by Hilary Helen
Last week The Players’ Tribune published Kevin Love’s article Everyone Is Going Through Something. In it he discusses his experience with anxiety and having a panic attack during a Cavs game. Also, how until that point, he didn’t feel like he could benefit from talking about his issues and the circumstances that may have led up to this incident.
The taboo surrounding mental health is lessening, but still exists. I admire any person, public figure or not, who is willing to put their personal experience out there for the benefit of others.
I met a man last weekend who two seconds after shaking my hand, when asked how he was doing by the man next to me, looked at him and started talking about how he was struggling with panic attacks. I admired his ability to speak so openly about it.
We were at an event and there were probably five of us standing in a circle. And he just put it out there…for everyone. Because of his honesty I felt comfortable enough to say, “me too,” and shared a couple of things that helped me.
Key word being helped, not cured. I still have bouts of anxiety, most recently being these past couple weeks. The timing of meeting this person and reading Kevin Love’s article couldn’t be better and thus have inspired me to talk about it again. It’s cathartic for me and I hope it can help someone else.
As the type of person who needs to understand things, I’ve done some serious reflection on how this all began. In doing so, I think it goes back further than I had initially thought. It was easily identifiable once I had a full-blown attack. But I think it was the culmination of many factors over a few years. These became the perfect storm that intensified over time before it became a debilitating illness.
Years ago I was suffering. For weeks I called my then husband home from work. Every single day I would wake up feeling anxious and the moment he walked out the door to go to work, the waves would come. I had a three-year old and an infant at home with me at that time. Though I felt like I was hiding my anxiety from them, there’s no way they didn’t sense it.
Luckily, and unluckily, my ex husband is self-employed. He was able to come home each time I called, but it was a strain on him and the business. Once he was there, I still felt anxious. I just didn’t have the overwhelming fear of, “Oh my god, what will happen to these babies if I die?” Sounds dramatic, I know. But that was the thought I had every single time I was alone with them.
I couldn’t do very simple things. I couldn’t face the shower head because if the water hit my chest, it felt like it was crushing it. I couldn’t get in the bath tub because I thought I would pass out and drown. I couldn’t get in a car, as the passenger nor the driver, because I thought that we would get in a fiery crash or I would pass out at the wheel and then we would get in a fiery crash. I couldn’t wear anything tight on my upper body, certainly not a bra, because it felt like it was restricting my breathing. A heavy rain hitting the roof made me feel like it was going to collapse on top of me. I couldn’t eat more than a couple of bites at a time and had to sip my drinks because it felt like it was getting stuck in my esophagus. All of these things and more. I had the constant feeling of impending doom.
I didn’t understand what was going on with me. It was so real and so intense. There were times where I thought I could control it. I would tell myself to snap out of it, but I couldn’t. As sure as I put my feet on the floor each morning, the waves would begin. My stomach felt tight. My palms would sweat. My hands would shake. I would try to take a deep breath, but couldn’t. When I felt like I couldn’t breathe, my heart would begin to pound. My vision narrowed and I had the overwhelming feeling I was dying. ALL. THE. TIME.
But I wasn’t dying. I would tell myself that. I knew I wasn’t dying because I felt the same way the day before yet I was still here. So I would go on about my day caring for my kids, but not much else. I would obsessively clean one thing to try and keep my mind distracted while the rest of my house looked like a bomb went off. Then inevitably it would happen. As hard as I tried to make it through the day without calling my ex husband home, I couldn’t. Some days I would call him several times to talk me off the ledge before I would cave and just ask him to come home.
In addition to calling him home from work, he would have to go to the grocery store and run all other errands too. My anxiety had completely crippled me. I went nowhere. I talked to my mum and dad on the phone but ignored everyone else. I completely isolated myself from everyone and everything. This went on for weeks.
Then one day my dad called. My aunt was in the hospital. He told me I needed to come see her. She wasn’t going to leave the hospital alive. I remember thinking that I had to snap out of this. I had to be okay and go see her. I hadn’t been able to do it for my kids, myself, nor my husband, but I had to snap out of it and do it for my aunt.
I didn’t. I didn’t get to see her before she passed. I didn’t get to tell her I love her. I didn’t get to thank her for her love, time, compassion, words of wisdom, sense of humor…nothing. I told her nothing because I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there for her. I wasn’t there for my cousin who was like another brother and had just lost his mother. I wasn’t there for my dad who had just lost his sister. I wasn’t there for my grandma who had just lost her daughter.
This was when I realized that the only thing that could momentarily snap me out of my constant anxious state was anger. I was so fucking angry at myself. But then I was just sad and the anxiety returned.
So when a few days later I had to make the two plus hour trip to her funeral by myself with two babies, I got mad. I actually was mad because my ex husband wouldn’t come with me, nor would he stay home with the kids. I channeled my anger, I got ready, got the kids ready, packed the car up, and left.
At the time, we lived near a pretty chaotic intersection of two freeways where there are a lot of accidents. Being mad was trumped by fear as I merged onto the freeway where cars were buzzing by me on both sides. My heart was pounding so hard I could hear it, my throat felt like it was closing, and my vision narrowed. I literally shook my head, as you do when you get the chills, shook my sweaty hands, and yelled at myself, “YOU HAVE TO DO THIS!!!”
So I did. And in waves, the panic came. It was brutal. It was one thousand times worse than anything I had experienced until that point. I didn’t even know that was possible. I called my mum countless times trying to distract myself. Through no fault of her own, she wasn’t helping. I kept thinking, “It’s okay. You can pull over and get help.” Help for what, I don’t know. But when I got to a point on the freeway where there were no towns, no exits, not many other cars on the road, I lost it.
I called 911. I didn’t know what to tell them. “Help, I’m driving my car and…” and what? I feel like I’m going to pass out or have a heart attack and I have two babies in the car? I had no idea what to even say. I remember I kept apologizing and saying how stupid I felt for wasting their time. The first person I talked to was able to distract me and while I wouldn’t say I was calm, I felt like I could continue driving on my own.
Minutes later, it happened. As many times as I thought I was dying before, THIS was it. I got a sharp pain in my chest that took my breath away. I remember thinking, “Just get off of the freeway. Just pull over.” I started to pull over on the side of the road but then saw a closed weigh station ahead. I had no peripheral vision. I could see the lane I was driving in and the small building at the weigh station and that was it. When I got close to that building I thought, “Just get the car in park and the kids will be okay. Someone will find them here.”
I got the car into park. Jumped out of the car, opened the back door, leaned in to kiss my son in his infant car seat and reached across the car to my daughter and told her I loved her. Then I thought that if I had done all of that, I was okay. It was all in my head and I just need to get a grip.
I sat there for a couple of minutes. And as it subsides, it surely returns. It was like contractions when you are in labor. The panic was coming in waves and increasingly more and more intense. I couldn’t take it anymore. I called 911.
The moment I knew someone was on their way, I felt myself relax a bit. This was good, but it also pissed me off. One moment I knew it was all in my head and the next I was 110% convinced I was dying and therefore jeopardizing the safety of my children.
The squad showed up, checked my vitals, checked my heart out, and said everything seemed good. As with the first 911 operator, I was apologizing repeatedly. I was mortified. They tried to reassure me and told me it was normal, that they see it all the time. While it was kind of them to say, I didn’t care how common it was. I felt insane and I wanted it to stop.
The paramedics were amazing. In addition to their kind words and reassurance, they followed me to my exit which was probably another 10-15 miles away.
After getting off of the freeway I still had another hour of driving to do. For whatever reason, this twisty, hilly portion of the trip was the easiest for me. I miraculously wasn’t thinking that I was going to drive off the road and crash into a tree.
All I could think about was how I was crazy and I didn’t know how I was going to live my life, raise kids, and deal with this every day. And how my 3-year-old had to be confused and concerned about what she had just witnessed though I tried to explain that I just didn’t feel well, but was okay.
Once we finally arrived at the church I really don’t remember much. I remember getting the kids out of the car. I remember going inside the church. I remember one of my kids started crying, or being loud, or something inappropriate for a funeral, so I left. One of my cousins helped me out to our car and we left.
Not only did I miss the opportunity to see my aunt before she passed, I missed her funeral. A normal person would have tried to calm their kid, distract them, take them outside to run around, anything. I just left within minutes of arriving. More than the sadness, guilt, or anger I was feeling, I just needed to get home. My anxiety was 100% in control.
My dad’s family didn’t know about my anxiety at that time. I can’t imagine how disrespectful my absence seemed. I don’t think I told anyone for a while after the fact, but I did message my cousin to apologize for leaving.
This was the last straw. I could not let something control my life like this. It wasn’t just affecting me, it was affecting everyone I love.
As a firm believer in fixing the problem and not treating the symptoms, I researched tirelessly for weeks. I didn’t want to take pills as my doctor suggested. I made some adjustments that would make me feel a bit better, but it was still there.
I drank a ridiculous amount of coffee. Because I felt like I could only eat or drink tiny amounts at a time, I wasn’t drinking much water, just coffee. I definitely wasn’t eating enough. Sleep? Forget about it. I would stop drinking coffee at dinner time and switch to wine in an attempt to relax enough to get a couple of hours of sleep. Oh, AND I was breastfeeding. I have no idea how my body was capable. What little food I was eating was healthy, but it definitely wasn’t enough. Emaciated may be an exaggeration, but I wasn’t far from it.
The first thing I did was cut back on the coffee, but didn’t cut it out completely. I forced myself to drink more water and eat more food. It sounds so silly, but when you’re caring for two babies who rely on you to do everything for them and require all of your attention, taking care of yourself is secondary.
I started to feel better. I didn’t call my ex home from work. I actually started to go to the grocery store again. And while I still felt anxious all the time, it definitely wasn’t like it had been. Going to the store made me nervous as hell, but I made myself do it. There were still things that would trigger panic, but it was more manageable. I started to feel like I had a bit more control.
Some time had passed and at some point I filled the script my doctor had called in for me. I didn’t take them, but having them there just in case helped to ease my mind.
Then one night my ex said the words every wife dreads hearing. “My mom is coming to stay for a week.” I forget how long I had before she actually showed, but I got myself so worked up that I decided to start taking the pills the day before she came. That was a mistake.
The directions didn’t say to ease into them taking only half a pill a day. I just started taking them as the directions on he bottle said. Whether it was because I was so under weight or had never taken pills before or a combination of both, I was out. I couldn’t stand. I was hallucinating and I spent the first two days after my mother in law arrived in bed. The entire time felt like an out-of-body experience.
On the third day she was there, I forced myself out of bed to function like a normal human being. I asked what she and my ex wanted for dinner, and drove to the store. That was another huge mistake.
I grabbed the arm of a woman standing next to me at the deli counter as I about fell over and ended up sitting on the floor for a few minutes until I felt like I could stand again.
That’s what the pills did for me. My body was feeling even more anxiety and other side effects while another part of my brain was like, “nah, you got this.” So after the humiliation of sitting on the floor of the Hill’s Market and having to leave my daughter’s first swimming lesson amidst a panic attack, I decided that the pills were not for me.
I know people who take pills for their anxiety and/or depression. I’m not knocking it. I’m obviously not a doctor, just speaking from my own experience. The one thing I would say, that my doctor didn’t tell me until after the fact, is that I should have eased myself onto the pills and weaned myself off. This may not be true of all drugs, but it was of the ones I took and I was as messed up getting off of them cold turkey as I was when I began taking them.
By this time, I was so fed up with the way I was feeling, how it was affecting my kids, my marriage, and all other relationships that I was determined to figure it out. I researched obsessively until one day, buried deep in the internet, I found an article from the 1920’s published in a medical journal about the effects of consuming too much caffeine, how it causes psychosis, and how long it takes for your brain to return to normal after completely abstaining.
It made sense. While I knew that the amount of coffee I was drinking was contributing to my anxiety, I had no idea that it was likely the root of the problem. That coupled with sleep deprivation, dehydration, poor nutrition, and isolation, I had no chance.
The article stated that it could take up to a year for the brain to return to normal function. I stopped drinking coffee immediately. I never really was a soda person, so that wasn’t difficult to eliminate. But I wouldn’t even eat chocolate. I avoided caffeine like I had a severe allergy to it. I drank so much coffee for such a long period of time, that the build up of caffeine in my system had caused psychosis.
Though initially a day without coffee felt like a day without air, I didn’t touch it. And slowly, I came out of the haze. I couldn’t believe that something so simple made such a huge difference.
I can remember the first day I stood up out of bed and didn’t have that pressure on my chest. I could breathe. I could take a deep breath. I just cried. I smiled and cried at the same time. I felt like I was seeing my kids for the first time in months. To look at them, hold them, and play with them rather that just see them as living things that I was responsible for keeping alive. It was an amazing feeling.
Coffee. One of the greatest loves of my life caused me and everyone around me all that stress and grief and caused me to miss very important moments that I will never have opportunity to get back.
People don’t believe me when I tell them. It does seem inconceivable that something like caffeine could be the culprit. I’m certainly not saying it’s the cause of everyone’s anxiety. But it was the cause of mine.
For a year and a half, I had no caffeine. One day I felt brave and had a cup of decaf. I didn’t feel anxious so I had one again the next day and was still fine. Now years later, I drink a cup or two of regular coffee every morning. If I haven’t eaten, my palms may sweat so I just stop drinking it. I know my limits.
Other things that have helped me are being hyper aware of being present. I would dwell on the past and worry about the future while missing out on what was right in front of me. And even now if I am stressed out in the moment, as they say, this too shall pass.
Proper nutrition, hydration, and exercise are so important. I’ll find myself thinking, “Wow, I really feel like shit!” either physically or mentally and 100% of the time I can blame it on my lack of self-care.
And last but not least, talk to people. It’s hard. But I found that the more I talked about it, the better I felt. It didn’t seem like some made up thing in my head. It was very real. This also revealed many people who I didn’t know were suffering through the same thing. What a feeling that is, to not be alone.
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