Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Hearse At The Bottom of The Driveway

Image description: A bright red hearse with white drapery over the two back windows.
I thought my life was over.

I thought I'd lose everything I had and everything I'd worked for.

I had no where to turn.

No one to talk to.

I had faced illness, even death, before but nothing prepared me for this. When I was battling the flesh eating disease I was surrounded with support and caring and concern and help and family and friends and community. I felt embraced. I felt included. I felt valued.

But, I didn't feel that this time.

I felt alone.


It had come upon me slowly. So slowly that I didn't really notice it at first. I'd be out in the mall or for at a movie or at a party with friends and I'd have this slightly unreal moment when I was suddenly filled with panic. I brushed it away, telling myself, I just needed to take a breath, get some air, and I'd be fine. And it would work. Until the next time.

The next time I'd have to brush it away a little more firmly, I'd have to take several more breaths. I began to worry that my strategy would one day not work.

And I was right.

It didn't.

My world collapsed. I was about to start an ordinary day doing consultations. A family was waiting in the waiting room, they looked to me coming down the hallway, expectantly. My heart stopped. My breathing stopped. My world went black. I dashed into an empty office, stumbled towards the desk and held on to the edges of it as tightly as I could. I thought I was going to die. Right there. With people waiting.

I couldn't move forwards.

I couldn't move backwards.

In a panic they called Joe's cell.

He came and got me and brought me home.

I told myself more lies. I was just tired. I was just overwhelmed. I was just taking things to seriously. None of them worked. I knew them for what they were, words of denial. I had a week before I had to go back on the road. This was the time before disability, when I travelled alone. I had to be on air planes and in taxis and on stages. I couldn't imagine doing any of them.

After a day of rest, I couldn't leave the house. I was convinced that if I left I would die. I would fall over and die. I was immobilized by fear in a way that I have never been immobilized by my physical disability. I was stuck.

It was time for some truth.

For some reason I'd lost reason when it came to fear.

It didn't matter that I didn't know why.

It just mattered because it mattered.

I went to see my doctor. She listened carefully. She wanted me to do a couple of things, one of them was to try an anti anxiety. The other was to develop some cognitive strategies to deal with my anxiety. I began the prescription the next day. Two days later, I could leave the house without the expectation of a hearse at the bottom of the driveway. At the end of the week I was on a plane.

It wasn't over.

The pills helped me cope.

But then I adapted a technique called stress inoculation. I don't know who invented it, but for me, it was a lifeline to taking control of my life again.

Now, years and years and years later. I still use the anti-anxiety pills about half an hour before a lecture and I use stress inoculation maybe ten or fifteen times a year. I'm good.

But I remember when I wasn't.

And I remember how it seemed like I couldn't talk about it.

I could talk about disease.

I could talk about death.

But I could not talk about fear, about depression, about anxiety.

I could lecture about advocacy.

I could lecture about self esteem.

But I could not even think about being public about having had to face a significant mental health issue.

I feared that I'd lose ...


That people wouldn't book me to lecture.

That people wouldn't trust my judgement.

The people wouldn't feel safe in my presence.

And you know THOSE fears are real.

They aren't like the phantom fears that plagued me. These fears are the fears that everyone who faces mental health issues have to deal with - to just be honest about who they are. It's odd that in an era where 'over-sharing' is common-place 'real-sharing' isn't welcome.

Today, January 27th, in Canada is Bell's Let's Talk day. It's a day where we, as Canadians, are asked to challenge stigma by breaking silence about mental health issues.

I understand the dangers of silence.

I could have lost my life.

But didn't.

Because I reached out and spoke up which enabled me to get help.

Please, break the silence today.


On that note I will remind North American readers that Vita Community Living Services along with Hands the Family Help Network and the National Alliance for Direct Support professionals is hosting a 'Let's Talk' webinar featuring Dr. Yona Lunsky (a personal hero of mine) who will be talking about mental health and people with intellectual disabilities from 2 to 3pm EST. There are a few spots left so register right away if you are interested by clicking on the link.


Anonymous said...

I get panic attacks. They scare the dickens out of me. I didn't know what they were. I thought I was dying. I was use to multi-tasking, juggling many balls, tons of responsibility, and did it all fairly well. I was well respected in my field and beyond. When I was told I was having a panic attack, I poo-poo'ed the idea. I don't panic. I'm the calm one in a situation. I had control. How could this be? It was explained that you don't plan for a panic attack, or it would be called "time to panic". It comes on you and over you unexpectedly. No kidding. It still holds stigma, as if you are a weak-kneed namby-pamby person with little to none self-control - NOT! I do hope people are aware of this and many other mental health issues that people fight all the time and be supportive. Fight the fight Dave.

Unknown said...

I have been in the same place. I have also felt the sting of judgment in the profession that I love when other professionals suggest that my disagreement with them or other matters are "my issues." I embrace this part of my human experience because it genuinely allows me to understand and empathize even better with those I support. Not to take away from the message but to positively reframe the hearse... my father had one when he was young and it was an absolutely cool car... there is one for sale not far from me and I would love to buy it for my 17 year old because he is different and loves to be different... Im just not sure on the practicality of it these days!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Dave. I am going through a difficult time right now coping with stress and anxiety. Your post could not have come at a better time. Somehow you managed to get me to see things my family could not. Going to get help and start the first day of the rest of my life!!

Defying Gravity said...

I've said this before when you've mentioned your anxiety, but I also use anti-anxiety pills before public speaking/performing. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to do my job without them because I need a steady hand (my performance anxiety makes me very shaky) and I tried every psychological technique that I could find and nothing stopped the massive adrenaline surge. But I still feel ashamed about taking them, and that I should either get better or get a different job, and I've never heard anyone else admit to needing them in the course of their professional life. So I'm very grateful that you have admitted it.

Andrea S. said...

Jennifer, I am wondering if in your case, you might be dealing with a "double whammy" because you are a women, and some men are inclined to view women as being inherently "emotional" and "irrational" and doubly ready to blame any disagreement from a woman on psychological issues.

Unknown said...

It was really interesting to hear how the fear you felt seemed to immobilize you more than your disability ever has. We're taught in school about anxiety and fear but I've never really known how much anxiety could impact someone's life. Your story is insipid in and the way you write your posts each day makes me very aware of how life is like and how you see the world around you!

Doniya Mary Thomas said...

Fear is always a difficult problem to handle for anyone. They are always draw people back from any approach we do. Handling fear is a much troubling task to overcome. Once we come out of fear, our real talents are going to flourish our lives as you did in your lives Dave. I felt it so. Your coping up with fear is wonderful. But how long anti anxiety drugs could be used. Is that going to make a real dependence to the drug. Anyway i felt it is really a realistic experience for me too.. as i have been also through this once a while and trying to overcome them. I am thanking you for this post. Awsome