| by Teal Cracraft |
As the co-founder of SpeakYourStory, I know how hard it is to share your personal truths because I’ve been sharing mine and it’s not easy. Sometimes, I’m brave enough to put my name on it and sometimes I’m not. For me, the struggle arises from a deeply ingrained belief that only the most polished version of myself is acceptable. That I should hide the messy, flawed, broken pieces because they make me less worthy, less lovable, less than. But, something very deep in my soul shifted this year and I started thinking more about my fears and what my life would look like if I were less afraid. Less afraid to be myself, be seen, be vulnerable and just BE. To literally say, fuck it, this is my life and I’m going to show up and be present and try not to be afraid (thank you Amy Ferris for empowering me to use the f-word which I can only do once per story because it’s still a little terrifying). This new mindset inspired me to share personal stories, like the one you’re about to read, and work as hard as I can to grow the SpeakYourStory community so that it reaches women from all over the world, from all walks of life, and hugs them close and tells them not to be afraid because they are worthy, beautiful and so much more than the world can even handle.
I had my first panic attack when I was eighteen, the week before I left my small Midwestern hometown for college in one of the biggest cities in the country. I only knew two people in Los Angeles and one of those people was my brother who’d just informed me he was moving back home. The reality of being alone in an unknown place was sinking in and the feelings overwhelmed me. I felt like I couldn’t get enough air to fill my lungs and I was suffocating. My heart started thundering so fast and loud that I was sure it would burst. Blood rushed to my head and roared in my ears and I was completely shut off from the world, trapped in my body and totally powerless to control it. And, just as quickly as it came on, it ended.
My panic attacks are sneaky and unpredictable. They strike without warning and the effects can be debilitating. I’ve done everything I can to control it, but all the therapy, meditation, exercise, visualization and breathing techniques only seem to reduce my anxiety. I’ve learned to be mindful of my feelings and identify triggers that could start a panic attack. When my heart accelerates and I feel short of breathe, I pull an imaginary emergency brake that is supposed to slow down my racing thoughts and get my body back under control. Sometimes these tools work and I’m able to avoid a full blown panic attack, but sometimes they don’t and I’m reminded that my condition is something I’ll be dealing with for the rest of my life.
I was five months pregnant when my last panic attack hit. I hadn’t been doing a lot of exercising or meditating during my pregnancy and I wasn’t being especially mindful of my triggers. If I had, I might have been more aware that I was becoming overwhelmed and a little freaked out by the whole first time pregnancy experience. This is all to say that I wasn’t prepared for my casual drive to work to turn into a death defying ride. As my airways constricted and I started gasping for air, I fervently prayed to make it to my exit. I was certain this panic attack would be different than the others because I was pregnant – this would be the one that ended with me passed out and slumped over my steering wheel. To my great relief, I made it to the exit without hurting myself or anyone else. And… then I did the worst thing imaginable, I Googled, “panic attack while pregnant.” Obviously, I wasn’t thinking very clearly because if I was, I wouldn’t have subjected myself to the deluge of frightening information on heart rate, blood flow and oxygen. The more I read, the more terrified I became that I’d have another panic attack on the freeway, lose control of my car, and hurt my baby or some innocent driver.
In the weeks that followed this attack, I made a few attempts to overcome my fear and get back on the interstate. But as soon as I could see the on-ramp, a feeling of dread overcame me, my heart pounded and my palms turned cold and sweaty. I envisioned being surrounded by speeding cars on a road with no easy exits while in the grip of another panic attack. My logical reaction to this phobic behavior was to completely avoid interstate travel and become an expert on back road driving. At the time, I was traveling a lot for work and my twenty minute commute to the airport became an hour and half. Even though I rationally understood that driving on the highway was no more dangerous than driving on back roads or getting on airplanes, this knowledge did nothing to alleviate my irrational fears. The longer I avoided the highway, the more difficult I made it for myself to get back on it.
Many, many weeks after my daughter was born, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore, it was time to get back on the interstate. I dutifully practiced my therapy monologue, “nothing bad has ever happened to you on a highway, the highway is safe and you can always pull over, all you have to do is make it to the first exit.” I checked my mental emergency brake and boldly drove to the on ramp. And, then I drove right by it. Again, and again, and again. I just kept driving by the damn on ramp and I could not force myself to turn the wheel and actually get on the highway. I felt like a complete failure. How was it possible that something I’d safely done for almost twenty years could immobilize me with fear? Over the course of the next three months, I kept trying and getting the same results – which led me to the conclusion that it was time for a new approach.
I made a doctor’s appointment with the intention of requesting any medication that could potentially help me overcome what was now a full blown phobia. Although I’ve never been a huge fan of drugs, I was willing to try anything at this point. I love my doctor, but really didn’t need him to point out that medication is not a true cure – it just masks the symptoms of the underlying issue. Yes, I’m aware of this, and yes, I’ve spent a lot of money on therapy addressing all my real and imaginary fears. In the end, he prescribed an anti-depressant with the highest success rate of combating anxiety. To my great surprise, it actually worked. Within a few weeks, I could tell a difference. I was less on edge and sleeping better. I felt so good that I decided it was time for the ultimate test and drove myself to the on ramp. And, I got on the highway!!! I experienced a tiny bit of trepidation, but my overwhelming feeling was joy. In my mind I was rolling down my window and shouting to my fellow highway drivers, “Hey guys, I’M DOING IT!”
Over the course of the next few months, I worked on regaining my highway driving confidence. Every day, I would challenge myself to drive just a little further than the day before. Some days, I would laugh at the ridiculousness of what amounted to an adult Driver’s Ed where I was both the student and the teacher. Other days, I became frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t drive to a friend’s house because it was one exit beyond my comfort zone. Eventually, I didn’t think about being on the highway at all, I was just driving. And, just driving, after seven months of being paralyzed with fear was magical.