This story is a bit of a downer, as it describes my attempt to figure out the cause of a host of physical symptoms that began for me several years ago. Could be interesting if you’re going through something similar. Or you might just want to move on to another post if you’re not interested in this type of story. There are also some resources at the bottom that could be helpful if you’ve having a tough time of it.
For the past several years I have experienced panic attacks on a sort-of regular basis. For the first couple years I thought something critical was going wrong inside my body, but none of my doctors could tell me what it was. I went from doctor to doctor, telling my story of dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea, phantom pains in various parts of my body…in various combinations and at frequencies I could never pin down to an event or meal or…anything. I had landed in the ER multiple times over these unpredictable symptoms, and each time nothing was found. I was not only frustrated, I was becoming embarrassed and ashamed. Why was I feeling this way if nothing was physically wrong? And how was I supposed to make it stop if no one could tell me what it was?
The thing that helped me begin to recognize my symptoms for what they really were was a phone call with my cardiologist. I had visited him a couple times over the years in my search for what was wrong with me, always with the same result: learning that I have a strong, healthy heart. That would be great news for most people, but considering how long I’d been searching for a cause of my ongoing discomfort, I looked forward to just about any diagnosis. Just tell me what it is.
On this particular day I was having an exceptionally difficult time with my symptoms and was my at wit’s end. I decided I needed to see my cardiologist right away. So I called to make an appointment and proceeded to state my case with the nurse for why I needed to see the doctor today. She was not having it. I eventually wore her down and she put the doctor on the phone. After hearing me out, the doctor proceeded to suggest to me, very gently and kindly, that maybe the pain I was feeling in my arm and chest that day was…fibromyalgia-related. Oh.
I was, at once, angry, humiliated, and defeated. I have always found my cardiologist to be very kind and compassionate. And his message to me on this day was delivered in the most kind and compassionate manner. But it still stung.
As I pulled myself together in that gas station parking lot, the reality of my situation slowly sunk in. The symptoms I’d been having were – at least partially – something my mind was making up. While I definitely had physical symptoms, my mind was evaluating them and attempting to categorize them, under the filter of my fear response. My anxious mind was so busy working to solve this puzzle that it twisted the reality of my chronic condition into something critical. As my dear friend D says of herself, I can talk myself into a coma. It’s true.
Over time, my emotional state over this not knowing had progressed from anxiety to panic. Of course I had heard of people having panic attacks, but those things happened to other people. Not me. I wasn’t even convinced they were real. I certainly never dreamed they would be something that I, Miss I’ve got Everything Under Control, would ever face. But here I was.
Somehow, in the aftermath of my reality check, the Universe landed me on the doorsteps of a holistic general medical practitioner. These types of practices are difficult to find, even at this time in our world, but I found one that took my insurance and was even located in my area of the city. The catch with this practice was that they required a $300 annual membership for all patients. The claim was that this allowed them to take more time with each patient. I didn’t care the cost. I wanted someone to take a look at the whole picture. I needed to get to the bottom of why I was having these panic attacks. I needed them to stop.
I was assigned to the PA (Physician’s Assistant), and this turned out to be a good thing. She was fairly young, but not so young that her experience would be in question. She was also extremely compassionate. On my first visit, we talked about my problematic symptoms, my blood sugar wellness (I am a Type 2 diabetic) and my thyroid hormone levels (I had had a thyroidectomy a couple years prior). As we talked through all of this, I couldn’t hold back my tears. I was frustrated and tired. I felt I had tried everything. I cried through the entire visit.
As the visit with the PA came to a close, we reviewed her list of recommended supplements, the list of levels she planned to test from all the blood her tech had drawn earlier in the visit, and…she suggested I make an appointment with the psychotherapist who had a office at the back of their building. I was resistant and a little offended at first, but then thought, What I’ve been doing so far isn’t working, so why not? I went home and called to make an appointment.
At our first meeting, I could see this was something I needed and opted to do weekly sessions until I was through my crisis. What I learned over the next few weeks was that what I had been experiencing was PTSD. Yes, I said it. PTSD was something I had always associated with veterans. I’ve since learned this is something that affects all sorts of people who have experienced all kinds of traumatic events.
I had a traumatic childhood, and had been in therapy multiple times in the past, but I had never gotten to the point of having panic attacks until my latest traumatic event: a romantic breakup. I’ve gone through more romantic breakups in my life than I choose to share at this time, and typically I get through them and move on and I settle into my normal life pretty quickly.
This latest breakup was different. Short story is, he was an alcoholic, which I should have known going in, but chose not to acknowledge the signs. Fast forward to three years later when I make the decision to move out. He handles it reasonably well, but then eight months later we’re back together, then we split again, then together again. It was a crazy train of my own making. More detail about why/how this was all happening will come out in a later post…maybe. Basically, he wanted us to remain friends, but he’s wasn’t capable of being platonic with me. And I clearly have boundary issues.
Fast forward again. It’s 3 1/2 years after the initial breakup, and he’s sitting across from me in my backyard after helping me with yard work (his platonic offer). As we’re talking, he’s suggesting something we can do together. It feels like a date. I can feel my chest restricting. I look him in the eyes and tell him, I need you to let me go. He looks me in the eyes and says, I don’t want to let you go.
Shortly after that I received another drunken email telling me what a bad person I am. I blocked his number and refused to see him again, but I spent the next year or so wondering if he was lurking somewhere. I was afraid to drive through his part of town in case we might run into one another. He was phoning and emailing my daughters to try to get information about me.
I thought I had been managing the stress of this, but obviously not. I had blocked his phone number so he could no longer text or call me, but I kept his email open because, as I have shared with my friends, I want to keep my finger on the pulse of the crazy.
Once I figured out I was having panic attacks, I tracked my symptoms back to the beginning. My first episode happened at work, shortly after I began planning my exit from the relationship (the first time). I think that’s pretty telling. Imagine how much more stress I was carrying around 3 1/2 years later dealing with the same cycle of behaviors.
The thing that is the most disturbing for me about my eventual diagnosis is that none of my doctors would say the words panic attack to me. I had to put those words out there myself. I’ve since learned that unaddressed anxiety can build up loads of adrenaline in your body and cause panic attacks. A body needs exercise, or meditation, or…therapy…to move that adrenaline out. And panic attacks, by definition, come out of nowhere, and often cause you to feel like you are going to die. Even now, while I understand – intellectually – what is happening, I still sometimes feel like…maybe this is the time it’s real.
Since my discovery I have used therapy, meditation, EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) Tapping, and even exercise to help me through difficult times. Every person’s needs are different, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. These things have helped me.
So what is the moral of this story? Listen to your body. Listen to your inner being. When you feel like something is wrong, sit with yourself and breathe. I know it can be hard to take that step back when you’re in the midst of feeling like your world is upside down and you don’t know why. But breathe for a minute, and then ask for help. Talk to your doctor and be open to the idea of therapy. There are so many things going on in the world today, it’s difficult at times to have a positive attitude each day. So allow yourself the space to feel bad when you need to. But if feeling bad becomes the norm, reach out. If you don’t find the help you need right away, try someone or something else. I’m still working through the emotional baggage I’ve carried around most of my life as well as the new things that are added as I move along. It’s a lifelong journey. I’m working on it.
Below are some resources to consider.
Love and light to you!
Best Meditation Apps of 2018 – I’ve tried a couple. This article gives you a legit review of several.
BetterHelp.com – Convenient, affordable, private online counseling. Anytime, anywhere.
EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) – Tapping is another great tool. I use it and I can honestly say, it works!
The Mental Illness Happy Hour – Great podcast (in my opinion). It’s an interview show where all sorts of emotional issues are discussed. It’s not therapy in the official sense, but I do find that I feel better hearing stories about what some other folks are dealing with. Sometimes it gives me validation, sometimes it helps me see that my life is not so bad.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – If you’re feeling really bad and can’t reach out to someone you know, please give these folks a call. You’re a beautiful person and we want you here.