PANIC! What a panic attack feels like from the inside.
Posted Feb 20 2011 10:12pm
The hard, cold tile played cruel counterpoint to the soft heat of my cheek pressed against it. I tried to look up at my husband crouching protectively over me but I was too weak to even lift my head. Instead I shook violently and sobbed in pain as he hovered, unsure.
"Do you want to go to the E.R." he whispered over the sound of my anguish.
Clenching my teeth against another wave of nausea, I nodded. Finally. I'd been holding out for hours, hoping this attack would pass without medical intervention but here I was again laying on the bathroom floor of our austere apartment, dehydrated from hours of vomiting, diarrhea and crying; completely demoralized by the relentless pain. I wanted to die. Barring that, I just wanted answers.
My husband called my dad and my brother who arrived as quickly as they could. Between the three of them, they carried me, still convulsing, to the car. My husband rushed me into the E.R. where a triage nurse took one look at me and bumped me straight to a bed, no waiting room required. The nurse came in, inserted my I.V. and watched as the doctor gave me a powerful painkiller. My husband held my cold hand. I just tried not to vibrate off the bed. We all knew our parts well. This was my fifth E.R. visit in the last month, every one ending the same way. As they draped warm blankets over me and I faded out of consciousness I heard my husband's stricken voice What's wrong with her? Nobody knew.
We were living every newlywed's nightmare. We saw specialist after specialist as they ruled out everything from cancer to Crohn's disease to blood poisoning. If House had been around then, I would have got my own special episode for sure. The pain worsened as the attacks got closer and closer together. I never knew when one would strike but just the fear that one might be imminent was enough to set off the cycle. The only time I felt okay was after a hefty dose of opiates - usually given via suppository (that's one way to get to know your new bride!) or, worst case, in the E.R. through an I.V.
Our medical options exhausted, I sat despondently in the gastroenterologist's office as he pronounced his verdict: Irritable bowel syndrome. "What?" I screeched. "You think this is all in my head? I feel like I've swallowed glass!"
"Oh your pain is real," the doctor replied before I could knock him over the head with his own stomach-shaped paper weight. "But the cause is not biological." He went on to explain that IBS was a syndrome which meant it was a collection of symptoms and nobody really knows why they happen or what to do about it. "Basically you're having panic attacks." Projectile panic attacks I thought grimly as I left his office with a half dozen prescriptions and an order to cut out the stress in my life.
Easier said than done. I was in my final semester of grad school, working full-time as a graduate assistant and teaching freshman classes. Companies were flying me all over the country to interview for my first real job out of school. My abusive ex-boyfriend was still making unwanted appearances in my life. My baby sister had died several months prior. Oh, and I was pregnant with a fetus that had stopped growing at 7 weeks and was waiting to "miscarry naturally" despite still being pregnant 13 weeks later. (I still want to punch the stupid doctor that thought that was a good idea. He sent me on a flight to Dallas with two pills to "stop the bleeding" in case I miscarried in flight!) I talked to my advisers about dropping a class, my boss about taking some time off but in the end I did what I do best. I gutted it out. Literally.
The next few months were the worst of my life. I lost 26 pounds in three weeks. I barely slept, barely ate, and popped more pills than I am comfortable remembering even now. It ended with me giving my valedictory address with my I.V. tube still taped to my hand, having gone to commencement straight from yet another visit to the hospital. (To this day I have zero recollection of what I said. All I know is I didn't read a word of my prepared speech that had been approved previously by my committee. I'm sure they were thrilled.) I am nothing if not determined.
Yoga saved my life . This part of the story you've heard. My husband and I moved to Seattle (with me knocked out on Vicodin in the front seat of the moving van), started a new life and I finally got the space to re-learn how to breathe. (And also how not to eat buffalo chicken wings. Ever. For some reason those will trigger an IBS attack like nothing else.) My attacks subsided and I haven't had one in a decade.
Until last Wednesday night. The night before my lecture/book signing in Iowa found me yet again on a cold bathroom floor, writhing in pain. I didn't sleep a wink and had to sit in the shower, I was so shaky. But I got through the next day all right and all the events went off wonderfully and I had a really good time so by the time I got home I'd convinced myself it was a fluke. Perhaps a case of the flu. Not so. Friday night, the eve of my first television appearance for this book promo found me again in the throes of a projectile panic attack. This one was less severe - simply identifying a panic attack for what it is takes out half the problem - and I got through the TV spot just fine. But now I'm scared. Why now? Why this again? Why is it always my stomach?
Some people feel their emotions in their heads. Others express themselves through a hunch of the shoulders or a tightening in the back. Many people feel their whole lives through their hearts. But for me, everything goes through my stomach. Excitement, love, anxiety, fear, strength - you name it and I feel it in my core. Unfortunately no matter what the emotion, it all feels the same: queasy. As I first proved during the middle school State science fair - I was up for Grand Champion! - even when I'm excited and thrilled, I'm still liable to barf.
It doesn't help that my nervous system seems to be constantly set at Code Red - I was born with my skin on inside out, metaphorically speaking - so even something as innocuous as a surprise birthday party can send me through the roof. And in case you forgot, I have a diagnosed anxiety disorder. All of these factors mixed together make a one-way ticket to peristalsis purgatory.
Honestly I'm not sure what to do now. My yogic breathing didn't even touch the attack on Wednesday night. I refuse to go back on the meds. (I wouldn't even take narcotics after my children were born - if I never have another Percocet it will be too soon.) Yet I have more media appearances coming up so I need to figure this out. Mostly I'm just really disheartened - I thought I had this fixed! Just thinking about this makes me nauseated.
Any of you ever have panic attacks? Have any techniques for me to try? (Already got paper-bag breathing on my list, thanks.) What part of your body do you feel your emotions in?