Archive for the ‘Panic Disorder’ Category

A couple of years ago, I suffered my first panic attack.

Had no idea what it was at the time. I thought I was having a heart attack. I couldn’t breathe properly and there was pain in my chest. I walked into the ER with very high blood pressure and my heart rate was through the roof.

After spending some hours there, the doctor finally saw me, did all the tests, and concluded I suffered from anxiety, so she gave me some pills to calm me so I could go home and sleep.

I ended up taking a month off of work and became agoraphobic. Every time I wanted to leave the apartment, my stomach would tense up and get hot, and I had to sit myself right back down. I became a prisoner of my place.

I knew I was in a dark place, so I made a conscious decision not to even go out on my balcony as I didn’t trust myself not to jump from it.

My doctor got me on some anti-anxiety meds and between those and my new yogic meditation practices I was able to come out of it, and for a few years I was anxiety-free and panic-free. I eventually even got off the drugs and all was well.

Until a few months ago and again I suffered chest pains so bad, the tele-health nurse decided to send an ambulance to my home. And so again, I went to the ER for no good reason and again they diagnosed a panic attack.

From there, I struggled daily to keep anxiety at bay, though I knew it was there in the background, getting ready to pounce.

On July 23, I got a haircut. The guy cutting my hair told me he’d seen a bunch of kittens for sale at a nearby pet store.

I was only mildly interested, as I’d been to many pet stores and saw a number of cats and kittens, but none really caught my eye. I even went to the local Humane Society and checked all the kitties there. The only ones that seemed interested at all were already being held for adopters.

So there really wasn’t a lot of hope that the ones my hairstylist saw would interest me, or be interested in me.

That sunny day, I left the hair salon and wandered over to the store. As soon as I walked in, I saw their cage to the left of the door, and I swear to God my voice went up about a half-octave as I started talking with the three kittens that were left. “How are YOU, little ones?”

They were all grey haired on the top, with white bellies and paws. One of them was on his back and when I spoke he looked right at me. And kept looking as I continued talking to him.

The clerk was smiling the whole time, and when I asked about adopting him, he told me I’d have to complete an application first. I took it home, completed it and brought it back the next day, thinking I’d drop off the application, which they would look at and, if approved, I could take him home that day.

I was wrong. The application had to go back to the animal services organization in the next town over and they would let the pet shop know if I was approved to adopt him. He told me there were several others interested in adopting them, so in my mind, the chances I’d get the one I’d picked out were slim. That was on a Sunday.

I still hadn’t heard from the pet shop by Wednesday, so I called the organization who sent out the kittens to the shop and asked how soon they would have an answer. The guy who answered wasn’t the person who’d make the decision so he said I’d hear back from the other guy that afternoon.

Mid-afternoon my phone rang. I looked at the display. It wasn’t the animal services place; it was the pet shop. They told me my application was approved and I could come pick him up.

Heart pounding, I informed my boss I had to leave work early, and that I would make up the two hours later.

After going out and buying a bunch of pet supplies and getting them ready at home, I made my way over to the pet shop and picked him up.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Mishka.

Mishka, Russian name meaning “little bear” or “gift from God”; in Hindi it means “gift of love”; in Arabic it means “niche for light,”

He’s been with me now for a few weeks. He has brightened my life considerably, and of course the lurking anxiety has gone away. I truly feel there’s something – someone – to live for. Truly live for, and not merely exist anymore. The little guy follows me everywhere and anticipates bed time. He hops up on the bed and waits for me to settle before he begins his routine.

It has become a ritual now. He plays on the bed for a little bit, gives himself a bath, and then snuggles up next to me, purring. I’ll pet him until he falls asleep and then it’s my turn to sleep.

Mornings are the same too. I’ll wake up and as soon as I stir, he wakes up. So he begins purring as I pet him for a while.

He loves to play fight with me, and chases stuff around the apartment. He gets the zoomies too. For those unfamiliar with the term, it means he gets bursts of energy that have him zooming around the apartment chasing ghosts. He’s done it in the tub too, back and forth.

I don’t think I’ve smiled or laughed so much in a long time.

The naming was interesting. You’ll see the definitions of “Mishka” up there beneath his photograph. It took me a while. I kept trying out different names, knowing they weren’t right, until I landed on “Mishka”. The name just felt right when I said it, and I only discovered its meaning afterward.

“Gift from God” sounds about right, as that’s exactly how I see him now. And I am so grateful he exists and that we’re together now. I could not be more happy.

anxious

CRASH!

The little guy woke with a start. He sat up in bed and looked around, blearily. The clock said 1:30. He had just learned how to tell time so he knew it was too early for breakfast.

He heard another crash, this time with some screams.

Alarmed, he yanked back the blankets and slapped his six year-old feet on the floor and ran to the living room.

Before he got there, he heard his father bellow something in rage. So he stopped just in time and stood just outside the doorway.

He heard everything. The unfocused anger, the faint sound of a fist hitting flesh, his mom’s whimpers and his grandmother’s loud protests. He didn’t know what to do. This was all wrong and he wanted it to stop but he didn’t know how. So he stood there, trembling.

……………

Eventually, this scenario repeated every weekend. Then, almost every night. For so many nights, the little guy listened to his dad bellowing in drunken rage, and his mother trying to stand her ground.

He didn’t hit her every time. But he came close quite often. And every now and then he lashed out. Once he hit her mother too, for trying to stop him.

……………

The little guy was the oldest of two children. After that first drunken blowup, four more children were born, bringing the total to six.

The little guy listened attentively to his mother as she coached him into behaving as quietly and as unobtrusively as possible, so as to not “set your father off.” He interpreted that as her giving him the mantle of keeping everyone safe.

He took that responsibility seriously. And he remained serious from then on, ensuring his sisters and brother behaved properly, so as to not “set dad off.”

Secretly, he wished he could balloon up to 400 pounds so he could eclipse his 350 pound dad and pound the shit out of him until he stopped being so mean to everyone.

But, even in his teen years, he had a very slight build and could not gain weight no matter how hard he tried. And all during that time, he held the responsibility of keeping his family safe. He actually called the police on his father twice, but they turned out to be useless. (In later years, he grew to understand that at the time, police had very little training in the handling of “domestic disputes” as they called it.)

……………

His father eventually got into AA and the abuse stopped. By this time, the little guy was an adult with a marriage and children of his own. His mother had eight abuse-free years after his father’s death before she too passed on.

The man, now grown, found he knew how to mediate very well. He prided himself on being able to see all sides of a dispute, and help the parties come to a mutual understanding. After understanding, he knew an agreement was imminent. Most disputes, he knew, came from one guy not being able to empathize with the other, and vice versa. He saw his role as painting pictures for them both, to allow them to see the issue from all sides.

The problem of course was that the man was mediating disputes all over the place, even in some cases where there was no dispute at all. He was good at it, and he hated conflict, so he worked hard to keep everyone safe.

……………

During one of the final nights of the Panic Disorder therapy group, the man noticed he was carrying some anxiety. He knew it only because he could feel his chest tighten up, and his breathing quicken. As soon as he noticed it, he felt it go down.

This particular group session was all about how to spot triggers for anxiety. The therapist mentioned that triggers can happen long before any anxiety or panic attacks happen.

Meanwhile, he kept noticing his anxiety going up – and then going down as soon as he noticed it. It was puzzling, and he couldn’t think of anything that would warrant the anxiety.

Except….later that night the shoe finally dropped.

During the Panic Group session, there was some unsettling behaviour going on. There were moments where someone was expressing his or her issues and it seemed like there was something unpredictable about it all.

What happened was the man’s now-ingrained response to “make sure everyone’s safe” was kicking in, and the anxiety was ramping up appropriately. Everyone was not safe because not everyone was happy and calm.

……………

This revelation was just as much a surprise as it was obvious – only in retrospect. Of *course* the little guy’s completely understandable anxiety and wish to keep everyone safe would become a habitual response to any uncomfortable or unpredictable situations.

The difference now is: he’s a grown adult, his dad is dead and gone, and no one’s really in danger.

And maybe I don’t have to keep anyone safe anymore except myself.

Have you ever watched the TV series “Homeland”?

I’m binge-watching Season 7 right now. It’s speaking to me in a way I never expected.

I’m not bi-polar like Carrie, the show’s protagonist. Yet her character speaks to me, particularly now, more than ever.

Claire Danes – the gifted and talented actor who portrays Carrie – is doing an outstanding job showing us what it’s like being manic at times. If she isn’t like that in real life, then she’s done her homework, and perhaps has someone well acquainted with the mental illness coaching her.

The thing is, I’ve felt many of the emotions and thoughts she so painfully paints. Particularly the hopelessness and trapped feeling that shakes Carrie to her core.

Up until now, I’ve been an observer. I know people who are bi-polar, and they have described what it’s like not knowing from one day to the next what’s in store. But I haven’t been able to relate to the frustration they feel until now.

You can probably appreciate what it’s like when you’ve made a decision to be more active, to go the gym regularly and to work hard at improving your overall fitness.

Or maybe you’ve been in great shape all of your life, and you regularly participate in sports, just enjoying the good feeling you get from being able to be mobile and flexible; to be able to run up a set of stairs without getting out of breath at the top.

Yet, there comes a day when you make a misstep on those stairs. Or you get hit by a car. Or twist your ankle, or your shoulder starts to act up and you find one or more of your limbs just won’t do what it’s told. And now you can’t do any of those physical activities. Your injury is a speed bump keeping you from doing what you want to do.

Frustrating, isn’t it?

Imagine depending upon your intelligence and logic day after day. You take it for granted, and you’ve appreciated how you’ve been able to plan, to work out logistics and problems and you enjoy the good feeling of having surmounted a seemingly impossible task.

Suddenly one day you find you can’t do any of those things. Instead, your thoughts horrify you. Your stomach clenches up without apparent reason, and you find you can’t even leave your house. You sit in front of your computer, prepared to log into your workplace, only to find your whole body rebelling with fear.

So you push yourself away from the keyboard, frustrated that this is the sixteenth day you’ve been unable to log in.

You don’t know where to turn or what to do. You look outside at your balcony, and you wonder how likely it would be that you would die if you jump. Or would you merely be maimed?

Then you realize what you’re thinking, and you resolve yourselves not to even look, knowing that just doing that might endanger you. You’re aware that it’s possible that curiosity might turn into impulse.

You need to work, you need the money. But you can’t work.

You’re in a trap with no way out. And all of your decisions center around resolving this deadly dichotomy. So you make a series of bad choices, all based upon your catastrophic thinking.

As mentioned in my last blog, my meds are working. Yet, these feelings came back, just for a fleeting second this week.

Somehow, watching Carrie go through her nightmares on Homeland feels cathartic somehow. I’m having trouble articulating just why that is. Maybe it’s that this fictional character is a kindred spirit of sorts.

My meds are working but I’m not out of the woods. Not by a long shot.

It’s a funny thing. When you hear the words “mental illness” the first image that pops into your head is someone’s head. Yours, or the stranger on the street, gabbing away incessantly to no one.

Yet, when you experience it yourself, the symptoms often don’t occur in your head. (Or in my case, at all)

It hits you like a cold. You don’t go looking to catch a cold, and you sure AF don’t go looking to become mentally ill either, despite all of the innocent phrases that start with “I must be going out of my mind!”

Mine came right out of the blue. My boss had asked me to take over for him for a week – something I’ve done countless times. The work is easy, even though it’s more high profile and you get the big bosses asking you things. It was what I’ve always done, but at a lower level: boss asks you for something, you go looking to your subordinates to provide answers. The people working for you are the real experts, so you learn to depend upon them, and you promote the hell out of them whenever you can, because you know how valuable they are to pretty much everything.

It’s no different when you’re a higher level boss. Like I said, I’ve done it many times before. There just was no reason for this time to be any different. Yet it was.

I made a comment in a Facebook discussion group about how I was having trouble sleeping because I found it hard to breathe.

One guy, a retired doctor, responded “dude, I’m not going to try and diagnose you here or anything but if I were you, I’d check with my doctor.”

I appreciated his concern but didn’t take it seriously until the following afternoon, when I found I was having trouble breathing during my waking moments. The more I thought about it, the worse it seemed, so I hastened down to the emergency department of the hospital. After a day of testing and prodding and poking and ultrasound, the emergency doctor said “Are you feeling anxious about anything?”

I had to wrack my brain. It took me a while to figure out it was the upcoming acting manager gig that triggered the anxiety. Which frankly, I thought was stupid. There really wasn’t anything to worry about. But there we were, and that’s when it all started, last summer.

The last time I wrote about anxiety (Looking for Sunrise), I hadn’t yet started any meds. I went about six weeks suffering multiple panic attacks, as the meds took their time kicking in. The days were so dark, I was afraid of everything. I was housebound, and even within my apartment I refused to open my balcony door. I knew if I did, there was a good chance I would look over the railing, and thought would become action.

There was darkness everywhere. I couldn’t escape it. I couldn’t talk about it and I didn’t know how to handle it. I prayed for death and at times thought about how to do it.

The first med I tried – Zoloft – only made things much worse. The second one was better but it took about six weeks – all of which was spent away from work – before it finally began working.

My team noticed immediately. “Wolf, you’re sounding like you’re back to your regular self. Do you feel better?”  I said “Yeah, I really do.” And I did.

Gone was the darkness. Gone were the suicidal thoughts. I was back to normal, with one important difference: I knew this was because of the meds.

Also, I didn’t realize how resilient I’d considered myself to be, until this all happened. And now that confident sense of resilience is gone. I’m aware of how fragile I am.

So there you have it: my mental illness showed up as an inability to breathe properly and as a very warm hollow feeling in my stomach. There was no cerebral symptoms at all. The mental illness showed up everywhere except in my head. Weird.

There’s a lifetime of valleys and drama and death that I know have contributed to this newfound fragility. I have to address them, which is why I’m now seeing a psychologist. And it’s why I’m now looking hard at retiring as soon as I possibly can.

One other thing. You know how all of those commercials and PSA announcements about mental health involve telling sufferers to reach out to various people, phone lines and the like – all in an effort to avoid suicide?

Yeah, that doesn’t work. People like me who suffer from this stuff have zero ability to reach out to anyone. All we’re looking for is a way to get the darkness to stop as quickly as possible.

The thing that worked for me was that my loved ones reached out to me. They could do that. I couldn’t do the opposite. I couldn’t reach out to them. My brain just wasn’t in a place to allow me to do that.

Instead, all I could do was turn inward and curl up mentally, buffeted by the winds of my nightmare.

fetal

 

(Trigger warning for anxiety)

mental

My cellphone rang. It was my brother. He rarely calls.

It’s not that we’re estranged or anything. It’s that he has his life and I have mine, and we live far apart. And when we get together, we generally have a good time.

It was good to hear his voice.

“Hey Jamie. How are you doing?”

“Not bad, Wolf. How are you?”

I could never play the polite game with my bro. Plus, I was not a fan of chit chat and making polite noises.

“Honestly – not that good, Jamie. I’ve been having some severe panic attacks. I’ve gone to group therapy for about six weeks, only to find out I was in the wrong group and should have been in the panic disorder group, not the generalized anxiety disorder one.”

Silence. Then: “Man, that must suck.”

“Yeah, it really does.”

Silence again. He was probably trying to figure out what to say.

“I had anxiety  years ago, and it was bad. I didn’t know what was causing it. My palms were sweaty, my heart was racing and I couldn’t think straight.”

As he listed off his symptoms, my heart began to race. I couldn’t listen to this.

I knew he meant well though, so I let him continue. Silently, I writhed. Listening to him talk about his episode of anxiety was making me feel unsafe and afraid and….I was panicking.

You know, I have to admit: before my panic attacks began, I saw those articles with the words “trigger warning” at the top, and thought it was childish. Who in hell needs to be warned that a story may cause a problem? What are we? Nine years old or something?

As it turns out, I was woefully naive. And as it turns out, very very wrong.

My own brother was making my anxiety worse, and he had no idea. And I was too deep into it to explain it properly, in a way he could understand.

He rambled on and on, describing in vivid detail his brush with anxiety. (And it was indeed a brush, as it only happened to him once, thank God.)

My heart was racing, my head was aching, my stomach was roiling and I was beginning to shake.

I was freaking out.

I stopped my brother in mid-sentence. “Hey Jamie, listen, I’ve got some dinner on the go here, so I think I’ll have to let you go.” There was no dinner.

“Oh okay Wolf. Catch you later then.”

I haven’t been to work in a week.  This shit really messes you up. I look forward to a time when I’ll be able to take my good mental health for granted again.

In the meantime, I’m doing what I can to keep myself above the ground. It’s hard, but there are lots of places to provide support. My CAMH counselor made sure I knew that in the worst case scenario, I should call 911. And I will. And it may come to that.

I just know I can’t live with this crap. It’s no way to live anyway. It’s enough right now to just survive.

I won’t even go out on my balcony at this point. Because I don’t trust myself or my impulses.

Anxiety sucks.