The pastor of our church recently published his first book, all about his experiences with fear, anxiety and panic attacks. Reading it has brought back a flood of memories for me, so I decided to write down my own story of panic and anxiety.
I've always been an anxious person. I stayed home from Elementary school on days when we had fire drills because the sound frightened me so much. The TV show Rescue 911 absolutely terrified me and left me with a feeling of dread. But before the age of 11 I had never experienced a panic attack. And I didn't again.....until April 1, 2005.
I was about to graduate from college. I was working part-time at our Credit Union, but I had an excellent full-time job lined up to start the next month. I had just purchased a brand new car. Life was good.
Then one day at work I suddenly felt like I was going to pass out. I was standing but felt like I was swaying. I was light-headed and I was instantly consumed with the fear that I would lose consciousness. Not wanting to draw any attention to myself, I fled to my car in panic.
Eventually the physical symptoms passed but my fear remained. The idea of passing out was terrifying. What had caused me to feel that way? I found myself worrying about it, and the light-headed feeling began returning. Over the next few weeks things got worse. I was experiencing occasional light-headedness, irregular heartbeats, dizziness, and feeling as if I couldn't catch my breath. I never knew when the feeling of passing out would hit me, and I developed a phobia of standing up. By the time I started my new job in early May 2005, I was a mess.
My phobia of standing up and fainting became all-consuming. Doing anything that required standing up would bring on my anxiety, and often a full blown panic attack. Simply walking to a co-worker's cubicle to have a chat would induce panic. One day at work the room started spinning and I had to go lie down in the nursing mother's room. It got so bad that my parents had to be called to take me home. I was unable to walk, so my boss brought me a rolling chair and my parents wheeled me outside on it. To say it was humiliating is a gross understatement. My boss approached me one day soon after and let me know that missing so much work was not acceptable. He was sympathetic but unable to understand what I was dealing with. I was so embarrassed and frustrated. I felt like I was letting everyone down but my symptoms were out of my control, and there was nothing I could do to stop them.
I was in such a bad state that we made special arrangements for my college graduation ceremony. I sat in a tent behind the stage and jumped into line at just the right time so I could walk across stage and accept my diploma. Then I escaped back to the tent, unable to stand up anymore. I felt such guilt for inconveniencing everyone.
During the summer of 2005 one of my friends from college reached out to me. She began calling me every single night to pray for me. While we were on the phone she would pray that my symptoms would subside and I would have peace. I felt so blessed to have her in my life. Even though she couldn't exactly understand what I was going through, she cared enough to faithfully call me every evening that summer.
Around that same time I memorized the bible verses Philippians 4:6-7. I would repeat the words in the middle of a panic attack. "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
I began talking to my doctor, who ordered a variety of tests. Everything came back normal. I did blood work, urine tests, hearing checks, vision checks. I remember one neurological test where they had to stick electrodes to my head with a sticky substance. Halfway through I started panicking and they had to rip everything off and cancel the test. I wore a heart rate monitor for 24 hours to test my heart. When the cardiologist reviewed the results she said that my heart had spiked so high at one point that she may recommend I stop driving until I could figure out the cause of my problem. They monitored my breathing and told me to just breathe normally. The more I thought about it, the harder it became to "breathe normally". The doctor told me I was hyperventilating myself and was unable to continue with the test. I even had an MRI done. Everything came back completely normal.
My doctor finally suggested that my problems may be mental rather than physical. I had suspected this all along, but it was still frustrating to hear. My constant anxiety was causing all my symptoms. But I was anxious because of my symptoms. It was a vicious cycle that I couldn't seem to break.
Trying to explain this to someone who has never experienced panic and anxiety, like Adam, was impossible. He just could not understand. He would tell me to stop worrying so much. I would tell him, IF I COULD, I WOULD!
My condition was so embarrassing to me that I didn't really share with other people what was going on. They knew I had these symptoms of passing out, but I rarely shared with people the anxiety I experienced. It was like there was a lion in the room waiting to eat me, but nobody else could see him, so they couldn't understand my fear. If I had an obvious physical handicap, like a broken leg, I wouldn't be shy to let people know. But mental illness is so different. People assume you can get better by simply changing your thoughts. Like if I just tried harder, I could somehow overcome this. But I couldn't, and it made me feel weak and embarrassed. So I kept things to myself.
I began speaking with a psychologist at Kaiser the following year. She referred me to a class for people dealing with panic and anxiety. I faithfully attended every week and did my homework. I practiced all the tips my psychologist gave me, but nothing really helped. I was now on the verge of panic at all times. Standing up in public felt impossible. Lines at the store, singing in church, standing in the elevator with co-workers......it was all torture.
My panic attacks morphed into constant anxiety, even when sitting down. I dreaded being in any situation that would be difficult to get out of. Meetings at work were torture. I just wanted to escape. Picking out my wedding cake, flowers, and venue were dreaded instead of enjoyed.
I was diagnosed with Panic Attack Disorder as well as Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
This illness was taking over my life.
My psychologist referred me to a psychiatrist, who recommended I start an antidepressant. I hated the idea of it, but I needed relief and nothing else was working. I tried a few medications but each one had its own set of side effects that affected how my body felt. This only made me more anxious, because most of my anxiety stemmed from bodily sensations.
Whenever I would feel light-headed, I would tense my body, as if to prevent myself from passing out. This constant tensing of my muscles finally caught up to me one evening. Suddenly my entire torso was in pain. As the pain intensified throughout my chest and shoulders, it hurt to even take a breath. I ended up in the ER, but they were unable to find a cause for my pain. I felt so weak. Physically, emotionally and mentally weak.
I was still dealing with the anxiety beast when my wedding day came on September 23, 2006. It was supposed to be the happiest day of my life, yet all I could think about was the possibility of passing out during the ceremony. Somehow I made it though the evening but I couldn't relax enough to enjoy myself. Many of my wedding photos were taken in a sitting position. I felt ridiculous. I couldn't even escape from my anxiety on our honeymoon in Hawaii. Our wedding had been so stressful for me that I developed nausea for the next 5 days, and felt so sick that we weren't able to get out and do much. Whenever we did, the humidity made me sweat so much that it would bring on more anxiety.
At some point in 2007 I started taking Zoloft, and not only did the side effects not bother me, but the medicine actually helped! I gradually started to feel like myself again. I was able to get through situations that involved standing without being overtaken by panic. I remember how wonderful it felt to just relax and laugh and not feel like I had a cloud of worry hanging over me. My body relaxed, my breathing regulated, and I could think clearly. I continued taking a low dosage of this medicine for the next few years. And although it caused me to gain a good amount of weight, I decided the trade off was worth it. It just felt good to feel like Stephanie. When I became pregnant in 2009, I made the decision to wean off the medicine.
I am happy to report that I have not experienced a panic attack in 10 years. I never felt the need to resume taking my medicine after giving birth. And although I no longer have a constant fear of fainting, I do have certain situations that trigger my anxiety, mostly related to my children's health.
I used to pray constantly, asking God "WHY?" Why was I consumed by panic and anxiety, while everyone around me seemed perfectly fine? While I still don't have the answer, I do have a few theories related to my personal weaknesses. And I know that God allows us to suffer and struggle in order to achieve His greater purpose. His power and strength are made known in our weakness.
2 Corinthians 12:9-11 states: "But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."