For years I have coped with anxiety by numbing with food, work and spending money. I started spinning with anxiety at the end of the workday, and got agitated, not able to sit still but not able to find anything to do with myself, and I just wanted to eat. And I would have, normally. This time I went on a walk instead and listened to You Are a Badass. I ate after I got back because I had too much of a calorie deficit for the day, but by that point I wasn’t eating to numb or distract myself, I had resolved my anxiety and was starting to get a lot of creative thoughts and ideas. I don’t expect the challenge of changing how I cope with anxiety will be any less difficult anytime soon, but change starts with the first step.
It only took 9 words to trigger me so badly that I had to hang up the phone and fight for control of my brain. It only took 5 seconds for my body to flood with chemicals so hard that I could feel it happening and knew I had to get clear of anything that might compound the trauma I had just experienced (being triggered can be traumatizing) before I put myself at risk of losing control of my car again. I got triggered by a comment that conjured up a past horrific experience while driving on the road I nearly died on 5 years ago next month. There is no way to explain the pain and fear.
But I can explain that I knew how to manage it. I got off the phone quickly, I started breathing deeply, I reminded myself that I can perform mechanical tasks just fine when under extreme stress – and driving is a mechanical task – I reminded myself that I was safe from the thing that was terrifying my brain even if being on the interstate at a high speed was not particularly safe, that even if I wasn’t in control I never really am anyway so that wasn’t worth expending energy on, and if I wanted to drop my plans and go home, I could do that. If I wanted to pull off the road and get someone to come get me, I could. If I wanted to never talk to that person again, I could. If I never wanted to work again, I could. If I never wanted to drive again, I could.
I got to my work meeting and parked, then sat in the car for a minute to collect myself and check in now that I wasn’t focused on highway survival. It took 90 seconds before I started feeling tired and defeated. That kind of experience – going from focused and intentional to fighting for your life in the space of less than 10 words – is one that I’m still not sure how I survive.
What I can’t explain is how I called the person who triggered me back and made sure they understood that they can never use that phrase with me again. Ever. I can’t explain how I walked into the meeting and was fully present and engaged for five hours, including calling back a difficult client during the break and walking through what he was requesting. Or how I drove straight to another client’s office to sign legal paperwork needed required for a project, checked in on project progress and had a long chat with the admin about something I care nothing about (but she does) before I got back to my office to finish and submit an application that has a critical deadline more than 24 hours before that deadline. I turned right around on a phone call and addressed an asinine response from a city official to plans I had submitted, made the “corrections” to keep the peace (even if everything was right there in the documents and the revisions were a complete waste of my time) and finished up with a 10 hour day…10 hours after I was triggered.
I ate whatever the hell I wanted for dinner. Which amounted to half a baked potato and a slice of bread in addition to what was otherwise a normal keto meal.
PTSD is a living hell. But life goes on, and I’m going with it.
For the decade or so of my career before I started a company, I worked for companies that had abusive work cultures. I didn’t know it could be different, and I had been raised to not be a problem and not think my needs were important. I had a boss that would goof off all day, then make my work partner and I stay 2-3 hours late so that he felt like he was getting something done. We had already been working all day and had gotten our work done, so we were pretty resentful, and him taking us out to lunch once or twice a month did nothing to make up for his horrible management style and how hard I had to work to cover his mistakes.
I worked for two generations of ownership who all thought that as long as you were on salary you had to work as much as they wanted doing whatever they wanted. It was not out of the norm for me to miss lunch or to do something completely outside my job description, or to work 80-90 hours a week, once for three months straight. I missed holidays that I was owed per my position and HR refused to comp them when I could finally take the time off. My bosses were verbally abusive, more especially when I was trying to keep up out of legal trouble, and I was frequently given 4 hours to do a project that needed (and that most people would take) 2 weeks to do. The day I walked out of there on my own choice was one of the best moments of my life.
When I started a company, I brought all of the bad habits with me. I ignored my needs and a work style that fit me best and accommodated my business partner and my clients, not taking time to manage myself, my company and my work in a healthy and productive way. I felt like I was never doing enough, so I worked on projects and took very little time to work on the company.
That all stopped when I announced I was divorcing my business partner. That all stopped when I finally started doing what is best for me and the work that I love. I started taking more time to work on the company, getting template documents set up, getting my accounts the way they need to be set up and getting all of my files organized and cleaned up. I started putting down work when I was done for the day and not pushing myself to work more because I thought it (and I) wasn’t good enough or hadn’t done enough. I stopped answering my phone on weekends. I stopped saying I could do anything or that my clients could skirt all of the rules they didn’t like. I started building boundaries for the pro bono work I take on. I started setting boundaries for my schedule. I started acknowledging I have needs as a person that need to be met. I started investing in software training so that I can be better at my job.
I started doing my thing for me with my rules and my boundaries. And I’m so proud of myself when I look back at what I’ve overcome.
I was at my desk, ready to work this morning by 8am. I wasn’t hungry, despite my juice-only meals yesterday, I felt good and my resting heart rate last night was 65 bpm – probably the lowest it’s been this year.
Looks like the hard work of recovery is starting to pay off.
I’m exhausted. Work trips usually involve a lot of personal interaction and “being on” for hours at a time, and I work in a lot of situations that are fraught with conflict. I’m in a type of survival mode, which has been exacerbated by scorpions and a snake in the house I’m staying in and a large spider that crawled on my arm in the night. I didn’t know what I’d brushed off until I flipped the light on in the morning and saw the dead spider in bed next to me. Ugh.
Boundary keeping isn’t going well. I don’t often eat meat and never beef because it makes me ill. I’ve eaten meat all this week and beef twice because that’s what was offered and I didn’t want to offend. These people know I don’t eat meat, we’ve discussed it before.
It’s not the time that I want to be generous to anyone. I’m stretched a bit thin right now. But I’m trying to make peace with the idea that just as, generally speaking, I’m doing the best I can, so are others.
I’m still sleeping a lot. I don’t remember sleeping this much since weekends in college when I would pull a couple of all-nighters during the week. But the body knows what it needs, right?
All of my clients needed something today, whether it was a project discussion or advice on proceedings or review of subcontractor submittals or, in one case, just a chat. Normally that would overwhelm me and stress me out, but today I’ve taken it one thing at a time and gotten done what I need to, what I was asked to and what the job required. It’s a huge step forward from where I was a month ago, when just getting an email would send me through the roof. #grateful
I’m working, I’m focused, I’m doing yoga without issue other than that it’s challenging for my body, I’m ignoring things that aren’t important right now, I’m connecting, I’m planning ahead, I’m not pushing myself to do things “just because” or out of some unhealthy sense of obligation, I’m eating for fuel and nutrition and not to cope, I’m sleeping, I’m learning and I am so, so grateful for today <3.