I have an anxiety disorder that I treat with medication and therapy skills. I’m to the point now where I rarely have a full-fledged anxiety attack, but when I do it is physically awful. My chest hurts. I feel dread and adrenaline coursing through my body. I have trouble breathing. I usually cry and I just want to run as far away from the source of my anxiety as possible. Anxiety is about fight or flight and the desire to take flight and avoid the perceived stressor is very real and primitive.
I mask a lot of my anxiety with wit, sarcasm, and full-frontal bitchiness. Those are maladaptive coping mechanisms that usually salvage the moment, but fall through in the long-run. Still, they are better than alcohol, drugs and nicotine – I often count my blessings I didn’t end up with those coping mechanisms. And I feel great empathy for those do.
Two weeks ago, I had an anxiety attack in a Mexican restaurant because the waiter brought the wrong dish and then proceeded to argue with me about it. When he pushed, I felt the switch flip and I said anything I could to simply get him to leave the table. Then I got up and left Laura sitting there. I went home and went to bed and woke up feeling calmer. I chalked it up to holiday stress. But seriously, this is not a fun way to live. It is a real and true disease. And it feels like a personal failing, no matter what my mind knows.
A week ago Saturday, I didn’t feel well. I had some very light chest pain and just felt off – we both though I might be coming down with either the stomach virus or the flu going around. But it passed. The next day, the pain continued here and there. I thought it was an anxiety attack so I used my tools – naps, music, breathing – but it didn’t pass. It continued. Several days later, I had spent half my nighttime hours wide awake in spite of the medication. The chest pain worsened when I was in bed, but I was so physically tired that I couldn’t get up. I slept-in later and later which made matters much worse.
Still, I was sure it was anxiety. I had no real symptoms of a flu or a virus. I was a little scared that it was so damn persistent, but didn’t allow myself to think it was anything more serious. I’m 43 and while I am obese, I have always had good labs when it comes to cholesterol and always have very good blood pressure. No reason to think cardiac at my age.
Then I saw a status update from my cousin Jill. She’s my first cousin on my mother’s side and just three years older than me. Jill had had a heart attack earlier this year at a shockingly young age and she constantly posts warning signs and reminders. She is recovering. But today it clicked – we are close in age, close in body size, share a genetic history and what the heck was I doing? It was like a slap in her face to NOT learn from her experience.
So I asked Ledcat to take me to the ER – we went to Allegheny General Hospital. There was no real sense of urgency by staff so I remained calm as I contemplated what could go wrong. The did an EKG, chest x-rays, bloodwork and some other things. I passed with flying colors – no inkling of cardiac issues, good cholesterol, good blood pressure, and picture perfect lungs. The chest pain presents no immediate threat to my wellbeing so I was given a shot for pain, a script and sent home. Mind you, 10 minutes prior they referenced keeping me overnight which caused me great alarm.
Lying in hospital gown over my sweat pants with my phone charger plugged into the wall while I wait to learn my fate is an interesting time. I was tired – I’m so tired – but clearly determined to hear the results. I was visiting all sorts of sites from WebMD to the Mayo Clinic and beyond, searching for clues. My Facebook friends shared all sorts of suggestions, information I’ll sort through and review with my PCP. My fingers were flying. Hours later, I can feel that strain in my right hand.
I’m not for bargaining with God. If I have a problem, I just plead for mercy and rely on God to handle it. But sitting in the ER, I was growing hungry. And the hours were passing, limiting what I could eat – I usually must stop eating by 8 PM and definitely nothing spicy at that point. I remembered that Laura had used a coupon to purchase Honey Nut Cheerios for me and I became fixated on them. And then I remembered Cheerios are good for your heart so I felt this urgent need to go home and take immediate action to protect my heart.
Fortunately, I was able to do that. I don’t have to eat Cheerios to fix something, but to preserve something that through the grace of God already works. I don’t have an answer to my pain, but the worst case has been ruled out.
So I ate a second bowl of Cheerios. Tomorrow, I might have oatmeal. It could be days before I can even see my doctor and gosh knows how long until there are answers, if any are available. But I can do something. I can eat Cheerios. And those of you with anxiety know that having a plan, a routine, a course of action can make a big difference in managing our anxieties. I am not afraid I will die of a heart attack. So I’m gonna tap into that and incorporate some healthy changes to strengthen my resiliency.
I’m not out of the woods. In fact, the woods is a great analogy for anxiety – we are never out of the woods, we simply learn to exist within their boundaries. I could have pleurisy or a host of other conditions. It could still be some remote condition that is causing my pain. I learned that my cousin’s heart attack was not picked up during her first visit to the hospital. Deep breath.
Anxiety is not for the faint of heart (ha!) at all. It is frightening enough to feel dread and anxiety that you know intellectually is irrational. It is exhausting to face those feelings and power through situations rather than run and hide. Top that with the fact that the anxiety feelings might be due to something else – something more menacing – and that’s a powder keg of emotions.
But while I was at AGH, they mentioned that the med evac was landing with a patient transferred from Sharon Regional Hospital. There’s an energy that fills that ER when such a situation is taking place – it is both more quiet and more intense. My nurse told me that the attending physicians were all working on a patient so she discharged me. And when we walked to the car, we saw the helicopter preparing to take off, presumably to return to its base. That’s very humbling to witness. It puts your own stuff into perspective.
And so I went home and ate my Cheerios. And made my plan. Wait, is that sort of like bargaining with God?
Heart attack symptoms for women from the American Heart Association.
Anxiety disorder symptoms from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.