Three Little Birds

Whenever my 3 year old feels worried or needs some comfort (and maybe a dance party), she asks us to sing this song or play it for her.

“Can you play “Little Birds” for me by Bob Marley?”

-She demands asks sweetly.

Remind me, I have to get that on video.

My hopes for her (and her sister one day) are that her “worries” are just that of a normal 3 year old and it won’t turn into full blown anxiety like it did for me. Anxiety, the big monster, which has plagued me pretty much my entire life, comes and goes when it feels like it, debilitating me for maybe a day or two but never really leaves my side. He is just always fucking THERE.

I was 7 years old when I became a “worry wart” as my Grandma called me. I would obsess over every little thing like that list above. Sure, I had good reasons to worry in some ways but for my young age, it was pretty ridiculous AND traumatic.

Childhood anxiety, in my opinion, can be even worse as they don’t understand what is happening to them. It can feel like an actual sickness for them which we as parents, may not recognize their anxiety or mental health issues.

My Camp Squad: the guy on my right is my little brother. The guy on my left was my “Camp Boyfriend.” I am wearing jeans and a blue shirt, bottom row left.

When I had my first Anxiety Attack at age 12, it was during my Grandma’s losing battle with Breast Cancer. I was at sleep-away camp for 2 weeks up in Muskoka, Ontario, laying in my bunk, and eating a sour key. The sour key got kind of stuck going down and I managed to swallow it but all I could think about was; ”

I am going to choke and die in my sleep because I don’t think it went down all the way, it is still stuck.”

About 5 minutes after thinking like this, I began having nausea, a tightness in my chest which affected my breathing, (couldn’t take deep breaths) and I just felt manic, like I was losing my mind. That feeling was pure, real panic.

I ran out of my bunk, out of the cabin and began throwing up.

All of the counsellors rubbed my back, asking me if I felt sick but I couldn’t explain it. I didn’t feel sick like a bug or food poisoning – I truly believed I was going to stop breathing and die.

The next morning, I felt absolutely normal and went about my day. Each day at Camp was filled with 1 hour sessions, 4 times a day with activities: swimming, crafts, sports, etc. so I was busy, not thinking of anything but Camp Life.

Then at night time, it was a different story. Every night after my first panic attack, it continued to happen again and again; I’d lay in my bunk and convince myself something was wrong.

“I am dying of something, I know it……” but I had convinced myself; Maybe I have Cancer or something.”

Then I’d have a full blown panic attack and run out to the trees and throw up.

My counsellors eventually caught onto what was REALLY happening since I was only sick at night. They obviously wanted their sleep back and so, it was decided by everyone it would be best if I slept in the Nurse’s cabin…”The Infirmary”

This actually brought some relief for me because at least I could share quarters with a Medical Professional, you know, in case she had to resuscitate me or something. Just knowing that and sleeping in the that seemed to ease my anxiety and the panic attacks stopped.

Me and my Cabin Counsellors at Sparrow Lake Camp, 1996

I truly believed once I got home it would stop and I’d go back to feeling normal again but the fire inside had been lit.

They got worse…..it began happening every night and sometimes during the day. I was absolutely convinced I was dying and even “felt” symptoms. My mother took me to our Family Doctor who was well aware of our family history, including my Grandma’s cancer battle.

He did a full physical and assured me; “You are not dying. You are experiencing anxiety and panic attacks.”

“You need to start taking deep breaths, change your trail of thought and relax. There is a medication I can put you on but I don’t want to have to do that so please try to calm yourself down. It’s only your nerves responding to stress.”

I’d love to say his advice cured me but nope – this went on for TWO YEARS, varying in severity. In those two years, I became an angry, withdrawn, Hypochondriac. It was so powerful and intense that my mind could actually mimic symptoms which would then turn me inside out emotionally. Eventually, things got better until I quit dance and began high school but that’s an entirely different story for another day.

I am lucky enough to have friends and family who are cognizant of when I am feeling anxious.

An example would be times when I’d go away with one of my best friends to Cuba.

I would just need quiet, alone time. She would graciously give me my time, sit in the room quietly with me and I would be fine once it passed.

Another friend who knows me so well knew exactly what was up when I visited her in Connecticut and stayed in my room for 2 hours reading a book. She told her husband when he asked; “She just needs alone time….”

There are several contributing factors causing my life long anxious behaviour:

  • Losing my Father at a very young age without any warning.
  • Being raised only by my mother who was 30 when she was widowed, left to raise three kids under 7. I constantly worried about something bad happening to her.
  • My father and mother both struggled with it so maybe I’ve inherited it from them.
  • Watching my Grandma, whom I was very close to, lose her fight against Breast Cancer. This probably led to the hypochondria, I thought I had Breast Cancer at one point – at 13 years old.
  • Possible untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from losing a parent and not seeking treatment afterwards (as stated by a Mental Health Professional)
  • High stress career in Banking – the symptoms are stronger when I’m under pressure yet I work the best under pressure so it can be a double-edged sword.
  • Maybe this is “Just how it is?” Some people are more prone to anxiety than others.

What Happens When I Feel Anxious?

  • Physically: my stomach hurts, I sweat, have restless legs, my breathing feels laboured like someone is standing on my chest and I tend to pace around.
  • If I am having a really bad episode, usually happens in the morning before my day even begins, I will throw up.
  • Mentally: I experience the intense “Fight or Flight” feeling where a “worry” goes from 0 to 100 in a matter of minutes. I begin focusing on the worst case scenario rather than rationally thinking things out.
  • Emotionally: I tend to retreat into myself. I become withdrawn, quiet and agitated. I don’t usually cry but when I do, it is hard to stop because I’ve held so much inside.

Final Thoughts…

I still struggle but it has been several years now since my last big Panic Attack; like when I was 8 months pregnant with Caterina but I still feel anxious every single day.

Panic attacks can be very different from Anxiety attacks because they happen less often and you actually feel like you are going to die.

I couldn’t sleep because my mind was racing about everything, my nose was so stuffed up from allergies and I had once again, convinced myself I would stop breathing in my sleep because I couldn’t breathe through my nose. So at 2 am, I wake my husband up and tell him:

“I am going to the hospital right now, I can’t breathe. I am freaking out”

Being the great guy he is, he got up and off we went.

Pretty much the minute I walked into Emergency, all of my panic and anxiety disappeared.

For me, it’s all about trying to calm down before I experience the “Fight or Flight” reaction which leads to a full blown attack.

  • Take long, deep breaths and sighs or go be by myself for a bit (really hard to do now!)
  • Read something like a book I’ve read before (not sure why this help but it does) or something like a magazine.
  • I find going on my IPad or Phone can make anxiety worse especially at night as it makes me wired. (I do it anyway….)
  • Sit in the bath and have a talk with myself (quietly so my 3 year old shadow doesn’t follow me in)
  • Talk to my friends/family/husband who have been amazing sources of support and love

Medication: “Should you try it or not?”

I’ve tried several brands and they made me feel worse; intense anxiety, no appetite and horrible dreams/sleep patterns.

Doctors will tell you it takes several weeks to feel the full effect but I could never get past 5 weeks. The side effects were just too much for me to handle.

Oh but don’t try to go off on your own either unless you really do want something to be anxious about!

That does not mean medication is bad or not useful.

It can work wonders for some and I highly recommend doing your own research in addition to your Doctor’s orders.

Right now, I am doing Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with a lovely group of ladies and it has been very useful/productive.

If you are local to Hamilton, Ontario and believe you may suffer from any Mental Health issues, I recommend contacting The Women’s Health Concerns Clinic (WHCC):

They provide an assessment, consultation and treatment for women 18 years of age or older who are experiencing physical and/or emotional symptoms relating to mental and reproductive health.

(From their website – I didn’t write all of that with perfect grammar)

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