They say that if you sit with your feelings that’s how you process them. After the panic attack I would sit, and sit, and meditate, and go to yoga, and try to feel all my feelings, enlisting therapists, friends, and whoever else I thought would have good perspective so I could hurry up feel my feelings and get back to life. I didn’t realize for a while that while I was feeling my feelings, I wasn’t feeling all of them until I read this from Allison Jansinski: “Anxiety made me feel small and incapable. I had been so confident for so long and suddenly I couldn’t trust myself with the smallest tasks. I had climbed literal mountains no more than 5 months prior, and then there I was, asking my husband to accompany me to the grocery store because I was too afraid to go alone. What if I have a panic attack in the middle of the cereal aisle? The collapse of my mental health was all at once. Or at least that’s how it felt. It was the most lonely and isolating experience of my lifetime. Triggered by a horrific car ride, feeing my burning neighborhood with my dog and a laptop. I was wearing slippers. My wedding ring sat on my nightstand. I’d never see it again. As I navigated my new reality of panic attacks, depersonalization, and nights spent wide awake begging for a deep breath that would never come, I can say with absolute certainty it was the hardest I’ve ever worked. The bravest I’ve ever been. And while I deeply wish I was dealt a different hand of cards last December, it was an absolute honor to meet that version of myself. She stayed at the table. She never folded. I can’t believe she never folded.”
In the early days after the panic attack people would say that they thought the panic attack was going to be good thing once I got through it and on the other side. I hated hearing that so much at the time– they don’t understand what my brain is like, they don’t understand what is happening, what if I never heal, what if it never changes. I would wake up each morning and immediately check to see if I was healed and if those thoughts were gone and when they weren’t I would resign myself to still being angry and confused at the work I had to do. But here’s what I’ve realized, that girl who was angry and confused each day at not feeling healed, at tip toeing as if she was about to burst through a glass floor, still showed up, she went to work, she made food, she sustained herself with meditation, and yoga, and journaling, and therapy, and more therapy, and as the days ached on and she would wearily get into bed each night she would be grateful for having made it through with her marbles intact and fall asleep worried about what the next day would bring for her inner turmoil.
Here’s what they don’t tell you about trauma, much like fear it’s a liar. It tricks your brain so you don’t know what is true and what isn’t real. And you wonder if this darkness that exists if that’s my true essence and the light that is gone, if that was the facade. When it happens it’s just all dark, stormy, and twisty, and there is no light, and you wonder if this is how it’s going to be forever. You have no choice but to keep moving. And so, you do and slowly, very slowly, the light starts to trickle in, the fresh snow under you skis, the house dinners, the moments of silent and rest with my head on your shoulder.
You think this is the light, here it is. But the trauma makes you think that those moments of joy are the outliers, a small blimp in the spectrum of time. And in those moments, I felt like I was floating on the love and lightness of all those around me who didn’t know the depth of my despair. I didn’t want to go back and yet the darkness would rip me apart faster than a black hole. You want to get back to the light and so you keep moving, keep surrendering, keep breathing. Then one day you laugh and in that laughter, you realize you aren’t holding your breath wondering when this will disappear, and you realize you are healing because you are breathing. Woofta, was that heavy for you? I’m sorry, hang on it gets better. I promise.
In those moments I couldn’t even process what was happening. I was just surviving, barely keeping my head above water before the next wave would come crashing down. Treading to stay alive and breathing. I had to leave Alaska to go to DC to teach at the end of January and leaving felt like I was once again ripped through the time/space portal. I fumbled around for new activities to occupy me, bouldering and running with Carly, walks with co-workers, getting back to yoga in person. I went and saw my parents and even then, felt like I couldn’t exhale, couldn’t talk, fearful of what might come out. My parents sat or more kept vigil as I would lay on the couch and slowly words would trickle out lamenting about it all. I went and stayed with Allison and Dave for a few days as I was supposed to be in CO for a ski race but that ski race didn’t happen, but I had my skis just in case that girl showed up. Allison (and Kati who spent also spent multiple days with us) helped to give me words to the trauma and feelings that I had been experiencing. We shared an unspoken bond of seeing the weariness in the other that comes with vigilantly rowing ores to keep moving in the unknown water. For the friends that have known me longer than COVID and the panic attack this is such a blip in the timeline and I think I was seeking that out and getting back to those who knew me before all the darkness overtook me, reminding me of who I used to be and who I could be again.
I returned to Alaska and I wrote in my journal that upon arriving it felt like finally arriving home and was starting to see more and more of my old self, albeit slowly. I was still acutely aware of how much trauma felt stored up in my body, but the light returning to Alaska felt like it was returning to me too. I moved up to Alaska so soon to COVID and COVID and the panic attack dominated how I managed my relationships (for better or worse). I felt so much uncertainty and instability that I leaned heavy into those few relationships I did have but also felt the strain of doing so which only accelerated wanting to be healed so I could get back to baseline and then reassess my life. That put additional stress on me trying to rush and desperately trying to feel normal. Which only put me on higher alert each morning I would wake up realizing that I was not fully healed. Love negative feedback loops.
Starting at the end of March my therapist told me to acknowledge joy when I felt it and it started timidly and in the most mundane ways, at a moment of stillness I would whisper, “I feel joy.” Then it got louder and one day I was out skiing with friends and I was just exploding with it, yelling it as I raced down the mountain. One friend asked me if I was being sarcastic, clearly showing how little emotion towards joy I had been showing lately. But it’s been helpful in acknowledging its existence and finding a new way to express it.
How did it happen that you just finished maybe the darkest section of writing that I’ve ever put on this blog? Well, it all came about because I crashed last weekend during a race and it was such a minor crash (like I’m fine, mom) but cut my knee and scrapped my shoulder and hip. And then I thought of all the other times I’ve crashed this year and it’s been a lot (sorry mom, but like I’m fine). I pride myself on being a sound, technical rider. I know my limits and know what I’m capable of that I usually don’t worry– lots of years following the lines of Wayne, Sully, Dave, Alex, Sam, Chris, Christa, Bryan, Katie, Neven, Parker, Jen, so many more that are way above my riding level. I did a ride with a friend and was leading the descent and she came around the corner to find me on the ground, saying she was surprised to find me there, I was too.
I had two crashes during one descent which was mostly out of the view of anyone else and recovered quickly but have been bumbling a lot more in areas that I feel like I’m technically sound in. I starting thinking about how pervasive doubt is. With riding there is a moment where if you doubt, you hesitate, and in that moment the magic is gone, you’ve messed up the line, you’re brain has convinced you that you are in capable and you question you’re ability and then poof you’re on the ground assessing the damage. I was telling my therapist this because I often use outdoor activities to understand my life so I said, “well it seems like I can be quick to recover and I’m actual quite flexible in falling, but I’m doubtful in the approach, in the take-off, in the transition.” And because she always makes me bring it back to center, I followed up with and I think this is probably a larger theme in my life, I’m hesitating and doubting because I still don’t trust my body or myself and it’s getting better but there are moments of doubt that end up pulling me down. And it’s true after the panic attack the doubt overtook everything. And my rational became that if I was doubting, well then surely some of that doubt must be true and if it’s true where does that leave me– but trauma is a liar. And nothing is every guaranteed or fully certain but all I wanted was certainty when I was only filled with doubt. I didn’t trust myself that if the bottom fell out, if the glass shattered that I would be able to recover, that I could overcome what had been thrown my way because I felt like I hadn’t. I had a panic attack and then felt like I blew up my personal life as I scrambled to find dry land. For those who weren’t in my brain it’s so hard to explain that the explosion is how I did what I thought I had to do to survive, to fight, to breathe again.
When I real Allison’s post I thought of the girl I am now, she shows up to start lines with much more bruises and scars than she did before, but she’s scrappy, and resilient, and she is whole. And while I wish I had never met her under these circumstances, it has been an honor.
I read it before I did a gravel race with Grande– Ana had already left for the Colorado Trail Race after our relay last week. I was at max heart rate the whole time and trying to catch Grande’s wheel but I just kept repeating in my head, “Thank God I never folded.”
Like any race where you really shit the bed and everything goes wrong it takes a while to process everything, to pick out the lessons, the good and the bad, and sometimes the only good is like welp, I’m never signing up for that race again (cue the Black Hills 100). Just like with any bike race you know there will be highs and lows and it’s figuring out how to get out of the lows so you can get back to the highs. I know how to get out of the lows when I’m 80 miles into a race and bonking and have to pull myself out to get to the finish line but this felt like completely unknown territory that I was charing. I was in such a low I couldn’t even conceive that there would be a high. Much like when I did Super Walker for the first time and ended up sobbing on the side of the trail for 20 minutes having the worst bonk of my life– and just like then I got up and starting moving wondering if I would ever see the high again. This high just took a long time to get back to.
With the panic attack my therapist pointed this out that 4 months ago I couldn’t even process what it would mean to be here because my brain was still floating in the sea of despair, and I was convinced that no good would possibly ever come out of this. But I feel like I’m finally hitting the apex and the road is bending and there is light shining. Someone posted about a trip to the Grand Canyon and I didn’t even hesitate by saying I wanted in.
I will say that doing the 600-mile ride with Grande and Ana helped me in a tremendous way, I reset my system, was alone with my thoughts but wasn’t overwhelmed. There was so much comfort and familiarity in just pedaling. And for the first time since the panic attack, I actually trusted my body to do what I needed to do. I fully surrendered knowing that I would be able to make it to Haines, even when the doubt crept in. I guess you could say that that was the beginning of the healing journey, all the work before then set the foundation but since then the steps have been greater, I’m surer of the footing, more comfortable with the uncertainty. And running, no sprinting towards the joy that has seemed so fleeting for so long. I think that’s part of the broader theme with COVID– so much pain and destruction happened as a result of it and acknowledging that any good existed seemed so antithetical to the collective suffering that was being felt. Again, you can hold space for both, or I can hold space for both, or I can try to hold space for both.
This one is less bike focused for sure but hope that by talking about it– and if the data is accurate as more people are searching for mental health therapists than ever before– maybe others will feel less alone and realize how much is going on behind the facade that we put on. Allison has been such a lifesaver for me but so many others and not necessarily in any big way but in the small ways that kept me going and kept me sustained. But certainly a handful that were there in a very big way– and they got an inner look into my brain and they didn’t bat an eye, they didn’t turn away, they held space for my pain and grief and they reminded me that it would get better, maybe not today, or tomorrow but it would. A friend mentioned that after reading last week’s post she hadn’t realized I felt all of that because I usually just said I was fine and would carry on. I was gobsmacked only because I was convinced there was no way that I was hiding how much I was walking in a glass house. So, lessons I learned from that and affirmed by my therapist is that (1) people are far less concerned with us than we perceive them to be and (2) I probably need to do a better job of reaching out and asking for help.
And as I looked for picture for this post and the things that I had done I found so few from January and February (less than 100) with more starting to show up in March and then April and then more in May and June (more than 500). It was almost like I didn’t think there was anything worth capturing, there was no way I would want to remember this pain. Just another way to quantify an arbitrary data point.
You stay alive for the stories that need to be told, the chapters that remain unwritten and the endings that need to be completed.