Tuesday, 20 May 2014

panic disorder - it's a long one, get out the reading glasses

So I don't know where to start with this post other than to say hey, to all you out there who suspect you have an illogical amount of anxiety, tell your doctor.

This is a story about my anxiety.

I backed myself into a corner and stayed there for far too long. I moved to a new city and put off finding a family doctor for years, mainly because I didn't need one for any particular reason. I was healthy and doing well.

But over time I began to worry, I began to get dizzy in crowds, or weirdly grouchy and withdrawn. I couldn't focus on what was being said to me. At the bus stop I'd get blurred vision and short of breath nearly every day. On the bus if somebody was shaking their foot in my line of vision it would enrage me to the point where I had to fight the urge to run up to them and punch them in the face. Not exaggerating. I'd have to close my eyes and cover my face with my hands so I couldn't see that moving foot and so I could breathe.

If someone's music was turned up too loud on the bus so I could hear it I would have to put on speed metal on high volume or I'd go insane, except sometimes that would make my heart race crazily and I'd have to keep it on to drown out the other music but also try and tune out my own music at the same time. Or if somebody's phone rang in an annoying tone more than once I would straight up get the urge to flee, just get right off the bus and run. Really, I wanted more than anything to run and I'd have to think to myself, no, if you run then you will have to wait for the next bus and it's better to just get home.

If somebody came into my work and raised their voice or asked a question in a sharp tone my vision would go dark around the edges and I couldn't think straight. My ears would start ringing. My heart would beat as though I was running a marathon. It would take me hours to go back to normal.

After my brother died, every single night for ten months now, I have lain in bed and imagined myself dying in the night. My heart would stop like his did. What would I do? What would Ryan do? How would it feel? In fact, I feel it now. My heart is fucked up and I am going to die tonight. Sometimes I would cry about it and sometimes I accepted it, like, "welp, guess I'm dying tonight". Most of the time I just closed my eyes and tried to think of something else until I fell asleep.

I would also wake up at least twice a week in the middle of the night in a full panic, again, sure my heart had stopped. And then spent a long time lying in the dark telling myself "I'm ok. I'm ok. I'm fine." until I fell back asleep. Sometimes a nightmare would be involved in a panicky feeling but most of the time it was nothing but terror.

This behavior is not normal, right?

Well it was normal for me for years.

The first time I remember having a full-on panic attack was during a presentation I was giving in university, I think in my final year, so...in 2009-ish. I hadn't done my research as well as I should have and had to talk about my thesis for twenty minutes, in Spanish, in front of a class of about 25 judgmental assholes, basically. The professor asked me some question and I didn't have a good enough answer and suddenly my ears were ringing and I almost passed out. I think they eventually felt sorry for me because I just kept saying "No sé" (I don't know) to everything, and they let me sit down. The residual freak-out feeling stayed with me for weeks. It wasn't embarrassment or shame, those I can deal with. It was as though my chest would tighten at the memory. Even now, actually, thinking back, I feel it again. It was horrible. I should have seen a doctor then. But I didn't have one.

After that I had another presentation to give in the same week. It was in front of only a handful of students and I could read off a sheet of paper so it wasn't as terrifying. Still I literally shook and stuttered (I never stutter, ever.) It was weird for me, I tried to laugh it off but I had to admit, it was strange.

And I don't know what happened, but I gradually stopped hanging out with friends after work. I stopped calling people back. I withdrew and became more and more aloof. I mean, it was very gradual. I didn't realize it was happening. I started telling people I didn't like places like pubs and shopping malls, I started being "so busy I forgot to call you back".

My motto became "I don't do things." I fell back on "being an introvert" ... but deep down I knew it was more than that.

After a long time I began to talk about it with Ryan. He noticed, of course. We'd go into a shopping mall and I'd just shut down. He would ask me why I never called my mom and I couldn't explain why. The truth is I wanted to keep in touch with my family but couldn't bring myself to use a telephone. Like ... what? Why?

And so I told him I wanted to get help for this, because I was sure I had something wrong with me. That was about two years ago.

But then...I didn't.

You know why? I told myself it was because I didn't have a doctor, that was what I needed to do first.

And so I'd think to myself, hey, I should get a doctor.

But that meant I would have to find one somehow.

I didn't know how to find a doctor. And calling a place to ask? Nope.

I couldn't call a place.

And so I'd go through these cycles where I'd notice I was feeling especially "crazy" and think "okay this week I am going to do this one thing for myself, call a doctor's office and ask if they're taking new patients". And then ... I wouldn't do it. I'd talk myself into thinking it wasn't that bad, I can wait until next week to call, I'm probably fine. I don't even need a doctor, it's all in my head. And anyway they'd just think I wanted drugs, they'd look at my tattooed arms and think I'm a drug addict. I'll call later when I feel stronger.

I never felt stronger.

And so on.

Look how fucking miserable I looked that morning. Those puffy sleepless eyes. That was about three months ago. I wasn't pulling a face, I just thought my hair looked good that day. I wanted to delete this picture but I guess I forgot. I think it's a pretty good illustration of how I felt.

I am reluctant to blame the progressing frequency of the attacks on my brother's death but I do admit there is a correlation to that time and me stopping all efforts to better myself. I quit the gym, I quit learning for fun, I quit trying in a lot of ways. It was probably depression but I don't know.

So anyway, skip ahead to two months ago when I thought I was having a heart attack two separate times, and all the weird stuff that has been happening to my body over the past few weeks. I thought I was actually dying for weeks. No lie. Not in a romantic sense.

Does that sound weird, calling it "romantic"? I think when people who haven't experienced the feeling of shallow breathing, tight chest, back muscle pain, pain under the ribs and absolute terror just don't have an accurate reference point to how awful it truly feels to have a panic attack. They think of feeling sad or melancholy or thrilled or just breathing hard into a paper bag like they do in the movies...and that's not it. I would take a million heartbreaks to one panic attack. I would break my leg twice than feel the way I felt these past two months.

Feeling like you are going to die is not cute. It's not an exaggeration either. My friend Jen is a nurse and she told me a symptom of a heart attack is a "feeling of impending doom". Guess what. I had that. And knowing it was a heart attack symptom, on top of chest pain and weird breathing did not help.


The first time I had the heart attack feeling, I was drinking an energy drink for the first time in years (never again!!!!!) and was home alone. Ryan came home about fifteen minutes into it, I was very reluctant to go to the hospital (thanks again anxiety) but I had him keeping a very close eye on me just in case. It went away on its own eventually after a few hours but it was horrible. Because I had pain in a specific area under my sternum along with it, this was at first diagnosed as being my gall bladder and then, when multiple tests showed nothing wrong with it, an ulcer or some other stomach acid problem. (Read about it here if you want the whole story.)

The second time (Read more about that here) I was just falling asleep when it started, around midnight. I got up because I was having trouble breathing. Ryan was still awake and he stayed up with me until three in the morning. That time I recognized the feeling and kept saying to him "it's very bad but I don't know if it's real or not".

I don't know if it's real or not. 
That phrase says it all, really, doesn't it?

The next day I thought I was fine until I started having trouble breathing on the bus. I got off, stood at the street corner and nearly passed out, literally. Not figuratively. I forced my feet to take one step after another until I got to work, unlocked the gate, let myself in and sobbed uncontrollably, gasping for breath. And then it subsided but I felt shitty for days thinking I was going to die of some obscure thing nobody could diagnose.

One day that week I realized I forgot my lunch and the people at work suggested I order something from a sushi restaurant. The thought of ... ordering food. Yeah that caused me to spin right out of control, I got dizzy, I started breathing weird. I couldn't talk myself down.

And so, fearing the worst, I went to Emergency. (Read more about that here. Everything is a long story in itself.)

And that's where things have turned around for me, thanks to a hilarious nurse who somehow made me laugh and not feel embarrassed to talk about my bodily functions, and a caring doctor who took the time to hear my symptoms, hear me out, and see past the usual things. She took me into a room after chest x-rays and blood tests and urine samples, and she said she hated to diagnose anxiety, it was the last thing on her list, but nothing else made sense.

She told me to talk to my doctor about it. "My doctor" was actually just a walk-in clinic, and I told her as much. I asked her how I get a doctor and she told me. You just go to a website and it will tell you who is taking new patients. And you call them and set up an appointment. That's all.

Ok I can do that.

And I said I was afraid the walk-in guy would think I just wanted drugs.

She told me no, he wouldn't.

And I believed her.

She said it was a neurological disorder and not my imagination, it isn't something I can control on my own, and I need help.

And I believed her.

So I went into the walk-in clinic a few days later, armed with a script I wrote out that I planned on reading if all else failed, because I was freaking the hell out about talking to this old brash English gentleman about my stupid little problem. But I had to do it no matter what. I decided enough was enough, and what's the worst that could happen? I'd find a new doctor now that I knew how, thanks to the ER lady.

So I told him all about my ER visit and the breathing and I said that anxiety is ruining my life.  

And he believed me. 

He gave me pills for stomach acid and a prescription for an SSRI (it's an antidepressant also used for treating panic disorders) and set up a follow-up appointment for a few weeks. It was really easy. And I did it. Finally.

It took me four years to do one thing. Thanks, anxiety.

One week later people are already telling me I seem better, I look good, I seem happy. I haven't had a feeling of terror in days.

The first few days the anxiety was still very high and I still get the occasional moment of shallow breathing and fear, but it's decreasing from the every-five-minutes-I'm-gonna-die rate it was at before. And still, when someone looks at me in the street I still get a jolt of AAAAAH THEY'RE LOOKING AT ME but it goes away quickly, it doesn't raise my blood pressure for fifteen minutes anymore and I don't keep thinking about it all day long.

Someone yelled "WHORE" at me out their car window two days ago and even though I posted about it on Instagram and told everybody at work, it didn't affect me like it would have in the past. It bothers me on an intellectual level but doesn't give me trouble breathing at night when I think about it. In fact, I don't think about it. I'm not obsessing about what a stranger in a car yelled. And that's very new.

Yesterday somebody asked me how the day was going (during a kind of weirdly stressful workday) and I answered "Well I'm having a good time, that's all I care about." And I meant it. I felt good even during a weird day. Usually I would take that stress home and let it eat me up. Not anymore. I can leave it there.

Taking antidepressants is not a shameful thing. I'm not shouting it from the rooftops in my "real" life because I feel like people will be looking for a glazed look in my eye rather than taking me at face value, but I'm not embarrassed about it at all. I had a problem in my brain, you guys. But it's going to be better.

For the record I don't get high off these pills or anything, they just ... make me not want to scream and run 24/7.

So I guess I'm writing this post to both "come out of the closet" about panic disorders and to just put it out there that I know how you feel if you're going through this.

If this sounds like you, please just tell your doctor. Or your walk-in clinic doctor even. They will probably believe you. And if they don't? Someone else will. You know yourself better than anybody and if you know something's off then be an advocate for your own well-being. Nobody else is going to do it for you.

AnxietyBC says it could be a panic attack if you experience at least four of these symptoms:
  • racing or pounding heart
  • sweating
  • shaking or trembling
  • shortness of breath or feelings of being smothered
  • feeling of choking
  • chest pain or discomfort
  • chills or hot flashes
  • nausea or upset stomach
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • a sense of things being unreal or feeling detached from oneself
  • numbness or tingling sensations
  • fear of losing control or "going crazy"
  • fear of dying
I'm pretty sure this website that it was written entirely based on how I was feeling. And watch the video on this site. Geez, that's ME. One hundred percent. Even the bits about agoraphobia sounded a little too familiar. (That is a word I associate with Joan Cusack's character on the show Shameless usually, so that is a weird revelation...obviously it doesn't have to be that extreme)

Email me if you have nobody else to talk to about it. I am new to this all and I know the terror you feel. If nobody else in your life gets it, I will. novaisawesome@gmail.com

But please, don't self-diagnose if you feel chest pain or breathing problems. I'm not the best example, I should have gone to Emergency the first time I had an attack. Even if you, like me, were "not sure if it was real" they can rule out all the real things and get you closer to the truth about what is causing your problems.

They won't think you're stupid for coming in with chest pains, they will take you very seriously.

And that has been my anxiety PSA for the day.

Now hopefully this blog can get back to funny stories or me having adventures with the dog again. I feel like I'm pulling out of a low low rut. For those of you who have stuck with me through all this shit, especially the ones who left encouraging comments, I thank you for listening.

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