My life revolves around an academic calendar. So while everyone is celebrating that start of a New Year in January, I sort of feel like it’s old news already. My year is half over and the fun really begins in June when the students get out and I can spend several quiet months at work cleaning up processes and working on long-term projects.
This year is no different. The bright wax is on the floor in the hallway. The new teachers have their laptops. And I’m looking back at where I was a year ago. I’ve moved offices, taken on more responsibility and, not to toot my own horn, but I have more confidence in what I do at work. It’s not just because I’ve been working here for four years now (OMG) doing the job and feel like I’m in a routine. Oh no. In fact, it’s something that almost killed me last year that has changed me so much as a person from the start of the school year last year.
Last July, my daughter was just turning one, the other was two, my husband was going to school three nights a week and building a shed in our backyard, while I somehow managed to do some freelance writing, wean the baby from breastfeeding and keep my house in a presentable state…most of the time.
One, hot, steamy July day, my husband needed some wood from Home Depot to work on the shed in our backyard. I loaded the nearly-one-year-old into her infant seat and buckled her into my equally steamy and hot three-year-old car with a broken AC unit to drive to the store to get wood. Of course I get there and have to wheel the big wood sheets whilst carrying an infant seat and then load it into my car myself (except for the stranger who had a heart to help me). I was even hotter, mostly because of the lifting and baby carrying, but also because my three-year-old car’s air wasn’t working (I have a defective Dodge), the Home Depot staff wasn’t helping me and this dumb shed was taking forever to build because my husband has work and three nights worth of classes every week.
At that moment, my phone rang and it was my mom. I started venting to her about the lack of ventilation in the car, the wood, the lack of help at Home Depot and the shed to end all sheds. Suddenly, I couldn’t breath. I didn’t want to freak her out so I quickly hung up with her. I was in the left-turn lane of a main road and I couldn’t breath. Then I realized I was lightheaded and I was going to pass out. I needed to pull over. DUMB LEFT-TURN LANE! I quickly got over and into a gas station parking lot and nothing happened. As much as I was certain I was going to pass out or vomit, nothing happened. My breathing return to normal. I felt fine. So I drove home and told no one.
A few weeks later, it happened again.
I started referring to them as my “episodes.”
I noticed I got them most frequently in the car while I was driving, in church and in the shower. I was afraid to tell anyone because something was clearly wrong with me but I had no idea what and I was scared to know.
Eventually I had to tell my husband and my mom. I told them I thought it was sugar and I was going to watch what I was eating more carefully. Then I chalked it up to lack of sleep. I thought maybe my eyes needed to be check and they were playing tricks on me. I even went so far as to read several articles on mitral vale prolapse, which I had but grew out of several years ago, and it’s ability to cause these type of episodes, which the article described as feelings of panic.
It really wasn’t getting any better. The only way I could drive was with the air on, in the right lane in case I had to pull over from an episode, which I did frequently.
My husband and I decided that this just couldn’t continue and I decided to see a doctor. After running several tests, including an EKG and blood work, he decided there wasn’t anything physically wrong with me.
“It’s panic,” he told me that day in his office. He said anyone with two small children, a husband in school and a full-time job would feel anxious and most of the time, when it is addressed, it goes away. He advised me to tell myself “it’s just panic” anytime I felt an episode coming on and now that my body knew my mind was playing tricks, it would stop.
That lasted about a week.
Then I was aback in his office because I was unable to move my neck. My muscles were so tense they were frozen in place. Plus I was still having episodes. I still couldn’t drive. I hated church, for the episodes, not because I have to get up early or anything. And showers were often challenging. I wasn’t getting any better.
My second visit to the doctor brought some relief in the form of a some anti-anxiety medication to take as needed.
I don’t think he realized what “as needed” would be in my case. I needed one to function. I needed one to drive (oh, yeah shouldn’t do that). I needed one to get through church. Then suddenly, I needed one to eat in public.
Eating. I couldn’t eat in public. What if I got sick? What if the food was tainted? What if someone around my got sick and then I vomited too? What if I vomited after eating that really expensive steak? Wouldn’t that be a huge waste of money? Plus, the restaurant has germs. What if I pick up germs and pick up the stomach bug that’s going around? What if the kids throw up? What if they vomit in the car? What if they eat tainted food? What if they pick up germs and get the stomach bug? What if their meat isn’t cooked all the way? OMG, no one eat chicken, eggs or mayo…just in case.
Those were my thoughts nearly constantly.
I started cleaning the house regularly and wiping door handles every day. I still couldn’t drive, or go to church or take a shower with panic. And I was taking my medication.
So clearly, things were still pretty bad.
I made another trip to the doctor and when I told him I had started having dreams about people vomiting, had woken up hearing people vomiting and all of the other germ vomit thoughts, he looked at me and said “this is no longer something that I’m able to help you with.” I wanted to cry.
He wrote me a prescription for some anti-depressants and sent me to a therapist.
At that point, I needed her to save my life. I needed her to fix this thing that had started at episodes and within a matter of months had spiraled so far out of control that I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, kept thinking my kids were vomiting and all the while my husband was in school, I was working full-time, my daughter had started preschool and they were both in day care. I needed her to save me from myself.
My mom and my husband were amazing at listening to me vent and cry and get mad at myself for letting this take over and for waiting so long to even bring it up in conversation. But they didn’t understand the extent of this. My husband wasn’t home in the evening so he had no idea that I was cleaning everything with antibacterial wipes every time one of our kids touched anything. He had no idea they could use anti-bacterial soap anywhere. He had no idea that I wouldn’t go out in public with my daughter for fear that she might have to use the public GERM-INFESTED bathroom. He didn’t know I was cooking and then racing through my food because I had to get it down before I convinced myself it was undercooked, tainted and we were all going to DIE from eating it. My mom understood it, but she couldn’t fix it. She tried to help me out around the house so I would feel less stressed. She tried to take my kids so I could get more time for myself. That wasn’t what I wanted though. What I wanted was to feel less like I was going to die.
And the therapist talked to me, talked to my doctor, had him fix my medication and saved me. Well, the medication saved me. But she helped me get there. Before that, I was worried that I was actually going to die.
And through all of this, I missed very little work. Though I did have to start eating lunch in my office to avoid the cafeteria germs for a while. And I still used hand sanitizer after my interactions with children, and I still do, I didn’t see the germs as zombies coming out of the ground to eat my brain. I saw it for what it was, anxiety manifesting into OCD.
Now, I didn’t count or clean or whatever, but I did have obsessive thoughts. Vomit and germs.
There are no reasons why. It was probably stress, combined with a massive hormone change from weaning my nursing baby. It could have been not taking enough time out for me and listening to my body that I needed a break. The good news is, it probably isn’t a chemical imbalance that will plague me forever and I had some great people who supported me and gave me the tools I need to be stronger and more confident in myself with OCD and myself as a whole.
So for the rest of the year, my year, I worked on it. I worked on coping skills with therapists and myself. I’ve gotten off of most of the medication. It feels weird not to take eight pills every night, though I do sometimes miss the contests I had with myself to see how many I could swallow at once. And let me tell you, coming off the anti-anxiety meds and anti-depressants, sleep aids and mood stabilizers is just as difficult as going on them.
My husband is in school three nights a week, my daughter is going into her second year of preschool, my youngest is talking. We’ve had some pretty great vacations mixed with lots of work around the house. Summer is over. This year is over.
But in a few short days, school will start again and I’ll be medication free. Starting my new year. I feel like I have fresh new notebooks and shiny pens. The world smells of clean desks and freshly waxed floors. And it’s not just because I work in a school. I’m starting fresh here. I’m hoping that the newness of my confidence and coping skills doesn’t wear off in the first few weeks of the semester.