where finally the timing and all the other factors fell into place. All the other bands I auditioned for that weren’t the right fit were trial runs for this one – and it looks like it’s going be a great experience. I love that my band mates have a lot of experience and a lot of technical knowledge that I can learn from, and after the conversation I had this evening I feel even more confident asking for their guidance and input because it’s clear to me now that they are excited about having me grow right along with them as part of the band. They are willing to invest the time and effort that it takes to make this all come together, and that’s the best kind of support system I could possibly have. Finally finding the right group of people to work with who can give me constructive criticism and feedback and help me improve is a really good feeling. I’m grateful for all the experiences that have gotten me to this point – steps forward and setbacks alike.

Someone told me once that attitude is the only thing 100% in my control. For a lot of the past 10 years since he told me that, I’ve been too anxious and too traumatized to really put it into practice in my life…it’s hard to have a good attitude when you’re miserable and depressed and hurt and angry and don’t understand why. I still struggle with this, but it’s good to finally see myself coming out at a healthy place where I can have control of my attitude…maybe not 100% of the time, but I’m working on it.

Jumping Off Points

Posted: February 12, 2011 in anxiety, disappointment
Tags: ,

And cliffs, maybe. Lots of things going on this week. In ever-present grad school news, I got an unexpected email from the chair of my department this evening that said essentially “We need to have a meeting to talk about your relationship with Dr. X in more detail. Tuesday, 10:00?” I can only imagine what this will entail. Probably more mundane details about what Dr. X is failing to do when it comes to helping me get ready for exams. In any case, it makes me nervous when he calls it “my relationship with Dr. X.”

At the top of a completely different cliff, I just submitted a video clip to the AvonVoices contest. The submission part is over, and now I get to sit back and wait to see if I’m selected, rejected, or…what other options are there? This is another one of those things I probably wouldn’t have had the guts to do a year or two ago, so in that sense, I’m happy that I’ve followed through on this. You can’t get rejected  from things if you don’t try, and if you don’t try, you never know what will happen. I promise I’ll post a link if the video actually makes it through the first selection process.

I’m still having a hard time dealing with the rampant drama in my department, and the fact that my main adviser has all but dropped off the face of the earth. He resurfaces every now and then, either because the chair of the department has contacted him to demand that he take care of some specific task (hello, prelim reading list…which I still had to get from another professor), or because he has demands of his own that he communicates through middle men who probably don’t want to play that role. I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, because anything I do is going to entail the beginning of World War III. I’m also starting to feel like my professor is using his position to bully me into doing certain things, whether it’s taking classes I don’t need, doing research that isn’t benefiting me, or giving high marks to students that don’t deserve them (all of which he’s done in the past year, before going on sabbatical and dropping off the face of the planet).

Yesterday morning one of my professors that I don’t actually have any classes with right now dropped into my office to say hello and ask how I was doing. She asked how trying to study for my prelims was going, and whether or not my adviser had finally gotten my materials to me. I caught her up to date with the situation, which hasn’t changed much since last semester when I had a class with her, and mentioned that I was considering the possibility of changing advisers if I could convince one of the other members of my exam committee to take me on. She was very supportive of the idea, and suggested a coffee date next week to talk about the idea some more.

Then I meandered down the hall to talk to the second chair on my committee. He technically only specializes in one of my two fields, but he’s brilliant and I’m very lucky to work with him. I asked if he would consider switching to being my first chair…and he said no. For a long list of personal reasons which had nothing to do with me. Even though I understood where he was coming from, it still sucked to be told no. The fact that he recognized it wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear did strangely help, but it is testing all of my newly acquired life skills to manage the fact that even though this person has rejected one request, he is still working with me in other capacities. No matter what he thinks about this decision, I still have to interact with him almost daily. And I have to do it with a great deal of respect, which this professor rightly deserves. Not being able to resort to my habitual default plan (run, hide, cry, scream, have anxiety attacks, sleep too much, be depressed, snap at people, and skin pick, or some combination of the above), was difficult. To be honest, I did pick my skin significantly yesterday, but even this was drastically reduced over what I would have done even, say, a year ago.  I used to pick my skin until it bled…sometimes for hours at a time. Yesterday I lost perhaps a total of 20 minutes to picking. This is on the one hand basically nothing, and on the other hand a little devastating, because I wish the therapy were progressing faster. One of the things I’m still struggling to learn how to do is take a breath and just calm down for a second when things start getting overwhelming. It’s a lofty goal that’s easier said than done.

Back to the opinion spectrum. By 10:30 yesterday morning, I had two opposite opinions about what I should do. One professor said to jump off that ship before it sank any farther. The other said to stay on that ship and patch it up by whatever means were necessary. In the afternoon, in anticipation of yet another meeting with a professor who actually scares me with his enormously high standards, I went to talk to my department chair to get his feedback. He laid out numerous possibilities, some of which were feasible and some of which made me want to throw up in his wastebasket.  I didn’t, and went home to mull the possibilities (which now ran the spectrum from doing nothing to initiating World War III) and pick my skin instead. I was very very anxious about my meeting this afternoon, and lost sleep over it.

This morning, I decided to take a chance and drop by scary professor’s office during his office hours instead of waiting until my meeting this afternoon in the hopes of just getting it over with. He’s actually very nice, but I’m always afraid I’m going to piss him off unintentionally because his standards are so insanely different than anything I’ve ever experienced. It actually went fine, and I left feeling strangely relieved, even though nothing was really solved.

I’ve had four meetings, gotten four different opinions, and still have no plan of action…but I did get my Effexor prescription refilled, have lunch with a friend, and make significant progress in finishing an article that I’ve been working on for what feels like forever. I also picked at my skin a little bit this morning. Not sure what to make of this strange mix of healthy and unhealthy responses.

The bottom line: if you’re going to jump off of one ship that’s sinking, you have to have something else to jump on to. Easier said than done. Especially if you don’t know how to swim. I don’t. But I have every intention of learning.

I have a professor who qualifies as one of those rare people who is both impossible to please, but generally right, making it impossible to be legitimately angry with him. I feel like every time I turn around I’m doing something to make him mad, whether it’s failing to include the correct introductory sentence in my emails or needing to leave class thirty minutes early to make it to a funeral. There are many days when I feel like I can’t do anything right, and I’m not the kind of person who can manage to not let things like this get to me.

The disconnect comes from the fact that he has impossibly high standards, but they’re also legitimate ones, and the higher he raises them, the harder I keep trying to earn his approval. In some says it’s a throwback to my childhood of always seeking approval. On the other hand, there’s really nothing unhealthy about it, and as long as I remain aware of my tendencies of constantly seeking approval, I can keep them in check without too much trouble. This is a solid indication that my therapy is working and paying off, so in that sense it’s a good thing.

At the same time, it’s hard to reconcile in my head sometimes. The fact that I’m getting to a place now where I can start to manage these things without needing medication is a good sign.

When it comes to medication, I’ve tried a lot of them. The first anxiety-related medication I started taking wasn’t directly related to my anxiety at all…I started taking Detrol LA the summer I graduated from high school. I was teased for years about my tiny bladder, and by the time I made it to high school, I had a hard time making it for more than an hour without using the bathroom. It seriously impacted my ability to function – I couldn’t even sit through a movie most of the time without having to leave half way through. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to make it through my college classes, so I asked the doctor for a prescription. I took it for a few years, and then finally gave up because I still felt like I was having to use the bathroom all the time. I also started taking Prozac in college, before a trip to Europe that I was terrified of going on. A few months after I got home, I stopped taking it because I didn’t notice much of a difference. I had rabid panic attacks the entire time I was away, and I still had to use the bathroom all the time, so I gave up on the medication all together.

When I went to Alaska, my therapist thought Cymbalta might yield better results, so I started taking that. It was then that I learned why the Detrol LA wasn’t working on my frequent bathroom trips – I had to pee all the time because I was anxious, and that affects nerves. The Detrol works by calming muscles, so essentially not only did I have to pee all the time, I couldn’t actually fully empty my bladder, compounding the problem. Before this takes a header off the diving board into the “too much information” category, I’ll just sum up by saying that when I stopped taking the Detrol and started working on organically managing my anxiety, my tiny bladder problem improved dramatically on its own. I still have issues when I get really anxious, but most of the time, I’m just fine.

I stopped taking the Cymbalta cold turkey [side note: bad idea. Never EVER stop taking medication cold turkey. In addition to mood swings and other side effects, abruptly quitting the medication causes severe dizziness in some people, as it did with me]. when I got back from Alaska. Though my panic attacks were better while I was in Alaska, I was tired of medication that wasn’t helping me control my skin picking and wasn’t eliminating my panic and depression entirely. After about a year off of medication, I decided to give it another try, because I thought it might help me while I worked through some underlying issues (which, as it turned out, went much deeper than I had imagined). After consulting with my doctor and my therapist, we decided to give Effexor XR a try.

The first few days I instantly noticed a difference in comparison to the Prozac or Cymbalta. I felt totally numb…a bomb could have gone off next to me and I probably wouldn’t have cared. I decided to trust the therapist, who thought we should give it two weeks – if I still felt out of it and disoriented, I’d come off of it. My mood balanced out after a few more days, and I began to notice that I felt more calm and was better able to think about what was happening in a situation before reacting out of anxiety or panic. I felt more in control and level-headed. It didn’t eliminate my skin picking or my anxiety, but it did give me some breathing room to work on deeper issues.

I’m now approaching a place where I’m ready to be off of all my medication and getting back into the real world on my own. I’ve stepped down to half the dose of Effexor I was originally taking, and I’m ready to phase off of it by the summer. Scary? Yes. But also exciting. I truly believe that medication is a great thing when used properly and under the supervision of a professional, like a therapist. On it’s own, it’s not a cure-all – I’ve learned that one pill a day won’t fix everything. When that was my hope, I was, of course, disappointed. But there is a place for medication, and in the right situation it does work. I’m living (and still imperfect) proof.

I’ve been meaning to write this down for a while. Back in September, I got a chance to meet a bunch of crew members from several different boats on The Deadliest Catch. It was a neat moment for me, not so much because I’m a fan of the show (I am, but that isn’t the point…) but because Alaska is ingrained into my getting healthy on many different levels.  I started watching The Deadliest Catch a few months before I moved to Alaska in 2007 to work for the Alaska State Parks system. I had zero interest in the first few seasons; it wasn’t until I signed the paperwork for my contract with the state parks and bought my plane ticket for Kodiak that boyfriend insisted I watch the show so I’d know which boats to look for and take pictures of once I got there. I relented and watched a few episodes.

Moving to Alaska was a huge turning point in my quest to get healthy. In a lot of ways, it was the moment after which I started making real changes toward getting better. It was the point where instead of giving up and missing out on an amazing opportunity because I was afraid of the panic, I took charge and sought help because I was tired of missing out on opportunities because of anxiety and panic attacks.  Instead of forcing myself to go to Alaska and spending several months being miserable the whole time, I made the decision that I wanted to go to Alaska and be capable of embracing the experience. Prior to moving to Kodiak, the last time I’d forced myself to suck up the panic and travel was to spend two weeks in Europe in the summer of 2004. I spent the entire time shaking – literally, physically shaking – and absolutely desperate to go home. I thought if I could just get through that one experience it would make all other travel experiences easier. It didn’t…it just made me fear the panic more. I did get a doctor’s prescription for an anti-anxiety medication before I went to Europe, but in the Catch-22 that is anxiety, I was too afraid to take it, so it sat unopened in my suitcase the whole time. In fact, it’s probably still in my medicine cabinet.

When I went to see the doctor a few months before leaving for Alaska, something had changed. Instead of just saying “I don’t want to have panic attacks while I’m in Alaska,” I made the transition to saying “I’m tired of having panic attacks period. I want to learn how to overcome them. I just want to feel like a normal person for a change.” The doctor prescribed a different anti-anxiety medication (Cymbalta), but refused to send it through to the pharmacy until I made an appointment with a therapist. I kicked and screamed right up until the first appointment, because by that point I had very little faith in what simply talking to someone could do for me. I left for Alaska with medication in hand and a sense of trepidation. What if I really couldn’t be fixed? Then what??

I arrived in Kodiak terrified and homesick, but determined. A big reason why I credit Alaska as a major turning point is the length of time I stayed there – over the course of four months, I had to learn to face the anxiety because there was no imminent departure to look forward to. It was like a lengthy exposure therapy. It didn’t solve all my issues in one swoop (which I initially found disappointing) but it was a major turning point that opened me up to the idea that I could take steps to get better. I could survive four months in Alaska. On an island. Maybe I really could do anything.

That isn’t to say that Alaska wasn’t a struggle. It was – a huge, but very rewarding one. One of the things I did to calm myself down when I was having a rough day was to drive out to the Kodiak harbor and watch the boats come in and out. It was a strangely relaxing thing to watch them. I grew up near the ocean, but I was never a particularly huge fan of it. There was something cruel about it really, being dirt poor and living in a miserable home in an otherwise absolutely beautiful location. In Kodiak, however, I learned to really love the ocean for the first time. I found solace in the idea that the men who worked on these boats went out for months at a time, and for that time, the boat was home – that kind of strength can only be inspiring. In addition to that, it made me think of my mom, who worked on a processing boat in the 1970s during the Alaskan King Crab boom. Before she married my dad, she was a little bit fearless. She lost that by the time I was born, so in a strange way going to Alaska helped me reconnect with the woman my mother used to be. It’s hard to describe, but it’s a powerful thing.

Back to last September when I met Jake Anderson… For anyone who isn’t a fan of The Deadliest Catch and missed this story, Jake’s dad went missing over a year ago in the woods of western Washington and hasn’t been found yet. (You can read the full story here and here ) When I had a chance to meet Jake Anderson, along with Jake and Josh Harris and several other crew members from Deadliest Catch boats last September, they were collecting donations to try to find him.

I donated, of course, but something else was nagging at the back of my mind. As I left the craziness that was the autographs table, I gave Jake Anderson a hug and told him I hope he finds his dad. I told him I lost mine too, once, and he’ll find him. Then I rushed off and let 14 crazed screaming teenage girls behind me sweep in, cursing that I hadn’t taken an extra five seconds to clarify – my dad never went missing. But my Great Uncle, Jim did.

My Great Uncle Jim disappeared when I was nine. He had Alzheimer’s disease, and one day he just wandered away from my grandmother’s house, where he was staying, and never came back. There were a lot of days out on horseback searching through fields and ravines, and I remember being deeply impressed with certain aspects of the next few weeks – the rain and the rush of posting fliers and the crushing presence of search and rescue people. I remember most of all the uncertainty – the wanting answers. Did Uncle Jim just wander away? Was he kidnapped? Was he murdered? Was he still alive? A volunteer search and rescue worker found his body several weeks later at the bottom of a drainage ditch, under two feet of water. It was an El Nino year, and it had been raining for days. They only found his body because one of the members of the search team slipped and fell, and landed on him.

Most of all, I remember cleaning out Uncle Jim’s wallet. It had been under water for days, and everything in it was wet and covered in mud. It smelled like silt and decay…and death. I’m still not sure what my parents were thinking when they allowed me to be exposed to so much trauma without any consideration for what it might do to a little kid. (This is a big theme of my therapy lately…) When we cleaned out Jim’s house, a lot of his things ended up coming back to our hoarded home. For years, the comforter on my bed was from his house. It was impossible for me as a nine year told to separate these physical things from the idea of death, which I had trouble comprehending. (Again…this is a big theme of my therapy…)

Years later, I still think about my Uncle Jim and how traumatic it was to lose him that way. I wasn’t particularly close to him (then again, I’m not particularly close to anyone in my family) but it was a sudden and dramatic loss that was never mitigated for me. It was followed by more losses (Jim’s brother and sister) that were also never dealt with in a healthy way. Though my dad always claims that family comes first for him, he’s never followed through on what I’d consider a basic responsibility – getting tombstones for their graves. My Great Uncle Jim bought his own tombstone after his wife died. (My earliest distinct memory, coincidentally, is of her funeral, when I was three). Family legend is that he carried it around in the back of his truck and proudly to everyone before it was placed over her grave. My dad never had his date of death engraved on it.

So, Jake Anderson…I sincerely hope you find your father. I think the way your support your family is amazing, and I wish I’d had a big brother like you when I was growing up. You deserve to know what happened, and the comfort of finding out the truth. Wherever he is, I hope your father finds safe passage home.

My Great Uncle Jim's headstone, still missing his date of death.