It was Christmas break in grade 7 that it started.
I was lying on my bed, watching T.V. when I suddenly had a heavy feeling in my chest. It was like an elephant was sitting there. I was home alone, so I got myself some water and went back to lie down. While the heaviness went away, the pains didn’t. They were sharp, striking and left me breathless. A heart attack, I thought. As the week went on, I refused to tell my parents. I was fine. It came and went and I had more “good” moments than bad. I went back to school and with the business of the new semester, I forgot all about it.
Over the next four years I generally felt “ok.” I had some periods of time when I started acting upon OCD tendencies- counting and recounting, tapping, and reading and re-reading. Most of the time, these periods were short lived and could be hidden from those around me. One day while watching TV with mom, I started taking really deep breaths- I felt like I couldn’t get a satisfying breath. Mom questioned me, I told her everything was fine and left the room. I felt like I was itching from the inside. We were watching the 2012 Olympics.
That was the start of a a spiral for me. I began to live inside my own head. I had a constant conversation within myself and it sounded something like this, “I can’t breathe…” “don’t be silly, you can breathe, just watch” *take a deep breath* “ahh, that’s better” *take another deep breath* “now I feel dizzy” (likely caused by hyperventilation, my doctor says) “OH NO, I’M DYING”
Things seemed OK on the outside- I could hold an external conversation while panicking in my own head. This meant that by the end of the day, I was exhausted beyond belief.I began to turn into myself and let friendships fail. In grade 12- the most important year of high school, my grades started to slip. I couldn’t concentrate in class, my homework was haphazardly completed and my testing skills had gone out the window. I was no longer enjoying school. Each 75 minute class meant counting my heartbeats to make sure they weren’t too fast. It meant continuously scratching at my “jumping” skin and it meant sitting, alone, in my own head for an extended period of time. The days started to blur and school was just another place for my anxious self to pass the time. I thought joining clubs would help. It didn’t. I just had more things to be anxious about. One day, towards the end of the winter semester, I was sitting in psychology class (of all places) and COULD. NOT. BREATHE. I got up and ran out.
I cried so hard I though I was going to pass out. “I’m dying,” I thought. “This is the end. This is where I’m going to die.” I ran outside and watched a funeral procession pass the school (ironic, yes?). After calming down, I called my mom and she immediately knew that I’d had a panic attack. I went to my GP and while she was helpful, ordering a battery of tests to check my heart, I was left in my own head again.
Fast forward to 4th year university. By the time Christmas rolled around I was a mess. My anxiety had hit a new high (low?). I began keeping a list of symptoms to bring to my doctor. I was determined to find some relief. I was short of breath. I had skin that jumped all the time (similar to eye lids jumping. I was constantly tired. I couldn’t get out of my own way. I had gas from taking in so much air. I was dizzy.
I was lost. I was sick.
I made the appointment. Brought the list (mostly because I was too nervous to speak to her openly) and made my case. She concluded that, yes, I did have anxiety. Generalized Anxiety Disorder to be exact. We talked about medication as a treatment. But she also recommended talk therapy. I was able to get in touch with a Social worker through the University and had about 6 sessions of therapy. She used cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help me learn techniques to calm myself, get out of my own head and reduce the inner dialogue.
Medication and CBT worked wonders. Within a couple of months I had more energy, was able to actively engage in conversations and was able to enjoy the little things.
But it was still hard to say “yes.” Going out drinking and parting? Nope. What about going out with friends and letting them drive? No way- how could I get out if I needed to? Maybe seeing a longish movie? No way- panic attacks are too likely in the dark theatre.
If I couldn’t be in control of the situation, I couldn’t say yes.
And frankly, after 3 years of medication (and one upped dose) I still can’t always say yes. It’s still hard to roll out of bed some mornings. They are few and far between, but they still happen. I still have days where I feel like I can’t catch my breath and there are still days when I panic in the confines of the shower stall. I worry about things, I think about things way TOO much and I thrive in a routined (read: boring) environment. I still worry that I might be having a heart attack (if only I had a dollar for every time I thought that), or if that pain in my leg is a blood clot. But I’m able to clearly think about why my brain is jumping to that conclusion. I don’t want to say no, but the struggle of putting on clothes and going out and being happy, chatty and friendly is hard sometimes. Sometimes it’s hard to be around more than one other person.
I’ve tried to explain what exactly this medication does to me, but it’s not that simple. It doesn’t get rid of the anxiety, I still have times when I think I’m having a heart attack, but it does allow me to have a clear mind; an opportunity to logically think through my anxieties and decide if they are worth a real panic.
I’m writing this post as an open letter to all the friends and family who’ve heard me say “no.” I am grateful for each and every person in my life and while I may not always be able to prove that to you, support you in person or be by your side, please know that you are always in my thoughts and in my heart.