Anxiety, you're not the boss of me
It was a morning like any other, I woke up and went through my daily routine, slopped on a bunch of hair gel and a few sprays of cologne, and made my way to work. I went next door and picked up breakfast then headed outside for the traditional post-meal smoke.
There I was sitting outside on a cool San Francisco Tuesday, when suddenly and inexplicably, pain covered my chest. Squeezing pain, as if someone had picked me up from behind and given me a bear hug of historic proportions. I stood up and stretched a bit, rubbed my chest and hoped for the pain to disperse, but it got worse.
I went back inside and sat down, visibly in pain I put my head down and held my chest. My boss noticed my obvious discomfort and asked if I was alright, I described my symptoms and he asked a question that changed the course of my life forever: “Do you need to go to the hospital?”.
There I was a 25 year old relatively healthy man, I suffered no ailments or known illnesses, in fact I had always been fairly resilient to sickness and injuries, shockingly never a broken bone or had anything more serious than an ingrown toenail. That morning when I heard the word hospital, I was certain that I was about to die.
“Yes” I mumbled, “I need you to get me to the ER, I think I’m having a heart attack”.
For someone who has never suffered from anxiety, the idea of such an absurd irrational thought process is difficult, if not impossible to understand. But for those of us who have felt this feeling, we know it is very real and extremely scary.
I arrived at the emergency room, I flew through the doors as a person who believes they’re in a life threatening emergency would. “I’m having a heart attack” I dramatically proclaimed. The nurse rushed me to the back, I heard the call go out over the radio, “possible MI, male room 2” (myocardial infarction, aka. heart attack). The doctor rushed in and looked puzzled, puzzled that I was so young, he confirmed that I was the one who had chest pain and to his surprise, I confirmed that yes, I was.
To be fair at this time in my life I was under a remarkable amount of stress, I was commuting for work back and forth between San Francisco and North Carolina where my girlfriend at the time was in university. This meant for twenty days of the month I was held up in a sleazy, at best, motel alone and miserable.
The doctors diligently ran a battery of tests to rule out any serious condition, and after several hours of being prodded and poked they determined that there was nothing wrong with me, but that this was the product of stress.
I was confused, utterly dumbfounded by the concept that I, always fearless and never really worried about anything could have been reduced to a blubbering victim of stress, it made no sense. But hey, I wasn’t dying so I had that going for me, and to hear I was medically sound made me feel pretty good about myself. That sucked I thought, but at least I got checked out and now it’s over, right? Wrong, dead wrong.
A few weeks later while working in South Carolina it hit me again, so bad this time that I was racing down the shoulder of the interstate trying to get to the ER, I made it, once again they said stress.
At the recommendation of the emergency room doctor I sought a regular primary care physician. This was the worst doctor I have ever encountered in my life. I assume based on his nonchalant disregard for my concerns that he himself had never felt the feelings that I was having, and that made it so much worse. He referred me to the boys at Duke hospital for a full cardio workup, just to ease my concern, scratched off a prescription to xanax and sent me on my way.
My occasional outbursts of despair had now turned in to a constant fear that another one was on its way. I checked my pulse constantly to make sure my heart was still beating, I laid in bed with my hand on my chest to feel my heart while I tried to fall asleep, and I went in to panic mode daily.
I won’t bore you with the details of a further 25 plus emergency room visits, upwards of 30 doctors appointments, visits to cardiologists, wearing heart monitors for days to fully record the activity of my ticker, or the endless amounts of tubes that I have had stuck in places that I didn’t know you could stick tubes in to, it would just take too long to write.
The real reason that I’m writing is because I have found some resolve in my battle with anxiety, and I wanted to share for those of you who are suffering as well as those of you who have someone in their life who is suffering from anxiety.
To those with a friend or loved one who has anxiety disorder:
I know that you don’t understand this apparent madness, and I hope for your sake that you never do, but please be supportive. Do not, under any circumstances, ever, disregard or downplay the victims feelings. We’re a fragile bunch, and mid panic attack telling us there’s nothing wrong with us is the equivalent of kicking someone in the crown jewels then telling them the pain is in their head. You may know for a fact that there is nothing wrong, but for us it is very real and disregarding it just intensifies it, a great deal. Do remind us that we are going to be ok, that validates our feelings and helps us focus on how the situation will end, and takes us out of the moment.
To my fellow jittery friends:
My biggest piece of advice is to find a compassionate doctor who will give you the support and attention that you need. I finally found one after going through half a dozen or so, and she is amazing. So amazing in fact that she even came to therapy with me, twice! Talk with your doctor and agree upon a medication that will help you through, many people talk about natural healing, for me a little pill is preferable to standing on my head naked drinking papaya juice while listening to Enya.
Find someone that you can talk to, someone who understands. I found a terrific website called nomorepanic.co.uk, this is a site full of people just like us who are there to vent and be supportive of one another, any kind of anxiety you suffer from, there is someone there who knows exactly how you feel.
Here’s one for that moment, you know, the moment when you decide that you are actually dying and are in need of immediate emergency care. Think about how it ends. We’ve all been there, the endless tests, the countless times we’ve heard those words, “your heart is fine”. Think about how it ends with you walking out of the hospital carrying your discharge papers recommending you to come back if it gets worse but generally just to follow up with your doctor. This time, it will end the same, you’ll just be down another co-pay and up another puncture wound in your arm from yet another blood test.
Am I completely cured? No, and I never will be. But I have learned to manage much better. I am proud to say that I haven’t visited an emergency room in about 9 months, a huge feet for a guy who was getting to know the staff by name. I also have a network of very supportive people in my life, including my doctor, who’m without I’d probably be doing my routine pull in to a gas station and yell for an ambulance, rather than writing this article.
I used to be a scuba diving instructor, fearlessly navigating the deep, coming face to face with sharks while keeping my students safe and alive. I’m sad to report that the last two times I dove I was struck with panic and had to abort, but in a few months I will return to the depths of the ocean and I will conquer. I will conquer because I will not allow anxiety and panic to kill another day of my life, it’s my life, and anxiety can’t have it anymore.