Sunday, April 19, 2020

A Long Story and a Turning Point

It's funny that my last post was exactly a year ago, as of the date I start writing this post anyway. And here I am itching to write something. There must be something about February 10th that wakes up my writing bug. My desk calendar for today might have helped.

I read back over that last post now and everything rushes back. I can feel it. My entire body feels that post. When I started it, I stopped myself and considered if I wanted to feel it all again. I eventually decided that I did. Not only because I feel like there's value in reliving a learning experience even if it's painful, but also because I felt like it would make writing my next post about it just that much sweeter. But I'll get to that later. Maybe much later.

I’ve been working on this post for weeks now, because sometimes that’s how life is. But what’s interesting is that even outside of this little project, I’ve started writing almost daily! And without having to force myself! I’ve just been doing little journal entries. Here’s what I did today, that kind of thing. Getting back to basics. My writing juices are beginning to flow again for the first time since before we moved away from home. That was over six years ago! I missed writing so much. I was never relaxed enough to write in the other city. Which brings me to the big thing I wanted to write about here…

If you’ve somehow stuck with me since the beginning, you might remember that six years ago, we moved away from our hometown to a larger city (Anchorage). Having both been raised in the same small town, hubby and I both felt the urge to try something new. To spread our wings. To have an adventure and see what happened. What we expected to happen was to have a bunch of new experiences, to get spoiled living in a larger city full of larger-city conveniences, to enjoy warmer winters, to make lots of new friends, to both advance in our careers, and then 4-6 years later, make the leap to the Pacific Northwest. Warmer weather, easier living. Better opportunities for travel and varied experiences. That was the plan.

For my part, I also assumed that if I left our small town, moving my parents’ only grandbaby a few hundred miles away (which, in hindsight, I’ll never forgive myself for, by the way), it might be the kick in the pants they needed to get out of the aforementioned small town. They’re very entrenched, though, and as much as they are sick and tired of the winters, they just can’t bring themselves to leave. I didn’t really understand that before we left. You only live once, right? Get up and get out! We’ve talked repeatedly about wanting to live within driving distance of each other somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, but putting that plan into action when you’ve lived in your house in the woods for 40+ years is something entirely different, I suppose.

What actually happened in Anchorage was, for the most part, completely different than the expectation or the plan. The warmer winters were nice, the extra daylight was nice, and the conveniences were… eh, convenient. But it turns out my anxiety, which I’ve had for as long as I can remember, went completely bananas. My level of anxiety, at idle so to speak, was so high and got worse every year I lived there. With a significant amount of effort, I was able to fake it and hide it for about the first three years.

As time marched on, the anxiety seemed to both climb higher and seep in deeper, if that makes sense. Into every pore and every crevice and every internal organ. I could FEEL it in my body at almost all times. It felt like inflammation. It became harder and harder to hide, and completely impossible to ignore. My resting heart rate was high a lot of the time. I felt short of breath and had tightness in my chest a LOT of the time. Some days it was all day long. A simple trip to the grocery store put my heart rate in the 110-120 range for the duration. I would struggle to breathe, feel like I was going to pass out any moment, and break out into nervous sweats. I was in a constant state of extremely heightened awareness of any potential (even highly unlikely) danger. The head game of it was the absolute worst.

I started having panic attacks in 2017. These terrified and frustrated me to no end. The loss of control during a panic attack is scary and completely unnerving. They could strike at any time. It wasn’t just in times of acute stress; they’d come out of nowhere. In the middle of a store, or at work, or while I was driving, or even sitting on my couch watching my favorite show. Sometimes they left me unnerved for hours, as well as physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted.

My work situation went from pretty great to extremely unpleasant around this time also, which did not help matters. I went from feeling supported, encouraged, cared about and challenged, to a rather toxic environment. Under the new ‘management,’ the dead weight ran amok, a number of people began stabbing others in the back at every opportunity (including ‘managers’), and those of us not in the practice of shamelessly kissing management posterior were ignored at best and openly mocked by coworkers at worst – with no consequences.

We were constantly asked to do much more with much less, and in a depressing and frustrating atmosphere. Worst of all, there was no accountability for anyone whatsoever. This was easily the most frustrating professional situation I’d ever been in – which is saying something, considering I once spent an entire summer delivering auto parts in a car with no music and no air conditioning and having to hear people cursed at over the two-way radio. I tried to make those above me understand what was happening, but they were more fond of the Ostrich method of management. That is, stick your head in the ground and pretend everything is fine and the business will direct itself and succeed with no leadership whatsoever.

I was also sitting in the middle of a big room along with 15-20 other people. I had no ‘physical anchor,’ which is something I’ve learned I need in order to feel comfortable and to relax. Turns out this is why I gravitate toward walls. I feel grounded and safe next to something. Out in the middle of everything, I feel very anxious. It was manageable when the other things about work were okay, like good management. Once that was gone, it became so much more difficult to go to work each day.

I found myself the phenomenal therapist (who I’ve written about here before) during that time. I refuse to even think about the condition I would be in today without her. She became my lifeline, along with hubby of course, who is always and without fail, supportive, patient and loving. But no matter how amazing he is, and no matter how hard he tries to understand the anxious mind (and he has put significant effort into this!), he can’t possibly know how it feels, because he doesn’t have the condition.

In mid-2017, I started to withdraw. I stopped wanting to do anything. The anxiety was so bad. The only place I felt safe from it was inside my house. It happened there, too, but at least there I felt more in control. I wouldn’t feel embarrassed about it happening in front of other people and I wouldn’t have to exhaust myself trying to hide it. My friends and coworkers playfully blamed this on my being an introvert and I played along. They weren’t wrong; I do consider myself introverted, but that had almost nothing to do with my hiding at home and wanting to be alone. I even withdrew from my family a little bit at times. I hated the idea of letting them see me like that. I felt like I was crazy, that I was losing it, that I was a terrible wife and mother and that they would be better off without me.

And here are the parts I have been most terrified to share. That feeling/belief that my husband and child would be better off without me came on strong and fast, and it was absolutely horrific. As I spiraled downward in my anxiety and then, I believe, into a bit of depression, that little thought grew louder and louder. Some days I was able to argue it with logic. Some days, not so much. I felt like I was on a runaway train going 90mph and at any minute I was going to crash and burn.

Other things happened in 2017 and 2018 that exacerbated all of this. In late 2017, hubby and I were absolutely stunned (and thrilled!) to find out I was pregnant. We’d never been able to conceive before, in many years of trying, including several years of medical intervention. We’d long since accepted that we would not have biological children and it was really okay. After kiddo came along, we both felt strongly that it suddenly made sense. We were meant to be his parents.

I did all the right things; due to my PCOS, I lobbied for an immediate doctor’s appointment instead of waiting until 10-12 weeks as they suggested. I ate well, I drank water, I rested, I took the good prenatal vitamins. For the first time in several years I was completely beside myself with joy. A surprise baby!!! Maybe later in life than we would have planned for, but it didn’t matter. That baby was so very loved and wanted.

By the time they could squeeze me in for an appointment, I was 7 weeks and 3 days. We both took time off work to go to the appointment together, and I was so excited to see the little dark spot on the ultrasound screen and to hopefully hear a heartbeat. For so many years, these were all things that had always been privileges reserved for OTHER people. Not me. I had been rudely excluded from the club for 20 years. Surely this couldn’t be real? I felt like an imposter, but I went with it anyway.

Ultrasound time finally came. With an uncomfortably full bladder, I climbed up on the table, waited, and hoped so hard to see what I wanted to see. The doctor did easily find the egg sac… but no heartbeat. The doctor issued a dozen disclaimers and possibilities other than a miscarriage. Maybe it’s too early, maybe it’s just in a weird position, maybe maybe maybe. But in my heart, I knew immediately and without question. My baby was gone. My bloodwork confirmed it had been there, but it left this world before we even got to see it on a screen. I was in tears while still on the table and I didn’t quit crying for… I don’t even remember how long. As we checked out, the receptionist asked me if I was okay. I said no, and nothing else. I just stared at the wall behind her. My body felt numb, but my heart and my brain were in complete and utter devastation. Hubby physically held me to be sure I wouldn’t collapse with grief right there in the lobby. I’m surprised I didn’t.

I remember the horrible ugly-cry-meltdown that happened in the parking lot. Blubbering, sobbing, snot running everywhere, barely able to speak, yet still able to (sort of) utter, “WHY AM I NOT GOOD ENOUGH TO HAVE A BABY?!” and “WHY DON’T I GET TO BE IN THE CLUB?!?” while hubby sat helplessly next to me rubbing my back. I remember the blue Subaru that parked right in front of us as I was in the middle of this fit, and the woman who climbed out of the passenger’s seat sporting a giant pregnant belly as her husband scurried to her to make sure she didn’t slip and fall. Despite having my whole world right there next to me doing everything a person could possibly do to comfort me, I’d never felt more alone.

The brutal thing about miscarriage is it’s not something that just happens in a moment and it’s over. It’s a process. The worst process I think I’ve ever endured. Multiple blood tests to ensure HCG was returning to zero. Two follow-ups at the doctor’s office. All of that in addition to the physical stuff, which was unlike anything I’d ever been through and lasted almost a week.

As a dreadful side note that I have unfortunately never forgotten, that doctor never even said, “I’m sorry this happened,” or “You’re going to be okay.” It was all so clinical for him. At the last appointment, he talked to us about whether we should be using birth control “at our age” and scared us with a bunch of statistics about birth defects as I sat there and cried, still grieving the baby I’d only lost days before. There’s no way I was in a place to consider whether I’d want to try for another one. I felt like a teenager being scolded and warned about unplanned pregnancy.

There were other complications around that time that made this spiral I was in plunge much, much lower. It was a very dark time for me. Desperate for any distraction from the mental health hell I was living in and the fact I had just lost the only pregnancy I’d ever had, I let someone into my life that I shouldn’t have. I thought I could trust them to be my friend and to be a support to me, as I was to them. Somehow, they got through all the walls I normally have up to protect myself. They knew exactly what to say, and when, and how.

And then, they hurt me. They betrayed my trust and they hurt me so badly. They even involved other people in this little scheme to hurt me, and they said things that were not true and tried to humiliate me and harm my family life. They went WAY over the line. I felt like my entire world was being turned upside down. I didn’t know if I was going to be okay. I blamed myself for ALL of it. I couldn’t see at the time that I had been exploited, manipulated, and frankly, abused. It took MANY months of therapy and my endlessly patient husband beating into my head that I was a victim, and not to blame. For a very long time I refused to let myself off the hook for that, believing that if I considered myself a victim, that it would be a copout and I’d be one of those people who doesn’t take responsibility for their actions.

Except they weren’t my actions, they were someone else’s. That person saw me in a vulnerable spot and exploited that for their own amusement/entertainment/ego/gratification/whatever. It’s disgusting and talking to that person in the first place is on my top 5 list of all-time regrets.

When all of that happened, the dark stuff got worse. For the first time in my entire life, I had fleeting thoughts of hurting myself. That is not an easy thing to share. I had never experienced anything in that realm before. Ever. That belief that the world would be better off without me was so intense at this point. It played on repeat inside my head without my consent. It was so difficult and exhausting to argue with it. I would come home from work completely wiped out just from battling with my own brain all day. I’d have nothing left for going and doing fun things with my family during the week.

I stopped taking good care of myself. I stopped being as active and my diet went straight downhill. Off a cliff, really. I felt like I couldn’t trust anyone (outside my own family of course), that no one genuinely wanted me around, and that anyone who did seem to want me around was just lying to me and wanted to hurt me. My walls grew taller and stronger. I vowed not to let anyone into my life anymore, ever. My therapist argued. Hubby argued. The logical part of my brain argued. It didn’t matter; it was the only foolproof way I could protect myself. If you never let anyone in, then no one can be close enough to hurt you.

Isolation and loneliness – obviously – intensified during that time. They became their own spiral, parallel to the anxiety spiral. Hubby and I were doing better than we had been in a long time. This was primarily because of his willingness to try to help me through all of this, to hold me up when I just wanted to curl up in a ball and fade away, to teach my hard-headed self how to communicate, to teach me to trust him more completely with my feelings and thoughts during a time when my tendency was to shut everyone out. Without his support, and that of the phenomenal therapist, I’m not sure I would be here today to write this.

Amid all this internal turmoil, for some unknown reason, I never felt safe in Anchorage except in my own house. It sounds silly and it’s very frustrating to me that I couldn’t ever identify a reason, nor fix it, but it’s the truth. The phenomenal therapist says sometimes there is no tangible reason. She said her best theory was that I wasn’t living in a place that allowed me to exist in line with my values (family, sense of community, etc), and that this causes anxiety even in people who are normally not anxious. She also said she had multiple other clients who described living in Anchorage exactly the same way I did. It wasn’t just me. That helped a lot.

Though I’d wanted to move back home since about 2016, I tried to white knuckle it. I fake smiled a lot. I hoped so hard that things would get better. That I would find a way to handle it better. Kiddo was in a great private school (because the public schools there just… weren’t the experience we wanted for him…), and he and hubby were in a wonderful martial arts program together that was so good for both of them. We loved our house there and our neighborhood and our neighbors.

But for me, that’s where the positives ended. It was nice having lots of different restaurants and stores around, but I was uncomfortable. EVERYWHERE. I couldn’t enjoy the things I DID want to do there. I was always too busy struggling to breathe, feeling like my heart was going to pound out of my chest, and watching over my shoulder like some kind of paranoid crackhead. These things were all new and foreign to me, and highly irritating.

I finally started to feel like I was coming to a crossroads in early 2018. I knew I needed to get out of there, but I was so conflicted. I didn’t want to take hubby and kiddo out of this environment they liked. But I also knew that they deserved a happy wife/mom, not an uptight/anxious/grumpy/miserable one. Thanks to the head game of anxiety, it took me over a year to convince myself that I was worth forcing the issue.

Hubby and I had so many uncomfortable discussions about this. He was so hesitant for so many reasons, all of which I understood. But as I got more honest and more blunt with him about the dark place I had been living in, he was very clear that he knew we needed to do whatever was going to make me okay again. He may not have loved the idea of moving back, but he was clear that if that’s what would help things, it was a no brainer.

It is a testament to the type of human being hubby is, and what kind of husband too, that I questioned this and flip-flopped dozens, if not hundreds, of times, and every single time, he reminded me it was what we needed to do. He argued for something he didn’t even want. He insisted we needed to do this so I would be okay. Nothing else mattered. He was not about to let me slide further into the abyss, and I think he knew this was the one thing he could do to help me. He would do anything to make sure I am okay. He definitely proved that to me all over again in this process. He had tried everything else; this is all that was left.

I started looking for jobs back home last spring. I had a few close calls, but nothing felt just right. My plan was to continue looking until mid-summer, and then suspend my search until the following spring, because I always swore I wouldn’t move kiddo in the middle of the school year. I was feeling guilty for moving him at all; I couldn’t bear to make him change mid-year.

I found myself flaking a little on the job hunting. I would look when I had hard days, and when I had not-so-bad days, I would cling to the idea of trying to wait another year. For them. I had to find a way. I had to find more strength, or a new way to deal with things, or something. It was gut-wrenching to think of making them leave a place they liked, regardless of anything.

I had a particularly horrendous day at work last fall. It was bad enough that I remember the date. October 17th. A Thursday. I won’t get into what happened because it no longer matters, but it was bad. I took hubby (who worked in the same place I did) back into a private area and cried about being treated like garbage… again. The floodgates broke that day. I wasn’t just sad and frustrated this time though, I was extremely angry. It takes a lot to get me to the point of truly angry, but I was pushed well past it that day.

I remember looking hubby in the eye in that moment and saying, “I have already talked myself out of applying for that job back home several times but tonight I am going home and submitting my application because I deserve BETTER THAN THIS. I’m sorry that that means we have to leave.”

He hugged me quietly. He didn’t argue. He knew there was no point. But on the other hand, I knew that getting that job was a long shot. It was a sweet gig that is well-known to have a great work environment and excellent pay and benefits. I knew there would be dozens of applicants for this job. But I had to apply, because if I didn’t, and a week or a month later I had an equally horrific day, I’d be so mad at myself for letting the opportunity pass me by.

I stuck to my plan. I went home that night and I spent three hours tweaking my resume and completing the online application. I gave it my absolute best, hit the submit button, and I immediately felt better. I felt like I had DONE something to move toward my goal. I wasn’t just sitting idle and complaining, I was doing the only thing I could do to get the ball rolling. That felt good. Then, I had to find some patience and brace myself for disappointment, because I knew it would be two or three weeks before I got a call… if ever.

That was Thursday night that I applied. The job posting closed on Monday evening. Imagine my utter shock when my phone rang the very next morning and it was the hiring manager asking me for an interview ASAP. I was stunned! We scheduled a phone interview for the next day. Cue the panic – I hadn’t had to do a real interview (with people I didn’t already know) in a decade! But interview time came, and I was a little grateful that they couldn’t see me, so hopefully they couldn’t tell how nervous I was.

Oh, as a side note, I found it really interesting that my interview, scheduled last-minute, happened to occur on the very same day that kiddo’s bio-siblings, some of whom we fostered for a short time, were having their adoption finalized in court. These particular siblings are very special to us and we love them like our own. We were nothing short of ecstatic that they were finally escaping the horrors of foster care after many years.

And also, my desk calendar from that day, I discovered that morning, said:

Suddenly things started to feel just a little bit… dare I say… meant to be?

The interview was with the hiring manager and one other person from the same department. It seemed to be a canned list of questions relevant to this position. I think there were 23 questions? As soon as they asked the first one, I just knew I had this interview. I HAD it. I knew all the answers; I said all the right things. I remember being so encouraged because after a few of my answers they said “wow!” or “that’s amazing.” I felt like I was on a cloud when I hung up the phone.

Can you keep a secret? I didn’t tell anyone this at the time, and I haven’t told anyone else except hubby since. But when I hung up, I knew I had that job. I knew it. In my heart there was no question. I immediately felt calm and peaceful, even excited, albeit a bit nervous about the move itself. I don’t know how I was so sure, and I’ve never experienced that before. I’m never very confident about these things and almost always convince myself of the opposite and focus on things I should have done or said differently. Not this time. It was mine. Done deal. I just had to wait for the call.

In light of such certainty, I knew I should probably start liquidating/cleaning/organizing/packing for the move that I KNEW was coming, but I couldn’t make myself do it. It was such a strange head game. I think I was afraid to bank on it and be wrong (and therefore heartbroken AND having wasted time and energy and effort on it). I also think it was just too scary to move the conversation with hubby to the next level – from ‘maybe someday’ to ‘definitely, and right now.’ I felt a bit paralyzed. Though my usual tendency is to obsess about these kinds of things and drive myself crazy needing to DO something to feel like I’m in control, this time, I decided to just sit back and wait. I knew I’d see an offer, and I knew I didn’t want to take any action until then. For lots of reasons.