The first time it happened I was getting a haircut. Nothing new, nothing special. I’ve had zillions of haircuts in my life. But this time, while the hairdresser snipped at my locks, I felt a strange tingle run up my body. I couldn’t say where it came from, but it certainly wasn’t pleasant. Heat flushed my face and the inside of my body twitched. I had to take deep breaths and concentrate on the fact that the haircut was almost over and I would be out of the chair soon. It was a long fifteen minutes.
The second time it happened, I was in line at the grocery store, loaded up with a heavy basket of goods. While I waited, I felt the same uncomfortable tingle and alarming rush of heat as before. But this time my fight or flight reflex kicked in. Leaving my groceries behind, I rushed out of the store as if I was being chased. Once outside, I felt better and I drove home calmly.
Now, many people would have been hyper-aware of these incidents – alarmed, or at least concerned. Not me. I brushed them aside. As a teacher, at any given moment I have dozens of other things to concern myself with. Distractions are available in plenty. So, though I didn’t exactly forget these incidents, neither did I dwell on them. I didn’t regard them as anything frightful or important.
So, when weeks later I began having stomach problems, I never made a connection. I simply drank more tea than I usually did – (switching from Earl Grey to lemon chamomile) – bought Gravel and altered my breakfast patterns. I assumed I had a minor bug or age was changing my stomach’s sensitivity. (I was almost 26 – gasp!)
But none of these remedies worked. My stomach was constantly in knots. I went to work each day wondering if I would last until four o’clock. And that was a complicated worry for a second-year teacher working her first full time job. I needed to be with my students, and I needed to be healthy. I needed my principal to see I was doing a good job and I needed a monthly paycheque.
The problem got worse. My stomach was always threatening to expel food. I felt rushes of heat and uncertainty in public situations. I lay awake at night worrying. But I didn’t tell anyone what was going on, of course. I was a strong, single, independent female and I figured either the problem would go away or I’d find a way to deal with it.
That theory lasted about a month.
I went to work one morning, had a confrontation with a fellow teacher (not for the first time) and suddenly became so dizzy that I sank to the floor. My principal had to call in a sub and I drove straight from the school to my doctor’s office.
Almost in tears, tense beyond belief, anxious about my students and my principal’s perception of my work ethic, worried about loss of pay and my continual stomach distress, I asked the receptionist for my doctor. Assuming he was booked for the day, I worried about how long I could feasibly wait. I was feeling dizzy again. When the woman at the countered explained, “Dr. Summer isn’t in today,” I lost control. I sank to the floor, crying hysterically and thrashing about. There was something tight in my chest and I tried to scratch at it, to dig it out. But it was unreachable. It was too deep. Too fast.
I was rushed to a private room immediately and a nurse appeared to tell me to calm down. Easier said than done, of course. She ordered me to breathe. I didn’t know how. She said I was having a panic attack.
What was that?!
So… yeah. I learned a lot that day. Apparently women between the ages of 20-30 are quite prone to develop anxiety disorders. I was assured I wasn’t alone in my situation. But worries that were in my mind were beginning to manifest physically. Thoughts create feelings. And when I felt bad, I felt bad.
I had to do a lot of thinking. What was I worried about? I had a job. I made enough money and I was a good teacher. Sure, I worked in a small school and was a bit isolated from the larger teaching community, but that was okay. It was just that the grade three teacher was always nagging at me to try her methods because hers were the best and why couldn’t I just to thing her way? (ie. The proper way). And sure I was only 25, young enough to have a large chunk of my life ahead of me, but I was almost 26 and had never had a boyfriend and still had my virginity and why didn’t boys want to date me and what if I never got married and ended up quite lonely and…
Hmmm. That was just the tip of the iceberg, now that I actually thought about it.
I guess my body was trying to tell me that I either should have been thinking about this stuff, or I already was but trying to ignore what I really felt. Maybe I wasn’t as happy as I thought. And according to the counsellor that I decided to see (and the books she recommended I read) anxiety and depression are often two sides of the same coin.
Medication was a big issue. I did NOT want to take it. I was too proud. I didn’t need it. I may have had an anxiety disorder but I didn’t need to take medication to deal with it.
My stubbornness lasted four whole days.
I understand now that some people need medication and some people don’t. I am one of those people that need it. Breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation aren’t enough for me to deal with my problem right now. Though maybe in the future I’ll be able to live without it. I don’t know. Right now, I can’t say I really care. The medication keeps me from falling into a full-out panic attack three times daily – which is something I would prefer to avoid.
Panic attacks suck. I wouldn’t wish them on anyone, even the Grinch. It’s hard to explain what they’re like in words, because they go beyond what words can express, but imagine having a heart attack and being trapped in a cage with a man-eating tiger at the same time, while having sunstroke and an asthma attack as well and you’re just starting to get the picture. So my personal opinion is that taking a little blue pill to prevent that is just a-okay for now.
It is hard to explain to people when I’m having an anxious moment, what I’m feeling and why taking deep breaths actually does help. If you don’t have anxiety, it’s hard to imagine. If you tell them it’s caused by thoughts in your mind, the tendency is for some people to say, “If it’s all in your mind, just tell yourself you’re fine and you will be fine.”
But it isn’t that easy.