Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Disaster Fantasies

I used to have a lot of disaster fantasies after Addie was born--horrible imaginings that she had died in her crib, that she was going to fall and hit her head and be killed, or that someone was going to snatch her.  Every episode of Oprah or the evening news or Law and Order that I had ever seen featuring the abduction, abuse, or death of a child seemed to replay itself in my head, over and over again.

These scenarios got so bad that I began to have mini panic attacks with them, and they got worse over time, particularly after news of horrible disasters, like the tsunami in South Asia, the war in Iraq, or the earthquake in Pakistan.  Just the thought of all those families and babies suffering and dying would trigger an out-and-out anxiety attack. 

I didn't have good ways to express these fears at the time.  I tried writing some poetry, and that worked some.  Sometimes I would try to talk to Eric about the fears, but when I actually verbalized them, they sounded ridiculous, and I didn't want anyone to think I wanted anything bad to happen to Addie.  In fact, just the opposite--I think I was having them because I wanted to play them out in my head in order to ward them off in reality.  Sort of like, if I could put myself through the crisis in an imaginary way, it wouldn't happen to me in real life.  I know--this doesn't make a whole lot of sense logically, but emotionally, it seemed to at the time.

Eventually, this anxiety built up so much that I would explode into intense crying fits, or outbursts of rage that typically got directed toward Eric.  One night, I broke down in front of Eric, and Addie was there.  She saw me yell at him, them collapse on the floor, manically upset.  At that point, I decided I probably needed to get some help so that I wouldn't do that again.  I suffered a lot of guilt that she had to witness the outburst, and I knew I didn't want to pass on those behaviors to her.

So, for the first time in my life, I got into some therapy, and Eric came to sessions every other week with me to help me understand the anxiety.  We were so, so lucky that we ended up with an excellent therapist, who was in tune with my desire not to go on meds and to use the tools I already had--yoga and mediation, primarily--to help me understand and overcome the panic.  And, of course, we were lucky that our insurance covered the sessions:  we couldn't have gone otherwise.

The two main insights I arrived at through that work were that I felt anxiety most of the time.  In fact, I couldn't remember a time when I didn't feel anxious, didn't know there was any way else to be.  And so, historically, I used a variety of behaviors to avoid feeling that anxiety--shopping, eating, cleaning, working.  Things had become so much worse lately because having a child was forcing me to just sit a lot of the time (in order to be with her and care for her properly).  That meant I was having to actually feel the anxiety, experience it, and it was coming out in the form of these fantasies and violent outbursts. 

We worked a lot on my just experiencing the anxiety, on locating it in my body, and on noticing it without judging.  I still work on this, and am not able to do it all the time (see my post on the tires going out on my Subaru).  But a lot of times I can do it, and just experiencing it and noticing it will, paradoxically, lessen it.  I don't even have to figure out why it's there--just feeling it helps.

The second insight, which links to the first, is that I need to focus more on the present.  If I continue to tamp down my anxiety through diversions rather than being with it in the moment, it will result in behaviors or feelings I don't like. 

For example:  have you seen that movie Crash?  It's awesome, but there is a scene in it where a child is threatened--in fact, you're led to think she has died.  Well, this made me completely freak out.  Talk about disaster fantasy.  I was totally hysterical during that scene--weeping like someone had cut off my arm!  I literally felt as if I left my body from grief, would do anything to make it go away because it just felt like more than I could bear. 

And it was just a movie.

So, my therapist suggested that what I might need to learn to practice is present observation.  In other words, the ability to see the horrors of the world, watch them pass before me, but not to be swept away by them.  This is compassion:  to see crisis and distress and not become numb to it, but not let it overcome you with grief or hopelessness, either.  This is so not easy.  But I've been working on it, and have been able to do it some.

For example, a friend sent me a link today about a Denver man whose wife and two toddlers were killed in a hit and run over the weekend.  He was crossing the street with them, the kids in their stroller, and the next minute, the three of them were gone.  I think a year or two ago, this story probably would have sent me over the edge, the fear and anxiety of it.  But now I know I can give this tragedy only a little of my heart, and then watch it pass on.  Because my family needs me here, now.  My family is not gone.  And excessive grief over a stranger's tragedy will not protect my family from harm, either.  What will harm them is my exploding into a million little pieces.

Of course, this doesn't relieve me from my responsibility to act when I see injustice, and it doesn't protect me from outrage at violence and tragedy.  But it does force me to focus positive energy into the universe, and to make sure my own garden is tended, too. 


  1. Hi, I just came across your blog on the Internet. I know EXACTLY how you feel and didn't realize that my problem might be anxiety until I had to sit by myself. I was always up doing something to distract myself. Then, like you, I had a child and was forced to be still and that's when all these "disaster fantasies" started coming on hard. I've always had them, but it's gotten worse since I've had my son.

    I can't read/watch the news for fear of hearing about a child getting hurt. I can't read books or watch movies that have children being hurt or families getting hurt. It tears me apart. Awful things go through my head on a daily basis that I never want to happen. My feeling is, if I think about them and then tell myself "No! That will not happen" then it won't. So then I start thinking of anything that could possibly happen to the people I love and tell myself no over and over.

    It's really tiring, as I'm sure you know, and I have been thinking of going to therapy but I don't want to be put on medication and that was my fear that they would immediately give me something to take. Reading your blog really helped me and I appreciate you putting it out there.


  2. Hi Jessica,

    First, I'm so glad you're reading the blog! And thanks so much for such a thoughtful comment. I know that as a mom, it's been really important to me to know I'm not alone in this stuff.

    I teach environmental studies, and so I'm constantly inundated with end-of-the-world scenarios. I went to another lecture on global warming just yesterday afternoon, and came home needing a big glass of wine, and to just hold on to my kids. It can all be so scary.

    Therapy has been hugely helpful to me, though--I went for about 18 months. Let me tell you this: if you get in with a therapist who immediately wants to medicate you, you have the wrong therapist. Whomever you sit down with, you just need to explain you're not interested in medicine but prefer to try talk therapy first. I remember at one point, about 8 months in to my sessions, I was having a rough time and asked for the medicine, and my therapist reminded me it wasn't what I wanted, and we worked through it, and I'm much better today.

    All I can say is that I've had to amass a lot of tools to help me through the anxiety in the absence of meds: exercise, meditation, yoga, prayer (and I'm not a religious nut, but this has really helped). I have to use all of them to stay in the present and not freak out, and realize what a good life this is at the present moment. But it's tough, and I applaud you for trying to work through this stuff! Please stay in touch...


  3. Hi Jen! I didn't know if your blog was still active so I thought I might stop back by to check. I'm so glad you wrote me back! I have not gone to therapy as of yet but my family and I have found a local church that we enjoy very much and that has helped. I'm no religious nut either and was not raised in a church at all but going to this one makes me feel peaceful.

    The thoughts I've been having are getting better. I'm not so sensitive to the news, but I'm not sure that's a good thing. I still would rather not read or hear about anything bad happening to children but if I do hear about it, it doesn't haunt me for days anymore. Some progress I think.

    I hope you and your family are having a happy year so far. Thanks again for sharing!