Nature – You Are NOT Helping :/

Been a bit melancholy this week. Lots of deep writing and Victorian winter weather, amongst other things. But we have lambs. A lot of lambs, and they are good for the spirit. They do funny things, as well as just being generally wrinkly, fuzzy and ridiculously spindly-legged.

Went out to get obligatory photos of frolicking lambs for mood lifting purposes. Start videoing and realise there is a lamb all alone crying for it’s mother. Crying? BAWLING. Oh, God, Supposed to be happy moment, you brat, you’re ruining my HAPPY MOMENT…..

Mother is standing on other side of gully, bawling back. Get over there you cow, your baby wants you.

Baby bawls. Mother bawls. Bloody hell, sheeple, sort yourselves out.

I cross gully to go and collect lamb. It runs to the protective side of another larger lamb. “Stay away from her, she eats lamb.” Shutup you little….ah, god, this is not going well.

Cross gully, try to herd bawling mother across gully. She backs off with a group of others, melds into the flock up on the rise. Oh, this is just going from worse to worse.

In the meantime I can hear and see the baby with a small contingent back at the shearing sheds. She’s so tiny her umblical cord is still attached. I am furious at the the stupid mother, who is now back at the top of the gully on her own again, bawling.

I walk towards the lamb, I am going to just get you and put you with that other lot over the gully, that’s it – I am doing it. The small group she has joined herself with back up into a small pen, and I fear panicking them. I back off. The mother bellows. The baby squarks back. I give up in despair. Angry, cold, frustrated. I decide to go and get behind the picket fence near the cottage and just keep and eye on them until Ben gets back. He’s good with these things.

I go back to the cottage and as I am wiping my shoes, I turn in time to see the small group of mamas and bubbas the little one fled to walking single file down from the shearing sheds, quietly mewling. They walk about 100m towards the cottage and across a little ford in the creek near us, then silently, with the little lost baby, up the rise to meet the panicked mumma just a few feet from the garden where I stand.

The baby runs to mumma and nudges her udder, suckling frantically as her tails goes bananas.

I cry. Because mother sheep, other people’s babies, lostness and periods.

I’m going inside. I can’t cope with nature right now.

Do Awesome Broken

Yesterday when I woke up I had a bit of a revelation.

I’m going to have days when I want not to live any more, and I’m going to have them for the rest of my life.

I am broken.

This is as good as I get. I need to stop waiting for the time when I’m good enough, fixed, have all my ducks in a row, before I give myself permission to fully inhabit my life.

Don’t get me wrong. I know I still have a lot to learn. I realise fully there is a lot of growth ahead for me; spiritually, personally and intellectually. But yesterday when I woke up, I felt as though the world was collapsing in on me. In my head I was trapped, felt incredibly frustrated and like every single less-than I’ve ever had thrown at me had finally fruited into a toxic, bitter lump of rotten garbage right in the middle of my guts. I felt like if I was going to go through another – yes another, because I’ve been having these horrible, violent episodes of writhing self-hatred mixed with absolute panic my whole life – then I was ready to die, and to make it a quick one.

Surprised? Shocked I have suicidal thoughts from time to time? I can pinpoint the actual days in my life with almost filmic clarity when I considered ending my life, if life meant keeping on having these horrible days inside a hurricane inside my head. I remember one episode I had sitting on a step outside my house sobbing, my two month old baby inside, trying to stay closer to the ground after considering whether throwing myself off the upstairs balcony would kill me outright, or just make me hurt even more. I remember a time curled up in a ball in the corner of my bedroom, in the dark, having just screamed at my teenage daughter for half an hour over God knows what, just a few weeks after my husband left to go to rehab, and when it became clear I would have to divorce him, because he didn’t even have the strength or presence of mind to argue through our differences any more. I wondered if I had enough pills in the house to do it.  I remember waking from a terrible dream I had when I was halfway through radiotherapy, and staying in a hostel in Sydney 400kms away from my family, surrounded by people dying of cancer, a dream where dying was as easy as letting go, as going to sleep, as stopping swimming up and down a pool and tumble turning at the ends, lap after lap after lap, and just sinking to the bottom, and knowing if I just gave up now, nobody would blame me, and there would be peace, stillness, safety. It could all just stop.

But I did not those three times. Or any of the others. Stop, that is. I did not really want to stop living. But I did feel like I wanted to not be alive any more.

For a great many people, being alive is being in pain. It is being alone in a hundred ways, even if there are people all around, and those people like and need you. It is feeling like you are not enough, do not belong, will never stop hurting. For me, being alive is accepting I have days where my head spins and I feel incapable of anything, where the expectations of simply existing in this society with these rules and limitations is impossible for me, because I can’t do it. That’s really what’s at the bottom of it all – *this* is what’s expected, and I cannot do it. Not that I could if I tried, and I can’t try. Not that I am missing information and could do what is expected if I had that information. Not that someone is oppressing me or abusing me or preventing me. But that I can’t do it. That I am not made for the world I am born into, and expected to function in, and succeed in. That I am broken, less than, displaced, dysfunctional, alien. And I cannot do anything about it.

Sometimes for me, being alive is being confused, and feeling less than, incurable and completely fucked up inside my head. And it feels as though I will be stuck there and never able to get out, that the day which begins like this will not end, ever.

I know an awful lot of people don’t understand why suicide happens. I understand how it happens.

But anyway, all this is not my revelation.

My revelation is in all probability, unless I choose to be sedated my whole life, this is something I will always experience from time to time. This, I understand on days like this, will not make it easier when it happens, but it will make it acceptable. To me. Probably not to certain others. But I can accept it as part of me, even if I cannot see through it when it is happening.

Like a great many things in my life, like cancer, like my marriage breaking up, like loss, rejection and pain, my episodes of madness simply must be survived.

My revelation is I cannot live my life as if being broken is something I must fix before I can go the awesome places I want to go, and do the awesome things I want to do. I must do the awesome broken.

I must accept I am broken, and may never be whole and healed in the ways which would make every day of my life joy-filled, successful and productive. I must work with the fact I am not going to be complete, or get totally fixed up, and I cannot afford to wait until I am before I give myself permission to be great.

I am mostly great now, and that is enough. The small proportion of fucked-up-edness I have is not sufficient justification for me to not do all the things, go all the places, love all the people, speak all the words, and write all the books. In fact, my bad days, however bad they are, may not be used as a weapon against myself, or a procrastination. They may not. I withdraw whatever permission I gave myself which allowed that to happen.

I sat there yesterday in the middle of my mini-breakdown and I withdrew permission to give up, or step down. No, I said to myself, this time you are not going to walk away from your life, from everything you’re in the middle of. This does not prove all the things people have said or done to you are true. This proves nothing. This is a hard day. These are unhelpful thoughts. You are close to giving up. But guess what? This time, you’re standing. You will do the awesome broken. Because awesome is all that’s left for you now. You tried everything else. It’s do awesome broken, or die now, one way or another. What’s it going to be I said?

Do awesome broken.

Atta girl.

Have a great day, friends.
Jo xxxx

God Help Them.

They are out there. And they are dying every day. The fathers. The sons. The brothers. The uncles. The friends. The husbands. The partners. the neighbours. The men. The men who are sad, lonely, and unhappy. The men who drink. The men who cry. The men who can’t. The men who are broken. The men who are told they are “pussies”. The men who hide. The men who feel. The men who can feel no more.

I weep for them. Because men who hurt often hurt others. Sometimes they mean to. Wars, battles, violence, abuse. Sometimes they do not mean to. Neglect, depression, separation. Hurt people find it hard to look after the ones they are charged with protecting and providing for. And money does not help. Celebrity does not help. A body of work does not help. Sometimes even support and rehab does not help. Yet we must help, and try and help, just the same.

There are a thousand thousand Robin Williams’ who will end their lives today. They may take their own life, or the life of another. They may leave their family. They may leave their senses. They may upend another bottle or empty another needle. They may bash or bruise, themselves or another. They may enter one institution designed to keep them away from society, they may leave an institution from which society is consisted. One way or another, men will end their lives today. In their head, in their heart, by their hand, by their actions – end their lives. And it will be a great shame.

Because there must be a way to stop it. To keep fathers with their families, to keep husband off the end of the rope. To keep brothers shoulder to shoulder. To keep sons on the earth longer than their mothers. To keep them here, because families, societies, communities need men. Not just for their strength, but for their essence. For their love, their power, their courage, their vulnerabilities. We need them.

God help men. God help them in their minds, hearts and souls. God help us help them.

Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner, #22 You’re Going To Make It

This isn’t going to last forever, my friend.

It came from nowhere, didn’t it? It came from inside you, and not from the outside, like scary things are supposed to. They’re supposed to be under the bed, around the corner, in the closet, in that spooky house across the street, with that car careening down the road. Scary things are supposed to be avoidable – don’t look, don’t go there, don’t follow along with that person or do that stupid thing, and there you go – there’s nothing to be scared of. Scary things aren’t supposed to be inside your body. Scary things aren’t supposed to be made of you. The nowhere cancer came from was inside you – how can this be? How could you not know? How could you not stop it? How can you not make it go away by just avoiding it, or crossing the street or closing the closet? How did this come to have its beginning in you?

Tell me, and I’ll stop doing it. Tell me, because everyone keeps asking me “So, do you know what caused it?” I know they want to avoid the scary thing too. How can I tell them where it came from? Just how do you explain that?

And then there’s what happens when you stop being scared, and you start to get used to the fact you have cancer. There’s what happens when you’ve been all the way through shock and terror and the realisation you could die, and out the other side. When your body decides there’s no point pushing all that energy into emotions any more, and makes up it’s mind that your calories and serotonin would be better used doing other things like keeping you calm, or making healthy cells, or repairing the effects of chemotherapy. And you wonder why you don’t get happy or sad anymore, and why you can’t stay focussed on a movie or an interesting project, and you start to wonder if this what it feels like to start dying.

image credit: iStockphoto
image credit: iStockphoto

And then there’s what happens when you begin to wonder what on earth is real and right and true any more, and what you can trust and what you can’t, and what this means about the way things are in this world, and the kinds of things that can happen to people, even good people. And you think about the future, but you can’t see it the way you used to, in your head or your imagination, or where ever it is that hope is made. And you wonder, “is this a sign?” Does it mean you won’t live to see your graduation, or your wedding, or their graduation or their wedding, because you just don’t dream like that any more? And you wonder, is this what survival means – living the rest of your life with an erased imagination, with shallow dreams, with hope that only extends in minutes and hours and days, and not in years and lifetimes?

This feels like it’s going to last forever, my friend. But it isn’t. You’re reading this because it doesn’t last forever. I’ve been there – and here I am. The flat, dreamless existence you’re dragging yourself through now will one day be a memory. This isn’t going to last forever. You’re going to make it. You’ll make it home. To the graduation and the wedding. To the birth, to the first day of school, to the birthdays and the holidays and the cake and the photos and the laughter. You’ll be there. I promise you. You will be there.

This isn’t going to last forever, my friend. You’re going to make it.

(Dedicated to my little strong, fragile, beautiful friend 🙂 )

*****

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In Which God Answers My Big, Fat Prayer.

There’s this thing that happens every once in a while – this feeling I get. No, that’s not quite right. It’s a feeling I don’t get, when I’m actually supposed to get one. I know I’m supposed to get one, because everyone who experiences these particular events is supposed to feel a particular way.

Sad. Kind of melancholy. That’s how I should feel today. Because when your eighteen year old daughter leaves home, as a mother, you should feel sad and melancholy, right?

I guess. But I don’t. I feel proud, and not just because she’s worked for and earned her independence, and our trust. I also feel pleasantly surprised it’s all worked out for her relatively easily – she was approved for the first rental property she applied for, in a market which dictates you can apply for twenty properties before being approved. I shouldn’t really be surprised. She’s not just lucky, she’s fortunate. Our family generally believes you make your own luck, and that girl sure knows how to make her own luck.

I feel relief. Another one pretty much raised – three down, one to go. This one’s been a toughie. She’s a strong woman, and she was a strong girl too. She always knew what she wanted, and sometimes, it wasn’t her mother. But we worked it through, and she was always willing. We’ve made mistakes, but I’ve made most of them. For all I did wrong, she’s become an amazing person, and there’s something very right about that.

I feel incredible admiration. I would never have had the strength or the sense to live the life she’s living. I was too insecure, unfettered to anything, unfocussed, needy and scattered. My girl is a lot of things, but scattered isn’t one of them. She had to grow up quickly. Sometimes I forget of all the things Ben and I have been through – my having cancer, and Bens’ alcoholism and recovery – our kids have been through those things too. We are survivors, all of us. No wonder she’s so wise and strong. She’s had a lifetime of experiences she never asked for, wasn’t to blame for, couldn’t have prepared for. But she did those things like she does everything else. Capably. Wisely. Insightfully. Nothing like me.

So, I do feel something today. Proud, relieved, grateful and admiring. But not sad. I am elated. I’m grateful. Whenever things like this happen in my life, when my kids take another step away from me and become able to lead their own lives without me carrying them in another small way, I always feel kind of ecstatic. Why? Because nine years ago, I sat in a hostel dormitory four hundred kilometres away from my baby girl and her three brothers, all because I had to go away to have radiotherapy to cure me from cancer. Night after night, I lay in that bed missing them so hard it physically hurt, and prayed one day I’d see them all grow into adults, and leave home.

I didn’t want to leave them before they were grown up. I wanted them to leave me because they were grown up. Because that’s how it should be.

I begged God, please, please……

And I didn’t die.

How could I be sad on days like this? Big fat prayer answered today, people.

Three down, one to go.

Thank God He very rarely holds us to these kinds of bargains.

*****

 

From Burial To Banqueting Table

A while ago, a man I considered to be quite wise at the time said to me “People change, but not that much.” I didn’t know quite what to make of that, probably because the person who said it was actually our pastor. Maybe he was a bit jaded. Maybe it was time for a new job. In any case, I didn’t believe him. I think people can change, in fact, I know they can. Maybe we need to invite our old pastor around to our place house for dinner one of these days.  He needs to see what God has done at my house.

Last Tuesday night, my husband Ben and I had guests for dinner. Fourteen people sat around our table and ate my lamb roast, including the two of us. A minor miracle occurred that night, but I think only I, and perhaps our children, really noticed it.  What happened was that Ben was present for the meal the whole time.  Of course, you’d have to know what it was like before to understand how this is different. Before, we didn’t invite folks over to our house for dinner. There was no point. If people came to visit, Ben would say hello, then remain present for about one minute and forty-five seconds after that before disappearing. I don’t know how he managed to convince himself that nobody notices when the host goes MIA, but then I’m not sure he ever considered his absences conspicuous to others. The fact is, regardless of if we had two people over, or twenty, Ben would always be a no show at his own dinner party.

You see, as far as social situations were concerned, Ben was a supreme master of the duck and weave. His avoidance of people and acute need to be alone was different from those occasions where he was simply busy, like in the shed fixing something, washing the car or going for a walk to get the newspapers. Our family had a pet name for it– skulking. Where’s dad? Skulking. Oh. I think the way Ben saw it, he was only out of the room for a few minutes. The problem was that he was only out of the room for a few minutes, twenty or more times a day – for about twenty years.

When Ben was skulking, he wasn’t just out of the room, on a special mission, or even busy. He wasn’t writing a thesis or building an ark in the back yard. He was hiding. From us. From everyone. And it hurt. When the person you’re married to can’t hang out with his wife and his kids and your friends and both your parents for any length of time without having to leave and be alone for a while, it’s difficult not to be offended. For a long time I thought it was my fault. Ben’s anti-social behaviour confirmed my own deep suspicion that I was just too much. I came to the sad conclusion my personality was so overwhelming that it made other people unable to function normally in society anymore. So I did what many women do when they blame themselves for their husbands’ faults – I covered for him. And when that grew tiresome – because explaining to guests that your husband has something very important to do out in the back yard while you are all sitting in his living room does grow tiresome – I just stopped inviting people over anymore.

While the hiding was a problem, it was never the problem, and while it wasn’t me that broke Ben, Ben was broken just the same. I understand now that when people are broken like Ben was and they feel they ought to be able to fix what’s wrong and put it all right but they just can’t, they do whatever it takes to feel safe. Often, they do what Ben did and they hide, in all kinds of places, and use all kinds of things to hide behind. Some people don’t physically hide like Ben did, but they are hiding all right. They hide behind their work, their possessions and positions, their success, and they even hide behind failure.

Far better men than Ben have been hiders. Adam, the very first man on the planet, was a hider.[1] As skulkers go, in my opinion, Adam wasn’t particularly good at it. I can say this because I’ve lived with a real pro. Adam gave in way too early for starters – he was only in those bushes for ten minutes, tops. I hate to brag, but Ben had far more stamina that that. And what’s with Adam taking an accomplice along for the skulk? Pros never take an accomplice. Any crime they committed may be a shared experience, but shame is always a solo venture. I suspect Adam was really only playing possum – I think Adam kind of wanted to be found.

While long-term hiding requires a lot of staying power, it can get kind of boring. While Ben was hiding, he found that smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol really helped to keep his hands busy. These also conveniently helped him to forget exactly how many hours a day he was actually spending skulking. I had my suspicions Ben skulked at work too, because whenever I rang to talk to him, nobody could ever find him. But I think it was the day I opened up some boxes under the house and hundreds of empty beer bottles fell out I realised I might have underestimated exactly how much of his life both his skulking, and the habits that kept him occupied while he was doing it, were consuming.

I didn’t understand for a long time exactly what Ben was so ashamed of, even after I worked out Ben was hiding. Ben is not and never has been a really bad man. He hasn’t been in any trouble with the police, or been unfaithful in our marriage. He is a gentle, patient father and has a quiet disposition. Ben’s wrongdoings are certainly no worse than any other simple mans, springing as they do from the common natural weaknesses and shortcomings of all human beings.  But I’ve come to understand that shame is not logical. It’s not circumstantial. Shame is not even natural. Shame wasn’t there at the beginning, when God created people. I mean they walked around without clothes for goodness sake. Shame was learned. Shame was a mutation. Shame was human invention, and it filled the place where something else used to be.

Relationship.

I imagine the first garden, its two occupants living in complete intimacy with each other and their creator. So guileless was the communion between the two humans they had nothing but their different skins to separate them. But then they did something they were told not to do by someone that loved them. Afterwards, the first thing they did was to go and make clothes to put on top of their skin. Don’t look at me. Then, forgetting that He had always been able to see them, they realised that not only could they be seen by each other, the creator could see them too. When they heard the creator coming, they hid behind some bushes. What’s happened to us? they asked themselves, we never worried about being seen before. 

The thing is, when the creator found out what they did, He didn’t demand they take off their clothes again, in fact, he turned around and made them both some better ones.

Ben – my sweet, gentle Ben – was not a bad person, but something inside him didn’t want to be seen. He thinks it started when he was very young. For the longest time Ben believed that God was a violent, iron-fisted Father, quick to anger and slow to forgive, particularly a very naughty boy like he was. After many years of just trying to stay out of God’s way, he found a way to hide that worked, and after a while he forgot what it was ever like to walk in the light.

When I became ill with cancer in 2003, Ben floundered with feelings of helplessness and depression, without any way to draw on the grace, strength and comfort from God or me he so desperately needed. He thought God was up there waggling his head, telling him to harden up and get a backbone. Ashamed of his inability to protect his family from harm, and from the consequences of his weakness in its aftermath, he pulled even further inside himself. If God had come calling “where are you?” Ben couldn’t have heard Him, because he was ensconced under the house with a cigarette and a six-pack of beer, medicating his despair.

After a few more years, things really fell to pieces. He lost his business, leaving us tens of thousands of dollars in debt. We had to leave town so Ben could get a new job. He became more disenfranchised from our children, the elder three of whom were now in their teens. The resentment between the two of us grew and festered between like a tumour. The last skerrick of Bens’ belief in himself disintegrated the same time as his desire to stay married to me. Desperate to save his life, I sent Ben away. By now, I was the only one of us with enough self-esteem left to survive being seen as the bad guy that broke up our marriage. Thank God, at that time a place in a Christian rehabilitation centre came up before Ben totally disintegrated.

In rehab, Ben learned to stay both literally and emotionally in the room with his shame, now compounded by the collapse of our family and the loss of everything he had and had been. All of the structures and devices he had created to keep himself safe were broken and useless. In that place of absolute vulnerability, Ben found his father God running towards him with His arms outstretched.

Finally, my boy, I’ve found you.

Since then, I have seen my husband rise up from a long sleep of self-hate and humiliation and sit up to God’s banqueting table. He is making a right pig of himself, I can tell you. The compassion I see in my husbands’ eyes these days, as he tells me about his wish to help the people God brings across his path, makes me fall back in wonder. How God can take a man who emptied himself out in self-disgust and fill him again with such goodness and compassion is beyond my comprehension.

Change is possible, I know it. I’ve seen shame, fear and guilt stunt a human soul into a crooked shadow of its former self, and then I saw that same human being raised up from the dead. Shame is fruitless, pointless in fact, particularly the shame we inflict upon each other. It’s only mercy that brings the withered ones stumbling forth for healing. The enemy wants us bound in the dark, wrapped in the rags of our self-loathing, but God wants us free in the light where He and the entire world can see us for who we really are.

I want to tell you, if you love someone that is dead while they live, don’t give up hope. People can change – more than you can even dream of. I thought Ben was gone forever, but I was wrong. He came back. Now I know Ben doesn’t like it when I brag about him, but I just can’t help myself. I doubt that anyone present for dinner on Tuesday night would have any real idea why I was gazing at Ben in wonder as he carved the lamb and cracked the jokes. There, I thought to myself, thanks to the grace of God, goes my husband – the most amazing man I have ever known.

*****

An excerpt from my new book God, You Can Take My Mental Illness, Just Not the Part Where You Speak To Me, now out on Amazon for Kindle.

*****


[1] Genesis 3:8 – 10

 

Something Magnificent

Feb. 18th, 1989 – our wedding day.

I was 20, Ben was 19. Our baby son Beau-Daniel was 8 months old.

It’s been twenty-three years since that day.

Three more children came to stay. And then one more, who didn’t.

There was a cancer diagnosis, and six months of treatment.

There has been mental illness, depression, alcoholism. And there has been redemption and recovery.

There has been financial ruin. Financial restoration.

There were twelve months where we were split up. Divorce papers filled out and ready. Then there was forgiveness and reconciliation.

For better, and for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health.

If this marriage is all I have to show for myself at the end of my life, I can be satisfied I was part of something very, very magnificent.

Happy anniversary Ben. xxx

 

When Your Enemy Really Is “All In Your Mind”

I was talking to God last night. As you do. Well, as I do. So do some of my clients (I’m a mental health support worker) but that’s another story. Actually, it could be the same story. But I digress. Last night, I was talking to God about my anxiety. Come to think of it, some of my clients were probably doing that as well. I’d best get past this part, or we may never get anywhere.

A few years ago, whilst I was preparing a lesson plan for my job one morning, I had this weird feeling come over me. I felt like I’d had about four cups of coffee, and at the same time I wanted to lay down and go into a nice, comfortable coma. Very strange, and scary. I thought maybe I was having a heart attack. I didn’t work that day, and instead went home and got into bed and stayed there all day, only getting out when my husband came home to take me to a doctor. When he came into the bedroom, I tried to explain how I was feeling. “It’s like I’m…I’m….I’m….” Ben looked at me with this terrified, sympathetic expression, and I must have looked pretty bad because he finished my sentence by adding “Broken?”. Broken. That described it exactly.

At the doctors, I was promptly diagnosed with having had an anxiety attack. For no apparent reason. I hadn’t been anxious when it happened – I was using a photocopier. The doctor managed to establish that my anxiety attack may have been a delayed physiological response to a traumatic or anxiety inducing event that may have recently happened. “Oh, well that explains everything.” I said.

Three days prior, my husband and I had finally established that he was, in fact, a chronic alcoholic.

Yep. That’d do it.

Since that time, Ben and I have been to hell and back dealing with not only his alcoholism, but the concentric legacy of it, and my responses to it, felt by us and the whole family. One of those lasting effects has been the intense, physical anxiety attacks, often felt as panic, which I have experienced intermittently since the day I had that first attack. It’s weird, because I’ve always been one of those people who react instinctively in a crisis, responding quickly and decisively to threatening situations and accidents. I still am. The anxiety attacks are not triggered by immediate threats, or by real dangers or by surprises. They are seething, creeping things that advance slowly and without warning, in seemingly benign circumstances. They feel like I believe a tsunami happens; a huge, slow suck back as my energy drains from me, followed by a trickle, a flow, then a surge of adrenalin and energy which then rolls over me in wave after wave, flattening my emotions, my intellect and my physical strength with quivering, chattering, uncontrollable, surging power. Fear. Panic. Flight, without the fight.

Horrible stuff.

They happen most predictably at the cinema. I hate the movies. I want to see the film, but the thought of all those people milling around in the lobby with the unspoken yet universal desire of getting the best possible seats in the same theatre as I want to go to, combined with the unallocated seating, sends me into a panic. Literally. The first time a panic attack hit me at the cinema, my daughter and I had gone to see the new Batman movie a week after it was released, on a Friday night. We arrived, and found the multiplex cinema lobby full of people all queueing to see the same film. I felt like a Christian just been thrown to the lions. By the time Daisy realised I’d run from the place, I was already at the car, gasping and clawing at the door handle. The second time it happened, we had gone to a small theatre to see a movie that had been out for a month, thinking perhaps there would only be a few people there. However, that evening happened to be the night that the president of the local football club decided to shout every player from every age grade a night at the movies. They didn’t tell the cinema they were coming. They all bought their tickets individually – all fifty or so of them – and the cinema only had one cash register, and no EFTPOS. We got there before the club arrived, and lined up behind three innocent looking teenagers, who kept letting their friends in front of us, and by the time the coach, the president and the board of the club arrived, they simply presumed that the swelling group at the front of the queue had some kind of arrangement with the ticket office. After twenty five minutes of waiting for the whole football club to buy their ticket each, plus their popcorn and their coke, all one by one, it looked like we might not get tickets at all, or get to see the movie start on time. It was like my worst nightmare. I was out of my mind, babbling like a maniac, when in a moment of clarity I broke from the line and made a run for the door, Ben and Daisy at my heels. I insisted on driving home just to get some semblance of feeling of control, otherwise by the time we got home I may have already thrown myself from the moving vehicle and into traffic. Naked.

I think I’ve mentioned in a previous post how I almost had to be sedated when we tried to see Avatar with Ben’s sister and brother-in-law and our children on Boxing Day a couple of years ago. We even bought tickets in advance online to help allay my anxiety, but we still had to line up to get them. Doh! We then got separated in the queue from the teenagers when they saw some friends, and is was about then I felt like I needed to breathe with the aid of a brown paper bag. When we got in, after thirty painful minutes of queuing ten deep, the cinema was already three-quarters full, and some of us had to sit two rows away with strangers. I was speaking in tongues under my breath, and I was not praying. I sincerely thought I was having a heart attack. Ridiculous, because if someone there had had an actual heart attack, I would’ve been able to set up a cordon, perform CPR and direct the paramedics to the correct aisle and seat even in the dark via text message, because I’m great in a crisis. Unless it’s my own, and it happens in a movie theatre.

I get anxiety attacks other times too, and they always seem to be related to my children. I think about things happening to them, and I almost freak out. A few weeks ago, when my youngest son had to catch the bus home for the first time (we just moved from a country town to a big city) and I couldn’t reach him on his mobile phone, I thought I was going to physically expire from panic right there at my desk at work, and it was only my second day on the job. My head was spinning, my chest was hurting, my mind was racing with thoughts of some weirdo trying to coerce my boy into his filthy panel van, and I couldn’t breathe. I was hyperventilating, clutching my chest, choking. I wondered how I would explain to my boss how I, their brand new mental health support worker, was having a panic attack at my desk on just my second day at work, and thus would have to go home immediately to make sure my ten year old son hadn’t been abducted, because if I didn’t, I would not be able to work. Or remain conscious. Just then, my phone blipped. “Hi,” texts my son “My phone was in my bag. Whats up?” I had to lay on the floor for spell. It was exhausting.

It still happens from time to time. Even though I know theatres and threats against my kids are my most common triggers, I don’t really understand why they happen. I’m a fairly robust personality, pretty tough, and I know how to stick up for myself. But this is something else. This is like sabotage, like being attacked from the inside. It’s uncomfortable, it’s frightening and it’s uncontrollable. I can be sitting there, telling myself the fear is irrational, telling myself  that I am not in danger, telling myself that everything is okay and I am safe, and while I am doing so my body and my mind are screaming “You are dying. Death is near. You will not be able to survive this. This is the end. This feeling will go on and on forever and then you will be dead, and it will happen soon, and everyone and everything you love will be dead too. And you can’t stop this from happening.”

It’s really, really awful.

I don’t take medication any more, although the first time it happened the doctor gave me some pills that made me feel sad and heavy all the time, so I stopped taking them. Funny, because the people I work with every day seem to feel sad and heavy quite a bit, and I guess I’ve put it down to their illnesses, but perhaps it isn’t after all.

So anyway, I’ve been talking to God about this, and this was His answer to me.

“So, Jo, you know the anxiety is in your mind. That isn’t to say because it’s in your mind it isn’t real. It’s real.

You can be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Your mind is like a vine; a growing, living, moving thing. It’s always putting out new shoots and turning those into branches. Some branches grow fruit, good thoughts, and some don’t. Sometimes, the branches that don’t bear fruit are not much good for anything. They get in the way, and sometimes they make trouble. Sometimes those branches need to go, because they cause the vine too much trouble, and they take resources from the fruiting branches.

When you want a vine to put out new shoots, you prune it back. You take off the branches that are not useful or conducive to the health of the vine. Sometimes you take all the branches away. Sometimes you pinch out the new growth to encourage more growth overall. They key is not to allow unhindered, perpetual growth of any kind, good or bad.

A few years ago you had a trauma which caused you to grow some strategies to cope quickly. They helped you deal with an emergency situation (finding out Ben was an alcoholic) but what you had to grow to cope initially wasn’t healthy growth. It was needed only for the short term, and soon, it began to damage you. And it didn’t get pruned away, pinched off, cut down. It kept growing. And now that part of your mind, that growth, gives you trouble.

I’ll prune this growth over time, and you will heal. However, what you can do is dress the vine of your thoughts and your mind as you journey along. From time to time, make a point of pruning back your thoughts to the very stump. Don’t rely on your branches to help you cope, to teach you, to support you, to nourish you. Rely on your roots instead.”

I share this at the risk of those who read it thinking I am quite insane. I mean, talking to God, for goodness sake, about dressing vines and pruning my mind. But it helps me, I can tell you, and I’m not too proud to admit I need help. From God. He knows what He’s talking about, I find. And He always helps me out when I ask Him for His help.