Monday, November 06, 2006

Some of you asked for more, so here goes...
PRE, DURING AND
POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS

I thought the “fight or flight response” was just the normal way people felt, every day, all day long, their entire lives. The gun to the head, hurry, hurry, hurry, panic feeling was my regular mode of operation. Looking over my shoulder, obsessively, for danger, walking on eggshells, always, I don’t remember a time in my life that that wasn’t “just me”.

Motherhood only exacerbated my natural tendencies. By the time I was a mother of a toddler and an infant, the infant being high, high needs, the toddler being, well, a typical toddler, I was running on nothing but adrenaline. Knowing alcohol was a slippery slope for me, genetically, I preferred to remain in my constant state of high-anxiety, than to try to self-medicate.

Year after year of this state began taking a toll on my health. I developed “issues”, we’ll save for another post, the point was I knew I couldn’t live like this forever, but saw no alternative.

When my son was six and in school half-days everyday, my daughter in school full-time, my life began to calm down, dramatically. I didn’t know what to do with this relaxed schedule, so chose to volunteer over 1,000 hours at the kids’ school that year. Had to keep that roaring fire in my belly burning on high.

I started getting weird physical symptoms, numbing in my arms and fingers, pounding heart, ringing in my ears, actually was “seeing stars”, cartoon style. I had excruciating, frequent headaches, blurred vision, nausea, etc., etc., etc. I was a mess. The more I worried about these physical symptoms, the worse they got. I was so super aware of them, they were all I could focus on.

One wintry Sunday returning from a visit to my mom’s in Sisters, Oregon, I was driving both kids home when a snowstorm hit in the mountain pass we were trying to get through. No shoulders on the road, two whited-out lanes of narrow mountain road, out of cell phone ranger, car struggling to stay in its lane due to the road conditions, I started feeling like I was having a heart attack. My son, in the backseat, sensing my panic, turned up his needs and demands a few more notches. My daughter, sensing my panic, began asking every two seconds, “Are you OK?”
“No, I am not OK,” I thought to myself, “I am going to have a heart attack, kill us all, and God knows who else, but there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it!”

Each inch bringing us closer to safety, I began to calm down a bit. We eventually made it out of the mountains and on to a highway, where at least I knew I could pull over if I had to.

“I’ll get us to Salem, then I’ll drive to the hospital, call and have someone come get the kids,” I told myself.

Approaching Salem, only one more hour until home, I thought, “OK I’ll just keep driving, every minute closer to Portland is that much closer to safety, and that much closer to people that can help me.”

I continued this self-talk all the way to my in-laws house. They weren’t expecting me, but I knew they’d be home.

I parked in their driveway, grabbed the kids by their hands, made it up their front steps and rang their doorbell. One look at me and my mother-in-law said, “What’s wrong?”

“I’m having chest pain, “ I whispered.

“Don! Stay with the kids, I’m taking Carrie to the hospital.”

Never had I seen this woman act so surely, so quickly, so in-charge of a situation. Never had my father-in-law been left with the kids. Never was I more grateful to not be the one in control.

My mother-in-law, Doreen, drove me the couple of miles to their neighborhood hospital. We walked into Emergency, she yelled out, “She’s having chest pains!” so uncharacteristic of her to make a scene, to demand attention.

The nurses and technicians quickly attached an EKG machine, took my pulse, my blood pressure, and had me lie down. Just knowing I was in a hospital had a tremendous calming effect. My numbness, pounding, and panic all began to subside.
The EKG determined no heart attack, nothing going on there at all. The symptoms were so real, though, how could that be possible?

The kind doctor explained that my symptoms were real, but they were not caused by my heart, I’d had a panic attack.

“But I didn’t feel panicky until the symptoms came,” I tried to reason.

“That’s how panic attacks work, “ he assured.
You felt you were going to die, then you feel the panic, not the other way around.

He released me from the hospital with the caveat that I see my doctor first thing Monday morning. My mother-in-law took me to her house, had me lie down, then when I was ready to go home, she kept the kids so I could go home to a quiet house. My husband was out-of-town, I would be alone. Alone. Just the thought of being alone brought peace.

True to my word, I saw my doctor first thing Monday morning. He told me he doubted it was anything serious, but he wanted to run some tests just in case. I wore a heart monitor for 48 hours, we did blood and urine tests, that kind of thing, before concluding that indeed, “nothing” was wrong with me.

During the time between taking the tests and waiting for the results, I researched like crazy. By the time I met with my doctor again, I had myself nicely diagnosed.

“I think I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” I announced.

“Actually, I do too. How very ‘in character’ to have come up with your own diagnosis, “ he answered.

“I know! That’s what I’m saying! It is physically impossible for me to relax, to not live in a state of heightened alert and anxiety. I’m ready to face disaster every minute of the day. Always prepared for the worst!”

We talked about all that was going on at home, and actually came up with very little. For the first time ever, things were stable. Nobody was changing jobs, we weren’t moving, I wasn’t pregnant, we were on a good groove with both kids, our marriage was actually better than it had been.

He explained to me about the psyche, and how it is not able to process all the stress it endures during the time(s) of stress, that it “waits” until things are calm enough for the mind and body to deal with it. That was what was happening to me. In a way, it was the psyche’s back-handed compliment. I was strong and ready to deal with all the times I’d been perhaps too strong and ready.

My doctor started telling me my options, I interrupted to tell him, “I already know my options. I want to try meds, the SSRIs (Selective Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitors), Paxil in particular.

He agreed that was a good place to start, and it certainly was. Although he warned I may not see positive changes for four to six weeks, I swear I felt better after the first dose. By the third day I caught myself whistling. By the third week I was able to sleep again. By the sixth week I started to forget how awful I’d felt, and to revel in how well I was feeling.

Four years later I’ve declared myself a “lifer.” My state of constant anxiety claimed 39 years of my life, it isn’t going to own one more day.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love these peeks into your memoir. Good writing, great stories. T

Anonymous said...

Wow, I must be the almest person you know. I found I was totally listening to your voice. I think this might be one of your best pieces of writing to date.

Ziji Wangmo said...

Great writing- thanks for sharing. It was interesting to read what the doctor said about the panic attacks -it's so scary when your in the middle of a full blown attack I can't believe that you were able to drive a car!
I hope they are a thing of the past - OM......

Go Mama said...

Wow. That so totally bookends my piece, thank you so much for posting it. I really appreciate hearing your story and am glad you are finding peace.

Terry Whitaker said...

Effexor is my calm of choice.

Suzy said...

You are telling it like it is, sister. Panic attacks are so very real. Even when you know that's what you're having, it doesn't calm you either. Thanks for sharing these dark moments, and they are dark!
Love the Cymbalta! I'm a believer!

PsychoBabble said...

Woooohooo, good-bye to that hell. Good for you. Very nice piece, loved having you share something so personal. Has a very calming effect. A not so feeling all alone kind of thing.

Carrie Junkie said...

Love you and your courage and the FONTS!!! Oy!!

Carrie Wanna Be said...

I know it's getting tired, a broken record around and around and around...but...me too...

(I'm getting tired of me...but baby, I'll never get tired of you!!)

Jerri said...

Fabulous voice, great writing.

Claim your life, Sister. And keep on sharing it with us.

love you,
j

Prema said...

Wow, Carrie. We have to talk! I became a trauma therapist so that I could understand all the panic attacks and the years of hyper-vigilance. Whew. I'm so moved by your honesty. Great writing.