Overcoming my Fears

A reader recently asked me how I’d overcome my fears. I have to say I haven’t overcome all of them. The inquirer asked about my acting and whether or not I experienced anxiety before going on stage. He also asked about a number of other nerve-wracking situations. The questions were so good I thought they deserved to be answered publicly.

I am always nervous before I perform on stage, but I’ve been acting in amateur theater since I was six years old, which is decades before the onset of my mental illness. I long ago learned how to manage stage fright, and it’s not too different from what I do for most of my anxiety these days. I use deep breathing, I rely on the knowledge that I’m well prepared, and I remember my past successes.

These small mechanisms allow me to participate in a great passion of mine. I adore live theater. It is my favorite hobby, and I don’t know what I would do without it. When I was diagnosed, I was in the middle of rehearsals for a play. I was out on disability leave from my stressful sales job, because I had a breakdown. Still, I was doing a play. It sustained me, and honestly, I had no one else to turn to at the time for support. I was separated from my wife, which led to a divorce. I did not have a lover of any kind. My sponsor in the 12-step program dropped me like a lead weight at the onset of my symptoms. I was alone. Rehearsing and performing gave me something beneficial to focus on.

Another question from this astute reader dealt with my inability to watch television and other visual media. I can report little improvement there, and I can’t explain it. When the machine is on, I often have to take refuge in my bedroom. No amount of deep breathing gets me through that fear. I avoid videos on the Internet, and if I’m going to the movies, I often have to take a very small dose of the anti-anxiety medication prescribed for me. Taking such a dose at my own discretion does not violate the nurse’s guidelines. I am instructed to use it as necessary within certain daily limits.

He also wanted to know about how I fare in crowded places. Early on, I was paralyzed with fear of entering malls and large, busy department stores. I managed by making detailed shopping lists, which I could not deviate from. I got my items as they appeared on the list and in order. It didn’t matter if it was a grocery list, for example, and the items didn’t match the order of the store’s layout. I had to follow my list and often walked from one end of the store to the other fetching the items.

There was one occasion in a large store where the crowds and my children’s desires overwhelmed me. I had to abandon my shopping cart and leave. I could not cope.

My fears of these crowded places reaches to the parking lots. I am still scared of them. It’s an unreasonable fear, and I have a specific way of managing it. I use guided visualization. Before I go to a place with a large, busy parking lot, I imagine driving through it. I choose the exact lane of the parking lot I want to drive down. I know beforehand where I will turn. I continue to imagine where I will park and how I will walk into the store. It works. It is an effective technique for accomplishing this mundane task.

I can happily say I don’t have to use mental gymnastics to such an extent today, since I’ve been doing it for a number of years. However, I still avoid certain parking lots where there are few entrances and exits. I like the ones with many ways in and out.

A number of years ago, I tried to go back to work in the high-stress world of sales. It was not a good idea to say the least. The constant barrage of having to hit targets and numbers left me catatonic on my couch. I could not leave my apartment to report for daily activities. It only took two or three months, but I learned that I cannot work in areas that cause high anxiety again. I enjoyed driving alone in my car from one sales call to the next, but I often sat unable to enter the place of business I’d been sent to approach. My solution at that time was to leave the job. It was the best thing all around.

My new work as a Certified Peer Specialist in mental health is a much better fit for me. It’s part-time, so I can still rest. I also get to concentrate on simply sharing my experience, strength, and hope that recovery is possible. I have to say I am blessed in this position. I have supportive supervisors who gently urge me to succeed. My co-workers are understanding and helpful, and the clients are often receptive and eager to heal. It’s really an exciting prospect for me as I stand at the beginning of my new working life.

There were other questions from my interested readers, and I’ll answer those to him personally. I wanted to share these with a larger audience. Please, feel free to leave comments on any of my posts, which I will reply to as best I can. If you desire more wide-ranging information, you can use the contact form to reach me. I’ll do my best to answer each request.

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Healing Trauma

It’s taken me some days to write again, because I came back from my second week of training with a horrible head and chest cold. Thankfully, it’s passing. After one whole day in bed reading, I’m feeling much better.

I learned some frightening things last week. Of the mental health consumers I will be working with, 91% will have experienced serious trauma. The definition for trauma we were given was “extreme stress brought on by shocking or unexpected events that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope, resulting in feelings of helplessness and extreme fear and horror. The survivor perceives the event as bodily violation  threat of death or serious injury to self or a loved one. The event may be witnessed or experienced directly.”

All kinds of things can be traumatic. The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale tries to delineate the spectrum of major life stressors. Death of a spouse is highest on the list for adults. Death of a parent is highest for non-adults. It goes on to many other events, and it even includes Christmas as a major stress point.

The most devastating effect trauma has on a person is the shattering of trust and safety leaving a person feeling powerless. Thus, we spent a good deal of time learning about techniques for aiding recovery. Each participant had to face their own trauma, and indeed one person chose to drop out. It was a very sad experience for all of us.

Each of us was given a book that will be enormously useful. Seeking Safety by Lisa Najavits is a seminal text on conducting groups aimed at providing tools for recovery. There are pages of information, but the bulk of it is a workbook for conducting groups. When I am finished with training and during my internship and afterward, I will be facilitating Seeking Safety groups as well as WRAP groups.

The best possible outcome for me has been a personal transformation. I’ve already written about how my negative self-talk has ceased as a direct result of creating my personal WRAP. I have gained a sense of hope for the future I’ve not felt for many years.

I want to help, and now I believe I can do it.

For the first time ever in my 49 years, fear is not ruling my decisions.

I am born anew.

I am born anew.