Saturday, September 29, 2018

Disney Dreams

During the 6 years we spent attempting to become parents, we developed a whole lot of dreams and wishes about things we wanted to do with our future child(ren). Of course, our clueless childless brains had no idea what parenthood was actually like, so in our minds, this was merely a to-do list that would be easy and fun to check off!

Uhh... enter reality.

True, we've taken him to the Space Needle and to visit family in two states. He's done all sorts of Alaskan things, obviously. I've repeatedly vowed to take him to a Seahawks game someday (which will be my first game too, which I'm so excited for!).

But... by far, the biggest kid-involved vacation/travel goal we've always had is to go to Disney World.

This is a HUGE dream for all of us. Dave and I have gone twice with other relatives. Both times, we had such a blast. We talked about how fun it would be to come back with kids. We both love the feeling of returning to childhood that seems to be unique to that place. It's almost impossible to put into words. Even for me, the overly wordy one!

I had always imagined making this happen when kiddo was 5-6 years old. I figured he'd have enough endurance to be able to survive long-ish days, and also be old enough to remember the trip. But not old enough that he didn't believe in magic anymore.

Oh yeah, remember that reality thing? Dangit.

He just turned 8, he has changed a tremendous amount in the last year as maturity goes, and we still don't have this trip on the books. Why, you ask? Because, well, it is expensive as all heck. We have been saving air miles for over a decade to cover the plane tickets, so that is helpful, but... it turns out you still have to worry about eating, sleeping, local transportation, attraction tickets, and heaven forbid some souvenirs or extra stuff?! We have always said that if we are going to go all the way from Alaska to Florida, we are going for a full two weeks to see and do everything we want to do.

Our finances have been tough since we moved here. We both work our tails off, we operate on a budget, and we don't spend frivolously on any sort of huge scale. Housing is more expensive here than back home, which we knew going into it, but we ended up spending even more than we anticipated when we bought the house. We bought in a really nice neighborhood in an effort to have quiet and safety, but of course that never comes cheap.

Upon moving here, we also quickly determined that our public school options for Aidan were less than ideal for him. There's a whole list of reasons for that, which I won't go into at the moment, but suffice it to say we make significant financial sacrifices in order to keep him in a small private school that is outstanding and fits him like a glove. We wouldn't trade our house or his school for anything, but...

This is why our two vehicles are 6 and 16 years old. This is why we don't have the newest gadgets. This is why there are a bunch of (totally optional but desired) projects around the house that we just haven't gotten into. Things are tight. Things are going to be tight as long as we live here.

So, how do we drum up - by my estimation - $6000 to $8000 to swing this trip?!

I have no idea, and this makes me sad.

I was 11 the first time I went to Disney. (That was Disneyland in California.) I was immediately hooked. It was like nothing I'd ever experienced before and I still have vivid memories of a LOT of it. Not to mention the pictures are mortifying such treasures.

Do not judge 11-year-old me! 
Oh, go ahead. I do. This picture cracks me up.

I can't believe I just posted that.

Anyway... I was 20 when I first went to Disney World in Florida with Dave and his parents. We went for spring break. I couldn't believe the way I felt like a little kid again. We were in Florida for two weeks. We spent half of that at Disney, then also hit Universal, Busch Gardens, Kennedy Space Center, Gatorland, Sea World, and even spent a day visiting my grandpa in Lake Okeechobee. That trip is something I will never ever forget!

We went again when I was 27. This time it was in June. This Alaskan girl was so totally miserable in the heat, and ended up getting carted out of Disney World in a wheelchair one day due to heat exhaustion. But we still had so much fun on that trip! We were only able to go for a week that time, and we both swore that if we were ever able to go back, it would be for at least two weeks. A week just isn't enough time to do everything. Getting out of Alaska is expensive and time consuming; may as well make the most of it when you get to do it.

I literally have dreams about taking Aidan to these places. I've shown him YouTube videos of the roller coasters and other attractions (cough, because I'm a glutton for punishment, cough). I've told him about the "Harry Potter park" and the "Star Wars park" opening next year. I've told him that I don't know if we will get to go, but that we would really like to, and that we are saving money.

Truth be told, I think a small part of the reason I told him about all of this was to give me an incentive to find new ways to save. It's one thing to disappoint myself, but to disappoint him is just not something I want to do if I can avoid it!

A few months ago, I told Dave that I wanted to try just planning this trip - setting the dates (or close) and taking all the steps as if we are just going, and then figuring it out as we go. It has to just work out, right? That sounds really good, but I'm not sure whether it will work. We have chosen some dates for late 2019. The air miles will be there whenever we are ready to buy tickets.

We are making arrangements to try to save ALL of our vacation time at work. Aside from drumming up the cash, this might be the trickiest part of this whole process. We both use most of our vacation time trying to cover days that Aidan's school is closed. Since we have no backup child care here, one of us has to take all that time off. This includes inservice days, spring break, Christmas break, the non-major holidays, all those things. For some of these days, we do have the option of child care at his regular school... to the tune of something like $70 a day. Not exactly helpful for the saving process.

I have the first week of January (the end of Christmas break) covered thanks to some amazing relatives. Now I have to figure out spring break, a week in May, several days in August, and all the one-off school closures in the next year.

Oh, and find $8,000. Piece of cake, no?

Anyone have a magic wand? (Aidan tells me he would have one, if only we could get to "Harry Potter World." Oh, the irony.)

Friday, September 28, 2018

Anxiety, Guided Meditation, and the Calm App!

Wow, what is this, three blog posts inside a couple of weeks? I'm about to set a new personal best (since Aidan was born anyway).

At some point, I plan to tell you all what prompted my random return. That is, once I have the courage. It is something really out of left field that I never expected. I confessed it to my therapist the other day and she, in between both of our fits of laughter, said "that might be just a tad disordered... but certainly nothing to worry about." What can I say? I'm an odd duck. I'm okay with it most of the time.

Speaking of my therapist, I know I've mentioned here before that she is amazing. I sort of can't say that enough. She's kind of like an old friend (that I pay to listen to all my "stuff.") Actually, that's not even a sliver of what she does for me. She's a sounding board, a neutral party, a highly educated and brilliant advice giver, a validator (yes I like to invent words) of feelings, and so much more.

This is actually my second therapist. The one I saw back in my hometown was great, but this one is a whole other level and fits me like a glove. Maybe best of all, she completely understands - and doesn't judge - my desire to treat the anxiety I have developed in the last few years without medication. 

Let me be clear, here. I'm not vilifying medication or judging anyone who uses it. I have used it before and for a while it worked beautifully. And then it didn't. So I stopped it - and become very sick in the process. I vowed at that time never to use it again unless I had no other options.

In the last five or six years, my anxiety has escalated from an occasional nuisance to a daily battle. I would estimate I have about four days per year that I experience no anxiety at all. Four days. That's not many out of 365. A year or two ago, I started having panic attacks. Super enjoyable. This year, I have also experienced my first nocturnal panic attacks. This consists of literally waking up out of a dead sleep mid-panic-attack. I have had three or four of these so far. I wake up with a racing, pounding heart, feeling like I'm gasping for air. (And no, it's not sleep apnea. I do have that but I use a CPAP.)

Still, I don't want meds. I am determined to continue to fight this with other tools unless or until they don't work anymore. Enter the amazing therapist, who has taught me so many coping strategies for my anxiety and panic. Grounding exercises, positive self-talk, breathing techniques, therapeutic writing, and bilateral stimulation are all tools that she has taught me to use on a regular basis to help me cope with this beast called anxiety. We have even done some EMDR which, for me, was nothing short of miraculous. We are working on getting back to that.

The most recent tool she recommended to me was guided meditation. I hope she didn't see me actually roll my eyes. Ugh, what kind of psychobabble thing is this? Sounds so hokey. 

She explained to me that guided meditation is just someone walking you through short periods of mindfulness. Learning how to be in the moment. (This is one of my major goals in the big picture of life anyway.) I flat-out told her that I was skeptical. I didn't understand how this could help me. She told me to trust her.

Dangit. I can't NOT trust her. She's never been wrong. I've been on her couch at least 100 times and she has never been wrong.

She told me to go home and download an app called Calm. (No, I'm not getting paid to write about this.) 

I didn't. A million other things felt more important and what in the world was some silly app going to do to help me anyway? Sheesh. By the time I went back for my next session, I still hadn't downloaded it. She gave me the look. You know, the look. The one that seems to say, "hey idiot, I told you this would work, but it can't work if you won't do it." She explained that resisting this is very common, not only because of general skepticism but just the fact that anxiety tends to fight you when you challenge it to try to make it go away. It fights hard. It convinces you something like guided meditation won't work at all. She patiently informed me that, like anything else, it would take practice and that over time it would get easier, less awkward and more effective. Blah, whatever!

Not long after that, I was actually visiting my parents' house back home, which is about the only time I ever actually see TV commercials. My dad had just had surgery and I was there to keep an eye on things and help with anything he might need. I was snuggled up with one of their dogs on the couch, just relaxing. Suddenly, a rain scene came on the TV, accompanied by the heavenly sound of nothing but a rainstorm. 

Within just a few seconds, I commented that it made me feel so calm!

Imagine my surprise, and maybe spiteful displeasure, when the commercial was actually for that Calm app.


She is never wrong.

When I got back to my hotel room, I downloaded this app, still rolling my eyes a little. Maybe a lot, I don't remember.

I had promised the therapist (I really should make up a name to use here for her) that I would try this guided meditation every day for two weeks and report back. Granted, by this time that was a two-month-old promise, but I figured I should still do it.

The first few times, I felt nothing. No difference. True, it helped me take some deep breaths, which is always helpful. But nothing more. But as the days went on and I started making a habit of meditating right after I came home from work, I could feel it starting to sink in. I was starting to actually crave that ten minutes of being completely in the moment, and I was getting better at it.

The more I practiced, the better it worked, the better it felt, and the more I craved it. I even paid for a subscription to the app, which is something I don't normally do. This gives me new meditations every day and a lot more. I also love the Sleep Stories section of this app. I rarely make it past about three minutes in to a sleep story before I'm snoring. Some of the sleep stories are actually just audio of Bob Ross's Joy of Painting shows! It sounds ridiculous, I know, but that guy's gentle voice just knocks me right out.

(Side note, did you know that Bob Ross lived in Alaska for several years and got the ideas for many of his paintings from things he saw here?)

I haven't been perfect about meditating every day. Actually, the last couple of weeks, I kind of fell out of the habit and I can tell a difference. It's harder for me to manage the anxiety. I have a harder time staying in the moment and my baseline anxiety seems to be a bit higher. I think I would say that the meditation has given me a sense of empowerment. I feel like, overall, I can better tame the anxiety beast instead of it taking control of my world completely at random.

It's not easy for me to reveal so much about where I'm at with my anxiety these days. It makes me feel weak and lame. But I know I'm not the only one dealing with it. If you're in this terrible club with me, do yourself a favor and check out guided meditation. And then stick with it. It's just like exercise - if you stop, the benefits stop too.

Oh, and one more thing about the Calm app. It has content for kids! Sleep stories and simple meditations too. It's something the kiddo and I can do together that helps our whole family. With any luck, he will learn at an early age how to cope with his own "big emotions" (like mine) in a healthy way.

Whether you have anxiety or not, do yourself a favor and go check it out!

Saturday, September 22, 2018

My First Momcation (Ugh, I Don't Even Like That Word)

Believe it or not, our kid just turned eight. EIGHT. I know everyone says this, but seriously... how and when did this all happen? Didn't we just bring him home from the hospital a week ago? So bizarre.

Parenthood does weird things to your brain. And your heart. And your body. But that's a whole other post. Long one.

It's been almost five years now since The Great Mistake, which is what I now call our move from our hometown to the bigger city. Five long and (for me) largely uncomfortable years. One of the things that's hard for me about living here is that we aren't surrounded by family. I do have relatives here, but they (unfortunately) aren't people we spend a lot of time with and they definitely aren't people that Aidan knows well.

So, when Dave and I want a date night or something, well, too bad. It's our fault, really. We don't readily pawn our kid off on people. But it just kind of is what it is. We have had probably four "date nights" since moving here (yes, I said five years). All of them have taken place when my parents come to visit, so we can be comfortable leaving Aidan with them at home for a couple hours. We usually grab some kind of fast dinner and see a movie. Don't get me wrong, these little date nights are great. But they're too short and way too infrequent.

Life here is rushed and hectic and busy and I feel like a fish in a barrel. Lost in the crowd. Sure, there are things I like, but my overall experience here is not a happy one. My happy place, without a doubt, is back home. I love the slower pace, the smaller number of people, the friendly spirit and the feeling everybody knows everybody. It's funny how that used to irritate me. It used to bother me that I could not set foot in the grocery store without running into someone (usually several someones) that I knew. So annoying, just let me be anonymous already!

Except... it turns out 100% anonymity isn't really that great after all. Some lessons apparently have to be learned the hard way.

For a couple of years, I have been threatening to take a trip back home by myself. There are lots of reasons I've been thinking about this, not the least of which is to remind myself I can still survive on my own. I've become entirely too dependent on Dave here and I hate that. I've always been really independent. Now I feel like a little kid, nervous to leave the house half the time. I don't go out at night here unless it's absolutely necessary. I don't go downtown alone. Actually, I don't go much of anywhere alone. I'm just not comfortable.

I was starting to think that I was becoming such a lemming that I wouldn't even survive a few days alone. What better time to face my fear head-on?

Sometime around January, I told Dave I was thinking of making good on my threats to take a trip alone. I've never taken a trip alone, not more than an hour or two drive anyway. I'm not sure he really understood my reasons, but he was supportive of my idea anyway. He was a little nervous about me taking a road trip that long alone, but he knew it was important to me, so he encouraged me to do it.

I don't think I was convinced it was actually going to happen. I just expected something to fall through. A crisis at work, Dave deciding he wasn't comfortable with it, me chickening out... something. As it got closer, I just kind of cruised along like it wasn't really happening. Fast forward to two or three days prior, and it hit me. I was a little nervous and a LOT excited.

For the first time ever, I made my own lists of things to pack. Just for me! I didn't need to try to remember everything three people would need! Only one. That sounds weird, I'm sure, but it was kind of a big thing. I was so much more relaxed getting ready for the trip, without the worries about leaving the house empty, or forgetting something for someone else.

I was so anxious that morning before I left! Thankfully Dave understands my anxiety like no one else ever could, so although I knew he was a little nervous too, he reassured me and told me it was going to be great. I left a little later than I had planned, just because I was busy talking myself out of backing out of the trip. I knew I would be VERY angry with myself if I did.

Finally I put my big girl underpants on, hooked up my new dash cam (I should write a whole post about that thing sometime, it is wonderful!), and off I went. I did all the things we do when we all go together - stopped at the same places for gas and food, and before I left civilization I did one more once-over on the car to make sure all was packed and good.

My stomach was still in knots for about the first hour of the trip. Oddly, once I got away from the populated area, I actually relaxed a lot. It was a GORGEOUS day - blue skies and sunshine all the way up.

I think my favorite part about my drive north was that I had so much time to just THINK. It's so unusual that I get time to myself, uninterrupted, without worries like dishes and kid duty and all that stuff, to just think and remember who I am.

I thought about this independence that I felt like I'd lost lately, and how I could feel it returning with every passing mile. I remember being proud of myself for tackling this alone and not being afraid of breaking down. (It wouldn't be outlandish for me to be scared of that. I've been stranded on this very highway three times before and it's not the best feeling!)

I thought a lot about my marriage. I thought about how lucky I am, how although I disliked feeling so dependent on my spouse, at the same time, I wouldn't want to ever be without him. I thought about parenthood and how it has changed me. I thought about how I struggle to show my kid the real me. I try so hard to be the best parent I can be (cough perfect cough) that sometimes I think I put on a facade for him. He deserves to know the real me!

I thought about other relationships in my life and which ones needed to go. I reminded myself that I'm not obligated to stay connected to people who don't treat me the way I should be treated. It's hard to cut those ties sometimes, but life is too short to continue to tolerate being abused. I made some plans in my mind to tidy up my connections.

Don't get me wrong, there was also a lot of non-serious thought on this drive! I turned the radio way up. I rolled the windows down and I sang as loud as I wanted to. I danced in my seat. I celebrated that I was embarking on four full days of complete freedom. I could do anything I wanted, whenever I wanted, with whoever I wanted, wherever I wanted! I hadn't had this feeling since I was 19! I decided I wasn't going to say "no" to anything this trip (within reason of course). It was my chance to reconnect with friends and family, see people I hadn't seen in years, and just be my unfiltered self for a few days.

I also learned that when I make this drive alone, it takes about six hours. When the three of us make this drive every summer, it takes between eight and nine. This is amusing to me. True, with a little one on the trip, you do have to make more stops for restrooms and leg-stretching... but also, I tend to drive a little faster than Dave does, and I had no one with me to distract me from my mission of getting back home as fast as I could (but safely!).

The last hour of the drive north is my least favorite. It's hilly, full of places for moose to hide and jump out in front of you, there's no radio reception or cell signal, and it's just kind of annoying. But this time, it went by so fast! Actually, the whole drive did. It really didn't feel nearly so long as when I am a passenger. That was both enjoyable and a little unsettling. I felt like I was losing chunks of time. My anxiety tried to run off with this, but I told that little devil to stuff it, that I was just tired. I was right, by the way.

I may or may not have cried as I rolled into town. I was excited, relieved, proud of myself, and just so happy. I felt like a little kid on Christmas morning. I headed straight for my hotel. Not only do I just generally love hotels, but this would be first time I'd ever occupied a hotel room by myself. So strange and so magnificent!

I checked in, unpacked, and it hit me all over again.

Holy cow. I am completely on my own. I can do anything I want to do, anytime I want to do it!

I'm laughing at myself as I write this. It's not as if I live like a prisoner. It's not as if anyone is controlling me or holding me down. It's not as if I don't normally have freedom. But anyone who has a spouse and/or children knows that part of that life is checking in with people about everything! From what's for dinner to whether you're running errands after work, your actions affect other people, so it's courteous to (at least) let them know what's up. I've never had an issue with this at all, but it is exactly why this felt so strange.

Not so for the next four days!

I plopped down in a gloriously comfortable recliner in this hotel room and I just relaxed. I turned on the TV and I just unwound completely. I couldn't remember the last time I'd felt so unencumbered. When I was darn good and ready, and not a minute before, I got up from that recliner and headed back to the car to go have dinner with my parents.

I spent the next four days doing everything I had wanted to do, and more. I'm not going to go into any further detail here, for various reasons. As I write this, I realize I haven't really told anyone many details about this trip. That sounds much more scandalous than it is. I obviously did not break any laws nor any vows. But I did enjoy a few days of carefree living, the details of which I'm realizing I love to keep to myself. I visited people I hadn't been able to see in a long time. I got lots of powerful hugs. I didn't say "NO" to anything, which is a victory in itself, because my introversion tends to cause me to duck out of a lot of things. I had incredible conversations with some people that really needed to be had. I got some pictures that I will treasure forever. Here are a few of my favorites, which each have a story (which, yes, I will keep to myself!).

Don't judge, I was on vacation! 

As is the case with most great vacations, these few days flew by entirely too fast, and before I knew it, it was time to head back. I'd had such a great time that I couldn't even be sad. I usually have a really hard time leaving there - but I'd been so recharged by all my adventures there that I was just absolutely high on life as I left.

I had a safe and beautiful drive back south. I spent more time thinking, singing, daydreaming, and just taking in the beautiful scenery. I really do live in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

When I walked in the door back at home, I was greeted by a little boy who was absolutely ecstatic to see me, and that felt great. To be honest, sometimes I feel a bit unnecessary around here, so to be missed is a great feeling.

He had even made me a sweet sign to welcome me home! He was very proud of it... and somehow I managed not to laugh out loud.

And that right there is what keeps me going day in and day out.

I left here feeling like I wasn't sure what my purpose was anymore. Like I wasn't sure I was even capable of functioning on my own anymore. Like my anxiety might chew me up and spit me out at any moment. (To be clear, this is not a reflection on my husband or my family, not at all. They love me like crazy. This is all just my own baggage causing these issues.)

I came back feeling so very refreshed. Needed. Important. Valued. Supported. And so much more. I felt empowered knowing that I survived just fine on my own. As a matter of fact, my anxiety was almost nonexistent on this trip, and when it did start to well up, I was able to stave it off quickly and easily. That's a big deal.

This trip was worth every dollar I had to spend, every worry about the long road trip alone, every minute that I sorely missed my husband and my kid. It was everything I had no idea I needed.

As I've written this post, I've decided I think I need to do this once a year. Maybe not quite so far away every time. Maybe next year I'll go somewhere a little closer - but still far enough away to feel like I'm away. Maybe I'll go somewhere I've never been before. Quite honestly, I don't think the "where" matters nearly as much as just getting up and going. Remembering that I deserve to do this for myself once in a while. That maybe I need to go away now and then to be reminded exactly how great my life is with my little family and how I'd never want anything else.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Current TV Obsession

So, here's a little-known fact about me, because I know you people live for those...

(That was sarcasm, for those slow on the uptake.)

I fall in love with TV shows, on average, 5-10 years after they are popular.

(Speaking of slow on the uptake! Who am I to talk?!)

I never watched The Office until the very last season. I have watched the entire Friends series dozens of times, but rarely saw it when it was originally on the air. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that I didn't discover my current obsession until it had been on the air for 14 years.

Yep. I'm hooked.

Confession: I've been binge watching this on my lunch hours. In my car. In the parking lot outside my office. Leeching the company wifi like some sort of creeper in a windowless van. I'm not proud of it.

I love well-executed medical shows. The kind with just enough drama, but not too much. The kind that have SOME thread of realism. Even a tiny one. Characters you care about, even if you hate the fact that you do. This show's got all of that. And, you know, it doesn't hurt that it also has McDreamy. (Spoiler alert, yes, I know, he dies later. Shut it, I'm only on season 6.)

I'll be honest, Patrick Dempsey never really caught my eye before this show. I think it's actually more his character than his appearance that hooked me from the beginning. Derek is just so darn lovable. I find myself rooting for him at every turn, even when he's being a doofus.

This guy doesn't exactly hurt my eyeballs either... cough...

Oh, Mark Sloan. You make me forget to go back to work on time.

What was I talking about? (For you ladies who haven't hit 40 yet, you just wait. Just. Wait.)

Without going into any incriminating details, I will also say that I was going through some stuff while watching seasons three and four that made this show feel so completely relatable, almost to the point of creepy. Almost. During a time when I was feeling really alone, I could fire up Netflix and this guilty pleasure of mine would make me feel like I was in good company. It sounds weird, I know, and I don't usually rely on TV for companionship... at all... but that was a good thing at the time.

I'm glad that I have 9 more seasons of this deliciousness to look forward to. I've inadvertently seen enough commercials for the newer seasons that I know some of what happens in the future, but I still can't wait to watch it play out.

So, what other shows should I check out? Bonus points if they ended a half dozen years ago, apparently...

Sunday, September 16, 2018

That Time I Reappeared After Two Years Away

Man, I miss this place.

I need to write more.

I know, I've said this a LOT of times. That's because it's true. I think it's actually more true now than it has ever been.

I have a therapist. She's phenomenal. (Pretty sure her kid is going to go to a great college... thanks to me.) The aforementioned phenomenal therapist says I need to write more. Doesn't even matter what it is. I just need to write. My anxiety has been giving me a run for my money lately - for several years now actually - and she believes writing would help. I know she's right. No question.

Here's the tricky part. What do I write, and where?

I've thought about starting a series here consisting of letters to my child. I'd love to tell him how I met his daddy, how we got our start, how he came to be a part of our family, all kinds of stories from the past and the present. Then, my paranoid side kicks in, and I remember that this blog is all sorts of public, and the details that might be in those stories could put me at risk of undesired contact from people. I have been through some... things... lately that have reminded me that the internet is just chock full of jerks and weirdos.

I'll admit it, though. Writing on a private blog (I have several) is just not as gratifying for me as writing for an audience, no matter how small or large.

So... what now? What do you want to read about?

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Amber vs. Money

In an effort to return to blogging more regularly, I'm trying really hard to get away from the whole idea that every post I write has to be a meaningful, prolonged story. Don't get me wrong, I have some pretty amazing stories to tell. And I want to. And I plan to. But right now, I really just need to focus on resurrecting my habit of writing regularly. It's so good for me. So, I'm going to start this and work on it when I can and see where it goes.

I'm currently on my lunch hour at work. I had two options today: venture out in chilly weather to drive around aimlessly for an hour, wasting gas and potentially spending money I don't need to spend, or staying here at work, hiding in the conference room in hopes no one will need it (read: interrupt me), and writing. If I'm being honest, I really prefer joyriding to sitting at work. The mental break I get from leaving the building and getting out in the sun (or rain, or snow, doesn't matter really) is so good for me. I'm pretty sure I'm more productive in the afternoon when I get outside at lunch.
In the end though, I made what is probably the more grownup decision and stayed in. Dang adulthood getting in the way of my fun! On the upside, work wifi does allow me to watch Netflix while I blog. Currently I'm watching an episode of Friends, which might be why I've been at this for 30 minutes so far and haven't said much? Oops!

The main reason for staying in is that we are working diligently on getting our finances under control. Ever since we moved from our small hometown to the bigger city, it just seems like we have been dealt a lot of crappy financial hands. We lost about $4500 to a slum lord immediately when we moved, which I have never forgiven that guy, or myself, for. After seeing an apartment via pictures, video and FaceTime, and having our friends do a walk-through for us, we signed a lease from 350 miles away.

Three weeks later when we arrived with all our worldly possessions, a two-year-old, and two chihuahuas, we found that the condition of the place had changed. Significantly. It was as if they'd allowed a band of traveling meth heads to live there for 3 weeks. We didn't even feel safe enough to stay one night. We ended up crashing in our new boss's guest room for 3 days until we could find a suitable place to live.

At any rate, I guess we should have known that was a sign of things to come. Not to channel Eeyore here or anything, but seriously, it's felt like one kick in the teeth after another since then, financially that is. A few months later, we found out that one of our two vehicles needed $1500 in unexpected repairs. It was completely reasonable since the truck was 11 years old at the time and has needed virtually no repairs in its life, but still just really inconvenient timing. Not too much later, the kid needed to change schools, and the new one is more expensive.

Two years after we moved, we finally bought a house. It's a beautiful house in a wonderful neighborhood, but what we thought would be a pretty straightforward and easy transaction turned into a bit of a nightmare and in addition to normal expenses like movers, we also ended up spending an extra several thousand dollars making the place livable. (Related note, I will never EVER own a cat.)

At any rate, a big part of the reason we moved was to get ourselves into a better financial situation, but it feels like we've gone backwards despite the fact that our income is much higher. It's not fair, dangit! But we are working on it. A friend introduced me to a popular financial guru, who I won't name here because I don't want a bunch of people finding my blog from searching for that guy, and I did a bunch of research and then started following his program. It's pretty brilliant and I can see that it works. If not for the several big setbacks, we would be much further ahead in getting rid of our debt and building giant savings and retirement accounts.

I am so hard on myself about this! I know how to make it happen and I'm really trying - we both are - but it's so hard to get traction. We've cut expenses way back, cut out almost all eating out and entertainment budgets, we only make one trip back home per year to visit, we don't go on other trips, haven't replaced the now-14-year-old truck... on and on. I think there's an expression for this - something like "I make too much money to be so broke!" I've looked in to getting another job, but hubby doesn't want me taking on extra stress and he already puts in extra hours at work.

But in those rare moments when I'm able to show myself grace, I step back and remember that truly, it's only been three years since the move and we have had enough unexpected things pop up to easily offset the extra income that we gained by moving here. Maybe more. Of course, there are times when this makes me feel like the move was a mistake, but that's a whole other post.

Sooner or later we have to catch a break, right? All I want is to be out of debt so I can start sleeping better again and be free of these heavy rocks on my shoulders!

Anyone have Ed McMahon's number?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Amber vs. Anxiety

The other day, a cousin called me kind of out of the blue. (I love it when this happens, at least if it's a relative I adore, and I especially adore this one! She might even be my favorite. Don't tell the others!) She said, "I was just driving to work, and all of a sudden I felt like I was freaking out, just super nervous for no reason at all. I mean, I know enough to know this is anxiety and kinda how it works, but that doesn't help when it's happening."

My heart sank. My poor sweet cousin. She apparently has the disease I've been battling. The evil a-word. Mine started with no warning when I was 32, right after our third failed adoption. (I haven't a clue if those things are connected or not, but my mother's anxiety also began in her early 30s.)  My cousin's seems to have started right now, at 28. At the risk of sounding over dramatic, I have to say I wouldn't wish this on anyone, but especially not on someone like her. She's kind and sweet and super positive and funny and smart, and she got way more pretty genes than me, and she's pretty much a rockstar in every possible way.  She also lost a parent a few months ago.

I did my best to talk her through it. I assured her it would go away soon, and we talked about finding distractions. She actually has a degree in psychology, so she understands the mechanics of it, but I can vouch for the fact that that doesn't make it any more pleasant to deal with in the moment. It can be an evil, nasty monster sometimes. I told her to think about sitting on a beach and watching the waves. I told her to take a few slow, deep breaths. I made a couple of stupid jokes. I told her about the technique I just learned recently in therapy - a 'body scan' exercise which helps relax the entire body. "When the body is relaxed, the mind will follow," says my therapist, who is magnificent. And, sometimes to my chagrin, is also always right. Actually, I could write an entire post about what a perfect match she is for me, but I'll save that for later.

After a few minutes, my cousin started to feel better. She had been able to distract and calm herself through an anxiety attack, which is not an easy or enjoyable feat. I was really proud of her. Somewhere in the course of all that, she'd said "I know you have anxiety, because you've posted a couple articles on Facebook about it, so I called you because I thought you would understand how I am feeling."

I should probably say here that as I get into writing about my struggles with anxiety, which is a daunting thing all by itself, that I am writing from only my own experience. Everyone experiences this differently and I obviously can't speak for anyone but myself. So when I generalize here, please know I'm really only speaking my own truth, not anyone else's, and that I absolutely understand that other perspectives are every bit as valid as my own.

It was at this point in my conversation with my cousin that I realized that for the seven years I've been battling anxiety, I really have not told many people at all about it. The husband knows, of course, but even he doesn't know the full extent of it. I do occasionally share articles and posts on social media about it, because somehow that's less scary than telling people about it directly. To actually TELL people about it? Unheard of. Terrifying.

See, that's part of what makes anxiety such a jerk. (And trust me, it is a JERK.) It tells you constantly that you're broken, that you're messed up, that you're a freak, that you're not worthy of (fill in the blank), that you're sick and that you need to hide your condition at all costs, or everyone will hate you and leave you and you'll be all alone with the awful things circling around in your head. And you don't even realize it's saying that. It just feels like a given, like a universal truth. Like something you'd never think to question or challenge. I wish I were exaggerating.

I've been in therapy for anxiety for about a year and a half now. Shortly after it first came on, I sought treatment from my family doctor, who prescribed a medication for me that was initially extremely helpful. I remember telling him that for the first time there were no storms happening inside my mind. I never even knew they were there until they were gone. That medication helped me, virtually free of side effects, for almost three years, until my pharmacy changed generic brands and the new generic made me really sick. I talked to every single pharmacy in town and none of them could get the old generic anymore, so I took myself off of it.

As one would expect, the anxiety returned with a vengeance after I went off the meds. The storm raged on in my head. I white-knuckled it for a very long time. During that time, in an unrelated sort of way, I learned a lot about food and chemicals in food and pharmaceuticals and all sorts of things about what outside influences do to our bodies. I developed a very strong desire to learn to deal with my anxiety without medication. I believed then, and I believe now, that I have the ability to do this, with help. It is a long process and sometimes it's uncomfortable or even painful, but I'm learning, slowly.

One of the pretty significant recurring themes in my therapy is self-acceptance. I've always had a hard time with this. I'm so accepting of other people and their flaws, but when it comes to mine, I'm so unforgiving and unwilling to give any grace. I'm beginning to learn to accept things about myself. My anxiety is one of those things. The harder I fight it and push against anxiety, the harder it pushes back and the worse it gets. For me, the medication-free 'cure' (which is really just a set of coping tools I can use for the rest of my life, not a cure at all) lies in accepting what IS, not fighting it, and perhaps most importantly, not hiding it anymore. Did I mention this is scary? My palms are sweaty just typing this. And I've now been working on this post daily for more than a week.

So, I have fairly severe anxiety. There it is. So what? Lots of people have it. My therapist and my husband insist it doesn't make me any less worthy, or lovable, or smart or awesome than anyone else. They're trying to help me pound that into my own head. Some days I truly believe it, but most days it's still a battle. I'm getting better. Slowly.

What does my anxiety actually look like?

During the several days I spent pondering writing this post and whether I was really ready to 'put it out there,' I tried to really pay attention to how I was feeling, when, and why. I stumbled upon a very good example of what happens when my anxiety flares. Somehow I convinced myself to actually put it on paper, even though it is scary and embarrassing and the anxiety demons in my head are constantly telling me I have to hide this because if I expose it, no one will like me anymore, and because I should be able to control it. After all, it's my own brain, right? I should be able to control it... right? This is probably why my therapist doesn't like me even using the word SHOULD.

Back to my example. It was my lunch hour, and I needed to go to the grocery store to grab a couple of things. Little known fact about me: I usually avoid going to grocery stores alone. I don't just not enjoy the grocery store experience - it makes my anxiety flare like crazy. But I do go when it's necessary. I put on my big girl undies and I white-knuckle it. On this particular day, I was already a bit stressed due to work. I knew before I went in that I'd be much more anxious coming out than I was going in, so I sat in the car for a moment to prepare myself. My Fitbit said my pulse was 82 - up from my normal resting rate of the high 60s. I assume that's because I was anticipating the anxiety.

This all happens very fast - it always does - but I'm going to break it down into the tiniest minutia in order for you to actually walk through it with me, and for me to fully acknowledge all that's going on so I can learn to deal with it.

As soon as I hit the entrance of the store, it starts. I feel my chest tighten. I feel my breathing get a bit shallower. I grab a basket and hold on tight. As I walk across the front of the store toward the items I need, the tight chest and shallow breathing get slightly more severe. I'm about halfway there when I notice how tight my shoulders are. It feels like there is a giant rubber band around my shoulders and upper arms, squishing them together and compressing everything in between. A mild knot has formed in my stomach.

I focus really hard on my destination - the freezer aisle this time - and try to just forget all of my surroundings. I don't typically make eye contact with people in these situations, especially if the store is crowded. Crowds of people make me extremely anxious, so I guess I subconsciously pretend they aren't even there. The lights seem oppressively bright. I find minor comfort in the fact that the store's signs and fixtures are mostly earth toned. Generally speaking, earth tones seem to soothe me.

By the time I get to the freezer aisle, my Fitbit says my pulse is 116. I double check it with my fingers and it's probably right. I'm short of breath, my stomach feels like a boulder, and it feels like every muscle in my body is as tight as it can get. It's the same feeling you might experience in a haunted house when you know something is about to jump out and scare you half to death. But instead of lasting an instant like in the haunted house, this usually lasts through my whole shopping trip, and often beyond.

Out of nowhere, a flush washes over me. I become very warm from the inside out. It feels like my heart may have stopped. I quickly, but as discreetly as possible, check for a pulse. It's still there. I'm oddly surprised. I try to breathe. Deep breaths are impossible, so I try to slow down the shallow ones. I think I might throw up. (Nevermind the fact I have never thrown up in a grocery store or due to this type of anxiety. To find comfort in that fact would mean being logical, and I am anything but logical in this scenario. For the most part, logic is... unavailable... to me until it passes, unless someone coaches me in the moment.) My legs feel like Jello. I wonder if they will carry me back to my car.

It is at this point that the anxiety really takes over my mind. Once I start having these physical sensations, the little anxiety monster in my head gets much louder and is virtually impossible to ignore. He is short, furry and ugly, and he has big angry eyes and oversized, pointy, gross, yellow, nasty teeth. And he's so very vicious. He's probably a kid who was always picked last in PE class. Maybe this is why we can relate to each other.

He screams in my head.


I should clarify - I do not 'hear voices.' This is not something I can hear. Again, it's like a given. It just comes to me, like when you look up in the sky and notice the sky is blue. "Oh, the sky is blue today." Same kind of thing. It's just there all of a sudden and it feels undeniable.

I do my best to shove the monster away. I repeat to myself that nothing like that has ever happened to me. Being a person who generally appreciates critical thinking, I try to focus on the evidence, or lack thereof, that any of that is actually happening. I try to focus on what I need to buy. I squint my eyes, which feel funny thanks to the anxiety, in order to focus through the very loud distractions.

I find what I need. I buy a little more than I need, because when you have paralyzing anxiety about grocery shopping, you stock up when you go so that you don't have to go more often than necessary. I often find myself buying (non-perishable) things in twos at the grocery store.

At this point I start to feel the slightest twinge of relief. At the moment I head for the cash register, it means I'm almost done with my shopping trip. I get there quickly if possible, preferably the self checkout so I don't have to worry that another person will notice I am breathless and panicky and think I'm crazy. I go through the motions, and head for the exit. I feel a tiny bit better as soon as I step outside. Thankfully it's light outside - this means I have the added bonus of feeling safer in the parking lot. I don't feel truly safe - in the sense that I can actually let my guard down - in many places or situations at all.

I beeline to my car - my safe haven on wheels. I get in quickly, set my stuff down, and lock the doors. Since the anxiety has been particularly bad, I put the sun visors down in hopes no one will see me trying to recover. I lay my head back on the headrest and close my eyes. I take deeper breaths - but at this point I still can't take belly breaths. I focus on relaxing. I talk to myself (silently) like a little kid. "You're fine, it's all fine, it's okay. Nothing bad happened. No one noticed you were freaking out."

When it feels like my heart is beating properly again and my breathing is calmed down and the "OH NO I'M GOING TO FAINT" passes, I drive back to work to continue my day. Unfortunately, my work environment is somewhat anxiety-inducing as well, so full relief doesn't come for many hours yet. But it's definitely better than the grocery store. My energy is drained. I yawn a lot for the next few hours and wish for a nap. I struggle to focus at work at times for the rest of the day.

Finally, after work and after-work commitments and getting a youngster into bed, I collapse into my own bed. I notice my heart rate finally coming the rest of the way down. I stare out at the dark sky and feel grateful to finally be in my sanctuary. I'd like to say I peacefully drift off to sleep, but let's be realistic, I fiddle with my phone and tablet for far too long and don't get as much sleep as I could have.

Hey, I'm working on one issue at a time here!

So, that's what a typical anxiety attack type scenario looks like for me. I don't always feel this way in grocery stores, not at all. But it is not that unusual either. Other circumstances that seem to be common settings for this to play out are parties, social gatherings of pretty much any kind, business lunches/dinners, carnivals/fairs, airplanes (oh my gosh airplanes, that's also a whole other post), pretty much any place where I feel out of control or where there are large amounts of people, especially in a confined area.

I have had to stop writing so many times since I started this post. It is so scary to me to admit all of this. I feel like I'm pretty good at putting up a decent front and hiding my anxiety monster. However, my therapist insists that shining a light on him takes away his power. And with the previous exercises we have done, she has proven that she is right about that. So, here's a new phase we are working on called 'stop hiding it.'  I definitely don't plan to scream it from the rooftops or announce it when I answer the phone at work, but this post represents a HUGE HUGE step for me in learning to combat my anxiety without drugs.

There, I did it. Whew. This is hard. Did I already say that?

I'm hoping that at least one person who reads this will feel less alone in their own anxiety because of what I wrote. I hope that people who know me personally will understand me better after reading this and won't run away from me screaming (literally or metaphorically!). I hope that quirks that I have will make more sense to others now and they will understand that I don't ever mean to be rude or malicious to people I care about. Ever.

One thing that has occurred to me a few times since starting this (novella of a) post is that there have been times that people have accused me of thinking I'm better than them, or better than other people in general. I'm guessing whatever they are seeing in terms of my behavior that makes them think this, is rooted in my anxiety. I've only heard this a few times, but it's been from friends and relatives, not strangers. It's both extremely insulting to me and totally laughable because it could not possibly be further from the truth.

Remember that stuff up above about not wanting people to know about my anxiety because they'll think I'm crazy or unlovable? Yes. That. I can't recall ever thinking I was better than another person in my entire life. Well, maybe Dallas Cowboy fans... KIDDING.

If I bump into you in public and I seem like I don't want to talk to you, it's not you. Actually, it's not me either. It's probably just that I'm already engaged in a bitter battle with the anxiety monster and I can't let go of half my attention in order to handle a social interaction on top of that. I promise I'm not trying to be rude. And I certainly am not being sanctimonious. I promise. I don't feel superior to anyone on the planet. I mean that.

Please forgive me for my faults and try to understand that I'm doing my best. I'm working hard - really hard - on learning how to deal with this so it doesn't have such a grip on me. This process is pretty darn difficult and uncomfortable, but I'm determined to keep going, so I can be a better friend, a better wife and mom, and a happier person.