Exposure Experiment and Mickey Ears

I haven’t done the best job in updating my blog the past few weeks, mostly because I’ve been focused on getting the most out of this Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Intensive Outpatient Program that I’m in (aka: Cog). It can be hard, draining work challenging distortions and beliefs that you’ve been forming and protecting yourself with for a lifetime, but sometimes those beliefs and distortions are keeping you stuck and feeding your depression and anxiety, at least that’s been the case for me. My “program” days consist of getting up, sometimes dropping off my son at preschool, then heading to program by 8:30 or 8:45, then I’m done a little before noon. Most days, I eat lunch at the cafeteria there, sometimes with other people from my group. It may not be the best food in the world, but it’s included with the cost of the program, and I’m on short term disability, so anywhere I can save a few bucks helps. After lunch, I usually run some errands, work on self-care, do some Cog homework, and otherwise try to find relatively healthy ways to occupy the time.

Every day, in program, we are asked to fill out an abbreviated Beck inventory for depression, and a Burns inventory for Anxiety, which gives us scores rating how severe our symptoms for each are that given day. This helps the therapists to track our progress, and it helps us see if we’re making progress, too. The ranges for anxiety are 5 and below: minimal, 6-15: mild, 16-30 moderate, 31-50: severe, over 50: extreme. For depression, it’s 0-9 = “normal”, 10-18 = Mild-moderate, 18-29 = Moderate-Severe, 30+ = Severe. When I started the week of May 13th, my depression sat right around a 30, and my anxiety was a 58. Yesterday, after 23 days of attending program, my anxiety was at a 15 and my depression was at 8. While the program psychiatrist did increase my dosage on one of my meds, the score decreases started before the increased dosage could have really started taking significant effect. It’s definitely been a both-and solution that has really been helping me.

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Graphing my progress. Top line is anxiety (uses the left column for values), bottom line is depression (right column).

On my 3rd day of program, I used my group sharing time talking about how nervous I was of having a panic attack, especially during an upcoming, already planned trip to Disneyland with one of my close friends. We used the time practicing both an exposure technique (overbreathing, or breathing rapidly to simulate the physical symptoms of a panic attack) and a distraction technique (the ABC game – pick a theme and name something associated to that theme from each letter of the alphabet), with the homework that I should practice both multiple times a day if I could. I made it through that trip with my friend, though there were a few solid moments of struggle and anxiety/panic. I made it through, but I didn’t really relax or let myself enjoy the parks as much as I normally would. I was on edge for much of the day, concerned that a panic attack was right around the corner, worried that the panic attacks weren’t just panic attacks, and terrified that I might collapse or something in the middle of a ride line. I was convinced that something would happen, and I couldn’t handle it. I did make it through, though it was thoroughly draining.

As I worked through the program, I saw some of the progress I’d been making, and also saw the progress and heard the stories of the other members of my small group. I soon realized that I would be stepping down from 5 days a week to 4 days a week, then down to 3 days a week, I started toying with the idea of trying Disneyland by myself on one of my off days. This just stayed a “crazy idea” in my mind for a couple of weeks, and then I started talking to my hubby about it. Then to my therapist. Eventually, it evolved to planning a trip up, by myself, and booking a hotel room to stay the night by myself before driving home. I had never stayed in a hotel entirely on my own before, and the thought terrified me. A couple of weeks ago, though, I decided I needed to just plan it and do it. My anxiety had been dropping, and, if I were to get too overwhelmed in the parks, I could always go sit in the hotel room or find a quiet spot to recenter (and yes, they do exist at Disneyland, if you know where to look). So, I planned the trip, booked the hotel, and arranged my days and appointments to make it happen. On Tuesday, June 18th, I woke up, my bag packed the night before, nails painted with balloons and clouds (to tie in with the Up themed ears headband, t-shirt and earrings I’d be wearing), set up a Spotify playlist, and hit the road. From my home, it takes about an hour and a half to get to the parks, and I ended up arriving a little before noon.

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Found this cute picture of Sadness on a barrier in California Adventures. I think they’re putting in an Inside Out themed ride.

I spent the day alternating between using the single rider line (on rides that offered it), using fastpass (for rides that had fastpass and no single rider line) and then waiting in line for a couple of other rides that I just wanted to ride that either didn’t have fastpasses or the fastpass return time wasn’t at a good time for me. I browsed shops when I wanted to browse shops. I drank my water. I sat and rested when I wanted or needed to. For the first part of the day, I was a little nervous, then I started settling in. I did have a small rough spot of increased anxiety, but I was able to self-soothe. I was also able to figure out that there had been a minor trigger ahead of that moment, and that it was in a time of day that is generally harder for me anyway. I’m not sure about anyone else, but there’s a certain window of the day that is frequently much harder than the rest.

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With the 7 Dwarves statues by the wishing well. The waterfall was off, but I love taking a picture with them, especially Grumpy.

I also grabbed some dinner. Actually, I had made reservations for a dining and reserved viewing package to see Fantasmic, because I hadn’t seen it since they re-did it recently. Most of the dining packages are pretty pricey, but they do have “grab and go” options as well, which are a bit more reasonable. It was my first time trying it, and, I have to say, the overall experience was AWESOME! The food was pretty good, and the reserved viewing area was right at the edge of the water (and not overcrowded). I had plenty of personal space. As a bonus, I was able to watch the fireworks from the same spot, though it was a slightly angled view. Afterwards, I wound my way through the post-fireworks crowds, wandered through the Emporium to look at some merch, and made my way back to my car (after getting a Honey Citrus Mint Tea at the Downtown Disney Starbucks, for a soothing, warm bedtime beverage). I found the hotel, checked in, and took some time to wind down and do a little skin care before falling asleep.

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Only a rope fence between me and the waterfront for Fantasmic. I’d call that fantastic!

The next morning, by the time I woke up, I had missed the free breakfast (which ended at 9), so I took my time getting ready, showered, etc, then decided to go back to Downtown Disney for lunch and a little more shopping before heading home in time to pick up my kiddo from preschool. While I ate, I started writing an empowerment letter to myself, which is one of the assignments I’ve been given recently in program, and which was a lot easier to approach as I was getting to the tail end of my trip.

As I think about what this trip meant to me, what I got from it, I think the biggest thing was just having time with myself. So often the past year or so, whenever I’ve been alone, I’ve avoided my own thoughts, my own company. I’ve distracted with Netflix, Amazon Videos, books, games on my phone, nail polish, sometimes 2 or more of these all at once. I’ve been avoiding not only my thoughts, but also any uncomfortable emotions that might come along with them. The unfortunate side effect of avoiding uncomfortable emotions, aside from an increase in anxiety, is that it makes it harder to really appreciate or even accept just about any emotion at all. For me, avoiding the uncomfortable emotions just increased the apathy that would normally accompany a bout of severe depression.

In taking more time to sit with myself, and to work on being mindful of my emotions (and how they feel in my body when they come up), I have had a lot more time to ponder and think about not just who I’ve been, but who I want to be and who I really am. There’s a quote from Avengers: Endgame that has really been an anchor point for a lot of my pondering, especially the past week or so (emphasis added for the areas I’ve focused on):

“Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be, Thor. The measure of a person, of a hero, is how well they succeed at being who they are.”

supposed to be vs are
Photo by Randy Jacob on Unsplash.com
Layout from Canva.com
Quote from Avengers: Endgame

I’ve come a long way in the past few weeks, but I know that there is still good progress to be made. In order to keep making progress, though, I need to keep focusing on who I am (not who other people think I am), and deciding what I want my life to look like.

What thoughts, feelings, or reactions do you have to this quote, if any? Is there a different quote or affirmation that really speaks to you?

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