Dear Anxiety Attack, F*ck you.
Anxiety attacks suck. There is no other way around it. They make you feel like you are absolutely bat-shit crazy. I never knew how bad an anxiety attack could be until I experienced it first-hand. I knew people that said they had anxiety attacks, and as much as it embarrasses me to admit it now; in my mind I almost felt a sense of superiority—well that sucks, maybe if you just learned to calm the f*ck down and stop psychoanalyzing everything.
What did my first anxiety attack feel like? It felt like my brain was thrown into a high-speed blender and my heart was going to explode. Not ‘might’ explode. It ‘was’ going to explode.
I became close with my anxiety attacks. So close in fact that I could tell when it was going to be showing up. My first inkling would be temperature. It could be 80 degrees outside and I would suddenly become ice cold. The chill would begin in my extremities and progress inwards. Then, my stomach would clench and intestines would go haywire. The severe stomach cramps would be followed by my breathing becoming shallow and faster—I attribute this to the fact that I was becoming aware of what was coming.
Then, hypersensitivity. I would feel and hear everything. I would become intently focused on my heartbeat and breathing. Any minute now my heart was just going to stop and I would be gone.
It sounded like my heart was running a marathon. Heart palpitations would start. This is when the real panic would set in. Any minute now my heart was going to either explode or just quit.
I would curl into the fetal position and cry. I would bury my head with pillows, trying to block out the high-pitched screaming that was happening inside my head. If I was home alone I would grab the phone and just keep it by me. My brain would play its Greatest Hits of People We Have Ever Known To Die…that was it. It was at this point I would by the grace of God just fall the f*ck to sleep or I would quickly call a family member—one of only a handful that knew a little of what I was going thru–to rush me to the ER. I knew I wasn’t going to make it to the ER but I certainly didn’t want to die alone.
When someone showed up I would rush to the car and get in. I wouldn’t say anything except “Hospital. Now.” and would put my head in my hands and desperately try to get ahold of myself. Looking back I can’t imagine what I looked like but at the time that was the last thing on my mind. I was going to die and it was imminent.
At the ER they would do the normal vitals routine—which would always upset me and cause me to cry even more because they just didn’t understand that ‘this’ time was different than all those other times I had been here. ‘This’ time my heart really was going to explode and they were too busy to notice–taking my temperature! Really?! Like my temperature was going to matter in about 3 minutes as I lay dead on the cold, hard floor!
Once I got checked in and brought to the room I would feel slightly relieved as I saw all the medical equipment around. If my heart exploded here they might be able to do something. I would be offered a warm hospital blanket. It was basically a little heavier than a bedsheet but it had been in a warmer so it felt good.
Sometimes it took a few minutes but a doctor or physician’s assistant would finally come in and give me a pitiful look. I would be asked the exact same questions that the nurse asked when she checked me in. An EKG, which just checks the electrical rhythm of the heart, would be ordered and I’d be offered Zofran for nausea.
After about 30 minutes of me obsessing over the zig-zag lines being made on the EKG machine screen and trying to keep my pulse below 100 bpm on the monitor—the nurse would come in and rip off a print off from the machine. “The doctor will take a look at this and be in, in a few minutes.” By this point I was starting to feel a bit better. The stomach cramps had dissipated and my feet and hands were feeling more of a normal temperature. My brain had started to take its foot off the gas; and slow down.
The doctor would come in and either tell me that I was having flu-like symptoms and prescribe some more Zofran and “drink plenty of fluids” or suggest I ate something I was having an allergic reaction to and should check with my primary doctor about getting a food allergy test. I was so ready to leave that I would just agree to whatever they said to get the hell out of that place and home to bed. I was overcome with exhaustion. Sleep. All I wanted to do was crawl into my bed and sleep.
This same scenario occurred nearly every day, like clockwork.
The first wave—the sudden decrease in temperature—would occur between 10pm-2am. There was one occasion that it came around 8pm—but that was highly unusual. My primary physician didn’t know what was going on and I felt like a crazy person calling everyday but I didn’t know what was happening to me. She would sigh and suggest upping my medication, switching my medication, it was a virus, thyroid condition, or vitamin deficiency.
It wasn’t a f*cking vitamin deficiency! She eventually stopped returning my messages which left me at a loss. I cried..a lot. If this was going to be my life, I couldn’t fathom doing this for much longer.
I tried so many different things; Yoga, essential oils (put this on your big toe and this one on your left wrist…right.), vitamins/supplements, Benadryl, elimination diets—nothing was working. It was every night like clockwork. 70% of the time I could think myself to sleep and not need to go to the ER but about once a week for about 6 months I would be in the ER going thru the same routine.
I had an appointment with my OB for my annual exam. I didn’t want to deal with it but hey who knows maybe I had a rare cancer going on down there. I would welcome a diagnosis…anything to tell me that I was not crazy!
Every annual exam is the same, the OB comes in and asks questions, making light conversation before they leave the room for you to undress and put on that ridiculously awkward fitting paper gown. Well this time I started crying during the normal pre-exam chit-chat. I told him I was going crazy and if he could just write an order to send me to the psychiatric ward upstairs that would be the best thing for me.
I explained all the ER visits and my primary physician….and how all of my options were exhausted. The only thing left was that I was f*cking crazy. I never knew how a truly ‘insane’ person felt but this must be it. It had to be it. Maybe many generations back my 8th cousin married his sister and now 8 generations later, the genetic mutation surfaces in me—a crazy person!
One of the final things I said, through tears and snot running down my face, was that it occurred at the same time every night. As strange as it sounded, the same time. Suddenly, I saw him put his pen down and look up at me. He then looked back on his notepad. He sat thinking for what seemed like an eternity. Then, he told me a story that would change—if not save my life.
He asked if I had heard of PTSD. Of course I had heard about it. Who hasn’t? I wasn’t in any war, I obviously didn’t have it. Well he went on to explain that he had a very traumatic, terrifying incident fairly recently. One of his lungs had collapsed. He thought he was going to die. He had readied himself to die. He was rushed to the ER and was quickly saved. Over the course of the next couple months he had similar incidents occur—or so he thought. Around the same time every day that the initial lung collapse had happened he would suddenly feel like he couldn’t breathe and have pressure in his chest. He would rush to the ER. Being a doctor he obviously knew what was happening. He would tell the ER doctor he had a collapsed lung and to get him in ASAP. The ER doctors would all look at his vitals, test results—he was in perfect health.
How could this be happening?! He was becoming embarrassed of showing up to the ER and having nothing be wrong. He was an experienced medical doctor—wouldn’t he know?! Well it turns out he wouldn’t. He was experiencing PTSD.
His body was remembering and replaying the traumatic incident over and over again—and the body thought it was protecting itself by shutting itself down. It goes back to the prehistoric days—our brains recognized a threat and would do everything to protect itself. A surge of adrenaline to run from the threat. Defecating or throwing up the contents of our stomach to make ourselves lighter for running. His brain was only doing what it thought was necessary to protect him.
It was like the Heavens opened up and the angels starting playing trumpets! I did have an incident many years prior that occurred between 10pm and 1am. And, I had recently had a painful medical procedure that brought back a flood of memories of the traumatic incident. The procedure was only a day before I had my first ever panic attack.
I don’t think I will be as happy as I was leaving that doctors office ever—the feeling was indescribable. Knowing what it was now I was able to talk myself thru what was happening. I read everything and anything I could about PTSD. I was even able to stop it as soon as I recognized the cold start to creep up into my legs and arms. I would tell myself what was happening and remember my OB and tell myself it happened to him—a doctor—and he was far from crazy. I wasn’t crazy. This was my brain going through something traumatic and trying to help me. I retrained my brain. It didn’t happen instantaneously but over the course of a couple months I went from a panic attack every day to once a month. Now a few years later, maybe once a year.
Please, if you are going through this and having anxiety attacks. I hear you. The most important thing to remember is ‘this’ time is no different than ‘this’ time. Whenever you go through an anxiety attack you start to believe without a shred of doubt that ‘this’ time is different. I’m here to tell you it isn’t! That’s part of the illness. You are going to be fine and get through it just like all the other times.