Friday, June 24, 2016

Traveling With Anxiety

I plan travel for a living. I've been to six continents and over 40 countries. I also suffer from anxiety. Often. Which is to say, I do a lot of traveling with anxiety. It can be tricky, especially if, like me, you are also an introvert and traveling with or to a large group (i.e. to a conference or event).  At times, it can be downright overwhelming to the point of causing anxiety attacks. While nothing is "foolproof", here are some tips that I use when traveling to help keep the anxiety as low as possible.

  • Put on your Out of Office voicemail and email replies. Remind them that you aren't checking these while away, or if you are, give a time frame for which you'll reply (err on the long side to give yourself leeway).  Provide the contact information of someone who can immediately assist in your absence, if you think it warranted (and there is such a person). If you feel someone may truly have an emergent need that only you can address, give them an alternative way to contact you. This helps to reign in the anxiety over potentially missing important/urgent communications. 
  •  Bring all necessary meds, in their original prescription bottles, in your carry on. This is a no-brainer, but with all we have to pack for travels sometimes it's easy to forget, especially for meds we may not take as frequently (i.e. those we have on an as-needed basis). 
  • Schedule in time for breaks. This can be tricky, but it's essential. I often joke that I need a vacation from my vacation. I have the tendency to want to do and see everything, but I've learned in the long run, that will take its toll. Excitement can quickly turn into anxiety if it becomes overwhelming. 
  • Give yourself space, and take "you time".   During these breaks, make sure you have some time to do something for yourself. If you're also an introvert like myself, it's particularly important to give yourself space to recharge. If you can't manage physical space (i.e. you're sharing a room), take some mental space. Put on some headphones and listen to a meditation, or your favorite music, or a podcast, or whatever you'd like. Read a book or journal. Do something that lets you mentally "zone out" from your trip, and everyone else, for a bit. 
  • Get your sleep. Your schedule may be slightly different than at home, but try to at least get your usual amount of sleep. Lack of sleep can increase anxiety. 
  • Let someone else do it. No, not get anxious, though wouldn't that be great once in a while (for us, not them I suppose!). Let them do something to help your anxiety. Can they check you in for your flight? Schedule the rental car or day tour? Call about the hotel wifi that's not working properly? Then let them. Even if you're traveling on your own, enlist the help of the hotel concierge services, a private driver or guide, whatever it is, so that you don't have to be a one-person show. 
  • Plan at least some things out in advance. If you battle anxiety, flying by the seat of your pants probably won't help. There are people who can just show up to a destination, hoping they'll find a good place to sleep and store bags, assuming they'll figure out how to get between cities with no problem, etc. But lack of clear cut plans can also be anxiety producing. Waiting until the last possible moment and assuming all will work out perfectly generally doesn't happen. We constantly worry what if, what if... You don't need everything planned down to the minute - in fact, allowing yourself down time, as I mentioned, is ideal. But have the major things, like accommodations, flights, transportation, so that you know you can at least get there and stay there. 
  • Give yourself a day or so on either side. Don't plan meetings until the minute before you have to leave for the airport. Don't take an red-eye home and have to go immediately into the office. Plan for the "just in case" - just in case your meeting runs over; just in case your flight home is delayed. 
  • Give yourself plenty of time at the airport. In case you haven't watched the news in the past few weeks, airport lines are at an all-time high, and security checks are more intense. Gone are the days of showing up 45 minutes before your flight, running to the gates, and getting on the plane just in time. It looks great in Hollywood, but remember that Hollywood still shows loved ones meeting you at the gate with open arms, not waiting for an hour in the arrivals hall while you deplane, possibly go through customs, and retrieve your luggage. 
If you're traveling for business, this might be trickier. Other people are setting the meetings, and may even be booking your travel arrangements for you, which gives you less control over the timing. But if you're traveling for leisure, especially, it shouldn't feel like a struggle. Traveling with bad anxiety isn't easy, but it's possible. You just need to know yourself, your triggers, and plan in such a way that you avoid them as much as possible. And don't be afraid to tell others you need time or space. In the long run, if it makes you a happier traveling companion, it'll benefit everyone. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Some Days It Would Be Easier If I Wasn't A Fighter

There's a saying from ... somewhere that goes (paraphrasing), "Don't worry when I fight with you. It means I still care. Worry when I stop. It means there's nothing left to fight for." 

I'm a fighter. I'm a scrappy, Sicilian women who likes whiskey and football better than drinking cosmos and getting a mani/pedi (no offense if this is your thing). I've always been a fighter. I've had to be. I've had to stand up for myself, a lot. Against others, against stigma, against my depressive brain that tells me I'm no good and should just give up. There are days I have to fight against myself, so that I don't lose the battle permanently. I fight tooth and nail. I'm determined and persistent. Ironically, I don't actually like conflict, and generally I'm good natured, caring, easy to compromise and understand. And I am absolutely open to learning, to hearing other perspectives, to apologizing (I'm an over-apologizer), and to saying I'm wrong, if I feel it's warranted. There are certainly times when it is. Or at least where a compromise and truce, even if it's with my own brain, is the best solution. But when I believe in something firmly, I fight for it. And I fight for it. And I fight for it. I don't quit. Until I exhaust myself to the point of being physically, emotionally, and mentally unable to. I've drained myself to the point of acquiescence, at least temporarily. The way my dog does when she is barking and barking at you to play with her for an hour and suddenly picks up her toy and walks off to her bed and plops down. She gives in to the inevitable, as do I. 

Some days, it would be easier if I wasn't a fighter. Life would be simpler if I was a placater. If I was more emotionally and mentally flexible. It would be easier if I could just accept the reality that is instead of what could or, in my mind, should be. Life would be a lot more pleasant (for me and probably those close to me) if I learned to be content enough with everything as it was. Maybe I'd be less anxious if I could just say, "Eh that's life. Sh*t happens." If I would just accept how life is, how society is, how people are, I wouldn't be frustrated with those who refuse to stop stigmatizing me, those who can't accept me because I'm not like everyone else. I would stop being angry that everyone goes with the status quo because "that's how it is" instead of making waves to change things that they don't like. I'd stop fighting with myself, my brain, my illness. I'd stop fighting with other people when I feel horribly hurt at the things they do or say (or sometimes don't do or say). Life would be calmer, and lord knows that with this brain of mine I could use some more calm in my life. 

And sometimes, this is almost enough to make me say f*&# it and stop fighting. Almost. But I'm not a person that swims in gray areas. I don't do, "Oh it'll change eventually. It'll get better someday." I don't do "just wait it out". I don't do those because I don't believe that's how life has to be, and we're on this earth way too short a time, even if we live a long life, to let life and circumstances control us instead of the other way around. Maybe some people are content with an OK life. Or a "not so bad' one. But I'm not. Because I fight every day to be still living this life and I'll be damned if it's going to be simply OK when it could be otherwise. I'll be damned if I fight tooth and nail with my brain to stay afloat so that I can just complacently accept everything else that happens as "that's how it is".

Despite this, there's that little part of me that says, that has always said, "maybe what you think is rubbish and everyone else has it right. Just listen to them. Maybe they have your best interests in mind. Sure, it benefits them, but maybe it is also for you."  And I try. Even if it doesn't look like I try. Because I promise for every time it looks like I've failed on the outside, I've tried 100 times on the inside. And my brain physically, emotionally, and mentally seems to refuse to be made like that. I know people think this is choice.  But it's like saying an asthmatic can work on breathing better. They can treat it, take medication, they can pay attention to the signs that they're starting to struggle and try to intervene. But they can't will their lungs to work a certain way. Nor can I will my brain to work a certain way.  Trust me, my life would be a hell of a lot easier if I could. Because that would mean I didn't have this shitty condition. But I do, so it doesn't happen. Here, instead, is what happens:  severe anxiety, panic attacks, hypomania, severe depression, exhaustion from all of the above. If I could not have these, I would. And the way I can not have these, besides a spontaneous cure, is to fight against the circumstances that result in them. And so I do. Because I don't expect anyone else to save me. I need to save myself. And besides, I don't want to stop fighting. It means there's nothing left to fight for.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Lessons About Life and Love

For those who don't know my history over the last 15 years or so, my love life has been a little, how shall we say, messy. This is not to say bad, but, all over the place. I've been married, divorced, engaged, unengaged, in several long relationships that, try as we might, and for all of the positive aspects, didn't work out. I've been in relationships in which we realized we made better friends, and are still friends. And one might think, "wow you've really f'd up, why would I want to take love advice from you!" And I'd say, "Well, you have a fair point." But in fact, I have learned a lot. Just because something doesn't work out in the end doesn't mean it's not good. It doesn't mean that you regret it (I regret none of my serious relationships) or that you know nothing about love. It means exactly what it means - it didn't work out in the end. It could be the wrong person or the wrong timing or a whole host of other reasons. If nothing else, there's one thing I absolutely do know about - what doesn't work. Because I've been thinking about love and relationships quite a bit lately (aren't I always, though), I thought I'd share.

  • Don't get into, stay in, or further a relationship for the wrong reason. Now, everyone's "wrong reason" might be different, but I promise, you'll know it. You'll feel it in your gut, as I did, walking down the aisle on my wedding day 12 years ago this July 10th. I loved him, but not as I should have. I thought he was good for me, and I for him. I followed my brain and not my heart or my gut. I focused what I thought made sense instead of what I felt. Even with the best of intentions, it's not fair to the other person to be with them for the wrong reason.  Generally, it doesn't lead to happiness. 
  • Don't be with someone because of who you think they could be. It's great to see your loved one's potential, but what if potential is all it is? What if they never reach it? Everyone deserves to be loved for who they are, right now, even if they never change. That has to be enough. Otherwise, you're loving the version of them that you've created in your head, who they may be one day, and not who they actually are. Eventually, you get frustrated because they're not becoming the person you've envisioned, even though they may have never committed to doing so in the first place, and I can say from experience, on both ends of this, that it doesn't go well. 
  • If you were to die tomorrow, would you be happy with how you spent your last hours/days/weeks? If your loved one were to die tomorrow, would you be happy with how you'd most recently treated them? I know this sounds dramatic, but I've lost friends (and a dog) in the last year. Friends that died all too young. Their loved ones never thought they'd lose them so soon, but they did, out of the blue. I realize we all have responsibilities to honor that make our day to day lives run. But keep in mind that your job or clients could fire you tomorrow. Your car could break down or get totaled. Your house won't implode if it's not cleaned this moment. Your chores and tasks won't multiply by the thousands like gremlins if you don't do them right now.  But if you focus on these too often, your loved one might feel unloved, overlooked, and insignificant, with good reason - in those moments, you're making them a lower priority than these things, even if you don't realize it or intend to. 
  • White lies and lies of omission are still lies. Sure, everyone forgets small details sometimes. But if you intentionally don't mention something, especially if you make a habit of this, you're intentionally not being completely honest. Which is to say, dishonest. It erodes trust. 
  • Fess up. Listen, there are a thousand cliches that can be used to justify actions. Don't use them. When you "don't have time" to spend with someone, tell them that you have to make something else a priority instead of them. See how this goes. See how it makes you feel. Because if it's legit, and you truly feel other things are a priority, then at least admit it to yourself and to them. If you really expect them to understand, you should feel totally comfortable saying this to them. Common excuses like "I don't have time." "I'm just so busy"are easy ways to excuse not making someone a priority at the moment. And I realize nobody can be your top priority every waking minute, but at least be honest with them and yourself. Don't hide behind common cliches. 
  • Keep your word. If you say you're going to do something, do it. If you make plans, keep them. Sure something comes up here and there that can make these things impossible. You plan to be somewhere and you get in massive traffic on your way and miss it. You fall ill. Or quite simply, you forget. There have been times when I said, "Oh I'm going to wash the sheets tonight" and get involved in something and completely blank on it. It happens.  But as I said above, if you've had to choose between something else and this word or these plans or whatever it is, fess up. It's not that "things come up" or "things change" or anything like that. If you need to work on a last minute project instead of do ... whatever... with your significant other, if you're just too exhausted to clean the house, if you just downright need time to yourself, whatever it is, tell them right out that in the moment, that is more important and must be a priority. Again, it's about taking responsibility on yourself, instead of putting it on the universe. It's a slippery slope to fall into - the universe can easily become a scapegoat. Don't let it be. This is something I've learned from my condition. My therapist tells me almost every session that I need to stop saying "I can't do this because of my condition (i.e. I can't see gray areas)". I need to say, 'I can, it's very difficult but I'm going to work on it, even if it feels impossible."  I need to take responsibility. And I feel everyone else, condition or no, does too. 
  • "Enjoy the little things in life. One day, you might look back and realize they were the big things." ~Attributed to entirely too many people.  I think this is self explanatory. 
  • Laugh, a lot. Especially at yourselves. A good sense of humor and love for each other might sometimes be the only things that get you through (exception: if the other person is really upset, don't start laughing. It won't go over well, I promise). 
  • Go on dates. Always. Even when you're 95, if you live that long and are still together.  Being comfortable in a relationships is fantastic. Being too comfortable in a relationship is trouble waiting to happen. It's really easy to fall into the "so, what movie are we watching tonight while we reheat dinner in our pajamas for the 20th weekend in a row" trap. Dates don't have to be expensive. You can throw on sweats instead of pjs and take that reheated dinner and a bottle of wine to the park and sit outside under the stars. You can go hiking together to your favorite spot if that's your thing. Jump in the car early one Saturday morning for an impromptu day trip together. Whatever it is, do things together that are special, that both of you think are special. And I know, as I said above, the little things should be special. But don't let yourself  fall into complacency. This goes with "fess up" and "how would you feel if you died tomorrow". It's easy to think the other person will always be there, that you always have time to do these things, etc. That's taking someone for granted. Don't. (Yes I know if you have kids it's tougher. But I also know plenty of couples with kids that make time for themselves as a couple. It may not be as frequent, but it's still important once in a while). 
  • If it's important to them, it's important to you (moral, ethical, legal dilemnas aside). My parents didn't love watching gymnastics meets every Sat when I was growing up. But they went, because they love me and I loved gymnastics. If it's something you can't do, at least show an interest. Ask them about it, even if it's something you think you may never fully understand, because it shows you care. Be legitimately interested when they tell you about it, because even if the topic isn't the most exciting to you, their enjoyment in it should be. 
  • This person is (or could be depending on the level of your relationship) your future. Always remember that. When life gets messy, when you have 100 things you feel like you're trying to organize and prioritize, when you aren't sure where to turn or what to do, remember that. They should be your north star. Always. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

We Walked, It Poured, We Concquered

This past weekend I participated in the Out of Darkness Overnight Walk for Suicide Prevention. It's the third year I've done this walk. If you're picturing one of the numerous 5K walks  for charity, where people casually stroll along drinking their coffee and chatting, this is not it. It's a 16 to 18 mile walk (this year's was 17 miles), that starts at sun down and runs until you finish, or 4AMish, whichever comes first.

The event is held in two different locations each year. This year's was San Francisco and New York, and as I'm located in Philadelphia (for those who don't know) I chose NY. I had to raise a minimum of $1000 to participate, as every walker does. I managed $1500, which is the most I've raised in three years of doing this event. Woo hoo! Thank you everyone!

The event is unlike any other I've participated in. The most obvious reason being, there are no survivors of suicide. There are those who have attempted and survived. There are family and friends who survive someone that has died by suicide. But by the nature of what suicide is, there is nobody who has fully experienced it and lived. Unlike walks for various types of cancer, heart disease, and other illness, there are literally no survivors walking. Not a small number, not one. Zero. And because of this, the event has a feel different than any other (and I've done numerous types of walks and events for a wide variety of charity). At once, there's both a feeling of hope, in the the strides that we're making in suicide prevention, in spreading awareness and fighting the stigma, in those who continue to beat their own battle every day that they are still alive, and a feeling of incredible sadness and loss for those who have lost the battle. There is an undeniable level of respect for each and every person walking, volunteering, and supporting the event. Each of these people have stood up, acknowledged the importance of the cause, and fraught against the stigma of mental health and suicide. Walkers wear different colored beads to symbolize their specific reason for walking. Based on the color of their beads, they are openly saying, I lost my sibling. I lost my friend. I have friends who struggle. I struggle myself.  There was a man wearing two sets of gold beads. He had lost both parents to suicide, a year apart, and the walk was taking place on the anniversary of his father's death. It is especially heart-wrenching for me to see those who wear white beads. These people have lost a child. We wear shirts with the cause written prominently across the front. On the back, people write the names of loved ones who struggle and and who have been lost. Many people have attached pictures of those that they walk for. There is no hiding. There is no shame. There is no fear. There is no stigma. As it should be. Everywhere. Always. But we are not in a society that allows this, at least not at this time. And yet here, we can walk openly, talking about mental health and suicide, acknowledging each others' losses and struggles, but also with the power to spread the message.

Five minutes after leaving the opening ceremonies, probably three tenths of a mile into a 17 mile walk, the skies opened up. I mean poured. Practically monsooned. Last year in Boston, it poured for probably the last 5 miles near the end of the walk. This year, we barely made it out of the starting gates. Our socks were soaked. Shoes were soaked. Everything and everyone was soaked. It was that kind of blinding rain where you just put one foot in front of the other and hope both don't land in a puddle up to your shin. There was absolutely no escaping it. And yet we kept on walking. In fact, we probably walked faster, as if trying to out-smart the rain (no running allowed in the Overnight). Luckily, it did not last five miles. It may have lasted a mile. And then, the weather was perfect. Barely hazy, cooled down enough to be less muggy, but comfortable. For the next 16 miles.

Opening Ceremonies at the Intrepid
I met up with three others walking on their own. One had an 8x10 (guestimate size) picture of his wife on his back. We formed an unspoken agreement to walk as a team and spent the rest of the event together. We respected the cause, while managing to talk and even laugh. You have to, sometimes, to get through this type of thing. We took "team pictures". We crossed the finish line together just shy of 1 AM, among the first to make it through the 17 miles. The man with the picture of his wife gave us each hearts made out of pipe cleaners - his wife used to make them and give them out to people around the city.  We hugged each other, said good night, and went our separate ways.

My impromptu walk team, just past mile 8 in Brooklyn

My truly incredible boyfriend stayed up for the cause as well, coming to each cheering station that he could (MTA was a pain in the butt and detours prevented him to making it to the first couple). He met me at the end point. Sometimes he was the only person at the cheering station when we went by. When you're walking 17 miles through the middle of the night with wet socks and shoes, and your feet feel like bricks and you hurt in places you didn't know could hurt (walking these distances is no joke guys), having someone standing there cheering for you and urging you forward is incredible. Seeing the familiar face of someone you love cheering for you is priceless.

My boyfriend and I at Opening C

Today, people ask me how it went. It's a difficult question to answer. It monsooned. You're hurting everywhere, You're still ringing out your clothes. And yet you did this enormous thing. You met these amazing people, who you may see at another walk, or bump into in NY somewhere (less likely), or see on social media, or may never encounter again. But you now share this bond that's virtually impossible to explain to those who haven't experienced it. You will always remember these people. They will always, in a completely unique way, be special to you, even if you don't even know their last names, and eventually may forget their first.  And somehow, through the sore ankles and blistered feet and tight hamstrings and lack of sleep, you already can't wait to do it again next year.

17 miles later
All finished! 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

I Walk For Suicide Prevention Because...

I've bugged the hell out of you all on every social media platform, so you probably know that I'm walking the Out of Darkness Overnight Walk for Suicide Prevention on Saturday. If by any chance you do NOT know this, I'll be walking 16-18 miles (map looks to indicate about 17) overnight, starting at sundown-ish and finishing... whenever I finish. The walk is for fundraising  - raised $1406 - and awareness for the topic of Suicide Prevention, which is all to often ignored, avoided, pushed under the rug because people don't want to talk about it. It's uncomfortable for some. Other's just can't imagine why someone would take their own life. There are people out there that still think mental health disorders are "all in our heads". (Naturally! Where else would my brain be?). People think it could never happen to them, their friends, their loved ones. But it doesn't discriminate. Not even remotely. Why do I walk?

  • I walk because my (second) cousin took his own life a few years back. 
  • I walk because I have friends who have attempted. 
  • I walk because I have friends who have suicidal thoughts. 
  • I walk because I have friends who have lost someone to suicide. 
  • I walk because PTSD takes the lives of so many military, police, and first responders. 
  • I walk because of the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide that people battle every day. 
  • I walk for myself, because I know what it's like to feel that you're losing the battle with your mental health condition, and I want everyone else battling to know that they are not alone, even when they most feel like they are. 
I will be Tweeting, Facebooking, and Instagramming my experience this weekend, for anyone who would like to follow along. To all who walked in San Francisco a few weeks ago, who will be walking this weekend, who have donated, volunteered, and otherwise supported, thank you from the bottom of my heart. It's because of people like you that those who battle mental health and who have been affected by suicide do not have to battle alone.