If you ever go to the island of Hawaiʻi and visit Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the state, you’ll encounter a very strange sign. As you drive up the occasionally winding road towards the visitor’s center, which sits at an elevation of 9,200 feet above sea level, you may see a sign that would immediately strike you as unusual and amusing. It says: “Beware of invisible cows.” It’s such an unusual, strange sign that the visitor’s center sells bumper stickers with the same wording. Cows are big, unmistakable animals. How could they ever be invisible? Well, the access road goes through an open cattle range. There are no fences along the roadside. In fact, there aren’t even street lights. So, imagine, you’re driving along a winding road, through open hills with herds of cattle grazing and roaming, at night or in the fog. How quickly or easily do you think you could spot a dark-colored cow on a dark road? In the right (or maybe wrong) conditions, a large, otherwise conspicuous animal can become practically invisible, and a real road hazard, making this strange, initially humorous sign truly necessary. But, you may be asking yourself, what on earth does this have to do with my mental health journey?
In the first two weeks of December, I ended up at Urgent Care twice. Both preceded by at least one bout of vomiting, heartburn/chest pain, racing heart, shakiness and sweating. Depression and anxiety of course were whispering the worst in my ear, causing me to think that I was having heart problems, and so I went in. The first time, after blood work, abdominal x-rays, fluids, and anti-nausea meds, the doctor sent me home thinking it was a touch of stomach flu. The second trip, after an EKG, fluids, blood work and a chest x-ray, I was also sent home, with the doctor saying it looked like an “adrenaline response.” However, after that second trip, the heartburn and racing heart would recur, and I got to the point where I didn’t even want to leave the apartment. After a long discussion with my husband and mom about what was going on, I texted my therapist and moved my appointment sooner, because it was starting to look like these episodes were possibly panic attacks. I was also frustrated, because I was constantly exhausted and had to remind myself to eat, both of which were symptoms I hadn’t had since a bad depressive episode over 10 years ago. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, why this was happening, especially since I was on a combination of meds that both have worked for me in the past, and had been working well for me up until this point. Shaky and worried, I got up the day of my session, took a shower, got dressed, and let my mom drive me to the therapist.
In our session, I spilled my guts. I cried. I told her that I was frustrated that this was happening, and it, bluntly, pissed me off that, no matter how well I think I understand my depression, it can find new ways to knock me on my ass. She listened, and then asked me to consider looking at it a different way. She explained that, in her opinion, it didn’t look or sound like I had actually fallen into a deep depression, and that, given what we’ve been working on and what’s been going on in my life, the panic attacks that seemed to have come out of nowhere were, to her, not too surprising. And so, we discussed my journey, which went along the following lines:
My body is used to depression. Depression symptoms are, in a way, a comfort zone, and, when my subconscious doesn’t know how to respond to something, it might just fire depression symptoms, or anxiety symptoms. Add to this the fact that there have been a lot of external stressors over the past few months, and it was the holidays (which is the most stressful time at work, plus it was the first Christmas without Gramps). Not to mention that, in our EMDR sessions, we were digging into some of the more painful and traumatic memories from my first marriage. As my therapist explained it to me,when we’re doing this sort of work, this sort of healing and reprocessing trauma, sometimes our bodies and minds will bring up obstacles that seem to come out of nowhere. Things might seem to be going along just fine and dandy, and then, a wave of depression symptoms, anxiety, or panic, because that’s what my body is used to doing. There may not be a specific trigger at hand, or an immediately visible cause, but it stops me in my tracks all the same. In other words, invisible cows.
So, in my own way, I’ve hit a few invisible cows this month, and they took their toll on me. I’ve come out on the other side OK, and I’ve even touched base with my primary doctor to make sure there aren’t any physical problems that could be contributing to the issue, and he agreed that it sounded like panic attacks. Of course, the fact that I was in the middle of an anxiety attack when I was sitting in his exam room might have helped that diagnosis along. It was pretty frustrating to deal with being in the middle of an anxiety attack and try to navigate a doctor’s appointment, but luckily, he’s a very patient and understanding man. I also tried to look at the silver lining: I was having the symptoms I was concerned about right there in front of him, so he had something to work with.
So, how am I navigating this mountainside of invisible cows that is my progress? Well, a combination of things. First of all, just knowing that there isn’t anything physically causing the problem has reduced the anxiety greatly. Secondly, knowing that it isn’t as out of nowhere as it seems reduces some anxiety as well. I also have the knowledge that each attack is temporary. It will pass. My therapist and I went over some coping tools, including grounding techniques, again, so they were top of mind, and she reminded me of a local crisis line, in case I needed it. Also, my doctor adjusted my meds a little, to help on the chemical side with the anxiety. Finally, between all of the anxiety and panic attacks, and the stomach flu and head cold that struck over the past week, I’ve had the very stark and tangible reminder to pace myself. Dose things out, so to speak. Don’t commit to a full day of being out if it seems too daunting. Start with 20 minutes, or maybe even 10, then check in with my body and mind and see what I can handle next. That’s been one of the biggest things, really. Checking in with myself and listening to my body.
Thankfully, all of this rest and down time, while frustrating in its own way, has been a bit of a reset, as it were. I’ve also noticed that the panic and anxiety has greatly lessened ever since my doctor said he agreed with my therapist’s assessment. In a way, the fog has cleared, and, while these cows are no longer invisible, I know there could be more down the road. That’s OK. It’s better to know they might be there than it is to run into them unaware again.
Have you ever hit any “invisible cows” on your journey? How do you handle them?