By Casandra Porter
Four months ago I found myself sitting at work, hiding in a conference room, trying to settle my panic. Hands sweating, body wracked with the shakes, and fear was floating to the top of it all. Please. I need to work, I’ve got three more hours, just help me hold it together until then, I pleaded with whatever god or goddess could hear my cry. Nothing I had been doing for the last hour was working. I’d thrown on a meditation app, I’d taken a quick walk around the parking lot, I’d played the sensory game (name something you see, hear, taste, smell, and can touch), and I’d called my mom, but really that never worked. She didn’t understand what anxiety and panic felt like. She didn’t understand why you couldn’t just think happy thoughts and the world wouldn’t just magically realign itself for you. Or maybe she did. She just did a great job making me feel I was alone in the world and, ultimately, she made me feel more insane. It wasn’t her fault, she really did try to help.
I gathered my nerve and walked back out to my desk. We were all gathering for a meeting. We had way too many meetings. As my manager started discussing how disappointed she was we missed a deadline, one I clearly communicated to her we were going to miss if I didn’t get help, I realized something that changed my life. If I didn’t do something about the overwhelming and nearly unsurmountable amount of stress I was dealing with, I was going to die. It didn’t have anything to do with taking my own life. I wasn’t suicidal. My body was in overload. My mind was at its breaking point. If I didn’t change something, anything, I wasn’t going to survive.
I went home and talked to my husband. I needed to take some time off of work and I needed to do it now. I don’t know how long but it wasn’t a negotiation, it was a head’s up. He didn’t argue. He could see it, too. It had begun to seep into every part of my life including our relationship.
Initially, I said it’ll only be a few weeks and I’ll be able to go back. A few weeks turned into a few months. I was paralyzed with fear still. If I went back to work then the cycle would just reset. I needed real change, not a vacation. I needed to work on myself. I needed the self-care I spent so much of my time coaching other family caregivers to do for themselves. I wasn’t practicing what I was preaching and I was sliding into the point of no return way too quickly to process.
I was seeing three therapists, at the same time! Like, who does that? I wasn’t crazy, I was stressed. The first therapist was through our EAP program. He was a nice guy. Older gentleman and he kind of gave me those Dad vibes. I’d been missing my Dad and I thought, here’s someone who will probably give me the more down-to-earth and practical advice I needed. He did. He said, “Well, it’s clear your insomnia comes from being on red alert for your husband and trying to make sure you’re awake if he has another seizure.” Duh, I thought. I knew this. We stayed focused on this topic. The solution was to get a monitoring system. A wonderful idea. Also, a very expensive idea since his insurance didn’t cover it. I’ve got bills to pay. Next!
For four sessions we didn’t talk about anything except that damn monitoring system. I wanted to scream, “Look, man! I’ve got real problems. The monitor is a no-go. Can we focus on the fact that I’m losing my damn mind?” I could have said that. I should have said that. Instead, I left that fourth session on the search for someone more receptive. I can say what I need when it comes to just about anything except for when it pertains to myself. I needed someone who could look in my eyes and see that I’m hurting and say, “It’s okay to feel everything you’re feeling right now. You’re going to be okay.” I just wanted anyone to tell me I was going to be okay. I was going to be okay, wasn’t I?
In the interim, I would see the behavioral tech in my primary care office. Her job was to tell me that yes, I was suffering from panic disorder and PTSD and then try to find me the right combination of medication. I tried one. It made me feel spaced out as if I was looking down on my life but not really participating it. We stopped that quick. I continued to cope. And by cope I mean, I had taken this time off from work to decompress, to do nothing. Instead, I was finding everything under the sun I could use as a coping skill. A minute alone with my thoughts created fear and panic so real I thought I’d die from the thought of not wanting to die. It was exhausting. Sleep brought me face-to-face with the nightmares I hid from during the day. So, I just didn’t sleep.
The behavioral tech suggested intensive outpatient group therapy. I did the intake still searching for a one-on-one connection. By the time my insurance approved this therapy, I’d found a new therapist who practiced somatic experiencing. Somatic experiencing is a type of therapy used for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or other types of trauma therapy. This therapy focuses on the patient’s perceived body sensations. Together with my behavioral tech, my new therapist, and this intensive outpatient group therapy I was going into a different type of overload. The behavioral tech at my primary care office talked about coping strategies. The group therapist focused all of our meetings on coping strategies. As a coping strategy, while I waited on actual therapy to begin, I read self-help books and watched YouTube videos on coping strategies. I had coping strategies up the wazoo. And in all of this, I realized something about coping strategies. A coping strategy can be just as detrimental to your health as no coping strategies at all. I’d collected a million different coping strategies over the years so that I didn’t have to face what I was feeling. I didn’t need another coping strategy. I needed to face my fears directly and not hide behind some coping strategy.
For years, I’d kept myself busy and immersed in everything I could pick up and carry as to not have to deal with the grieving I needed to do over my father who passed away in 2012. I had picked up a different coping strategy as a way to gloss over the fear I needed to face about immortality after being flung head-on into it from having to watch my husband struggle for his life in hospital rooms from a near-fatal brain infection. I’d picked up even more coping strategies as I got sicker and sicker from neglecting my health because I couldn’t afford to take care of myself and my husband and keep a roof over our heads. There’d be more coping strategies I picked up along the way to deal with the most minute problem. Here I am, a circus act, juggling a million coping strategies and I kept adding more and more as I was becoming more and more off balance.
I could keep juggling and risk hitting the wall that loomed in the distance that I couldn’t see clearly because of my obstructed view, or I could drop them. I could drop them all and start over with just one.
I let go.
What I learned from letting go is that coping strategies are not self-care. They’re just not. What coping strategies do is distract you. Yes, that is good and wonderful in the throes of a panic attack or an episode of anxiety, but long-term, they can kill you just as fast as your problems because they become a way to avoid confronting the things that matter. Self-care means you are acknowledging what you’re feeling, you’re responding to why you’re feeling that way and you’re making sure you’re doing the things in your day to keep you functioning on the highest level mentally, spiritually, physically, and emotionally.
Everybody’s self-care needs are different. Self-care is about finding a healthy balance, not piling on extra but stripping away what isn’t needed and finding the true root of our selves that needs to be nurtured to help us grow and thrive as whole human beings. To find space for the right self-care, we need to let go of what isn’t serving us and replace it with things that replenish and renew us.
Casandra Porter is the owner of CORE Consulting & Pi lishing Group L.L.C. in Tempe, Arizona, which focuses on helping the family caregiver. She also runs the website EssentialsofCaregiving.com. With nearly 20 years of experience in the healthcare industry and 16 years as a working family caregiver, Casandra seeks to bring her expertise to the forefront to assist other family caregivers navigate their own experiences and to help advocate for the varied needs of family caregivers. Her upcoming book, A Guide to Fearless Caregiving: 15 Rules For Creating A Balanced Caregiving Lifestyle comes out Fall 2019. You can follow her work on Instagram: @fearlesscaregiver or through Twitter: @eoc_advocate