Thursday, September 23, 2010

"Spiraling: My Battles with Anxiety, Panic Attacks and Phobias" - Part One

Kelly @ The Startup Wife has written two recent posts on her experience with panic attacks/anxiety.  I thought it was a really good thing to write about, because I think it's a hard thing to understand if you've never gone through a panic attack.  Kelly does a really good job writing about her experience, and I would definitely suggest reading those posts if you want to get more info on panic attacks.

I wanted to write about this topic in the past, and I have, a little.  I am very thankful that I do not have to deal with anxiety/panic as an everyday thing.  Most of the time I don't think about it for weeks, months, even.  But that doesn't mean that it's gone.

Another reason I wanted to write about my panic attacks is that a lot of people I know were surprised when they first found out that I have to deal with them.  My friend Molly actually told me she was so surprised because I seem so 'with it' and 'normal' and 'happy.'  Which I am.  Panic attacks just HAPPEN to some people; we're wired different, or things affected us differently as kids, or we don't deal with stress as well... there are so many things that can lead to having to do with this problem.  It doesn't happen to everyone, but I do think it can happen to anyone, given the right circumstances.

I'm going to use the words "panic attack" and "anxiety" sort of interchangeably, which is not at ALL diagnostically correct.  According to the Mayo Clinic, "a panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that develops for no apparent reason and that triggers severe physical reactions."  They classify anxiety as "a persistent problem that interferes with daily activities such as work, school or sleep."  So, panic attacks develop for no apparent reason and anxiety is more of a long-term thing.  Although I have been given several diagnoses, it's generally agreed upon by the medical professionals I've seen that I experience anxiety, panic attack, and phobia.

I sound so stable, don't I?  :-)

It was about 3 months into our marriage, at the age of 23, that I had my first panic attack.  It was October 2007, and we had just moved to Humboldt County, California, two months prior.  I had a hard time finding a job in Humboldt; the economy was bad even BEFORE the recession, and I had to put out about 25 resumes before I got a call back from anyone.  I had started a part-time job as a behavioral aide for a teenage boy with autism just the month before, and had just started working as a medical receptionist for a busy community health clinic.  I wasn't working that many hours, about 47 per week, but both jobs were fairly stressful.  I didn't have health insurance, and at one point I was late on my period and I FREAKED OUT, terrified that we were pregnant so early into our marriage (we weren't).  I didn't have any friends in California, and I missed my family and my home in Illinois terribly.  It was a very difficult period for me.

With all of this change, the one thing that I felt really secure in was my marriage to Bryan.  We were still adjusting to married life (who isn't?) but when I reminded myself of our love and commitment and how we helped one another through everything, I felt safe and secure.  While I may have felt this way about our marriage, it became pretty apparent that I didn't feel this way about life in general.

The first time I had a panic attack, I had just laid down to go to bed.  My thoughts were racing a bit, and I started to feel strange.  Suddenly my legs started to twitch without my control; it seemed very similar to a muscle spasm, but it was both of my legs.  The twitching moved higher in my body and I felt my thighs and butt start to clench and unclench.  Then it moved to my torso, and I was actually twitching so strongly that if I had been standing at the time, it would have looked like I was doubling over every few seconds.  It continued to spread until my whole body was shaking, clenching, unclenching, and shuddering.  By this time Bryan was half awake, enough to know that I was acting strangely.  He had to go to school and then to work the next day, and I didn't want to bother him, especially since he had to be up at 6am.  I tried to stop my body from doing whatever it was that it was doing.  My heart was racing, and I was having a difficult time breathing.  It felt like someone was sitting on my chest.  My throat started to feel weird, and my thoughts began to spin out of control.  I tried to talk to Bryan about what was happening, and he was a bit weirded out, to be honest.  I felt like I was having a heart attack and I couldn't shake the thought that I may die.  Bryan asked if I wanted to go to the Emergency Room but it was 2am and I didn't have health insurance and I knew we couldn't afford the bill.  I was scared and I was crying and I didn't understand what was happening. I told Bryan to go back to sleep, that I'd go take a shower and try to relax my body.  That helped a little bit.  All in all, my first panic attack lasted for FIVE HOURS.  I was able to relax my breathing a bit, and that helped my heart rate calm down, but my thoughts kept racing and I couldn't stop shaking.  I called into work that morning at 7am and asked to see one of the doctors in the office.  I had no idea what had just happened to me, so I told them my main symptom was "convulsions."

I went to the doctor and he took my blood pressure, and it was very high.  Normal is 120/80, hypertension is anything over that.  My blood pressure was around 160/95, which is dangerous.  The doctor didn't go into the reason that I had these weird problems the night before, he only prescribed me beta blockers  for my high blood pressure (similar to the ones my 50 year old dad was taking) and sent me on my way.

Part Two, tomorrow....