Last week I took the kids to the park with a friend. Two adults, six children and a dog. Pretty ordinary.
I arrived a little early. The kids raced ahead of me to the swings and I walked through the damp leaves following them up the path.
Rewind thirteen months and I remember making this same journey. It was just before Christmas and we were desperate to find something to do on a grey day, some way to get the kids out of the house, even if just for an hour. We were tired at the end of the long term and there was an element of ‘just getting through’ the remaining days until the holidays.
I had woken that morning with the all too familiar surge of adrenalin but had managed to wrestle back some control in my mind, rehearsing the truths that I was well and safe and didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do.
My husband had been growing tired of my incessant questions: ‘are you feeling okay?’, ‘I’m okay aren’t I?’, ‘We wont be out long will we?’, and my frequent apologies for being such a mess, and so I tried to hide this battle from him.
I swallowed hard as we found coats and hats and bundled everyone into the car.
I tried to think of all the things I had to be grateful for: a warm house, a healthy family, enough money, food in the cupboards, a safe place to live… But everything I thought of threw my mind straight onto something to worry about.
I was playing whack-a-mole with my anxiety and I was losing.
Even though I hadn’t said anything, my husband knew I wasn’t okay. He had seen this enough times to know the warning signs. The relentless assault of anxious thoughts often caused me to withdraw from what was going on in the real world. I would grow silent as I retreated deep inside trying to put up a defence, to stay in control. He was used to me appearing vacant and zoned out.
As we reached the park and made our way up to the swings it began to rain. Noticing there a craft fair was taking place inside the dilapidated mansion house in the centre of the park, we went inside to shelter and pass the time.
As soon as we entered the house I was not okay.
Although it was unseasonably mild for December, inside someone had set the heating for a serious cold snap. Rooms filled with people still wearing hats and coats from which steam began to rise. It was muggy. I was claustrophobic and too hot.
For me one of the elements of a panic attack is a sudden shift in body temperature. This can provoke an attack or happen as a result of one. It can be cause or symptom. On this occasion it was cause. I quickly felt myself spiralling. My stomach churned and I felt dizzy. I flashed my husband a look he has become very familiar with and hurridely excused myself to stand outside in the rain, anything to cool down, to feel fresh air, to calm my rising terror.
Often being outside can be enough to calm my racing heart, but on this occasion I needed to leave.
I chose flight, not fight.
In moments like this I am so very grateful for my husband. Even though I knew he was sick and tired of my anxiety compromising our time and activities, he took one look at me, grabbed the kids and soon we were heading for the safety of the car and home.
We had been out less than twenty minutes.
As on every other occasion, we returned home the panic passed and soon I was fine again. My heart rate slowed, my temperature returned to normal, and my stomach settled. I started feeling like myself again (although of course beating myself up for allowing it to happen in the first place).
So, here I am in the park one year later and it is so different.
So ordinary. And so wonderful.
I am feeling calm. I don’t expect my peace to be suddenly snatched from me. I am confident I can cope with whatever life throws at me today.
It is glorious. This ordinary beautiful still feels new and precious.
And yes, this is a comparison story of what a difference a year can make. But it is more than that.
I know when you are in the midst of serious anxiety it can feel as though you will never know freedom from it, even for a day or a week. I felt like that. I also know how the most normal, even dull, activities can feel dangerous and intimidating.
Anxiety is a beast and likes to run rampant. It can trample on your hope and make you think you will never know peace. And once it is done with you it leaves you feeling stupid and ashamed, embarrassed for not being able to hold it together.
But things can and do change.
No amount of self-hatred, or frustration is going to make a difference – so try and stop beating yourself up. Accept how you are today, because self-acceptance has to come first.
Let yourself off the hook and treat yourself with kindness.
And remember there is hope.
You will enjoy the beautiful ordinary again.