My Road to Recovery
By Rita Clark

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For many years, Rita Clark served as “Consumer Chair” for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), the leading organization in the field of anxiety disorders.  “Consumers” – those working for their recovery – form a large part of the membership of ADAA and actively participate in the ADAA’s annual conference.

Spring of ‘98.  The Boston ADAA conference – and my trip across the country – was quickly catching up to me.  Before my trip, I realized that not only did I have a backlog of things to prepare for this year’s conference, but Boston was the farthest I had ever been and I was not thinking about any scary “what ifs.”  Instead, my mind was racing at the things that needed to be done.  What a change!!  

At work, I needed to remember to change my voice mail, as I was going to be away for a week.  As the coordinator for the Consumer Hospitality Room, I needed to remember to bring the paperwork collected over the last year that was an important part of this year’s conference.  Do I have my list of volunteers?  What about the Arts display – will everything fit in my suitcase?  Oh, and what about the weather?  It’s raining in LA – it must be cold in Boston.  Will all my warm clothes fit into my suitcase?  At 6 AM, the morning of my departure, I am frantically gathering and packing in order to catch the shuttle that will deliver me and my baggage to the airport by 7  AM.

The Los Angeles skies are gray.  The rain is pouring down on take off, so we climb high to avoid the turbulence that Mother Nature feels we must endure.  In a way, this situation is wonderful – because I am experiencing it.  

Two hours later and over the Rockies.  I have settled in.  As I look below, I can only wonder at the marvelous beauty that has surrounded me.  My experience of beauty includes just being in the airplane and thinking ”Boston is so far from LA.”

As I stare out the window of this huge jet, my life flashes by and I begin to realize how far I have come and how wonderful I feel.  

At the age of 41, I began my difficult recovery from panic disorder, agoraphobia and social phobia.  After over 20 years of not allowing myself to be in a grocery store, restaurant or public place alone, not driving out of my safe area, not attending school functions for my children – basically not living, and feeling very weak and ashamed – I began a journey into living that has taken me to this place today.

For those of you who are just beginning, I wish I could say to you that recovery was easy, that recovery came quickly and most of all that there was a magic pill that would instantly take away the fearful thoughts and terrifying physical feelings.  For many of us who have completed our journey of recovery and are now beginning our journey of living, the road we traveled was oftentimes scary and shaky – and at times, I thought, impossible.  

For over twenty years, I lived with agoraphobia.  It actually became safer for me to maintain this disorder than to venture out towards recovery and challenge my negative thoughts and behavioral outlook.  After all, why would I want to make my life worse by becoming free?  Often, the very thought of recovery was terrifying.  The reading of self-help books was a risk.  All these issues were faced in my therapy sessions – they were all part of the picture.

After one year in therapy, I was still dealing with the idea that I had a disorder, and I was unable to move beyond that state.  At that point, the denial I had been using for all my life was still strongly in place.  As long as I did not get too involved in my own issues, I was comfortably able to use this great tool of denial.  It had served me well and I was reluctant to let it go.  

My therapist asked me if I wanted to spend the next 40 years guided and directed by my fears.   Did I never want to be free to Christmas shop or grocery shop?  Did I never want to be free to drive to any destination?  Was I going to spend the next 40 years making and creating the most clever of excuses as to why I was unable to participate in living, in laughing, in being whole?  Much thought went into answering these questions. 

It was time to be honest with myself.  Was I going to play at recovery or was I going to attack recovery?  Then and only then did I experience my first stages of anger.  The anger is the one thing that stands out clearly in my recovery.  It was a healthy anger – an anger that was followed with a determination to not quit and to learn to love and forgive myself for all that I was.  

No, I did not want to spend the next 40 years controlled by my fears.  I wanted to be free to decide – not out of fear, but just to decide – what in life I liked or disliked, and who in life I loved or perhaps did not love.  Who was the real Rita based on the reality of life and not the fear of anxiety?  I did not know.  

One thing made my recovery especially difficult.  I had often heard that no one else really knows that you are having a panic attack.  For me, that was not true, as my physical symptoms were very visible.  When one is shaking like a leaf over the littlest fear, it does become noticeable to those around you.  I hadn’t signed my name in public for over twenty years because of my fear of trembling and the fear of what others would think. 

As I think about my recovery, I do not remember a specific day when I first began to feel safe.  I do remember learning not to be ashamed of having agoraphobia, not to be ashamed of my physical symptoms, and not to be ashamed of my recovery.

I learned to become my own “safe person.”  I began to take back the power that I had given away so many years ago – to other people and other things – to keep me safe.  

With my anger and my determination to feel free to be, I began my journey.  Willing to take those “baby steps,” willing to admit who I was and what I was trying to accomplish, and in some instances willing to appear silly as I took those needed baby steps, my journey began.

After two years of recovery, I had accomplished a great deal, but I knew I still had a long way to travel.  I became very discouraged at the work, the intensity and the discomfort of this process.  My therapist was kind enough to explain that for 40 years, I had thought and reacted to the world from a frightening place.  To change, I needed to be compassionate to myself.  To keep my dream and my goal alive, I needed to be proud of what I had accomplished so far.  

As I look back on the years of anxiety and the years it took me to be free, I know now that it was a blessing to have spent that part of my life as I did.  For everywhere around me – whether it be a stressful day at work, a day of facing life’s challenges or simply watching my grandchildren grow, the grass turn green, or the sunset – I am now free to be me.

Today, 13 years after I began my journey, research has taken us a long way.  There are so many new and positive treatments that can assist you with your recovery.  My work with the ADAA is part selfish, as they have given me the opportunity to grow and stretch my wings.  At the same time, I am part of an organization that will help us and our children face the truth regarding anxiety disorders.

I do not know if I will ever have another panic attack, and that is okay, for I am no longer afraid of those feelings and I am no longer ashamed.  I am proud of myself and everyone I have met along the way.  Having had agoraphobia has allowed me to come in contact with so many wonderful and sincere people.  All of us who are traveling along this road are very special and extremely courageous.

As I daydream on my flight to Boston, life becomes very clear.  The trauma of experiencing all that I had during my recovery – whether it had been physical or emotional – was worth all that I am living for today. 

*                    *                    *

Please feel free to send me an email at:  ritaclar1@aol.com.

Also, I highly recommend visiting the website of the Anxiety and Depression  Association of America (ADAA): http://www.adaa.org.

Sincerely,

Rita Clark


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