Monday, July 11, 2011
Nicole's Passion - Understanding Panic Disorder
Panic Disorder: A type of anxiety disorder in which you have repeated attacks of intense fear that something bad will occur when not expected.
You might be wondering why I would have a "passion" for understanding panic disorder. It's an odd illness to even want to consider.
For me, it is a way of life. I have lived with panic disorder for 30 years. Yes, you read that right - 30 years.
It all started back when I was eight years old. I remember walking with my great-grandmother through a shopping mall in my home town. There was a china doll show, and she and I had a wonderful time picking out our favorite dolls, when suddenly, out of nowhere, I became dizzy. Really, really dizzy. It was a sensation I had never felt before. It's important to know that when someone says they feel dizzy, it's not the "fun/silly" feeling you get when you spin yourself around, or go really fast on a merry-go-round. This feels more like your brain is turning flip-flops. I told my Granny I did not feel good, and she grabbed my hand and assured me we would find my mom. Just a few minutes later, I began to feel numb, around my mouth and my neck. Finally we sat down, and honestly, I don't remember the rest.
That was only the beginning.
Suddenly they would happen in class - mainly the 4th grade, and only in Miss Childer's class. I remember telling her my symptoms, and she told me, "Just be quiet. There is nothing wrong with you."
I complained to my mother, since I started experiencing them everywhere - church, when we went out to eat, when I was walking through the mall. It was horrible. She also, did not understand the disorder at the time (it was the late 70s, early 80s.) Finally, she had enough of me complaining that I was dizzy, numb and could not breathe. She took me to see my pediatrician.
Dr. Jones examined me and found nothing wrong. He told her I needed to see a psychiatrist, which of course she said, "Absolutely not."
As time went on, she insisted that I was only trying to get attention. Later, it seemed I only had panic attacks in math class, or anywhere I had to sit and be quiet, or was locked into a line or seat somewhere - basically anytime I was in an unfamiliar place, was put in a position I was not comfortable, or was having trouble understanding something.
This continued through out school - the thing is, no one actually knew I was having a panic attack. I learned coping skills (by myself) - I would squeeze my hand into a fist until the heart palpitations passed, or the dizzy spell subsided. I discovered if I was cold, I could relax. I would often try massaging my own hand. I had read in early high school that there were pressure points in the hand. Later, I found a book on Anxiety and read it cover to cover. The only problem was, I was not actually "worried" about anything, like the book said. The only fear I had - was.. well.. the fear itself.
By college, I had a better handle on things, but they were still there. Lying just beneath - ready to pop up at any minute. Again, rarely did anyone know I had this problem. I would sit and suffer in silence in a classroom. Or if things got too intense for me, I would get up and excuse myself to the restroom. Like a cure, as soon as I left the spot I experienced the attack, I would immediately feel relaxed. So much so, that I realized if I avoided certain places, I would not happen.
I ended up developing a fear of grocery stores, video stores, or any place I had to focus and make decisions and be "stuck" periodically in a place. The bizarre thing is - I was a performer, and was extremely comfortable on stage. I began to think, "Maybe my mom was right. Maybe it was some sick need for attention." But soon, even performing became too difficult.
I knew I had to do something.
By the mid 90s, I was hearing more and more about ADHD. I assumed, perhaps I was suffering from the inability to stay calm and focused. When I thought back to my childhood - if I was moving, or dancing, or doing something where I could express myself, I was super happy and felt safe and did not have an attack. So, I decided to visit with the university's counseling center.
After a few sessions with a university counselor, she decided to send me to a Mental Health Clinic for a test for ADHD. I went, not knowing what would come out of the meeting. After talking with a therapist for about 15 minutes, and describing my entire journey.. he looked at me and said, 'I know we have not given you the proper tests yet, however, I am almost 100% certain, you have just a good-old-fashioned panic disorder.
A few tests later, it was confirmed.
I was 21.
For 13 years, I floated around, never really knowing what was wrong with me. Having theories, but was never really sure.
Fortunately, or unfortunately - the clinic prescribed a Tricyclic antidepressant called Imipramine. This drug was typically used in treating depression, but was supposedly good for treating panic attacks. I took this drug for about one year. 30 days after beginning it, I was panic attack free. It was amazing. However, the side effects were terrible - I gained 30 pounds in one year and slept all the time. One afternoon while at home, my heart began to race, the only "other" doctor I had was my gyno - I went in and he asked what I was taking. I told him, he told me to stop, and immediately I was off the meds.
After about 6 months of counseling, and getting to the root of my insecurity and anxiety, I had a better handle on what was happening and why. I learned cognitive behavior techniques, and tried to be aware of my phobias. (which, the list on those is loooong.)
I now live with panic disorder - no drugs since that one year in college at 21. I am aware of what is happening, and I do my best to cope with it. I could be standing next to you, in a full blown panic attack, and you would never know. I just may seem a little distracted and fidgety. It's just one of those things. 30 years... 30 long years.
I can go days now.. even weeks without ever having an attack. I still suffer from anxiety and I am still super scared of a bazillion things. But one of the techniques I picked up years ago, was to just force myself to do things. I cannot and will not become one of those people who never leave the safety of their home.
Though I still dread sitting in the middle of a movie theater, and I am not a fan of driving long distances by myself, or driving over bridges, getting stuck in a line at Walmart, or feeling trapped while in an important meeting - I make myself do it. I take deep breaths.. and I do the best I can. Sure, the dizziness sneaks up like a thief, and yes the heart palpitations make me feel like I am about to have a heart attack.. but I recognize them for what they are - a panic attack.
In tomorrow's post, I am going to break down what panic disorder is, and how you can control it. (According to the experts.) I want to provide resources for other sufferers, or if you know someone who might be experiencing anxiety and panic, perhaps you can share my story.
It's something I do NOT like to share with people. (Hey, even my husband has NEVER seen me have an attack - that's how good I am at pretending everything is okay.) But it is nothing to be ashamed of. So what- I have an over-active adrenal gland.. I can deal with that.
We'll go into the science of it all tomorrow...
Until next time..
PS- My finger is hovering over publish post... I really hate putting this out there.. but, I know it's important. Plus, other people just like me do not have to suffer in silence.
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