“Yes, Sure, You Were ‘Sick’!”

I’ve heard this so many times.  I am not coughing.  I am not sneezing.  I am not complaining of chills.  I am not home ‘sick’ in the term that I have the flu and need to be in bed.  I would not spread my illness if I came into work.  I would not pass germs that would in turn get you ‘sick’.
But I am sick.

Dictionary.com defines the word ‘sick’ as one who is “afflicted with ill health or disease; ailing.”  Although I am not hacking or vomiting on you, I am in fact sick.  I am afflicted with ill health or disease.  I like to call them hidden diseases.  These mental illnesses, Anxiety and Depression (and at one point PTSD and OCD).  There are further definitions on Dictionary.com that include mental ailments but it shocks me that when a person calls out sick it has to be seen as a ‘real’ ailment to be deemed a ‘real’ sick day and not ‘playing hookie’.  The matter is, when I use a sick day at work, I am sick, but it is my Anxiety and Depression that are center stage.

The last time I took a sick day where I was what is considered sick to a typical person was January of 2014 when I acquired the flu.  For days I was bedridden, sleeping, going through chills alternating with being too hot, running high fevers and completely depleted of all energy.  You know what, those ‘fake’ sick days, my body wants to be bedridden.  I am usually dizzy and nauseas and it is my brain that makes me feel this way, no bacteria or virus I can fault.  My brain, an organ I will live with all my life… not a bacteria that will take up residence for a week.  How can you not call that sick?

Through the years, I have learned to mask first my Depression because I have lived with it for such a long time, more than half my life.  I have just recently perfected the fake smile and faux happy personality when it comes to my Generalized Anxiety.  This little devil has been present in my life for the last decade and I never know when it will go on a nice vacation and I never know when it will return.  Little bugger!  Recently, it has decided to become the dictator of my being.  It took over me a week and a half ago making my body rigid and me mute.  That day was the start to me feeling, well, off.  The work week following that incident, I spent most of my days hiding in my cubicle not wanting to interact with anyone.  Many times I wished I could just go home and hide in my room.  I wanted to be alone.  If I did have interact with my coworkers, I was the smiling funny person I usually am.  All I have to do is put on that fake grin and all of my inner turmoil is hidden.  Viola!  I look perfectly fine.

This past Sunday night I slept awfully.  Even pumped up on .5mg of Ativan and 2mg of Lunesta, my body would not fall asleep.  After watching the 2 hour premiere of Return To Amish because well I had nothing else to do, I decided to try and fall asleep again.  It was 1am.  Luckily, sleep came quick but my body awoke at 5:00am.  Insomnia was back.  When I finally decided to wake up for the day and not continue a fit of tossing and turning in bed in hopes I would fall back asleep it was 6:30am.  I gave in.  Brain, you won.  With a rush of dizziness and nausea, I felt it best to call out sick.

Upon returning to the office the next day, some comments were thrown at me about being ‘sick’.  Sometimes it gets to the point where I feel like the boy who cried wolf.  I have all these physical symptoms but I do not look sick.  I am on day nine of going to bed with such pain in my neck and shoulders because they have been tense all day.  I am highly unmotivated to move and feel out of it.  I don’t quite feel depressed as I do not feel hopeless or worthless, but I do not feel like myself.  Some negative thoughts are returning to me… thoughts where my husband and child deserve better.  I am frequently apologizing to both of them for being so irritable all the time.  “I don’t want to be mean, I am so sorry.”  As I am saying this, I imagine my daughter sitting in therapy in her adult years talking of her mother who snapped at her with anger all the time.  It’s not what I want, but I can’t control it.  Anxiety has taken the reigns.

And then, with the comments and the demons I live with, I begin to wonder if I am imagining these symptoms… maybe I am not really ‘sick’.  This feeling only fuels the craziness I live with… now I am debating with myself if what I feel, mental and physical, is actually real?  Am I just saying this stuff for attention?  I mean, I am the youngest child.  Youngest children usually crave attention, but that was never me.  I also am known to complain a lot, but not about my health.  I have a high pain tolerance and usually wait until the last minute to get help with any ailment.  Still, is this all in my head?  Do I just feel ignored and want to be heard?  

And then I take a step back and breathe.  Stigma.  Damn that stigma.  Just when I think I have broken through its barrier, I am sucked back into the vortex.  This stigma is the reason people do not believe me when I am sick.  I can’t fall victim to it again, it will only hurt me.  This is the reason I share my story all the time.  This is the reason I explain to people what it is like to suffer with a condition that plagues your brain, that interferes with your logical thinking.  

I am sick and some days the pressure builds up mentally, causing physical symptoms and I need to take a day off just like when having a fever.  I need to rest.  Any person deserves that without sarcastic comment.  You deserve to be trusted.

When July 4th Isn’t a Holiday Anymore…

Fireworks enchant me.  The brilliant colors of light that blast in the night sky, not knowing exactly which direction they will burst, what beautiful hues will show, and exactly how loud they will be.  I was always mesmerized by them.  A beautiful man made project dancing with physics come together cohesively to create these sky artwork masterpieces.

Then I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  Somehow these once beautiful displays now cripple me.  Sitting at a friend’s annual fireworks party, I felt myself tense up with each pop.  My breaths were becoming short and shallow and I honestly became frozen, unable to speak.  On the outside, I looked like any other spectator, inside I was crying.  I couldn’t believe how my body was reacting to this.  I became panicked and quickly covered any sign of it up.  I only told my husband later that evening when we got home.

And this was a planned fireworks display.  That was only July 2nd.

The next day, panic started the moment I heard the first loud bang around 8pm.  Every noise startled my body.  I was worried I wouldn’t sleep, that my “courteous” neighbors would go the whole night firing off these things.  I repeatedly told myself, “Stephanie, don’t worry, tomorrow is a holiday, you can sleep then if you want.”  A motto that repeated in my brain like a broken record.  Before midnight that night, a sonic boom was created by one said firework, it shook my whole house causing me to jump, exclaim “What the F*ck?!”, and ultimately have an anxiety attack.  Shit, this was only July 3rd.

Sleep did not come easy that night.

I woke up irritable.  It wasn’t shocking.  It took me awhile to fall asleep due to the neighbors’ earthquake producing fireworks and the fact my room was so hot.  Then I woke up several times that night.  I incessantly apologized for my mean behavior as I was being very snarky and sarcastic.  We spent the whole day introducing our daughter to Star Wars Episode VI and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone via cinema.  The holiday seemed relaxing enough.  I was just anticipating the start of the fireworks.  As my husband and I were downstairs watching Murder In The First off the DVR…

“Boom! Pop! Whizz!”

With every sound, my digits tensed.  I dug into the arm of my loveseat with my whole body.  Soon enough I was tensely wound in a huge knot, locked in the fetal position.

“Boom!”

I let out a yelp and shook.  My breathing rapid.  With each burst of a firework, a tear fell from my eyes, my breaths grew more intense and I became rigid and scared.  I am not sure when exactly my Anxiety took complete control of my body last night but over an hour later, my 9 year old daughter came down the stairs to the basement to join us.  She couldn’t fall asleep because the fireworks were loud.

“Can I stay down here?” she asked.

At this point, barely able to recognize her voice, I was like a corpse in rigor on the floor still in the fetal position making a repeated sound every time I gasped for air.  She stayed with us, hugging me, telling me it would be alright.  I kept letting out whispers of “Help me” for them to try to pry me apart as my body was riddled with pain at being locked in this position for over an hour.  My husband tried to pull my legs, my daughter my arm.  Nothing worked.  I couldn’t speak so I could not request my husband get me an Ativan.  My daughter suggested my husband give me some alcohol (yes, not the greatest parenting) which he was about to do but I was unable to drink I was so nauseated.  Anything to get me to relax enough to breathe.

Almost 2 hours in, I felt my breathing slow.  My chest no longer weighted down.  I was able to speak and asked for help once again to uncurl my exhausted body.  My husband uncoiled one arm and shook it out.  Then he did the other.  I took a deep breath.  My daughter moved the ottoman as I was on the floor and my husband pulled at one leg and then the other.  Now instead of sitting pretzel-like, my legs were straight out in front of me but fused.  Reaching out his arms, I grasped my husband’s hands with mine and was lifted straight up.  I could not walk yet, but rather shuffled to the steps as my legs were still stiff and somehow made my way up the stairs where I dropped on my bed and took my Ativan.

I was never in the military.  The mild form of PTSD I suffered from was never triggered by fireworks.  Like those former troops who fear the loud pops every 4th of July, I do too.  My Generalized Anxiety Disorder is no joke.  I don’t want to be incapable of moving and speaking because I am so panicked especially in front of my child.  I could not stop my body.  I could not stop my brain.  July 4th is no longer a holiday for me.  Yes, I still get to enjoy the day off of work with my family and friends, but the fear that is built up over the day concerning what fireworks will go off, when they will go off and how long they will last takes over my whole body.  My “holiday” turns into a nightmare at the bare minimum.

It is now Tuesday, July 5th, and I started my day off with anxiety attacks.  I sat through a meeting masking my short breaths, desiring to go home and hide.  I worry about tonight and the fireworks.  I worry about the next July 4th and am already researching countries to go to to avoid reliving what happened last night. I am still living in fear.  All I can hope for is that tonight is not a repeat of last night.

Why I Am Going To Stop Body Shaming

For as long as I can remember, the words “Fat Free” were a part of my everyday vocabulary.  I am not sure when the switch to fat free milk was made in my house but I don’t remember any other kind as a child.  It was in my elementary school years where cookies became bad, cakes were evil and chocolate was a swear word.  All of these possessed huge amounts of calories.  It didn’t mean too much back then as a small child.  I had frequent birthday parties that I went to where I had the “sinful” cake.  But it was starting, the body shaming, and I was learning it like every female before, from their mother.  I watched her turn down sweets, make lighter meals with every fat-free ingredient possible and often went with her to Ideal Weight meetings.  I even attended a few aerobic classes.  This was back in the 80s when Richard Simmons promised you a great figure if you just “Sweat To The Oldies”.  People only looked at the words “fat free” and “sugar free” , knew it wasn’t going to taste as yummy, but would be a good healthier version of the real thing.  So many times I tried to convince myself that those Snackwell cookies really did taste like chocolate heaven. What the heck was I thinking?!

My body shaming started around my pre-teens, eleven, twelve years old. It may have been a few years before.  I started to compare myself with my friends and couldn’t help but notice I was a little bit chubbier then they were. While a few of them were still in kids sizes in junior high, I had hit adult sizes and weighed almost 100lbs in my small 4′-9 1/2” frame. I looked at my thighs when sitting and just noticed how much they spread out. I saw the blob of knee fat I inherited from my mother’s side of the family. I critiqued every aspect of my body. I was absolutely ashamed.  I started dieting in high school.  Every summer I would follow Weight Watchers, nitpick at what I was eating, tell myself to do more exercise… still nothing was good enough.  My size in clothing just went up to about a women’s 8 and I was at my max height of 5′-1″.  Nothing that is really of a huge concern weight-wise but my mind was already made up.  I was fat.  I would never get a boyfriend, never be popular, never succeed.  Of course the media didn’t help.  Everywhere from magazines to TV shows, women were shown as toothpick skinny and still are.  Even as the years passed, it seems we have become comfortable showing bigger men on shows but the women seem to get skinnier.  What kind of message is that?!

So I kept myself busy.  Like I do now to keep my anxiety at bay, I do anything that prevents me from thinking.  I volunteered for the high school paper, the writing anthology, theater, anything.  Then I became sick April of my senior year and dropped ten pounds in a week due to a kidney infection that prevented me from keeping anything down.  I thought it was the greatest thing to happen to me.  Losing 10lbs in 1 week!  That was awesome in my teenaged/young adult mind.

Just when I thought I had this weight thing worked out, I went away to college and put on the freshman fifteen, but thankfully, lost it with Weight Watchers over the summer.  This cycle repeated my sophomore year.  Unfortunately, the losing part stopped with junior year.  By the time I graduated, I was thirty pounds heavier then when I started college and feeling like a big fat pig.  I could’ve taught a class in Body Shaming 101.  This weight stayed on me when I married my husband and was still there when I was told that I couldn’t continue living with my current resting blood pressure of 150/90.  I had to do something especially since we wanted to start a family the following year.

My PCP put me on a blood pressure medication, but basically told me I had to cut out all salt and actually perform some type of exercise activity instead of dreaming about it in my head.  Sure, sure, I can do that.  Day one, I put my sneakers on, disgustingly stared at myself in the mirror and did 15 minutes of Wii Fit.  Thinking some sort of weight loss miracle occurred in those 15 minutes I ran up to the bathroom and went to look at myself in the mirror again.  Nope, no change.  Why was I doing this?!  I was never going to be happy with body.  But I continued and worked my way up over the next few months to exercising 4 times a week for at least 30 minutes.  And, I lost weight.  I was thrilled!

Then I got pregnant with my daughter and was even more ecstatic until I hit that period in my pregnancy when I didn’t quite look pregnant yet, I just looked fat.  Great.  Now sporting a size 12 in pants to accommodate my little jellybean, I had to keep telling myself that there was a baby growing inside and that I wasn’t fat.   A few weeks later it was very apparent that I was indeed pregnant.  Once my daughter was born, losing the weight became very simple, but not healthy.  I developed postpartum Depression and Anxiety and was vomiting.  By the time she was a month old, I had lost about 30 of the 40 pounds I put on while pregnant.  I also was being hospitalized.  After twelve days there, I was now eating and eating a lot and gained fifteen of those pounds back.  A few months later, I started attending Weight Watcher’s meetings with my mother.  And the cycle continues.

I had a great few years when the stars were aligned and my mental, emotional and physical well-being were an amazing trifecta of strength.

Then, my mental leg slipped and dragged my emotional leg down with it.  I was hospitalized again for Major Depressive Disorder and Severe Generalized Anxiety Disorder in January 2015.  I saw my body go from 104lbs from not being able to eat when I entered the hospital and gradually rise the months following.  I had hit 130lbs, 15lbs more than I wanted to be because to me 115lbs was my ideal.  The weight only added to my Depression.  I was stagnant… no energy to do anything and eating too much.  A year later, this past January, I started counting calories.  Still nothing.  I kept up with walking at lunch, did Pilates at work, tried some fitness classes… nothing.  Feeling hopeless, I turned inward and started to blame the most logical source, the 3 medications I was on to keep me sane.  All 3 of them can cause weight gain.

What I didn’t see was my daughter.  I didn’t notice her there when I would question my husband on how exactly he cooked dinner down to every ingredient and amount used as I entered in the calories.  I didn’t see her when we went out to eat and I ordered a salad mentioning I wanted to lose weight.  I didn’t notice she was there and at the prime age to take in and absorb what I was saying.  I had continued and passed this thinking down to her.

“Mommy, I’m fat!” she told me one day.

I stared at her quizzically, “Where?  Where is there fat on your body?”

My daughter is tall and slender like her father.  She then proceeded to point to her stomach and the inherited knee fat.  What have I done?!  She’s only 9!  I don’t want her to grow up like me constantly looking for body approval and yet it has already started.  But I didn’t wake up that first time.  After brushing the comment off I still continued to track my calories, discuss my exercise, and turn away those sinful foods… still in front of her.

Then I weaned off one of my meds, the medication I thought for sure was causing the weight to stay on.  Yet, the weight didn’t come off.  I became sad and only discussed my weight obsession further in front of Sophia until I read the following 2 articles:

“I’m Afraid My Daughter Will Think It’s “Normal” to Hate Her Body — Because of Me” written on Babble by a friend from high school whose daughter is only a toddler and  “Why I’m Accepting the ‘Weight Gain’ Side Effect of My Psychiatric Medications” on The Mighty.

I reread them both and thought a lot about them over the last few days especially when my daughter complained she was “fat” again.  If I continued to shame myself, I was not only hurting myself, but affecting my daughter’s way of thinking about her body.  And why was I doing this?  Because I was 10lbs away from my goal weight, my perfect weight of 115lbs?  I am still on 2 medications that cause weight gain that I am nowhere near ready to get off of.  These meds help me live a typical life.  I am eating well, exercising when possible, basically doing everything I can do.  I can still fit it to XS and S shirts, still am a 0-4 in pants depending on brand.  I am still relatively skinny.

As I thought about all this, I thought about how I could execute the “No More Body Shaming” plan.  I have been shaming myself for around 30 years.  It would not be easy.  But like my friend Marisa states in her Babble article, I can try to not say anything in front of my daughter.  I am happy to report that for the last couple of days I have kept my mouth shut.  I still log my calories but am now doing it when she is not around.  I am learning to accept my figure and its “flaws”.  It is a start that I hope will reverse some of the damage I did to my daughter and create an appreciation for the amazing thing my body actually is.

I Am An Empath…

When I close my eyes, I am being pulled deep underwater, my leg in the clenches of an alligator’s tightly gripped mouth.  I am screaming, wailing, crying for help, clueless of what is going on.  I am waiting to be saved by my Mommy and Daddy, waiting to see their faces and feel their warm embrace.  A few days later, they find my body.

This vision has been with me since I first read about the two year old little boy who was enjoying his Disney vacation with his mother, father and older sister while watching the evening movie on the beach at the water’s edge of the Seven Seas Lagoon at the Grand Floridian.  My family was staying there just two months ago.  I walked past that spot several times during that vacation.  A vacation that was to us the most “Happiest Place On Earth”.

I have no blame for this incident.  The media has already developed enough with the child who fell into the gorilla enclosure at a zoo and now this.  I do not for one single minute blame the parents for not watching their child.  He was close by dipping his feet at the water’s edge.  He was right near them.  Although alligators are common in Florida, I do not blame Disney for not foreseeing an alligator coming into a man-made Lagoon.  There is no blame here…

There are tears.  Lots of tears.  Inside my head, for the last few days, I’ve been crying non stop for this little boy.  I’ve been imagining what he may have gone through and as a mother, I have been trying to take his pain and place it on me.  I have put myself in his parents’ shoes and tried to live the grief they are going through, the blame they probably put on themselves, the guilt.  I very well know this is not my job.  I cannot carry the pain of everyone on this planet.  Most times, my own pain is too much.  Yet I do, or at least I try and I don’t know how to stop and I don’t think I want to.

Along with this little boy, the innocent lives of those 49 people that were lost at the nightclub just a few days prior because of an assassin with his own internal struggles, swim inside my head.  I try to carry their pain and their families’ pain.  I imagine how that scene played out.  I cry at the vision.

And it doesn’t end there.  I am once again thrown into the loss of my foster son.  Thinking of him everyday, I am somehow envisioning him being dragged down with the alligator, but I am that alligator.  When I am lucid, I know this is not true.  I know I helped him along with my husband and daughter in so many ways in those two months but because of what I was going through, I imagine he saw things that scared him.  I only hope he was young enough he never remembers them.

I am an Empath.  I am “…affected by other people’s energies, and have an innate ability to intuitively feel and perceive others… You are always open, so to speak, to process other people’s feelings and energy, which means that you really feel, and in many cases take on the emotions of others (themindunleashed.org)”.  I am now facing this on a larger scale, trying to take on the emotions of all those who perished and their families, a large population all at once.

For me, I am at that point that if I let it continue, I may be dragged down into that dark place I have just recently left, another episode of Major Depression.  All these emotions, sadness, helplessness, guilt that these families must be feeling… pain, fear, loss that those who died were feeling.  If I do not somehow quell them, Depression will take me again and turn those emotions onto me.  I fear this.  I have not completely healed from episode six.  What would happen to me?

But I can’t stop.  I can’t stop feeling.  I can’t stop going into a room and knowing if the atmosphere is a happy one or one full of tension.  I can’t stop seeing my friends go through a hard time and not feeling anything for them.  I can’t stop wanting to hold all those who are grieving.  I am programmed this way.

I am an Empath, a common trait amongst those who are Mentally Ill.  I am highly emotional and tend to absorb feelings of those around me and those I’ve never met.  I feel everything.  Although at times, this affects me to a threatening point, I am glad I am an Empath.  This world needs more people who have empathy.  The more empathy in this world, the less these tragic events occur.  For now, I will try to focus my energies somewhere else with therapy, medication, walking, reading, cuddling with my daughter, anything that will make me happy and focus my mind somewhere else.

To find out more on being and Empath, please read this article:  Top 10 Traits of an Empath

I fit each and every one of them.