Every couple of years, my dad and step-mom get all of their progeny together for Thanksgiving. The first time, we stayed in Tahoe and I remember taking a really long and wonderful walk with my step-mom and sitting in the hot tub under the stars with my niece. The second time, we were in Santa Barbara, and it was warm and beautiful, though sadly one of my step-mom’s sons and his family couldn’t be there. It was also my first holiday season dealing with anxiety and panic attacks, and I remember feeling anxious but not having an attack during the trip. This year, we were in Ojai in a big old mansion built in the 1920s, and everyone was there. I got to see two of my friends, go on a beautiful hike with the dude and my niece and nephew, and I got spit on by a miniature alpaca.
There are a lot of things about getting together with my family that are awesome: this year, some of us volunteered to paint at Habitat for Humanity, and I got to spend some time wearing a pair of coveralls that made me feel like I was about to land on the moon. But there are also some things that are hard. It can be difficult to realize what you need ahead of time, and it can also be a scary or difficult conversation to have with loved ones. Part of why mental health is so stigmatized is that it’s treated as though the person with the condition is doing this on purpose, and thus their not having a good time/bad mood/sleeping late/whatever is taken personally. Those of us who have experienced it know the fear of judgement that comes when we have to talk about our mental health, and so it can be hard for us to speak up when we need to. One of the things that’s especially hard for me is creating opportunities for myself to be alone or articulating what I need. I struggle to have conversations with my family about how the physical environment or the feeling that I need to be present with everyone at all times has a severe impact on my mental health. I also struggle with thinking things out ahead of time; in retrospect, if I’d spent some time really thinking about what it could/would be like – for every part of the trip and especially for people other than myself- there are things I definitely would have done differently or not at all. I loved being with my family, but I wish that I had been more proactive both before the trip and during it.
I learned a lot of lessons this week about what does and doesn’t work for me, why it’s so important to think ahead, and the ways anxiety influences me even when I’m not conscious of it. Sometimes the particular combination of anxiety and who I am leads me to make bad choices or to be a not-so-great partner/sister/daughter(also sometimes I just fuck up), and it’s my responsibility to keep thinking about anxiety and the things that affect it/it affects. I have to think and learn about the little ways anxiety works within me so that I can continue to grow in all of the roles I fill. Managing anxiety is part of how I take responsibility for my own actions, good or bad, because it’s not the anxiety itself that leads to a choice or tension or whatever it is: it’s the way the I react to those feelings of anxiety, and my thought process around it.
The next time we’re thinking about a big gathering, I plan to use the following as a guide for myself to make sure that I don’t end up in tears or feel overwhelmed or miss sleep because I’m awake with heart palpitations.
Be proactive and think ahead. Set aside some time beforehand to really think about all aspects of a gathering or a trip. What things have the potential to make you feel anxious? What’s the best case response to that feeling of anxiety? What do you think is your most likely response? How can you arrange things to minimize triggers? What strategies can you use to help yourself feel less anxious both before and during the trip/gathering? As I said before, I so, so wish I had done this, not only because it would have been a better experience for me, but for the dude and my family also.
Make sure you have quiet space. If you’re like me – sensitive to light and sound – 15 people at the same dinner table or in the same living room is overwhelming. Once, sure, I can get through that. But multiple times a day for 3-4 days? The cumulative effect of that is huge. Because I was so overwhelmed by the volume and amount of conversations, I spent the whole week taking a steady stream of advil to manage the headache. And honestly, it’s nobody’s fault. I should have made some quiet time for myself on purpose, not just whenever I could find it. A couple of minutes here and there doesn’t cut it, so in the future I’m going to make sure I carve out time for myself each day to just not talk and be separate from others.
Try to keep up your management strategies. I didn’t even bring yoga stuff because I had no idea what our schedule would be like, and I really regret it. We went for a hike, which was awesome, and gave me some endorphins that I sorely needed, but then I was basically sedentary for four days and that was no bueno. Not only was I physically feeling it, but my emotional shields were pretty well depleted by the time we left because I hadn’t really had much time to myself to recharge and work through things that were bothering me/difficult/causing anxiety. I’m also thinking about going back to meditating on the days I don’t do yoga in order to have more consistency and provide myself with that quiet space intentionally, every day.
Plan an escape route. I’m not advocating just up and leaving or cutting the trip short (though there is nothing wrong with that if that is what you need). As we were working out logistics for the trip, we planned time with friends at the beginning and the end of the trip, and that was great. I wish we’d done something similar during the trip, too. Since it’s hard for me to tell my family in the moment that I need space, next time I plan on setting aside some time before the trip to talk to them about my needs and make plans for breathing room so that we can all be expecting not to be all together all the time.
Speak up. A lesson I’ve learned before but that bears learning again and again is how important it is to communicate and set expectations. I so wish I had said something. Honestly. But I did what I normally do and waited until things were pretty bad – like crying in our bedroom each afternoon – before I said anything, and my crying was speaking for me at that point. And even then, I didn’t say anything to my family. The only ones who really knew what were going on were the dude and my sister. The dude and I talk a lot about how it’s easier, better, and less stressful to speak up before you’re at your breaking point, and every time, he’s right. I’m working on that. It’s happening slowly, and I still feel like I suck at it, but I’m trying.
Give yourself a break. The dude is always so good at helping me put anxiety into perspective and not equating an anxiety-driven decision with who I am as a person. I’m really hard on myself, and while sometimes I deserve it, mostly I don’t look at the whole picture before I start feeling guilty and having regrets. Then I ruminate and ruminate and end up feeling bad and obsessing way past the point that’s healthy. The dude helps me balance taking ownership of my behavior with giving myself permission to make mistakes and move on. He holds me accountable while giving me the space to reflect and make better choices for the next time. I’m learning how to do this for myself, too, but it’s hard work. I just keeping thinking about what my sister said to me: take all of the compassion you feel for [other anxious people] and turn it towards yourself when you are feeling anxious. And she’s totally right. When I’m feeling anxious, I have a tendency to be even harder on myself than normal. While I don’t want to let myself off the hook when I do make a mistake or a bad decision, I also want to be able to move forward. I have to give myself a break and remember that I’m not perfect. And I have to allow myself to do whatever I need to do to feel better, even if that means disappointing some people – or myself – temporarily.
I hope this is helpful for some people. It definitely was for me. When we got back from the trip I was just kind of like but writing this post and really thinking through at all was so helpful.