What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
"Hey, remember that time I thought I was dying?"
That pretty much sums up every vacation I've ever taken.
You see, I may be your average working mom, but I also happen to suffer from severe health anxiety, with a heaping side of fresh-cooked generalized anxiety and panic disorders. And stress-induced IBS for the finish. I horde anti-acid meds and thermometers in my purse like other women horde lip gloss. That's right — thermometers, as in plural. One to do the job, and the other one to keep the first one honest, because let's be real — if you suffer from health anxiety, nothing about your health is trustworthy; not your own body, not the numbers on a thermometer, not the multiple doctors you meet that all tell you you're fine.
That's why doing basic stuff like booking a kick-ass vacation for your kids, where they can meet their favorite cartoon mouse and a cranky duck that doesn't wear pants, is so hard.
My health anxiety rates somewhere around a seven on a daily basis but doesn't hesitate to turn up to eleven on special occasions. In fact, the moment I hit submit on our vacation booking — and the moment my husband suggested travel insurance —created a perfect storm of panic in my gut. You would think, as a hypochondriac, I would buy travel insurance for going to the grocery store, because, you just never know, but the truth is I'm terrified. In my warped reality, preparing for the worst case is akin to begging for the worst case to grab you in a choke-hold from behind.
In the six months from the time I made the booking until the time we left for the trip, I had diagnosed myself with two heart attacks, a stroke, several types of cancer, heart failure, kidney disease, extreme dehydration, a detached retina, and a torn carotid artery (thank you Dr. Google for that one). You may think that's excessive but, my brain only knows one cycle, and that's to obsess — and I mean next-level obsess — over some bodily function, sensation or pain until I figure enough time and/or tests have confirmed that I am not in imminent danger. This allows my brain about three seconds of relief before fixating on the next illness that I am sure will rip me from my family prematurely and starts the whole chain reaction of guilt, panic and helplessness all over again.
Yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds, and yes, I do have the ability to be rational with myself about probabilities and statistics, but sometimes all the meds and coping mechanisms in the world just can't build a high enough wall to keep the fear at bay. That's the trap of the hypochondriac. We're so set on receiving comfort and reassurance that we piss off everyone around us who has to look at our "weird" moles, or feel our pulse, or tell us a hundred times a day that we're fine. The problem is when they play the part of the reassuring pal; they are blindsided with the various facts and figures you have in your arsenal from dubious internet sources the previous night while you sobbed on your keyboard.
In short, it sucks the big one. Especially when you are supposed to be winding down and escaping with your family to a sunny destination.
I actually thought I had it conquered this time when the day of vacation came, and I was actually excited. My kids were super-pumped, my husband was happy, and I felt actual bliss — until the plane started to take off.
Remember that torn carotid artery? Yeah, well, let's just say that I was certain that the change of air pressure in the cabin would dislodge a clot I was sure was forming in my neck, and would drop dead before we even flew out of the state. You see, a week before we left, I just happened to see my massage therapist and get an ocular migraine the same day, which robbed me of my vision for the better part of an hour and left me with a wicked headache for days. It was totally benign and unrelated, but if you look up the terms "massage" and "headache" online, you get a barrage of horror stories touting the worst possible case.
As I hurtled towards 30,000 feet strapped inside a tin can, I was certain my life was over. The next two hours were spent deep-breathing and trying to answer my youngest daughter's innocent (but non-stop) questions about space-flight. I literally couldn't believe that I had made it to Florida alive when the wheels touched down.
The next seven days were chock-full — Because planning every minute means less time to think, so why not? The unfortunate part was that I spent so much time monitoring my pulse or grounding myself against a panic attack that I missed a ton of the action. I obsessed over the signs that warn against riding roller coasters if you have heart problems. I don't, but what if I actually do and I just don't know because no doctor has found it yet? What if that funny-looking mole on my arm is being baked into a melanoma because I decided today was too hot for a long-sleeved shirt? What if an errant firework explodes in my direction and scores a direct hit while my kids look on in horrified surprise?
The thing is, I know I'm great at looking like I'm present and accounted for in front of my kids, at least, most of the time, because I would rip my own arm off before regaling them with the full level of my worry, but my mind always wonders why I can shut it off with them and not others. I suppose there's some ingrained feeling that I am not allowed to have all the happy feels because I don't deserve it. My husband is a walking miracle, but I know my obsessions wear on him. I have the meds, and I have the coping skills, but I still don't have the ability to give him the carefree girl he married, even though he's nice and tells me she's still there.
That's the problem with anxiety disorders. They are a problem of perception which can't be put aside even if society tells us that the cardinal rule of vacations is to relax.
Was the whole trip a bust? Absolutely not. I have a stellar family. I ate amazing food, laughed a lot, and experienced a few roundhouse kicks to my psyche that allowed me the respite to watch my kids play without wondering if it was going to be the last time I would ever hear their sweet giggles. Being in the happiest place on earth, and watching epic parental meltdowns, screaming kids, and sweaty people just trying to survive until fireworks did make me realize that maybe people aren't supposed to be happy in the happiest place all the time. Life is about balance.
I don't know if I'll ever get over the time-suck that is anxiety, but maybe that's not my goal. Maybe coping like a champ is the best I'll ever do, and maybe every vacation scrapbook we make will be carefully labeled with all the places mommy thought she was going to die — and maybe we'll go back and visit them all when I'm 90 and laugh at my stupidity — one can only hope.