It was national mental health screening day last week, and I wanted to talk a bit about my experience, since my birthday coincides with my discovery of panic disorder.
We always knew I had issues with anxiety. I was a very anxious child, and this was only compounded by the fact that I had to see lots of doctors, have lots of tests, and eventually my first surgery at age five. I had to be in the hospital ten days, and except for the times I was high on morphine, I was anxious. I would have been an anxious child without these experiences (I have the genetic background for it) but my trips to doctors’ offices and hospitals made it obvious.
My struggles with depression were less obvious at first, but after awhile, it became obvious to everyone they were there. I have struggled with depression my whole life, since before puberty, and life with a dysfunctional alcoholic family made it easy to just coast along in a depressive state.
I was lucky that later on my family got help and I realized constant depression didn’t need to be my life anymore. There were other ways to live and depression was not normal. I started cultivating healthy behaviors. I sought counseling and therapy. And when my hormones during my first pregnancy made me feel that my emotions and behavior had become uncontrollable, I went on my first antidepressant.
After the baby was born, I, like many people who suffer from depression and anxiety, suffered from Post-Partum Depression. I began seeing a counselor on a regular basis and my OB upped my meds. Events in my personal life were extremely challenging as well: my husband had just graduated college and couldn’t find a job, my younger sister, who also struggled mightily with mental health and addiction, was unemployed and living with us, and my job at the library was constantly under threats of layoffs and was a constant source of stress. I was dealing with the hormone fallout of a traumatic birth and the subsequent extended recovery while being responsible for a perfect, yet needy, newborn. I decided to stay on my meds for the foreseeable future.
About a year later, my personal life rapidly improved. My sister was becoming healthier, much healthier, and eventually she moved out. My husband found a great job with a company that was extremely good to us. I was able to leave my job at the library and all that stress behind to stay at home with Isobel, which was something I had always wanted. My happiness made me feel like I had wings and I could soar above life’s problems effortlessly. I had all the things I had wanted and I was finally, after all those dark months of struggle, happy.
I talked to my therapist about this one day. I told him I was going to go off my meds. I didn’t have depression anymore, and we had been working on cognitively dealing with my anxiety. I felt invulnerable. I wasn’t going to take meds if I didn’t need them.
He advised caution. He wanted me to think about this decision carefully given my family’s genetic history and my own personal history with mental illness. Sometimes depression and anxiety aren’t about life’s problems, he cautioned. They can appear at any time and deceive you.
I wanted to get off the medication, however. I was adamant. Life was great.
In the late summer of 2011, I weaned myself off my antidepressant. I didn’t notice a huge difference at first. I slept better, but I had always been a pretty good sleeper. The days were filled with playing outside with Isobel and making crafts and cooking. We saw friends on the weekends and spent time with Anthony every evening. I was so happy. I felt like I was finally doing what I was meant to be doing.
Somehow, starting in very small ways, that began to change.
We’d be going about business as usual when this wave would pass through me. I didn’t know what it was but I felt, for a few seconds, overcome by something. I felt like I was going to drown. It started infrequently but then came at me more and more often. I started to wonder if all my happiness was a lie. If I was truly happy, then why would I have these feelings of intense terror out of nowhere? Maybe I only thought I was happy. Maybe… maybe I was going crazy.
Fall and my birthday approached. It got worse. I talked and talked about it with Anthony almost constantly. I would tell him all of my crazy thoughts and ideas and he would dispel them, one by one, and poof, they’d vanish, like magic, and I could be myself again. Soon the aftereffects of those talks would wear off and I’d be crazily worrying if everything about myself was a lie, because if I couldn’t trust myself to recognize happiness, the happiness of my whole life, then how could I trust myself at all? My thoughts would spiral in impossible ways, none of them making any sense to anyone but me.
Eventually, on the days leading up to my birthday, I couldn’t think at all. The night before we took our trip I stayed up all night, my body rigid and tense, my muscles unwilling to relax, my mind, reeling in fear. I was suffering from panic attacks, but I didn’t know it. I had never had a panic attack, and although I had heard of them, I assumed that when you had a panic attack you knew it and were aware of it. I was neither of these things. I was terrified and hyperventilating and convinced, absolutely convinced, I was going crazy.
I eventually reached out to my therapist. Actually, Anthony did. I wasn’t in control of myself enough at that point to even do that. Anthony called him, spoke with him awhile, and then put me on the phone. I saw him in an emergency session, and on his advice went to my doctor. They drew some blood and ran some tests and sent me home with some Xanax and my trusty prescription for antidepressants.
Life quickly, and then slowly, got better after that. I could sleep again and although I felt extremely fragile, I felt like myself again. Things that used to make me happy made me happy again, without the persistent background of fear. Eventually, I felt like myself all the time again. I occasionally took half a Xanax if I felt a panic attack coming on, and gradually, I didn’t feel them coming on anymore. I have the bottle of Xanax in my cupboard, but now it’s there primarily as a security blanket.
I discussed the things that happened with my therapist, and I came to an understanding about what happened. The medicine my OB put me on for depression also treated panic disorder, which I probably developed due to a combination of age, stress, and genetic background. Several people in my family experience panic attacks, so I was unwittingly at risk. Who knows how long I had been prone to develop them while the medicine I had been taking for depression and anxiety for over two years had been quietly treating them. When I decided to go off that medicine the heretofore unknown panic was free to wreak havoc on my psyche.
I will probably be on some sort of anxiety-controlling medicine my whole life, and knowing the alternative, that is just fine with me. There are steps I can take to minimize risks to my mental health, but this is a disease I ultimately have no control over. It’s part of how I was made, and just as much a part of me as being left-handed or having a quick wit. It’s not a personal failing, or a weakness. It’s a chemical process that I have no control over. The only thing I have control over is how I deal with it. And I’m going to talk about it.
I never really discussed, fully, what happened in 2011. I was in the middle of experiencing my disorder and I didn’t have the words to talk about it yet. As time passed, I still had a hard time talking about it in detail, but eventually, I did. First with Anthony and my therapist, and then with family and friends, and now, I feel that enough time has passed that I can share it with you.
One of the biggest fears I had when I was going through this time was that I was alone, that I was abnormal, and that I talked about it no one would understand, when in reality this is an incredibly common phenomenon, it is a completely normal reaction to have, and lots and lots of people understand. If you are going through this, it’s going to be okay. You are normal. You are not alone. I completely understand.