Anxiety Disorder

Even though I have already shared some of the thoughts and worries I have about my anxiety disorder, I thought that maybe it was time I delved a little deeper into the history of this panic disorder of mine.

This is a long LONG entry, but I’m going to try to tell it all, just in case someone out there can identify with even a little part of it and maybe find some hope or comfort that they are not alone.
Anxiety is frustrating. It can wear you out, affect every part of your life and can be very scary, especially when a new symptom arises and you aren’t quite sure it’s anxiety this time. (“What if this isn’t anxiety and it really is a heart attack this time??!!”)

YEAR ONE: 1999

Well, I think most of the extreme symptoms started in April or May of 1999.
I was living at home, but attending college and I remember that I was sick one week with a sore throat and fever.
Well, the day I was getting ready to go back to classes, I noticed that my legs began to feel very weak.

It started just like that.

It was almost like my legs wouldn’t work. They felt sooooo heavy. I also had a hard time closing my hands into a fist and I just felt shaky all over. I thought that it was just left over symptoms from the flu I had.
Within the next week or so it got worse and happened more frequently. I began having episodes of hyperventilation, too. They would usually last for about 15 minutes to hour or so and then the symptoms would slowly subside. I remember having to leave class a few times because my hands would go numb and I can still remember shuffling slowly to get from the car to the classroom.
Well, I went to the doctor and they began their tests. They mentioned MS, Lyme disease, Epstein Barr, but nothing showed up in the tests and my symptoms continued – off and on for a few weeks. Well, finally one day a visiting doctor came into the office after studying my chart and told me that it was probably a strep infection and that sometimes strep can affect the muscles. He gave me an antibiotic and told me that I was going to be just fine.
And, for whatever reason, I actually did feel better again. This lasted for about 10 months.

So, 10 months later the symptoms started again. I was walking through the mall at Christmastime and the leg weakness began again. It didn’t stay for as long as it did the last time and it seemed to go away as quickly as it came. (Looking back now, the holidays are a stressful time, so it makes sense that it would recur during that time. Of course, I didn’t consider “anxiety” as a cause back then, so I had no idea what was going on..)

Then another 8 months went by – all was well. I still didn’t know anything about anxiety. I still assumed it had all been caused by strep or some other weird bug or virus.

YEAR TWO: 2000

Then in August of 2000, I had all four of my wisdom teeth pulled. Over the course of the next week or so, I began to experience another problem – I felt as though I couldn’t swallow properly. It wouldn’t happen all the time, but there were suddenly times when I would swallow a glass of water and feel as though it would just get caught in my throat – like a lump in your throat when you are about to cry.
Then I would panic and start worrying about whether my muscles were starting to not work anymore. I mean, first I had weak leg muscles and then I had weak hands and now my throat wasn’t working properly – and oh my goodness – my HEART is a muscle. What if that begins to weaken and I die??? (“And I die” is a common thought during each and every panic attack.)

It would be another 10 months before I would finally come to the conclusion that the sporadic, but frightening symptoms I was experiencing were anxiety related.

YEAR THREE: 2001

By April of the next year (2001) my symptoms now included:
racing heartbeat,
vision troubles (it was like I was dizzy and sometimes had to blink a lot to focus),
muscle weakness (although I was experiencing that less frequently),
and my ever famous “fuzzy head” feeling.
“Fuzzy Head” is hard to describe, but it feels as though someone is lightly scratching the inside your head. It’s almost like the rough side of Velcro is moving around in there. It just feels weird and heavy and uncomfortable and I got that symptom a lot.
While I was still looking for causes (such as reactions to antibiotics like Levaquin or the drugs they used to anesthetize me when I got my teeth pulled), I was beginning to find that many of my symptoms were similar to those of anxiety and panic disorders. This was exactly 2 years after the major symptoms had started. Shortly after that, my doctor seemed to agree that I might be suffering from some type of panic disorder. She put me on Zoloft and taught me how to breathe.
Basically, my doctor was a fellow anxiety sufferer and she was able to control her panic attacks by doing diaphragmatic breathing.
What is that, you ask?
Well, basically it is breathing deeply, down to your diaphragm – not chest breathing.
Honestly, that worked great for my hyperventilation and to this day I have gone nearly 2 years without any hyperventilation problems.
But, I’m sorry, deep breathing just doesn’t make the muscle weakness go away or the headache or the absolute total belief that you are going to pass out any second and no one will know.
In any case, the Zoloft and the deep breathing was a good start.
The muscle weakness symptoms started to go away, but I still had trouble with the other symptoms.

What I really wanted was a way to stop those panic attacks. I was lucky in that I only experienced 8 or 9 actual full-blown panic attacks – the kind where you are sure you are going to die and you hope you make it to the hospital in time.
The rest of the time, I just felt “off” and dizzy and nauseous and afraid that any minute it might turn in a panic attack, but luckily, most times it did not.
What happened during panic attacks?
How are they different from those other symptoms?
Well, they usually started with the dizziness, some trembling – sort of like you have low blood sugar, and then
I would get this fast sinking feeling in my stomach and suddenly I would break into a cold swear and then go completely cold, which would frighten the heck out of me because dead people are cold – did that mean I was going to die??
Then the world would just seem different – almost surreal – almost like I knew…I really knew that something bad was going to happen. To me.
I remember going to the movies once. I was watching╦ťThe Majestic”. And a panic attack started while I was in the theatre. It was like my anxiety symptoms suddenly jumped up a notch. To be honest, I hadn’t been feeling well all day, but I thought I had it under control.
Well, 20 minutes into the movie, I began to feel that quick all-over cold feeling.
My mind was racing, trying to figure out how far the nearest hospital was. Should I go? Would I make it there before I died? What if I passed out? (I’ve never passed out, but that always frightens me)
So I told my friend that I was getting popcorn and I went to the ladies room and just talked to myself in the mirror while holding my hands under the warm running water of the sink.
I still remember that sooooo clearly.
It actually helped.
I don’t know how, but it did.
I told my doctor about the experience and she asked “But, did you breathe?”
Sigh.

YEAR FOUR: 2002

In February of 2002, I switched doctors. I had come to the decision that my previous doctor didn’t understand how I was feeling.
A note to anyone and everyone out there who suffers from anxiety – don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t have anxiety just because you don’t have the same symptoms they do. I think my doctor felt that since SHE got better by deep breathing, then I should have gotten better by it, too. And just because SHE didn’t feel nauseous with her anxiety, then I shouldn’t be feeling it, too.

So, the new chapter in my life started in 2002 with my new doctor. He ran every test imaginable – MRIs, CAT scans, ultrasounds, endoscopies, blood work – all of it.
The results?
Well, to the surprise of my brothers, I actually do have a brain (lol) and it is healthy. That pretty much ruled out MS.
The CAT scan said that my sinuses were clear and there was nothing strange going on up there. So the headaches weren’t caused by that tumor I was SURE I had.
How were my ultrasounds? Well, I was actually told that I have beautiful organs. (*laughs* – the technician really said that. She said the ultrasound pictures of my colon and stomach would be perfect for medical books)

So I was healthy except for that darned fuzzy head, dizziness, nausea, etc.
So, my new doctor took me off Zoloft and put me on….
Prozac.

Eek. My first reaction was a mixed one. I didn’t know much about Prozac, but I had the impression it was given mostly to people in mental health institutions. But, hey – I trusted this doctor and I was willing to give anything a try.
I do want to add that I am not a real fan of medication – I like to live with the belief that Jen (me) can heal Jen (me). It a perfect world, my body is healthy and strong enough to fight and stay healthy. Well, sometimes your body needs a little help.

YEAR FIVE: 2003

It has been about a year and half since I started treatment with this doctor and I have to say that life is much better. The thing that amazes me the most is that my headaches are gone.
I had spent the past 4 years battling weekly headaches. Now, months will go by without a single headache. THAT is something I am most grateful for. Do you know how hard it is to function with a daily headache?

How is the muscle weakness in my legs? I haven’t felt that symptom in about a year.

I still have days where I feel a little off, but aside from the day of my grandmother’s funeral earlier this year, I have not had a time in over 12 months where I felt like I was in danger of having one of those nasty panic attacks.

Since being on the Prozac, when I find myself having a day where I feel like I have a blink a lot to focus and when my head feels a little fuzzy and strange and my heart feels as thought it is going to speed up and never slow down again – well, that is when I know I need to take it easy.
I still have the symptoms, you see, but it’s not a daily thing. Sometimes a week or two will go by without anything but a little nausea.
I’ve also noticed that it seems to come in spurts sometimes. In fact, spring is the worst for me. Nearly every spring my anxiety flares up again.
I haven’t figured out why, though.

For example, this past spring (2003), another symptom began.
Shaking.
I’m not talking about a little bit of trembling like I used to experience, I am talking about Parkinson’s-like shaking. It was the weirdest and scariest thing.
That baffled my doctor for a while. He sent me for another round of blood work, but it all came back okay. Then he prescribed me some Xanax and since that seemed to take care of the shaking, we assumed that anxiety had struck again.
That is what gets me about all of this.
It’s not like I am suffering from the same symptoms all the time. It’s almost like it mutates into an entirely different disorder with entirely different symptoms. Why is it that I no longer get that muscle weakness, but now experience sever trembling when my anxiety acts up?

Actually, as I am typing this I am beginning to feel that fuzzy head and my heart is doing that palpitation thing. To me, that’s a sign that I am going to need to take a little break here. I’ve been doing too much of everything these past few days and I know that I am just asking for my anxiety to pay a visit.

Right now, though, the Prozac (with the supplement of Xanax or Ativan on the rare occasions when I feel as though a panic attack is going to start) has helped me feel the best I have felt in a long time.
At the very least I am not battling anxiety daily.

FINAL THOUGHTS

There is so much to this disorder. It is different for everyone in severity and symptoms and especially treatment. I pray for anyone who is suffering from this, but does not know what it is yet. I would be lying if I were to tell you that I am still 100% convinced that this is all anxiety and not some deadly mystery disease. That thought creeps into my mind when my symptoms start up again. There is no test that I know of to 100% verify that you suffer from anxiety.
I just try very hard to remember what it feels like when it’s really really bad and use that to compare it to the days when it’s only a little bad.

It’s hard when people don’t understand it either. They ask why you have anxiety and what is making you so nervous?
A panic disorder doesn’t always work that way.
I’ve actually had a panic attack start while watching my favorite sitcom. Most of the time, though, I can pinpoint the triggers or the string of behavior that led me to the onset of symptoms: lack of sleep, too much caffeine, illness, etc. And other times, it just appears out of nowhere. It’s a mystery.

The biggest breakthrough for me was the new doctor I went to last year. He doesn’t just tell me to breathe, he tells me to breathe while he runs some tests and refers me to experts and tries new medication and researches new treatments. He made me feel like there was hope and that I am not without some kind of solution. He is willing to accept that there is not just one magical cure for everyone, but he promises me that he will keep working on this until I feel like Jen again.
And I am feeling much more like “Jen” than I have in years.

It’s been a long few years, though. I’ve spent large potions of the past few years with my life on hold. For example, I signed up for three college courses in September 2001 and after asking for some extensions, I am finally finishing the same three courses this month.
When something is so invasive that it ends up affecting parts of your life and part of your future and when that “something” is just anxiety to most people, it can be very hard to find someone who can sympathize and understand what you are going through.

This won’t kill me, I know, but it does take control of a person’s life and make even the simplest tasks seem impossible.
Will I be feeling fine next month or the month after that? I have no idea. My symptoms come and go and they get better and worse. But, I just try very hard to not lose faith and not let it consume my thoughts or scare me like it used to.

And, with that, I would like to extend a wish to all of you.
I wish for you a little peace of mind and the assurance that you are not going crazy and you are not making a big fuss over something little, no matter what others may say. This is real and it can be really scary, but you are not alone. Don’t give up until you find something that makes life a little easier and more livable for you.

Take care and best wishes to you all.

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