Why don’t we talk about the mental health issues that affect us?
This is the one I don’t talk about.
I had always thought that invisibility would be the best super power. That was until I was afflicted with an invisible injury, and another one, and then another one. With so many unseen illnesses and afflictions out there, odds are good you are either a sufferer or know someone who is. Odds are also good that those who suffer also suffer from more than one like I do. All three have a profound impact on my life and have since they first made an appearance. I understand each of them as much as a layperson should be able to though that wasn’t always the case.
Certainly these obstructions to “normality” were not foreign for long. The learning curve was tackled without too many issues, probably out of necessity, and likely assisted by several medical professionals—and a dash of Google.
Why then, have I always found it so difficult to talk about one of them? They all have quite a bit in common, most notably the impact on my ability to function in a day-to-day setting. Only one was preventable, but even that’s a stretch. I can drone on and on about two of them and have been able to since I was first diagnosed, but the one that I’ve been managing for the longest, the one that really got inside my head, as it were, I still hesitate to mention. A few times a year I’ll tweet something about it or admit on Facebook that I was [am] a long-time sufferer, but I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had an open and honest dialog on the topic.
I never talk about it.
I had my first panic attack at the age of eighteen. I was alone at the time and dismissed it as something food or alcohol related; a bad burrito or too much Jose Cuervo. The second one came just before my nineteenth birthday. I was at the movies with my girlfriend—Groundhog Day—and had come from a nice dinner out.
With about 20 minutes left in the film, it hit me, hard.
Forced to leave the theatre my girlfriend wanted to know what was wrong. “I’m just feeling kind of sick,” was the only explanation I was willing to offer. To this day, I haven’t seen the end of the movie. Even though I have a good handle on my triggers and am in control of my anxiety, I am afraid that the simple memory of it will trigger an attack; which is a shame, because I really like Bill Murray.
After a trip to the doctor to find out what the hell was happening, I had a little more information but not enough to fully understand what was going on. He told me I had had a panic attack. There was no discussion on anxiety or triggers or any other underlying symptoms. It was basically, “Here are some exercises you can do to help you work through it [breathing (i.e. meditation), and progressive muscle relaxation]. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” To his credit, the exercises helped, but it took a long time – more than a decade – for me to be in control enough that I can quash an attack before it takes over.
Still, I never talked about it.
My wife knew to just leave me alone when an attack came on—there was not much she could do anyway—but she still offered to get me water, pillows, anything I might have needed to make me more comfortable, which was, and still is, a pretty short list. When panic took over I couldn’t be touched or comforted without it getting worse. I needed to remove all my clothes and somehow stay warm. I couldn’t eat or drink anything. I had to assume the fetal position, head above my chest to keep nausea at bay, focus on something innocuous in the room, breathe, and take my pulse. When I was able to move again I’d take a Gravol or Dramamine to help me get to sleep and wake up a few hours later feeling like I’d drank myself silly and gotten into a bar fight.
I wouldn’t wish a panic attack on my worst enemy. For me, it ranks higher than a migraine or back pain in terms of its ability to incapacitate. It took years and years, and a whole host of tests and medications before a doctor would put me on Paxil for my anxiety. When I moved and found a new doctor she upped my dose after I had a particularly bad episode. While it kept the attacks a bay, most of the time, but it wasn’t without its side effects. I was once a bean pole, long and skinny, but the drug saw to it I packed on more than forty pounds.
And yet, I never talked about it.
Another move, another doctor, and several more panic attacks later, I was still medicated. I met someone else on Paxil and we shared a few conversations about what it was like to be on the drug. Neither of us were particularly thrilled with it but weren’t sure we had any other choice. Then we moved, again, this time with two small children in tow, which brought us to yet another doctor. This guy was a real asshole. Forget for a minute that I always felt the need to apologize because he was French and was forced to speak English to me, his bedside manner sucked. He also wasn’t a fan of prescribing drugs. This in of itself was a good thing, but he had a condition for bringing me on as a patient: stop taking Paxil.
Okay… that came with some pretty big caveats as well. For starters, he informed me that one simply does not stop taking Paxil. You have to wean yourself off it, slowly, over weeks and sometimes even months. He set up a program that was supposed to work and told me to seek out a Paxil detox support group on the internet. The horror stories about detoxing from Paxil are too disturbing to share but suffice it to say there are documented cases of a detox going so poorly that the patients became suicidal.
Fortunately for me, I was on a lower dose, and my transition off the drug went about as smoothly as it could have. It took ninety-nine days to wean myself off, with headaches galore and several panic attacks along the way. I was a right miserable ass the whole time, but part of what made it go so well was the blog I kept along the way.
I finally started talking about it – sort of. Well, not really.
I was talking about coming off the drug and all the physical and psychological challenges I was facing, but I wasn’t talking about the problem itself. The anxiety and the panic attacks were still there. Mind you, it wasn’t as prominent or debilitating as it was in years past, but it was still there, lurking. For the eight years and ten months since it’s been following me around. They say that you’re never truly cancer free and that you will always be living with it. Like the victim of physical abuse who knows that another beating is right around the corner, I sit and wait, doing what I can to keep the inevitable onslaught at bay and hoping that when it does hit that it’s not too bad.
Maybe the next time I’ll only lose three or four hours sleep instead of the whole night, even though experience tells me it won’t matter. Maybe the next time it won’t feel like I’m dying, even though experience tells me it will. The attacks are fewer now. Maybe the next time will be the last time, even though experience tells me it won’t be. I haven’t gone twelve months without a panic attack since I was seventeen. I’ll be forty-two in a few months. Maybe the next time I’ll look at my wife, my kids, my relatives, my coworkers, and my friends and say, ‘I can’t give you anything today. I’m recovering from a panic attack and I need to rest.’
Maybe it’s time I started talking about it.
Maybe it’s time we all did.
Photo: régine debatty
This originally ran on Stigma Fighters.