“There were times prior to my breakdown when I knew I should have tried to decompress more. I found that I was becoming obsessed over all kinds of things, which truly was not my nature.”
It was around February of this year that I began experiencing sporadic panic attacks that would hit in the midst of my daily routine. Being in subways, cars, buses and elevators would give me the sensation of being locked in a box. Throughout it all my heart would beat so hard and so fast, I thought I would be able to see it pulsing when I looked down at my chest.
When experiencing one of these attacks in public, I’d be embarrassed, unable to hide the fact that I was frightened and out of control in front of total strangers. To combat these attacks, I found that shutting my eyes and counting backwards from 1,000 while taking deep breaths in through my nose and out my mouth, focused my attention away from myself while calming me long enough to escape whatever “confinement” I felt I was caught in. Years ago in 1995, after my father died very tragically, I had experienced these types of attacks three or four times on separate occasions and had developed, from trial and error, this way in which to overcome them.
When having an anxiety or panic attack, I would sometimes alternate between being too afraid to leave my apartment, and uncontrollably racing outdoors because I felt the walls closing in on me. I prayed to God not to become agoraphobic as well, which would leave absolutely nowhere to go where I’d feel safe. Thankfully I was spared that experience for the most part.
Then by March, the attacks had all but ceased, but I was left with the strange heart palpitations as well as a feeling of nervousness that had me trembling, even when trying to sit or stand perfectly still. My vision also blurred slightly, my skin felt crawly and I found it hard to concentrate.
My health was suffering because I wasn’t able to sleep more than 2 or 3 hours a day (for the record, I’d always been a light sleeper) and I wasn’t eating much at all. When I did manage to occasionally doze off, I’d awaken suddenly, startled and confused, my heart and mind racing.
Every sound drove me crazy; ambulances screaming down the avenue, the sound of plane engines whirring — what seemed like too close — overhead, voices and banging from the walls of my neighbor’s apartment, people talking in the street below my window, even birds chirping in the trees each morning (something I was barely ever aware of in the past) would set me off. Every sound seemed to be sending some coded, evil message that something terrible was about to happen. Earplugs and sleeping masks were helpful at first but I was just too tuned in to shut these disturbances out.
It was during these times that I had to dig deep to find what little rationale I still possessed and try to reason with myself;
“What are you afraid of? There is no danger. You know none of this is your reality.”
“You are braver and stronger than this. Relax, refresh and do your breathing.”
“Focus on something good! Those birds have been out there chirping for centuries! Why are they bothering you now?”
“Stay calm, stay focused and talk to God.”
As I began to do research into what I felt was my General Anxiety Disorder or GAD, I discovered that this rationalizing was an actual method called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy generally used by psychiatrists and psychoanalysts to assist their patients in facing their fears. But CBT is something we can all do for ourselves quite easily and quite naturally, which can help keep us grounded and focused at times when we need it most.
However, in April things still got worse. I wasn’t ready to go see my doctor about any of this yet because I still thought my condition was something I could rectify on my own. It didn’t help that I am so stubborn, and that I’ve always been cautious about taking any medication, even an aspirin, unless it was my last resort. I felt that I just needed to take some time out and listen to my mind and body without the distraction of meds clouding my senses and judgement. I thought that as soon as I told my doctor about my condition, he’d be writing a prescription for some pills quicker than I could stick my tongue out and say “Aah!”
The anxiety/panic attacks returned, and my constant efforts to reason away what I saw as my irrational behavior, resulted in a sort of split personality. There was the part of me that desperately wanted to stay anchored in the ‘real world’ and return to my old self and another side of me developing that sometimes wished I’d just let go — fall into the abyss and allow whatever was going to happen after that, happen. Throughout the months of my disorder, I had to fight hard everyday not to give in to the latter thought. Very hard.
Fortunately, I was not on any prior medications other than hydrochlorothiazide (water pills ) to relieve the water retention which my doctor believed, and I agreed, may have been causing my blood pressure to be high. He also diagnosed me as pre-diabetic after two positive annual physical exams. I asked for copies of my test results and once I saw the proof of that, I remedied both problems by eliminating sugar and starchy foods from my diet and taking raw fiber which helped eliminate excess water from my body as well as flush out many toxins.
I also tried to eliminate stress from my life by getting rid of things I knew to be adding to it; coffee, weed, alcohol, certain people and activities. I deactivated all my internet accounts and allowed my cable service to lapse. To entertain myself I reread old books with absorbing story lines and watched my DVDs of movies and TV shows that made me laugh, which I was doing less and less of. I wound up buying all four seasons of the television comedy show ‘Community’ which became my favorite stress reliever. Something about that Donald Glover had a soothing effect on me. I even had to censor my music that I’d always love listening to, reading too deep into lyrics that I used to feel were harmless entertainment.
Everything else either frightened me or had me raging about what I felt were some type of harmful subliminal messages being inflicted upon me, my family, friends and unsuspecting viewers and listeners everywhere. And it wasn’t that I hadn’t had my own personal conspiracy theories in the past. I think things have been compounded by the fact that our seemingly crumbling society was proving my theories to be accurate in a lot of ways. Perhaps that’s why things had become so frightening for me. I purposely spent most of my time alone because I have always considered myself the strong, capable one and couldn’t allow the people who counted on me being strong to see me so … broken, I guess I would say.
I began making notes on my date calendar regarding my daily condition, which I would suggest those suffering from GAD (or any illness for that matter) to do as regularly as you can. These notes were considerably helpful in tracking my progression and were very therapeutic as well:
April 9th: Woke 3:50am. Drank OJ/tea. Feel good mentally. AM workout. Tried KissMyFace toothpaste.
April 12th: Moderate anxiety. Need for distractions from thoughts. Just want to calm down!
April 22nd: Strong palpitations this morning, woke at 4:30am. Drank SJW (St. John’s Wort Tea) with 5 drops. Deep breathe!
April 29th: 2:50am — woke up w/much anxiety. Been eating yogurt, sourdough, aged cheese for probiotic. Drank SJW. Nervous stomach. Gettn ready for work. At work moody but stable, kept busy.
On May 4th, I had a scheduled appointment with my doctor. At this point I exhausted all means by which I thought I could heal myself. The day before the appointment, I had experienced my worst panic attack ever.
I had been dozing off and on to sleep, waking up every half hour or so the previous night. From 2am to 5am the following morning I sat on my couch silently invoking my prayers and meditating. I was unable to lie in bed anymore because I had developed a phobia about being flat on my back. I felt completely helpless in a prone position. I had to sit up when I slept. I dozed off several times, but at 6am my eyes shot open and I was in the midst of a horribly, terrifying panic attack to beat all attacks. I got up and paced my apartment from the front room to the back for hours trying to calm myself, but I couldn’t break the panic cycle. I tried to go out onto my balcony but it seemed suddenly too high up and too noisy plus my neighbors would see how freaked out I was. I had to get out of there. Around 9am, I threw on some sweats and ran out the house and took the stairs down to the lobby and out into the street. I walked around the neighborhood for hours. Thank God it was a beautiful day, and thank God again that I was still able to appreciate that. The walk calmed me down enough to return to my place, where I still felt confined, but less anxious. An incredible sadness rolled over me then and I knew that I had to get help.
My doctor set me up for a series of tests; sonograms for my heart, vitals check, blood workup, EKG, a take home heart monitoring holster, blood pressure, nerve exam and even a colonoscopy. All my tests came back negative — as in no problems detected! I was almost hoping there was something physically wrong with me. Physical sickness I knew, I could deal with. But if my mind is sick, how the hell do I fix that!?
When I went back for my follow-up appointment, my doc noted that even though all my tests came back negative, he could see that I was in serious distress and that I needed to take my anxiety out of the equation so that I can deal and heal. He then uttered those 7 deadly words I did not want to hear;
“I’m going to write you a prescription.”
Sertraline, 50mgs, take one daily.
It was at that time that I was finally introduced to the psychotropic drug of choice by most disseminating GPs, who haven’t but a clue as to how these type of medications really work and what side effects, short and long-term, these drugs have on the human body and psyche.
But I knew, because I had done my research. And in all honesty, I was more afraid of the drug than of my GAD…
Look for my next installment soon: The Breakdown: Losing Control, Pt. 3