Progress on Several Fronts

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I met with my therapist today.

We talked about the last two weeks – about the SCA event over the weekend, about how I managed to avoid much anxiety, how much fun I had, and how glad I was to be getting back into an area of the SCA that I used to enjoy very much. She was very pleased to hear about everything, and when I was quick to give credit to having the Zoloft on board she was just as quick to correct me. She said that most of what I did over the weekend was me, and not the medication. The Zoloft might have taken the edge off, but the complete lack of panic leading up to the event and the relative low amount of anxiety I felt during the event was because of my progress over several months and my own efforts were what kept the panic attack at the event at bay.

We also talked about school, and she mentioned that my classes over the weekend will go a ways toward preparing me for my classes in the fall. She was concerned that I was going to be doing four classes at once, but she was relieved to hear that I would be doing them sequentially. I told her that Austin Community College offers an associates degree in Health Information Technology that would expand on the learning that I would receive through the certificate program, and that the associates degree transfers to the Health Information Technology program at Texas State University for a bachelor’s degree. She asked if I could go back to Texas Workforce Commission and ask if they would greenlight the associates degree instead of the certificate program. It’s six semesters versus two, but it would open more doors for me at the end of my education, and presumably increase my asking salary. I told her that I have a new counselor at TWC and that I’d send something over to her tomorrow.

We also touched on my fear of dying. I mentioned that it had come up in the book that I’m reading on her recommendation, and that the entry wasn’t very helpful. The end result of that conversation was a little surprising. She wants me to do some soul searching to arrive at what I believe happens when we die. I’d never given it much thought beyond “if there is something, living a decent life on Earth is the best way to secure a happy afterlife, and if there isn’t something, living a decent life on Earth is its own reward.” But I suppose that over the next couple weeks I’ll be deep in thought about this so I can report back to her.

It was a good session today.

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Unresolved

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As I mentioned a few days ago, I have an irrational fear of dying. It’s not the being dead part that scares me; it’s the fear of the sickness and pain and suffering that’s associated with death that gets me. I talked about how the book I’m currently reading, The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, Sixth Edition by Edmund J. Bourne PhD, has a section that covers the fear of death, and how I was looking forward to getting to that section to hopefully find some guidance in how to get over my fear.

Today is the day that I got to that section, and it is … lacking.

It explains that some of the most common types of thanatophobia (the official term for a fear of death) are a fear of nonexistence; a fear of the unknown; a fear of negative afterlife based on religious beliefs, such as hell or purgatory; my situation, the fear of the negative aspects of the process of dying; fear of the death of a loved one; fear of what will happen to loved ones after you die; and an outright fear of dead things.

The book goes into some detail about the fear of nonexistence. It talks briefly about the fears of death that center around religious beliefs. It has a couple of paragraphs on how some people respond favorably to literature on near-death experiences. It mentions a couple of therapeutic options for people whose fear of death began with a traumatic experience of watching a loved one die.

And this is what it says about dealing with the pain and suffering of the process of dying.

“The fear of pain and suffering associated with death may arise from a traumatic experience of witnessing a loved one go through a protracted process of dying. Often the death of a loved one may lead to an increased fear of one’s own death as well as a fear of sights and objects associated with death.”

That’s it. That’s all the book offers.

First off, I’ve had this fear for as long as I can remember. My mom’s dad passed before I was born. My dad’s dad passed very suddenly in a town three hours away. We lost dad’s mom after a protracted illness, but because of my age I wasn’t allowed in to see her throughout most of it, and Mom and Dad didn’t go into much detail about what she was going through. My first memory of a protracted illness in a loved one was my mom’s mom, who died when I was 25 after a years-long deterioration into dementia. A stroke finally took her in November 1994 after spending over a year living at a nursing facility that I never visited. My first hands-on experience with death was with my father, a year later. He suffered a heart attack and then a second one took him a week after that. I had that week with him in the hospital and woke up the morning of his death knowing that it would very well be his last day on earth. But my fear of death dates back long before my father and my grandmother. It wasn’t anything to do with a loved one dying.

Secondly, There’s absolutely no real help here at all. Just two sentences speculating about the origin of the fear, and another sentence later in the section that says that hypnotherapy or eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing could be helpful in instances where the fear of death originates with the death of a loved one.

I’ve been eagerly anticipating what turned out to be nothing useful.

I’m a little frustrated about this. I was really hoping to find something that would address the dreams that I have about dying, the ones where I wake up in a cold sweat. I was looking forward to getting some tips on how to combat the immediate sense of panic that I feel anytime the thought of my death crosses my mind. And instead I’ve got nothing concrete that I can use to alleviate that fear.

Well, no matter. It’s something that I can bring up with my therapist and we can work on it together.

Getting Down to Brass Tacks

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As longtime readers of this blog may know, every day I try to read a section in a non-fiction, usually self-help book. Right now I’m reading The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, Sixth Edition by Edmund J. Bourne, PhD. It’s a bit of a slog, and it’s an incomplete read, because there are several exercises that take weeks to complete, not to mention some chapters and sections that aren’t relevant to my particular situation. Nevertheless, I’m reading the whole thing cover to cover, and then going back and doing the exercises recommended for me.

I’m currently on Chapter 11, called Ten Common Specific Phobias. It’s pretty much as advertised, a listing of ten phobias and some potential methods of overcoming each one. Most of these don’t pertain to me. The most common phobia, performance anxiety (public speaking and the like), is something that I only marginally deal with, others listed don’t bother me at all. The tenth one, however, is my single greatest fear. I’ve awoken in a cold sweat dreaming about it, and I can feel the panic rising in me even now just thinking about it, because it’s something that I WILL eventually have to face.

I have a tremendous fear of dying.

I’m not scared of being dead. That part doesn’t bother me. I’m not worried about my soul in the afterlife, and an endless, dreamless sleep if there’s nothing is just that. What bothers me, however, is the process of dying, the panicked gasping for breath that doesn’t come, the potential for a long, drawn out illness, the chance that it’s going to hurt very badly. That’s the part that I’m terrified of.

Fortunately, there appear to be some concrete things that the book suggests to help ease that fear. I only today discovered the section existed, and skipped ahead briefly to scan it. There appears to be more reading that I’m going to have to do after I finish my work with this book, but I’m okay with that. I just hope that it helps. I really wish I didn’t fear this so much, but the older I’m getting and the poorer my health becomes, the more I’m forced to face the fact that I likely don’t have as many years ahead of me as I do behind me. (Hopefully I’m wrong about that, and if I’m not, I hope I miss it by just a few years.) It’s a crippling feeling to know that I’m helpless to prevent it from happening.

I’ll have more on this in a few days when I get to the actual section itself.

Deathly Afraid

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I’ve talked about my phobias on this blog before, although not really in depth. I’ve conquered most of them, but there’s still one that will wake me up in a cold sweat if I dream about it, and it will bring me to the edge of a panic attack if I even think about it, so this blog post is going to be difficult to write.

I am deathly afraid of dying. (Pun intended.)

It’s important to note that I am not afraid of death – that is, being dead. I figure that I’m either going to move on to the next big adventure or just go to sleep and never wake up, and being in that state does not scare me. But the process of dying absolutely terrifies me. The destination isn’t frightening, but the journey certainly is.

I know this isn’t an uncommon phobia. Many of us are afraid of dying. The term thanatophobia refers to both a fear of death and a fear of dying, so it is recognized that the two are separate things. But I can’t shake the fear that I’ll be leaving this life behind.

I’m not sure why that’s such a terrifying thing for me. I haven’t done much with this life, I’ve hardly ever accomplished anything I set out to try and accomplish in my life – but maybe that’s why I’m scared of dying. I’m afraid of what I’ve been missing out on being forever out of reach for me.

My solution up to this point has been to not think about it, but that’s not an effective or elegant answer to a problem that just comes into my head from time to time unbidden. Nor is just doing the things that I want to do an answer either. My other anxieties and lack of funds keep me from doing a lot that I may want to do. (Apparently Bucket List Me is an expensive date.)

Is there an answer to this fear out there somewhere? Surely there’s got to be something that can help me overcome this one. Exposure therapy isn’t really going to work for this one. (Write about dying until it no longer scares you. Now pretend that you’re dying until it no longer scares you. Then actually die until it no longer scares you … um …) So what other solutions are available?

Guess I’ll tack this onto the list of things to talk about in therapy.

Apprehension Sets In

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Recently I’ve been discussing the projects that I have either already undertaken or am considering undertaking. And I realized where my uncertainty of late is coming from.

With regard to the project that I’ve already undertaken, I have a concrete plan of what I want to accomplish. There are a half dozen objectives that I’m working toward that I hope will improve the quality of events in my chosen hobby. The project that I’m researching has so many steps that all need to be taken in a precise order that I’m overwhelming myself having just started my research.

Keep in mind that it’s still a challenge for me to hit everything on my checklist on a daily basis. This involves taking my vitals and my medications throughout the day, personal hygiene morning and night, eating three meals a day, walking, writing, getting my to-do list done, yoga (or stretching, I might be in transition based on my body’s more pressing need to increase my range of motion), noting my good things throughout the day, leisure, and getting into bed before midnight. That’s not that big of a list, and yet I regularly fail to do at least two or three things on that list. Now, I’m taking my meds without fail, and I’m catching my vitals almost all the time. But the other stuff I have problems remembering, even eating sometimes.

And I’m looking at creating a volunteer office and a nonprofit organization out of nothing? How dare I presume I have the energy for this?

But I have to remember, that everything is done in tiny little chunks, and that one step leads to another. I can’t get bogged down by the overall scope of what I’m trying to accomplish; I just need to focus on the one part that’s in front of me right now.

When this is all said and done, I know that these two projects are going to be part of the legacy I leave behind. It’s important that I do them well. But as for today, I’m out of energy and I’m out of spoons and it’s time to do something mindless and fun, even though I haven’t hardly done anything at all today toward anything productive. (I’ve been tired and in pain a lot of the day.) My day’s big accomplishment is that I’ve been able to pull it together long enough to pack up the laptop and head out to a Starbucks. The question is how long I can stay here and be out and about before I completely freak out and we have to pack up and head home. The weather is starting to become a factor as well, so I’m trying to stick it out until we have to go home due to an incoming thunderstorm.

On the plus side, though, my head is doing better than my butt is. Starbucks should really think about some more comfortable barstools in their establishments.