Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Driving Me Crazy

I've been writing two books consecutively for the last several weeks. That's the excuse I'm giving for my lack of posting on the blog during much of April and May anyway (but it's true).

One of them, the one that overtook me by surprise while I was busy working on the first and still maintaining some kind of blogging schedule, is a non-fiction road trip through my past, weaving together anecdotes to document just how I got here, right now, an agoraphobe unable to drive myself on the freeway or at night.

Yes. I am agoraphobic.

No, I'm not afraid to leave my house.

What I am afraid of is leaving my house and getting behind the wheel, having a massive panic attack, fainting, and killing myself and other people.

According to the National Institute of Health, panic disorder with agoraphobia "is an anxiety disorder in which a person has attacks of intense fear and anxiety. There is also a fear of being in places where it is hard to escape, or where help might not be available."

Like, you know, when I'm driving...especially alone.

It had gotten so bad there for awhile I wouldn't take the freeway at all. Then the anxiety began rearing its nasty head while I was driving on surface streets too. Eventually, I discovered I never felt at all safe behind the wheel to the point that I was petrified just contemplating making a left hand turn into oncoming traffic.   


The last couple of weeks have been better. I've been able to get on the highway most days - at least for a few minutes - and, occasionally, can make it all the way to work without diverting onto the side roads. On Saturday, I even drove at night.

Which is where this entry actually starts.

There was supposed to be a LAN party and BBQ at Denhac Saturday evening after a full day of classes at the space. Unfortunately, the 95º heat had subdued pretty much everyone's enthusiasm for sitting inside in front of a laptop and so the LAN part of the party got cancelled. But the BBQ was still on...at least the grill was on and there was meat to eat...and I wanted to go because socializing is what I do. However, Acr0nym had much to do that afternoon and plans later in the evening so asking him to pick me up and take me home was more than a little impractical.

So...I decided to drive myself knowing full well I'd be driving home well after dark.

THAT was a huge deal.

So that night, I'm sitting up at Denhac, talking to Spux, telling him what a HUGE deal it was that I'd driven and an acquaintance friend interrupts and asks, "Seriously. Exactly what is the big deal with driving? It's not like you live very far."

I'd like to think she didn't mean to sound snide, condescending, or rude. But, truthfully, the way she said it was rather off-putting and I was kind of offended.

Regardless, I tried to explain it to her the best I could. She then asked if I'd been in a car accident recently - which, of course, I was in a car accident just over 2 years ago now - and when I confirmed her suspicion she just nodded and moved on to another conversation. Like the car accident explained everything.

Which it doesn't.

Not at all.

One of the things I'm attempting to convey in the book I'm writing is that panic disorder - specifically panic disorder with agoraphobia - isn't anything like an anxiety attack. I've lived with anxiety for so long, the only time I truly understand the level of anxiety I experience on a daily basis is in those few, rare, brief moments - usually after coming down from a particularly vicious PTSD episode - when I'm not anxious at all. Then I realize at what level of anxiety I function nearly all the time.

However, an anxiety attack is nothing...NOTHING...compared to a panic attack. Did I mention nothing? Because I mean it's not even in the same produce department with the apples and oranges. It's not even in the same grocery store.

A panic attack feels like...death is immediately imminent. A panic attack feels like you are disconnected from your physical self...a self that would just randomly swing the steering wheel into oncoming traffic just to get it over with while your mental self fights against that very thing. A panic attack comes with heart palpitations, feeling faint, rapid, ragged breathing, and an assured sense of doom. A panic attack makes you believe you are crazy. At the height of a panic attack, when I'm terrified I will deliberately cause a car accident by swinging that wheel, I feel 100% crazy. Wouldn't it be crazy to do such a thing...cause a pile up on the highway? Because that's what I think I'm about to do as soon as I merge into traffic. 

You may think you've had a panic attack in the past. But, until you actually do? You have no idea what it is like. It is literally the worst feeling in the world. A panic attack is an anxiety attack to the nth power. I can't even quantify it, it is that bad. 

And that has nothing to do with the car accident I had - a car accident in which I wasn't at fault in the slightest - and wrote about the subsequent anxiety it caused here.


Yeah so, where was I?

Oh! Yeah. So the fact that I drove myself to a location 5 miles from home when I knew I was going to have to get myself home after dark was a BIG deal. 

But, you know, I'd been feeling good for a couple of weeks and, along with that feeling, I was also complacent. Feeling as though I'd conquered the panic. To my chagrin, with that sense of well being also came a drought of words to offer up to the book about feeling bad. I hadn't made any progress - I hadn't even opened the file - for several days. I figured I was over it.


My friendly acquaintance re-opened a can of wordy worms. While I haven't experienced another panic attack since she asked me about it, I did feel affronted by her nonchalant response toward why I don't typically drive. As though I had to defend myself and defend Acr0nym and a couple of others who have been more than willing to drive my ass around while I've worked my way through this...THING. A thing I can't even describe and can't even say for certain is in the past tense.

I guess I should thank her.

Because, last night, I sat at my computer and wrote for several hours. I wasn't writing deliberately. I wasn't editing as I moved along. It was stream-of-consciousness writing. Something I never do outside of my paper journal (oh yes, I also keep a paper journal of all those hedonistic thoughts that should never see the light of the internet). I wrote and wrote...about panicking, about driving, about non-husbands and commitment and fear. I wrote about wandering through miles of underground drainage tunnels in Southern California...about Andy, about Travis, about love. I wrote about happiness and transparency...about making a difference in other peoples' lives.

And while none of it is suitable for consumption by the public, re-reading it after I was done, I was struck by the connections, the correlations, the revelations.

I realized...I'm just now - after all this time - piecing all of it together.

And that seemed profound...the pieces and parts coming together as though my life were a puzzle.

So...thanks to my friendly acquaintaince. I choose to believe you didn't intend to be dismissive and now the book is no longer de-railed. We're right on track and right on schedule. Your comments + stream-of-consciousness writing = good on me. All systems go.



Graciewilde said...

Life is a puzzle and it is interesting to figure out where the pieces belong. I am finding that one benefit to aging is that the pieces seem to make sense now. I don't think I could say that years ago b/c I lacked the perspective that I have now.
I have never suffered from panic attacks but I have known others who have. I can see how they would undermine much of what a person might want to do. I want to read your book!

cdnkaro said...

I know what JT means about perspective- I'm only (nearly) 30, and already thinks look so different from when I was 20. While I'm in no rush to age, in some ways I can't wait to see how much better I will know myself in another decade.

Ian has anxiety issues, and has had panic attacks. It has resulted in my having to take over finances and every major decision in our lives because he can't handle it. While I don't fully understand it, I have seen the effects it can have on a person, and the people around them. Good for you for persevering and taking these baby steps, and most of all for acknowledging the issues and discussing them openly!! That must be tough to do.

I am excited beyond belief to read your books- and my offer still very much stands:) Big hugs to you from Canada!

Margi said...

I think people mean well overall and don't intend to be buttheads, but, well there's butthead-ness in all of us.

I'm sorry acquaintance-friend was rude, but I'm glad it kicked you into gear with writing. Yay for unintended awesome side effects.

And, btw, I'm even more excited and honored that we met for lunch that day.

All systems go, my friend.