Is this symptomatic of anything, or am I over-analysing myself? Panic attacks, on/off confidence and feelings, periodic alcohol abuse

Hi,

Before I begin, I'd just like to say sorry that this is so long - I'm known to be a bit verbose when I put pen to paper. Thank you in advance for anyone who takes the time to read this.

I don't really know where to start, but I think a year and a half ago would be as good a place as any. Up until then I had been in a good relationship for 5 years (since I was 18) and I had just started my final year of university - an undertaking that I had pretty much sailed through, with good results.

A year and a half ago that all changed, though. My girlfriend at the time moved away to pursue a masters degree elsewhere before the fee hike, and we found it difficult to keep our relationship afloat over long distance. Meanwhile, my mother was diagnosed with potentially deadly cancer (thankfully she came out healthy, with no traces in her body today), and all but two of my friends moved away as they had all started university 1 or 2 years before me. In short, I was alone, worried about my mother, and inundated with work. I started suffering from what I would define as quite severe panic attacks - for two months I would frequently find myself balled up on my sofa, trying to scream but often unable, literally crying like a baby, my whole body tensed up and there was nothing I could do.

If I tried to take control of myself - an undertaking which required considerable effort and time - I could just about bring myself out, but 9 times out of 10 it was only temporarily. During these two months this happened with undulating frequency - some weeks I'd have it every day, others only once or twice. Similarly, some days I would have only one, others would half-day affairs with recurring panic fits.

At the end of these two months, around Christmas (which I spent back with family, which helped) I found a new strength and when I went back to university I became obsessed with work and results. I ended up working 7 days a week, from 8 in the morning until bedtime. I felt creative, intelligent, and highly motivated, but utterly emotionally disconnected. I was still with my girlfriend, but she commented that I had grown cold, disinterested - and she was right.

Come summer I graduated, my mother was diagnosed as cancer-free, and I was under the belief that my girlfriend and I would be reunited. I had no panic attacks and generally felt extremely good about myself and life in general. As such, I put the above down to a bout of quite understandable depression, caused by the sudden influx of rather negative events in my life.

However, in August this year my girlfriend left me (which wasn't at all surprising, despite the fact that during the summer we'd communicated much better, despite her still being at university in the other end of the country). I cried for a week, then had my first drink in about 6 months (when I entered my hard-working phase, I stopped drinking caffeine and alcohol). From that first drink it was as though I'd greased my cheeks and hopped on a slide headed inevitably and unstoppably into alcoholism. I started drinking every day, usually in the early afternoon and I'd carry on until bedtime. After a while (perhaps a months, maybe a bit longer) I found myself with a craving for alcohol when I woke up, and on a few occasions I gave in and started my day with a "wee dram" (probably about 75-100 ml) of whisky before I even had breakfast.

This went on for about 3-3½ months, and you might think that those around me would have reacted. Fact is, they all thought I seemed incredibly happy, chatty, and interesting to talk to. The odd thing was that people didn't realise I was drunk, even though before seeing Anyone, I would, without fail, have at least a bottle of wine and a whisky or two within the span of perhaps an hour, sometimes two. When I revealed the extent to which I had been drinking to one of my flatmates, who is also one of my closer friends, he was shocked and commented that he'd had no idea. Being a devout non-drinker, drunk people often annoy him, yet he'd found me intellectually stimulating and very coherent. This, however, is perhaps besides the point.

When I decided to stop drinking I had virtually un-ending panic attacks for 2 weeks. My whole body craved alcohol and life felt utterly without value; everything I'd been repressing (not least the break-up) hit me with full force. For 5-6 weeks following those initial 2 I continued to have seemingly random panic attacks for no reason, and strangely found myself completely unable to feel anything for anyone. I didn't feel anything towards my ex, nor to any girl who showed interest; I felt nothing towards my friends, nothing towards my family. I felt empty, unable to love or even care, completely without empathy. In many ways this period was similar to what I experienced - and my ex had commented on - during my last term of university. Then one day I fell head over heels for another girl - my girlfriend now, in fact - and was shocked by all the emotions that showered over me. This lasted for about 3 months, when suddenly I found myself, for about 10 days, unable to feel anything again. Not towards her, not towards anyone. I no longer cared, and I think she could tell, but never said anything. Life seemed bleak, everything unimportant, I felt useless, unintelligent, and once again found the bottle (I would drink a bottle of whine and 2 litres of cider before facing the world; my girlfriend had no idea, and still doesn't), and found myself contemplating suicide during short but intense panic attacks that struck me for no particular reason.

With the exception of once again having emotions, which I realise is a phrasing that comes across as rather dramatic, I am still in this situation. I know I have a great life - I have a fantastic and beautiful new girl who loves me more than anything; I'm doing a fully-funded PhD in a subject area that I find very interesting; I have great career prospects; I have enough money to eat and drink well, as well as save away to go travelling when the mood strikes me. Yet I keep getting these anxiety attacks, these feelings of life being utter rubbish and me being a fraud. Despite graduating at the top of my year as an undergraduate, I feel like I tricked everyone, like I'm far too stupid to be doing what I'm doing. Rationally I know this not to be true, and I know that if I just went for it and worked 8 hours a day, I would do well, but the mere thought of working makes my heart race, my throat close up, I find it hart to breathe, equally, every second doing anything But work has the same effect. I know that it's common for PhD students to think that they're not good enough, to panic at the amount of work to be done, but I know that it's not an issue. I can do it, and a small part of me keeps telling me that even as I'm lying on the sofa unable to breathe properly.

In addition to my emotions being very hot/cold, so is my confidence and view of the world. I'll spend a few days thinking I'm literally the bee's knees - an unstoppable intellectual force that will reinvent my area of academia, and a social god that makes everyone in the room laugh and smile, my girlfriend as happy as can be. While I'm by no means unintelligent, the first in that list is of course not true, but when I'm in that mood I really do carry a room socially, and meeting all of my new girlfriends friends, they've all found me very fun and interesting to be around. On other days, however, I'll wake up feeling utterly useless, unintelligent, boring, unable to muster conversation with anyone. Today I woke up and found myself close to tears for absolutely no reason (it's my day off, the girl I love was next to me holding my hand in her sleep, and the sun was shining), and just now I had a short but intense panic attack caused by, well, who knows?

One final thing I want to add is that I tend to be either extremely passionate or utterly dispassionate about things. This is something my ex pointed out, and some of my closest friends have commented (worryingly) at behaviour associated with this. Once I get into something - whether it's a TV show, book, writing, exercise, love, work, beer, even life itself - I get Really into it. I can obsess over it non-stop, 24-hours a day, for up to a month. Then as quickly as I started my obsession, it will end. These obsessions tend to go in circles, so I'll commonly have one for about 2 weeks and then leave it - feel really down for a few days - and find something new or re-discover something old, and the process repeats. The moment I'm not passionately obsessed with something - anything - I feel very, very down.

Sorry this turned into such an essay. Brevity has never been my strong suit..

8 Replies

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  • it sounds like you are having great highs and debilitating lows. A visit to your G.P may help.

    I wish you well.

  • Thank you for your answer- I've booked a meeting with my GP.

  • Hope you get some answers, I applaud the way you are trying to find support keep in touch and lets us know how you go on with the G.P.

  • Don't worry about the length or your post smada, I have no idea how people managed to keep there's so short and to the point! It sounds like you could take note from being a little more self aware, if those around you are showing concerns over your highs and lows and you trust them maybe its worth looking into further? Certainly ignoring it wont make it go away or improve things, and from coming on here and sharing is a sign you wouldn't want to do that anyway. Perhaps take a mental note (or written) of your days so you can see if there are any 'triggers' for your lows that you may not be aware of at the moment. Only you and those in your life can know to what degree this is effecting you. If you think its cause for concern definitely talk to your GP about it, if its quite extreme do you think you could be bi polar at all? Im not even sure it would have to be extreme, I don't know enough about it, probably to the extent where I have no right to bring it up, which I don't, but its seems like an obvious thing to mention based on what very little I know from what you've said above. Sounds like you may have just finished uni, its a scary in the real world (I don't mean that as patronising as it sounds, apols) so you have every right to feel anxious about what comes next. Keep note of the positive thoughts from your good days and keep them with you for the bad ones. Best wishes x

  • Thank you for your answer, Sasays. I don't think I'm bipolar - as I understand it, that would be more severe? That said, I know very little about it. I like your suggestion of making a mental note of when my 'mood' changes though, and will try to keep a little logbook for a while. Again, thanks.

  • Hi

    You've had a hard time and I'm not suprised you had anxiety attacks when you had just lost the relationship with your long term girlfriend, other friends were also no longer around and there was the risk to your mum's health. It sounds as though as your life began to feel emptier of meangful relationships so you began to feel empty. The curling up in a ball anxiety attacks sound like you were feeling abandonment fear perhaps from the time when you were literally a baby. Throwing yourself into your work whilst becoming emotionally cut off will have been your way of ensuring you relied upon yourself and you needed to prove to yourself that you could do that, keep busy and don't feel.

    I think it's very significant that when your girlfriend finally ended the relationship you turned to drink, perhaps you were dependant upon the relationship with her and transferred that to the drink? Doing so would have enabled you to numb yourself from the pain of abandonment. I don't think it is beside the point that people didn't notice you were drunk - I think it is exactly the point, that perhaps they didn't really know you or see you well enough to see how you were feeling and behaving. I wonder whether there may have been something of that in your early childhood.

    For you at the moment it seems an all or nothing feeling with relationships, falling for someone and believing things will be good, or else turning away entirely and turning instead towards drink. For example you say you have a great new girlfriend who loves you more than anything but how can she love you or know you well enough to love you if the relationship is new? It sounds as though you invest everything into a relationship which does suggest you feel very dependant upon feeling loved and loving. You say you are the same as that socially in terms of being able to carry the room with you, whilst underneath being really quite unhappy. This suggests you perhaps unconsciously put on a front in order to be liked, perhaps in order to win the love you need so much.

    I would remain aware of the drinking problem and how that can easily escalate. If you feel you have an ongoing problem either with turning to drink or of wanting to then it would be worthwhile seeking help with that before it becomes unmanageable as it is much harder to treat alcoholism and the dependance it involves than someone who is turning to drink at times.

    I think you would benefit from talking with either a Uni counsellor or a psychotherapist about the feeling you have of your being a fraud. It sounds as though you feel you have so much and ought to feel good but don't which as you so rightly say suggests feelings of emptiness. Those can be helped but generally by one of the longer term therapies, your GP could refer you to the nearest psychotherapy centre of the Uni counselling service may know of a local service in the voluntary sector that can help with your combined problems of drinking and emptiness. The issues can be worked through and you already have a lot of insight and bravery in terms of saying how you are feeling and expressing the problems really clearly so you would be ready to engage in therapy I think.

    Good luck,

    Suexx

  • Hi Sue,

    Thanks for your reply! I definitely think you're on to something with my dependency on relationships. I find it very hard to be alone without anyone to share life with.. and I definitely have a great need both to love and be loved. I will definitely remain aware of my drinking- I recently found myself at the end of a 10-day drinking stint, as I mentioned in my first post, and while it wasn't as bad as previously (didn't start as early, or drink quite as much), I realised where it was heading in time to stop it.

    As I mentioned in my reply to Zoo56, I've booked meeting with my GP after reading all of your responses. I also discussed this with my girlfriend, who is very supportive and agrees that it might be a good idea.

    You've all made me feel more confident in seeking help. Thank you.

  • I loved your post actually and I think you may have some sort of situational anxiety. The fact that you get passionate about things is brilliant You have been through so much with your mum, uni and its pressures and the ex and you need to kind of check in with yourself and realise how far you have come. Chat with dr and maybe cbt might help?xx

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