Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Sometimes a panic attack is just a panic attack ... I hope.

Today started like most of my days: Up at 4am, quick potty walk for Beckett, off fo the gym til 6:30am, back home, make lunch, feed Beckett, play with Beckett, walk Beckett, iron and laundry and dishes and commute to work by 9:15am.  I have always been a morning person.  And I love my routines. I never talk about the mental illness elephant in the room on this one - the fact is, I believe I need my routines. I cling to them as if Life were a car and my daily routine was the steering wheel not only guiding me from Point A to Point B, but guiding me there comfortably and predictably and with what I tell myself is absolute safety and security. Because, after all, if I can control my morning, I can control my world.  And nothing bad will happen.

The fact that this morning went as usual, right to the minute, made my 1:00 pm panic attack - the worst, most embarassing, most frightening one I have ever had - all the more surprising.  The truth is this:  I have anxiety disorder.  And PTSD.  The two are what I call 'linked but distinct" and I have spent a lot of time trying to live with them, knowing that kicking them to the curb isn't an option, but challenging them and recognizing them for what they are somehow disempowers them a bit.  But every now and then, I do get that abdominal twinge that tells me to leave whatever place I am in and go somewhere else.  Immediately.  And of course, I do just that, now that I have learned to put myself first in these situations, in the same way I would do whatever necessary to get insulin if I were diabetic.  In the same way I will go to any lengths to find my inhaler when I feel an asthma attack looming.  Anxiety is a medical condition, and it is one I have hidden for many years, occassionally revealing a funny little quirk about myself that makes people laugh (my obsessive WebMd googling, for example) or writing off a serious symptom as a minor character flaw (anorexia, anyone?).  I have recently started talking more about my struggles with eating, because those are visibly apparent, and I would  rather be upfont about what is really going on than to have people speculate that I have a more serious illness or, heaven forbid, take pleasure in misusing my body out of some kind of "I need to fit into a size zero" vanity situation.  But what is it about the mental piece of mental illness that scares us and embarasses us and silences us?

I am certainly not suggesting that everyone with any kind of mental health issue disclose the details - that is a personal decision and one with many considerations and a lot of self-searching involved.  But for me, there is some driving force urging me to simply, casually say "Yup, I struggle with this.  And it is what it is."  Yes, the blogosphere lends a level of comfort to this process that, say, a cup of coffee with a friend may not, though I am working my way up to that one, too. And I know this seems a strange topic for a blog that promises to look at the lighter side of life, but every now and then, it's ok to take a break. Or break a rule. Life is heavy. At the same time, I think honesty can lighten one's load sometimes - anxiety and all its associated symptoms from addiction to phobias to panic attacks to eventual physical illness is heavy.  Too heavy.  And it is an unnecessary weight added to the already painful and difficult experience of living in a world where fear and stress and constant worry are so exhausting that sometimes, many times, the promise of sleep each night is a reward for surviving another day.

So this afternoon, when I felt a strange spasm happening in my throat, when I felt that heavy feeling in my chest, when my inhaler and my deep breathing and my positive self-talk did nothing to help as my symptoms grew and seemed to take on a life of their own, I panicked about my panic - what I now believe was panic anyway - and I fled.  I grabbed my bag and staggered down the hall, down the elevator, and into the street in front of my office building.  I gasped and I heaved and I stuggled to swallow while my hands and feet grew numb and cold and my eyes went blurry.  I fell onto a bus stop bench and called an ambulance, promising myself this was panic and, as is a common panic symptom, believing I was dying.  Because nothing had happened at work.  Nothing had happened in my personal life.  Nothing had changed or triggered or set off the symptoms that I still believe will "work with me" if I keep them at bay.  Or keep them happy.  Surely, I reasoned, I was dying.

When the ambulance arrived, at the busiest intersection in Albany at the busiest time of day - think politicians, food vendors, a couple of kiddie field trips in the nearby park - I was relieved at first.   I sat on the bench while they strapped an oxygen mask to my face and a blood pressure cuff to my arm.  I let go of my body image issues while EMTs lifted my shirt and stuck electrodes to my stomach to read my heart rhythms.  I am amazed, at moments like this, that for all its awful qualities, panic is quite the antidote to pride and the quickest route to humility.  Still struggling to breathe, I climbed onto the stretcher and rode across the intersection, was stuffed into an ambulance, and
cried all the way to Albany Med while a kind EMT named Mark (Or Mike?  Matt?) told me that everything seemed to be looking good and that I was going to be ok.  "Don't worry," he assured me.  If he only knew.

At that point, my tears were coming from two places, really:  fear of what I worried was happening to me, and shame over what I suspected was actually happening to me.  Had I really just humiliated myself on the intersection of Swan and State streets, used necessary lifesaving resources that someone in an actual health crisis may have needed?  Had I walked out of my office with nothing more than an afterthought phone call ... all for this?  This illness I refuse to medicate and, until today, refused to even acknowledge to anyone other than my few closest friends and my therapist?

Yes, I had.

When I arrived at Albany Med, I was still struggling to breathe but feeling more and more like this was going to go the same way similar experiences had gone. Though worse and different than the others, it didn't seem to be a stroke ot a heart attack or some kind of major organ failure - since my heart rate and blood pressure were well within normal limits and my oxygen level was 100%.  (See, my ability to know all this proves that WebMd googling is useful on occassion.)  Still, I let the ambulance crew wheel me down the hall and take more vitals, check me in, and ask me some basic questions.  And then, just as I was in the middle of telling someone what health insurance I had, I watched the man on the stretcher in front of my shove the orderly standing over him.  "Chrissy!" the man started screaming, as he jumped off the stretcher and faced the commotion that was starting - unbeknownst to me - to erupt behind me.

And then I heard Chrissy.  She was a drooling, large black woman in a hospital gown, and she was angry.  I am pretty sure she was coming down from something, and as she screamed and threatened to kill people, to kill herself, to blow up the hospital, everyone came running. They flew past me - security guards, doctors, nurses, interns, medical students, I think even a janitor or two - jostling my bed in the process. Chrissy's boyfriend was headed toward her by now, begging the staff not to hurt her, while Chrissy continued to scream and wail and thrash and rip her hospital gown off her body.  While five staff grabbed and restrained the man, it took about ten to take Chrissy to the floor and stick a huge needle in her thigh while her boyfriend wailed and pleaded "Please don't hurt her!  She's mine!  She's mine!"  Turns out, he had tried to kill both Chrissy and himself this morning, and while his arms were laced with needle marks and razor slashes, Chrissy looked like she had been beaten and left for dead.  A few nurses asked me if I was ok, and all I could do was nod.  "I do this for a living," was all I could mumble.  And I used to.  Before I came to Albany for the safe desk job I have regretted since the day I took it.  I have seen domestic violence up close before, but never while I was stuck on a hospital bed, trapped in a locked down ER with no weapon or pepper spray to protect myself and no way to even get to my sandals, which I had kicked off so I wouldn't dirty the hospital's sheet.

It seemed to take forever to sedate both Chrissy and her boyfriend enough to get them to separate "pods," each guarded by armed security.  I was eventually wheeled back to my original place in the hall where I could listen to Chrissy "come to" every few minutes, at which point someone in charge at the desk behind me would order "5 more for Room B13."  And then all was quiet again.

As I lay there thinking about why I was here - I got angry.  At myself.  These two people were so damaged, so broken, and so beyond help, that the fact that I was there at all seeking treatment I likely didn't even need pissed me off.  I could understand the hospital staff's eye rolls and comments of "I'm so sick of this crap" and "Just send em' home and let em' duke this out."  I know I couldn't handle what they were trying to handle at that moment - in fact, I couldn't even handle a fraction of that,  one of the sad realities that sent me running for Albany seven years ago.  At the same time, I was sad.  I cried as I thought about where these two people were going to end up.  How they had ended up here.  What a good day versus a bad day was to them.  And what a luxury illness "anxiety" and "panic" must be to someone suffering the way they were obviously and painfully suffering.  I wished I could give them something.  I didn't know whether to watch and listen or pretend I was trying to give them something like privacy.

I contemplated walking out of the ER, more out of fear than guilt at that point.  But at that moment, the resident physician came over and apologized for "the drama" and said he would be with me shortly.  "No worries," I mumbled. I was the one who felt guilty.  I was the one who wanted to apologize.  But I couldn't make myself.

As I lay there for a few more minutes, realizing Chrissy must have been sedated again, I listened to a doctor talk to the woman on the stretcher in front of me - the stretcher Chrissy's boyfriend had been on before he was carted off to whatever isolation room would hold him.  Apparently, this woman in front of me had overdosed on something.  And the doctor was trying to figure out what she needed.

"Every time you do this, you come straight here," he told her.  "And I'm not sure what it is you want us to do for you."

"Well I don't know either," she whispered.

"Are you looking for help with your physical care or your mental health?" He was blunt.  Direct.

"Well, I don't know," she echoed herself.

"Are you coming here because you are looking for someone to talk to?" the doctor went on, cold but seemingly trying to identify what it was this woman was after.

"I guess I am," she finally admitted.  "My life is too hard.  And I need something.  I need someone.  I'm scared.  And as soon as I leave here and go home, everything feels bad again.  I don't want to die, I just want someone to know how much I want to die."

I didn't realize I was crying until a nurse stopped by and asked me if I was ok.  I told her I was fine, but I hurt.  I hurt for these people, these people in so much pain that they were never going to find the right band aid or antibiotic or xray to stop the bleeding or mend the break.  And I was one of them.  Not homicidal or suicidal or delusional or coming off a really rough high, but I was one of them nonetheless.  One of the misunderstood who believed that their pain was so real that others could see it, and help it, and make it stop.

As soon as the nurse walked away, I told myself that I was fine and I got up and walked out the front door.  I didn't stick around for the blood work and the xrays that would tell everyone what I pretty much already knew - I have anxiety disorder.  And a hospital ER was not the place I needed to be.  I calld a cab, got a ride to my car, and drove home to spend some time with Beckett.  My throat still feels odd, and my body still feels shaky, but all I can do is sit and wonder where Chrissy is right now.  Or where her boyfriend ended up.  Or whether the nameless woman whose face I couldn't see has overdosed again already.  Who are they and what will happen to them?  And who will care?

Well, even though I don't know them, even though I can't ever know what happens to them, I care.  I hope they find something like peace.  And compassion.  I refuse to believe that pain and illness and self-inflicted death is their fate.  It is certainly their option, but I hope - and I may even pray a little - that they find some reason to eventually get up and walk out of that hospital door because they can.  Because they have the ability to drive themselves home and get through another day and to know that they are worth that much.

Til next time
~~ Hasky


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