The first time it happened, I thought I was dying.
Paul and I were just relaxing after putting the kids to bed, sitting around and watching a movie together, when I felt my heartbeat stutter. That’s how it started.
“What was that?” I wondered. Unarticulated fears and the words “heart attack” flashed frighteningly across my mind, and all at once I couldn’t catch my breath.
“Paul, something’s wrong,” I gasped, and found myself suddenly swirling in the center of a storm of horrible sensations. My arms and hands went numb and cold, my heart raced as if it was trying to escape my rib cage, and I dashed to the bathroom, sure that I was going to throw up. Hovering helplessly over the toilet, I was shaking all over as wave after wave of nausea rolled over me. My chest was in the grip of a giant fist, the pressure increasing along with a choking sense of fear. Even though I felt like I couldn’t get enough air, I was hyperventilating, and the lightheadedness cast an impression of unreality over everything.
Paul was worried. He wanted to take me to the emergency room, but I thought we should call Urgent Care first. I hated to wake the kids up and drag them to the hospital for a three hour ordeal, and as scary as my symptoms were, they didn’t seem like classic heart attack symptoms. The Urgent Care doctor agreed with me. He ran down the list of signs: chest pain, fainting, shortness of breath, shaking, weakness or pain localized to one side of the body. I had some of them, but not the biggies. He advised me to get some rest and come in the next day to be checked out.
Get some rest. Not much chance of that. Instead, I lay my head on Paul’s chest, shaking, trying to take deep breaths, and clutching his shirt like a drowning swimmer clinging to the lone buoy in a dark and angry ocean. After a small eternity, sleep finally drew her curtains around my exhausted body.
I’ve already written about the medical follow up to my heart attack scare. A visit to the cardiologist and a battery of tests confirmed the good news that I was in perfect heart health. The palpitations were judged to be the result of a high caffeine intake, and I promptly cut the offending drug out of my life. The palpitations themselves didn’t return, thankfully.
What I didn’t write about at the time, partly because it was still too emotional to talk about, was all the other stuff that happened that night. The nausea, the shaking, the hyperventilating, the hot and cold flashes, and, worst of all, the disconnected feeling of terror rocketing around in my head. I looked up my symptoms at WebMD and made an appointment with my general practitioner, who confirmed my diagnosis.
“Tell me,” I begged Mark, our friend and doctor, through tears, ” Tell me how to make it never happen again.”
He didn’t guarantee that, but said that cutting my caffeine consumption and trying to manage my stress was a good start. He also gave me a small prescription for Lorazepam, a benzodiazapine that is sometimes prescribed to treat panic. He said that if I ever experienced another attack as intense as that one, I could take a half a tablet and it would take the edge off of it. He recommended that we take a wait-and-see approach to any further intervention, until we determined whether or not the dietary change would help.
And it did help. I ended up using the Lorazepam twice while my body came down from the caffeine saturation, but after a couple of weeks without caffeine, I felt completely recovered. Months passed uneventfully, and I was pretty sure my experience with panic was behind me. I wish I’d been right about that.
Unfortunately, I don’t think caffeine or stress told the whole story. This summer, the attacks started back up again. Is the cause physiological or psychological? I don’t know. I usually get them in the evening before bed or first thing in the morning. It can’t be caffeine, because I’m not drinking any, and I don’t think it’s stress; I’ve been on summer break for the past three months. Happily, I’ve never had an attack as bad as that first one, maybe because I know what they are now. And I’ve picked up some coping techniques. I pray. I focus on breathing slowly and deeply. And I talk to myself. “You’re not dying,” I tell myself. “Oh, yeah?” myself replies, “How do you know?”
Exercise seems to help, too. Mark described a panic attack as your body triggering its flight-or-fight response over and over again, flooding the system with adrenalin. Working up a sweat seems to burn off some of that extra adrenalin, so whenever I start to feel myself getting twitchy, I head for the gym or for the elliptical machine that our friends Alan and Kathy have generously loaned to us for me to use. It takes the edge off, and the firm thighs and calves are just a bonus.
I’ve also done some research (by which I mean I typed “panic attacks” into Google) and have decided to cut aspartame out of my diet. Aspartame toxicity has been linked to panic attacks, and if anyone has absorbed enough aspartame to qualify for “toxicity”, it’s me. It takes a few months to cleanse it out of your system, so I won’t know if it’s helping for a while.
Meanwhile, my little 10-pill prescription of Lorazepam is only about half gone. I usually take it as a last resort when nothing else is helping. My hope is that I’ll be able to continue to cope with the attacks on my own, or that they’ll go away altogether. However, I’m glad to know that there are medications out there that can help people whose lives are being persistently and negatively affected by panic disorder. Only time will tell if that will be me. I’d appreciate your prayers.