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Jennifer Novak's picture

“Why can’t I calm down?” For the third time in as many days, I’d woken up much earlier than necessary with symptoms of extreme anxiety—palms and feet sweating, my heart beating furiously in my chest, my fingers and toes tingling. Although I knew that my spouse’s deployment was going to be stressful— I would be on my own, parenting three young children while working full-time—I hadn’t anticipated this. I had found out the week prior that my husband had been accepted into an extremely competitive training program. Although I knew he had applied to this just before the deployment, he had stated over and over again that he would likely not be accepted, and I’d pushed the possibility out of my mind. While the news of his admission meant great things for his career, it also meant we would be moving again. If he had been home, this would have been water under the bridge—we’ve handled much more trying times together. But with my spouse unavailable, the weight of what I needed to accomplish alone started pressing down on me. I needed to sell our home, I needed to find a temporary place to live, I needed to wrap up major projects at work…the list went on and on and on.

My stress symptoms started immediately after the news came: I lost my appetite, I couldn’t sleep, my blood pressure was abnormally high. I explained away these problems with some impressively creative excuses (I was very good at burying my head in the sand). For a while this seemed to work. Sure, I didn’t feel great, but I was soldiering on, getting the things done that I needed to. But, eventually, my self-inflicted ignorance stopped working. My body caught on that I wasn’t paying attention to the warning signs it was trying to convey. So on a Sunday evening, after finally getting the kids to bed, my hands and feet went numb. For an hour. I was terrified! Was I having a stroke? The feeling eventually passed and I convinced myself of the understatement of the century: I was just a little worked up —a mild panic attack. The next day, however, more symptoms presented themselves. I couldn’t concentrate, my heart was racing, I felt faint. The lights at work were too bright and my peripheral vision was too dark. I kept telling myself, “Just breathe. This will pass. This will pass. This will pass.” It didn’t. My anxiety continued to grow over the next three days until it became so unbearable that I wasn’t able to function.

When I awoke the following Wednesday, hyperventilating and unable to calm down, I realized I couldn’t continue to ignore what was happening. My anxiety, something I’d lived with for years, was pulling me into a dangerous embrace. As I lay in bed that morning, my panic waxed and waned in a dangerously short cycle. At no time was I completely relieved , in fact, my baseline anxiety crept upward with each successive loop. By the time my children woke, I barely felt as though I could get out of bed. I was petrified. My family all lived out-of-state, busy with their own lives. There were the other military spouses of course, but I didn’t want to intrude; with a deployment, everyone was feeling stressed. Eventually, I was able to work up the strength to get my children to school and make my way back home. Despite how terrible I felt, I continued to justify why it was impossible for me to reach out for help. I tried to control my breathing. I called myself weak. I cursed my inability to manage the simplest of things. I felt frightened and alone.

I convinced myself I just needed a break, so I spent the morning on my couch, trying to distract myself with Netflix. But in the moments when I felt reprieve from my panic, I would start thinking about all the things that I needed to get done. Every time I let my mind wander to my to-do list—staging the house for showings, completing repairs, dealing with the weevils that had made a sudden appearance in my laundry room—panic would set back in. I sat and I suffered… until I submitted. In a moment of clarity, I realized that the fierce independence I was so very proud of wasn’t working. I was not enough. In order for me to make it through this crisis, I needed to accept that I was fallible. I needed to reach out and accept help.

I started with a call to my doctor. As calmly as I could, I explained to the very concerned and slightly confused receptionist that I had been having a panic attack the past three days and that things weren’t looking so great. I couldn’t help but laugh when she asked, “So… do you think you need to be seen today?”

“Yeah, I think that would be for the best.”

I managed to work up the fortitude to drive to the base and walk into the clinic. I tried my best to put a smile on my face, avoiding eye contact at all costs. The narrative in my head repeated like a skipping record: “You’re weak. A disappointment. Everyone can see through you. You’re losing it and they can tell.” I tried my best to push the negative thoughts out. I met with my doctor, and after a brief but thoughtful assessment I was prescribed a short-term anti-anxiety treatment.

Before sending me on my way that first day, my physician asked me: “How are you going to keep this from happening again?” I looked up at him with tears in my eyes, ashamed it had come to this. While the medication would help, he and I both knew it wasn’t going to be enough. The problem wasn’t just how I was coping with stress or even my perception of it, but in my inability to reach out to others for help. My belief that I could “do it all,” that I needed no one except myself, had pushed me over the edge. My mind and my body were rebelling, flag raised and declaration loud and clear: “We will no longer participate in this self-destructive autonomy. You cannot do this on your own.” I accepted what I needed to do, even though it scared me - reach out to others and ask for them to pull me up.

My next step was a phone call to an acquaintance of mine, someone I now think of as a dear friend. While I wasn’t very close to this person at the time, I had seen her openness about her own struggles with anxiety on social media. I felt like I would be safe confiding in her. I called her and spent a few seconds exchanging pleasantries; then, I broke down and shared what was happening. She listened, she invited me over, she fed me and my children, and she let me cry and talk. She got me through that first day and continued to support me over the coming weeks. Words cannot express how grateful I am for her support, her generosity, and her kindness.

It’s because of that initial support that I felt safe enough to go a bit further. I reached out—I let the people I trusted know what was going on and watched as they built a support network around me. Although I continued to struggle with ongoing anxiety and a sudden onset of depression, at no point during the remainder of my husband’s deployment did I ever feel alone. My people made sure of it. Friends from work used time off to watch bad movies with me at home on the days I didn’t have it in me to go in. I had daily check-in phone calls to my sisters, parents, and the spouse who had helped me that first day. My amazing supervisor and co-workers provided me advice and emotional support, encouragement to start therapy, and an incomparable level of empathy and acceptance.

The days turned to weeks, the weeks turned to months, and the deployment steadily drew closer to ending. New challenges presented themselves over the following months. I hated that I would be quitting my job—I took tremendous pride in my work and had given so much to build up the position I had held the last three years. It hurt more and more to go into the office everyday knowing that I would be leaving soon. Additionally, the stress of selling our first home was tremendous. Although we were blessed with an amazing offer within days of the house being listed, it catapulted me into a land of paperwork, contractors, and early relocation to a temporary residence. I could feel the anxiety, which had plateaued for a bit, slowly wriggling back up and appearing at unexpected times. But this time was different. I was prepared. When I got the feeling that moving early was going to overwhelm me, I called my father and told him what was happening. His response: “We’re going to make it work. I’ll come out there for a week and we’ll get it done.” And we did. We made it through. Writing this, eight months later, I’m finally just starting to feel like myself again—that’s how bad it was. But I’m doing a lot better, and am in a place I didn’t think I’d ever be at again when I was in the throes of this crisis.

As I sit and reflect on what happened, I realize there were warning signs. I was no longer feeling joy in day-to-day life—just dread. I was ignoring my disappointment about having to leave my job. I was completely overwhelmed at the prospect of selling our home and undergoing another cross-country move. Instead of admitting that I couldn’t do everything, I had forced myself to take on more than I could handle, and I did it thinking that I needed to. That I couldn’t ask for help because that meant I was weak. I had set myself up for what had happened. Even though this experience brought me to my knees, I look back with boundless gratitude for having lived through it. It has allowed me to learn some important lessons for myself and, I hope, for others.

  • There is always someone out there who loves you and is willing to help if you ask. I get it— it’s really scary. What if you ask for help and someone rejects you? What if they don’t take you seriously? These are both valid concerns. There’s a reason why it’s so hard to reach out: it makes us vulnerable. It takes courage. By taking the step of asking for help, you are showing tremendous strength— the strength to admit when you are feeling weak.
  • Watch for the lighthouses, even when you don’t need their guidance at the time. There is so much stigma around mental health in our society, and it’s no wonder people feel shame in admitting personal struggles with it. I’m still a little shocked that I wrote this article. But I also know that the only way to be a beacon of light for someone else is to have the courage to shine in the first place. I was lucky enough to have noticed a lighthouse on my travels— watch for the people in your life who can be one for you.
  • Medication can help. Therapy can help. There is no failure in allowing yourself to do either, or both, of these things. If you are a military spouse, they will be covered by Tricare if you reach out to your primary care physician for a diagnosis. If you do not meet criteria for clinical services, there are still tons of free counseling resources available through on-base support services and MilitaryOneSource. If you aren’t a military spouse, contact your PCM and insurance to find out what will be covered. If you don’t have access to medical insurance, call 411 to find out what local resources are available to you in your community for low-cost.
  • Accept that it is okay to set boundaries, to say no, and to prioritize self-care. When my spouse deployed, I insisted on continuing with our day-to-day responsibilities without any additional help, not even an occasional house-keeper. After my crisis, I realized I had been squeezing myself so hard that I had nothing left to give. I changed by arranging for help with the things I needed to get done, but I also built in time for the things I simply enjoyed doing. I gave myself permission to focus on my needs so that I could be a better mother and spouse. Author Eleanor Brown once wrote, “When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.” This couldn’t be more true than for military spouses.
  • Communicate with your loved ones about how you are doing. Of all the things I’m guilty of, lying to my loved ones about my well-being falls at the top of the list. The words “I’m fine” were my mantra, but no matter how often I said them, they never were the truth. When someone you trust asks how you’re doing, be honest with them. When someone says, “If you need anything, just let me know,” accept the help. Pay it back when you can. Be someone else’s helper when the time comes.

There’s a memory that sticks with me from just a few days before my husband returned. The worst of the stress was over, we were out of our old home and living in the furnished residence of a deployed friend. My notice at work had been put in, my sister would be arriving soon to help with the drive cross-country. It was central California hot, dusty, dry, fierce. My children and I were laying on the grass of the lawn, occasionally dipping our toes in the pool. I sat on the grass, enjoying the weather, watching the joys of my life play and laugh. Without warning, a feeling washed over me— not one of panic, but of peace. For the first time in months, I felt the curtains of depression and shackles of anxiety lift, and I experienced relief. I had survived , not by myself, but because of my willingness to let others guide me. I had allowed myself to be vulnerable and had accepted help, despite every cell in my body screaming at me not to. I had rejected the narrative of necessary independence that had been ingrained in me for years. I couldn’t go it alone, but that was okay. I had changed, and I had survived.

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