Today I had my cranky pants on and for no real apparent reason. Sure we had a busy day, which included an unplanned visit to the Emergency Ward of the Royal Brisbane Hospital. Nothing serious and all was ok. However despite all of this, I don't believe it was totally the unplanned chaos of the day that had me snarky. I couldn't put my finger on it, but whatever it was, I was out of control. I wasn't my usual calm rational self. I felt like something else was taking me over. Invading my being. I didn't like it. One. Little. Bit.
It made me remember a time 14 years ago when something did take over my being. When I wasn't myself. When I lost control. A time where my world caved in and the person I am today did not exist.
I was married and had two small children. I worked part time, had a lovely home, fantastic friends and a good life ... on the surface. To everyone looking in I probably had a perfect life. In some ways they were right. In some ways it was ideal. In other ways, the important ways, it was not.
I can't remember exactly when my anxiety started or what triggered it. I can't remember when I started feeling different. I can, however, remember the first time it started taking over my life.
On the days I worked, we would drop the children at my mother in law's home and drive to the City. One day as we were driving I felt hot and clammy and my breathing pattern changed. My stomach started gurgling and it felt like everything inside me was melting. I needed to find a toilet immediately. This was not so easy in peak hour traffic.
I was light headed. My face was perspiring. I was about to have a major meltdown - in more ways than one. We were approaching a factory and I literally jumped out of the car (remember it was peak hour so we weren't moving too fast here). I ran to the door and rang the buzzer and begged the lady to let me use her bathroom. She did. I survived. I was lucky. My husband managed to pull over down the road a way and I made it back to the car and we went to work and believed I had forgotten about it. No big deal. These things happen. Once.
The next week, we were driving to work again. I felt strange in the car. I started paying attention to my stomach and started thinking about where I might find emergency toilets. As we approached the factory from the week before, I felt my stomach contents melting again. I felt hot and sick. I felt light headed. I didn't want the same thing to happen so I "willed" it away". We drove past the factory and it hit me again - twice as bad. My safety zone had passed. I was stuck in the car, in traffic with nowhere to go. I started hyperventilating and begging my husband to find me a toilet. In the end we remembered a good friend who lived a few minutes away and went to his place. Again I ran in and just made it. This time I was really rattled. I felt different. What was happening to me?
From that day onward, the mere thought of going in the car caused my stomach contents to melt. I would have to go to the toilet numerous times before we left home. I would then stop at almost every suburb on the way to my destination to use a public facility. This behaviour started dominating my life.
I bought some books about anxiety. They described panic attacks as something akin to a heart attack, except it wasn't your heart. The books said that you could breathe through a panic attack. You would be ok. You wouldn't die. The worst thing that could happen was you embarrassed yourself a little, but ultimately you wouldn't die. I finally found one book that described my symptoms. It said that almost never did the worst case scenario eventuate. I held on to that thought.
It helped me for the next few weeks. Until, the worst case scenario did play out. I'm not going to go into detail, but needless to say on this one occasion I didn't make it. I was on my way to work. I was not in the car. It was all kinds of awful.
I called my doctor from work and told her I needed to see her. Urgently. They squeezed me in. I had to walk there. I made a mud map of every building and toilet from my office to the surgery. It was only three blocks. I stopped three times. By the time I got there I was pale, shaky and apparently a little incoherent. I don't recall much of the appointment. She gave me a piece of paper with the word "Imodium" written on it and I vaguely remember her telling me I might need some anti depressants. I believe she also gave me something to settle me down.
My memory of the rest of that day is vague. The next morning I woke to find I had a dark cloud shrouding my entire body. I felt smothered. I couldn't stop crying. My husband was annoyed. He wanted to go into the city to buy some shoes. I wasn't making any sense. He called his parents and they came and picked him and the kids up and went shoe shopping.
I was falling apart. I felt like I couldn't escape from my thoughts. I felt like I could no longer function in society. I was so scared. I called my neighbour in tears and she came and took me up to her home, where I stayed until my family came home. I don't remember much about what I did or said.
My family came back and my husband reminded me that our close friends (2 couples) were coming for dinner. I remember crying and telling him that I couldn't deal with that. He told me I should pull myself together and stop being stupid.
Our friends came to dinner. I don't remember much of it. I think I cooked, I think they helped. I think I was sociable. I have no idea.
The next day was worse. I couldn't function. I couldn't look after the children. He called his mother. She told me to "pull myself together" and that I was being ridiculous.
Monday came. I had to take my eldest child to school. After seven attempts to leave the house I gave up. I called my mother in law. She came and took me to see her doctor. He prescribed strong antidepressants used to treat anxiety. He said I was close to a nervous breakdown. The family became a little more supportive at this point.
The medication eventually helped. The first few days were hell and I felt like I was going further over the edge, then one day I woke up and the black cloud was gone. I felt different, but better.
For the next 11 years I battled the demons of anxiety. I didn't want to remain on medication because it altered me so much. It took away my creativeness. It took away my ability to feel strong emotion. It made me numb. I was on a roller coaster of being medicated, coming off, being ok, then falling again.
My psychiartrist explained that I was not a failure for having to take medication. I always thought I was. I was made to feel like I was. She explained that my anxiety was a "medical" condition and not a "mental" problem. She used the analogies that if I had diabetes I would have to take insulin. If I was an epileptic I would need medication. If I had heart problems I would need medication. This helped, somewhat.
I eventually left my marriage. I truly believed this would ultimately rid me of my anxiety. It didn't. My anxiety had become me. I learnt to co-exist with it. I had put in place some odd behaviours that helped me cope. That stopped me being in a position where I might have a panic attack. I always drove alone (other than with the kids). I was never a passenger. I always sat near a door. I always sat on the aisle seat. I always needed a quick escape. I never went anywhere there wasn't a toilet facility. If I had to leave the house in the morning I wouldn't eat until I reached my destination. I kind of managed.
My life settled down. I met a wonderful man who loves me and allows me to be me. He gives me courage and makes me feel good about myself. I thought if I had love my anxiety would disappear. It didn't. For the first few years of our relationship my anxiety was a constant companion. I tried to manage it without medication and failed. I eventually went back on it for a few years. Again, I couldn't tolerate how it made me feel and stopped taking it. The weaning off symptoms were horrendous and that last time I swore I would never take that drug again. I was not going to fail again. That was seven years ago.
A few years ago I tried hypnotherapy and this was the turning point. I was bordering on going back down the medication path and wanted to try anything I could to prolong this. I had heard good things about hypnotherapy. I had a number of sessions as well as listening to a CD every night. For the first time in a long time I felt like I might have found the cure. It all went well until I caught a stomach bug and "almost" got caught in the car again. That one moment brought the entire house of cards down and I was there again. Face to face with my old mate anxiety.
The difference this time was I felt stronger. I was a bit anxious for a couple of days and made sure I listened to my Hypnotherapy CD more often. I started to feel better. My mind was working with me, not against me. I was able to calm down. I also started carrying Imodium tablets in my bag, along with some Valium. I had been given Valium for some dental work and noticed that within minutes of taking it the nervous, anxious feeling in my stomach had totally disappeared.
That was 3 years ago now. I still carry Imodium and Valium in my handbag. I have had to use it four times. The last time was 2 years ago. I do not take any medication for anxiety and haven't now for 5 years. I no longer have any strange rituals such as planning my journey via the route with the most toilets or not eating until I reach my destination. I still however, sit in aisle seats and near doors, but I do drive with others and I am happy to be a passenger in a car.
I don’t believe any one thing has cured me. In fact, I am not cured. I don’t believe anxiety can be “cured”. It can only be managed. For me it has been a process of learning, self acceptance, self worth, hypnosis, mind games and the ability to relax. I no longer fear my anxiety, I accept it.
Anxiety is no longer the boss of me. I feel like I am in charge of it these days. I don't doubt that it will challenge me for the leadership again, and it may win, temporarily. But I do know one thing, whilst it may win for a short time, it won't stay in power for very long. This I know for sure.