Sunday, January 15, 2012

Girl Panic~My Personal Struggle with Anxiety

Though I've borrowed my post title from a Duran Duran song title (which has nothing to do with the anxiety I'm referring to), panic disorder/anxiety does not discriminate. Millions of girls, boys, men and women suffer with it. If you have (or have ever had) a panic attack, you know how awful it is. If you haven't, you probably don't understand it - consider yourself blessed!

Full-blown panic disorder didn't hit me until I was in my 30s, but I've been a worrier pretty much all my life. When I was in First Grade, my mom was late picking me up from school one day and I completely freaked out. My teacher, Miss Finzel (trust me, her name suited her) yelled at me for getting upset (which made me even more terrified) and told me to stop being such a worry wart. (Way to comfort a hysterical child!)

In middle school, my anxiety manifested itself as (what is now known as) "School Phobia." As a little backstory, I was was not one of the pretty, skinny, popular girls in middle school. I was chubby, had buck teeth and greasy hair and I got teased at the bus stop (I stopped riding the bus) and at school (unfortunately, I couldn't stop going to school). Today it would be considered bullying. Back then, it was just "kids being kids." But it affected me. I absolutely did not want to go to school...at all. When I had to go to school, I would get so upset, I would literally throw up. My parents thought I was faking so I didn't have to go to school. I don't really blame them, but it was real. My anxiety about school and getting teased had made me physically sick. It got better as middle school progressed. I made some really good friends (who are still some of my best friends today), the anxiety waned, and life got better.

Although I wasn't completely worry-free, I had never experienced an actual panic attack until I was 32 years old. I had heard people talk about panic attacks and anxiety, but I never fully understood the seriousness of the disorder. It all started when I landed in the hospital with a neck abscess. Doctors told me that I was very lucky to have gone to the ER when I did, or it could have killed me. I was scheduled for a CT scan on my fifth day in the hospital (they couldn't operate until they got the infection under control). As they injected the dye (or whatever it is they use for the scan), I started feeling funny, but figured it was normal. When I got back to my room, the Infectious Disease specialist (whom I liked to call "Dr. Doom") informed me that the abscess was sitting on my carotid artery and "some very bad things could happen" but he didn't want to go into detail and scare me. REALLY????! As soon as he left the room, my chest felt like it was on fire and I I couldn't breathe. I was sure that the "really bad things" Dr. Doom had spoken of were happening and that I was dying right then and there (reminded my of Fred Sanford - "Elizabeth! I'm coming!"). I buzzed for the nurse and he told me he was with another patient, but would get to me. It was probably only a few minutes, but it felt like HOURS! I called Rob and told him I felt like I was dying, but that I loved him.  When the nurse got to me, he took my pulse and it was 99. He told me I was having a panic attack. I argued with him that I couldn't breathe and that I was dying. I told him that my heart is NOT supposed to beat 100 times per minute! He gave me oxygen (and Xanax, I believe), and I calmed down. (By the way, Dr. Doom told me that he believed that the abscess in my neck was the result of an infection in a residual gill from when I was a fetus. Sooooo...I have gills...like a fish? Seriously?)

That panic attack CHANGED me. The next day, I had surgery and the following day, I finally got to go home (after a week in the hospital). I remember walking into my house feeling like a stranger in my own home. I was completely wiped out emotionally. For the next few months, I was a bundle of nerves most of the time, I became a complete hypochondriac, convinced that there was something seriously wrong with me and that I was going to die. I worried constantly. I didn't have another panic attack until (of all things) I was getting my hair highlighted at the salon. All of a sudden, my chest was on fire and I couldn't breathe. There was no trigger for the panic attack, it just came on! I remember my hands and my face going numb - I couldn't talk. I was terrified, and I think my hairdresser was too. The attack finally passed, but again, I was wiped out for at least a week after. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep. It was awful.

I finally decided to seek professional help, because I knew that I couldn't live in total fear of panic attacks. I ended up seeing a psychiatrist for about four sessions. I was convinced that she was far crazier than I was - she spent most of our sessions talking about her talking cockatoo. I felt like I was HER therapist, but she was the one getting paid. But she did do a good thing for me. She prescribed an antidepressant called Lexapro, and although it took several weeks to really work, it gave me my life back. 

Remedies for Anxiety
Exercise and Puppy Love
Since being on Lexapro, I have not had a full-blown panic attack. Yes, I have experienced a few (rare) periods of intense anxiety during particularly stressful times (my attempted return to teaching when I had to quit three weeks into the school year (something I am NOT proud of) because my anxiety had gotten so bad that my family doctor urged me to seek another career because teaching may very well kill me, and also the octopus incident). But, it hasn't gotten to the point where I'm completely overwhelmed and most days, I feel really, really good. I have weaned myself to a very low dose and I'm doing just fine. I would love to think that I could wean myself completely off of the drug, but honestly, I'm not convinced it's worth trying...at least not right now. I like feeling calm...I like being happy...I like being pleasant to live with. If Lexapro is what makes those things possible, then so be it! I have also found that cardio exercise and yoga/pilates help a lot too (as do the sweet puppies that I surround myself with).

My heart goes out to anyone who suffers from anxiety or panic disorder. I don't think that antidepressants are the answer for everyone. Plenty of people find other ways to deal with anxiety that work for them. One thing I do recommend to anyone suffering from it is to talk to someone that you really trust about it, because keeping it in can hurt you. 

WIth Love and Aloha ~ Nancy

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