Sometimes it feels like two days. Sometimes, sadly, it feels like twenty years. It doesn't really matter how long it has been because it still isn't easy to comprehend, but for the record, my dad passed away two years ago tonight. Every day since, Grief and its evil companion , Anxiety, have traveled by my side. These two, packaged together, are sneaky devils that toy with your mind and, if you let them, will consume you. Aside from posting the eulogy I delivered so out of town family could read it, I haven't written about my dad's passing or how it has affected me. I have started this post a half dozen times because I find writing to be a therapeutic outlet and maybe what I write will help somebody else working through similar struggles. Maybe not. Either way, today felt right to write.
Of course, the night Dad died and the ensuing days were tough. I clearly remember specific details-hell, I think about them at the exact time most Tuesdays- but those memories don't cause the problems. About six weeks after his passing, I was feeling pretty good when out of nowhere my heart started racing and felt like it was going to flip-flop out of my chest. From that day forward I have battled Grief and Anxiety, wondering on many occasions if this was the day I was going to die.
Two pieces of background to, perhaps (or not), put that last statement in some context. I've never lived what you would call a care-free existence. I've had what I call low grade anxiety for most of my life. I'm a worrier and a hypochondriac with a little OCD thrown in for fun. I play up the hypochondria for laughs and have a good time with it. The anxiety was always present, yet did not dominate my life. My anxiety was like pre-steroid Barry Bonds. Dad's death turned my anxiety into Home Run King Barry Bonds. The second piece of information is that I don't know what caused my dad to drop dead. We can make educated guesses, assumptions really, but without an autopsy (a choice made for several reasons) there is no definitive answer. It is this mystery that I believe is the main source of my anxiety. When you are always waiting for the other shoe to drop, it is helpful to at least know what shoe to look for.
Fortunately, my doctor understanding my mind-set and my recently updated family history, ordered a battery of tests to determine the cause of my palpitations. After an EKG, an echocardiogram, a nuclear stress test, a 24 hour monitor and a 14 day event monitor, my heart was determined to be healthy. Most people would be satisfied by that answer. I am not most people. When something is stuck in my head I can not shake it. I just knew the doctors were wrong. They had to be missing something and for that I would pay the ultimate price. It is not sensible and it is not rational, it is just what I do.
So what would be an occasional blip on my brain's radar became a full-time obsession. Instead of spending a few minutes pondering whether I may actually have Mesothelioma every time I saw some ambulance chaser's commercial, I began a constant vigil, monitoring all my on-board systems. I can tell you, nearly two years later, this is a hard way to live. Much of the time my brain power is split. One portion is living my life. The other portion is in steady assessment mode. Remember the view from inside the Terminator, where you would see what he saw? In his field of vision was this rolling scroll of diagnostic readouts and system analysis. That's what the one half of my brain feels like it is often doing. I am fully functioning, but distracted by the scroll. Because when you are always looking for something, oh, the things you will find. Palpitations became chest pain. Chest pain became dizziness. Dizziness became back pain. Back pain became surely I'm dying, right here, right now of exactly what killed my father even though I have very little clue what really killed my father. The internal dialogue would be hilarious if it weren't so draining.
"What was that?" "That feels weird." "That pain in my shoulder could be from lifting heavy boxes earlier but it probably the first sign of my impending heart attack." "Is it heart burn? It's probably heartburn. But what if isn't heartburn?" "I knew the doctors were wrong." "Elizabeth, I'm coming to see ya. This is the big one."
As anybody that has experienced even a little anxiety or panic disorder knows, it is a very short trip from one negative thought spiraling into a full-on panic attack. It is a vicious cycle. Do the symptoms cause the anxiety or does the anxiety cause the symptoms?
I think I do a pretty good job of functioning normally given that many of my days are filled with these cycles. I have only had one full-blown panic attack in this two years, but I have had many moments weighing if the situation warranted a vist to the doctor or ER. Even a good day can turn quickly. I might go hours without worrying about a thing, but the moment I realize I haven't worried about anything for a long while, my brain kicks in and I'll feel "something". I am doing better, though. A few months after everything started I moved from thinking I was dying to being afraid I was dying. That is a subtle but, to me, important distinction. So, if anytime in the last two years I have seemed distracted, off my game (What game, Bryan? How would I possibly know if you are off what little "game" you have?) or haven't corresponded like I should, I'm sorry. This is part of the reason why.
Last fall, I finally made the decision to seek help from a support system outside my friends and family. My counselor/therapist was terrific and taught me many strategies to better deal with all that I have going on, attacking the problem from all angles. I am grateful to her and hope that I can successfully heed and hone her lessons. I wish I had sought help sooner. Mental health struggles, no matter the type, deserve our attention and require hard work to fix.
I think of my dad every day and, though I don't mourn him every day (he would hate that), the repurcussions of his death affect me always. I think a friend of mine said it best when he asked me not long after Dad died, "It fucks you up, doesn't it?" Indeed, it does.