A decade of panic - my story

Hello and thanks for reading

As you may imagine, summing up the entirety of my experiences with anxiety and panic attacks over the last decade (or so) in a single post is a daunting task. I cannot possibly explain the effects it has had and still has on my life. However, I wanted to write something to reach out to those who are newly afflicted, those who are maybe less experienced than I, and perhaps even get input from others who may have been struggling for longer than I have. Here is my brief story.

I am a 29 year old man with a great, well-paying job in one of America's tech-driven cities. I have great parents and one sibling who has had a learning disability since an early age. I appear successful to people around me, I have worked my way through hell to get where I am, and in a way I feel very proud of what I have accomplished. Although my social circle isn't what it used to be in college, I maintain a select few close friends and many acquaintances and get along well with people. I am generally 'fit' (not overweight), I do not do drugs, I drink moderately, and I watch what I eat. I do not smoke.

All said and done, compared to most people I know as well as the general population, I am in great shape health-wise. Perhaps this is why it surprises so many people when they happen to find out that I have severe, debilitating healthy anxieties and panic issues association with them. And when I say 'severe', I mean I wake up every morning fearing I may die. There has not been a day in the last 9-10 I can recall where I didn't feel, at some point, a fear of imminent death. It has effected my work, my family life, my friends, and my romantic relationships. I have spent tens of thousands of dollars on every possible health test you can think of, I have been in and am currently doing therapy to cope with it, and have taken one SSRI to try and fix my issues. Thus far, nothing has helped me get rid of my neuroses.

It began when I was 20 years old, exactly one year after my older brother passed away from an accidental drug overdose (he was 22). It was the most traumatizing experience of my life, and I believe it is the #1 contributing factor to my developing this disorder. The first attack came during a trip to Europe with a group of close friends. We were taking a train from Germany to Switzerland and we got stuck in a remote area while security checked the train. I had discovered that our train passes were expired, and we didn't have any means to pay them before we arrived at our destination. The attack then came as a sudden inability to breath, my face became hot and sweaty, my mind stopped functioning in a rational way (I couldn't focus thoughts, I felt as though the oxygen was lacking in my blood flow to my head, and there was this intense 'unknown' feeling that I know realize is the fear of dying) and I leaped from my seat to go to the bathroom. Feeling as though something was stuck in my throat, I shoved my fingers into my mouth and attempted to puke. It was not productive, and I ended up dry heaving and drinking water to try and calm down. Some 10 minutes later, it eventually passed, and for months I didn't have another attack.

But they came back. When school began again I started to have periodic feelings of fear and apprehension of having more attacks, and low and behold they came more and more often. Eventually, my life was consumed with fear of more attacks, a strange feeling of mental disconnection from the world around me, and a complete loss of control over my own mind. I didn't know what was going on, but I knew something was wrong. I began to analyze everything around me: what if it's my heart? What if I have something congenital that killed my brother (after all, I found out later that what killed him wasn't widely considered a 'lethal' dose) that just hasn't fully manifested yet for medical tests to find? What if I have cancer, or something developing slowly that no one can catch? What if I die, suddenly, alone, and nobody can figure out what happened? To this day, I still think these thoughts every, single, day.

From age 21 to age 23, I was in a new, long term relationship that ended up being very toxic and controlling. However, this person also suffered from panic and anxiety issues and it was nice to have someone who could empathize with my pain. She didn't suffer from the health-related problems I did, but she knew what attacks felt like. For those two years, every day was the last day of my life. My brain wasn't working, I was depressed, I looked forward to nothing, and I honestly started to wonder why I should bother trying to live anymore. Had it not been for my parents and my friends, and knowing what losing me would do to them, I wonder at times if I wouldn't have hurt myself. Thank God for them.

To give you an idea of what every day felt like, this was the basic cadence of events: I wake up in the morning with a pounding heart, feeling totally un-refreshed, and in general disoriented and without focus. It is hard for me, upon waking, to gather my thoughts, shake off the tiredness, and it feels like a dream state. This lasts all day while I try to interact with people around me, sit in class, and eat lunch. As I walk through the courtyards trying to act 'normal', I catch myself checking my pulse, breathing heavily, and wanting to cry. If I do graduate, I wonder what life I could possible have worth living. It feels like it's all for nothing. Time is no longer an aspect of the day, it is only periods of pause between attacks; time doesn't really exist anymore. No longer are days and events things to be looked forward to and anticipated... they are to be feared, cancelled, and avoided at all costs. How embarrassing it is to be me.

So eventually I decided to try an SSRI, peroxitine, because I figured it couldn't get any worse. The first month was hell. Worsening symptoms, my first trip to the ER from a panic attack, and I felt like a zombie. Eventually, I noticed my anxiety fading somewhat, my panic attacks just didn't come anymore, and I started doing better in school. Sounds good, right? Well, maybe on the outside, but my brain felt like mush. I was able to get by in school, but I felt like a zombie; a stranger in my own body. I didn't care about ANYTHING anymore. You could have told me my parents died, that the world was ending, and I wouldn't have cared. It totally blunted my emotional response to EVERYTHING. I missed feeling alive.

When I stopped the SSRI after about a year of use, I felt OK for a while. However, some of the fogginess did and still does stick around. I don't think it's an actual lingering effect of the substance in a biological sense, but rather an awareness of the transient nature of our ability to stay connected to the world around us. If a drug could change how I acted so much, how much control do I really have over myself? In a way, it made things worse, because thereafter I felt totally at the mercy of my brain, and I was losing.

From that point until present day it has always been the same. I am not living in the same world as anyone else. I am in my own fearful, critical, doomed world that will crumble at any second. I am in a constant state of dreaming, nothing is real, except for the fear. It is killing me in all the ways that matter anymore. I have had over 5 heart monitors, I have been tested for any disease you can imagine, I have had dozens of blood draws for many conditions, I have had EKG's, Echos, stress echos, CT cans, MRI's, MRA's, EMG's, 8 trips to the ER and even more to urgent care, I have lost jobs, lost friendships, and all because of fear. And so far, everyone tells me I am healthy and at no unusual risk of dying.

And now, here I sit, a 29 year old man, seemingly normal, but who is so consumed with his own mortality that he cannot enjoy what he's been given in this life. I now have a new girlfriend that I love dearly, but I fear losing her every day because of my problems. I cannot drive because I get terrible vertigo and I don't want to crash my car. And my nervous ticks are starting to become obvious (i check my pulse usually every 20min because I always feel dizzy). It has progressed to the point where I don't know whether it's more depression or anxiety anymore, because even when im not actively panicking, I am depressed with my situation. My ears ring every day, I have irregular (though aparently benign) heartbeats, I struggle to breath, I feel off balance, I can't lift weights, I can't go on vacations, can't go out with friends, can't do ANYTHING without an escape plan. I am a fearful child in a 29 year olds body. I feel pathetic. How could I ever father and raise children in my state of mind? Who in the world would marry someone as unstable as me?

These are the thoughts that run my life.

Currently I am in therapy doing CBT, and sometimes it has helped. However, I fear I may need to go back on meds because it's getting to the point where I cannot function. I am desperate for help, begging for an answer, and I want everyone out there to know that if you ever feel no one has it worse than you, or that no one can understand how much pain and suffering you go through, believe when I say I KNOW.

For the time being, I am trying to live my life in a good way. So then, if I do go, then at least people will remember me as a good, generous person. Not as some basketcase who wasted his life away in fear.

25 Replies

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  • Hello,

    thanks for sharing your story. We're all unique, but then we all have a lot of things in common too with regards to anxiety. I too hated taking tablets for my anxiety. I could function, but didn't feel like "me".

    I've had anxiety throughout my life to some extent (I'm in my forties now) but worse over the last 5 years after a bullying manager at work made me really ill.

    I've done a great course of CBT recently which was a big help in understanding why I worry so much (I do health, death, my kids, my partner, you name it I worry it). I've had a really useful sheet on categorising worry and helping to try and minimise it.

    Hang in there. Get as much CBT as you can. Understand your problem. Accept that it will never completely go away but you will control it more if you understand it. You may fall off the edge occasionally, but you'll climb back up there too (metaphorically!)

    My therapist classes me as having GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder). I hadn't realised how much I worried about everything until she pointed it out to me!! Also she pointed out to me that I was great at solving problems and a coper, so even if the worst happened (which is a lot of my worry) I would COPE. And when bad things happen we do cope, so focus on your good bits as well as you weaknesses.

    Best wishes,

    Leveller.

  • Thanks for the response. My CBT has been helping in many ways, but like you I worry about many, many things in addition to just my health. Some of these things are the result of other worries, but even as a younger kid I did worry more than many other people I knew. It was never to the extent of what it is now, but it was always there.

    I think part of what causes the worry is that I hate not being in control. When I don't know what is going on, can't see the end, or feel unsure of things, I lose control of my thoughts and I can't refocus. The CBT has been great in getting me to a point where I can get through most days, but it doesn't take away the itch in the back of my mind telling me I am so out of it... unable to feel normal.

    I'm hoping with time and effort it will at least improve, if not disappear in it's worst forms.

  • I completely get you. I'm also a control freak. Like to know where I'm going, when I'm back, where the loo is ..(sorry too much info!) you know just the usual in control of everything. I don't enjoy stuff until it's over and I know I survived it (madness!).

    However, the CBT did help with addressing some of this and I'm going to pay for some more (I got the first lot free on the NHS as I live in the UK) but they only give 12 sessions. woop! If only that was all I needed to control my brain :)

    On a good day I could rule the world. On a bad day, I can hardly get out of bed. and it could literally be a day between those two extremes.

    We all learn from our bad experiences rather than our good experiences - in line with our primitive brain (i.e. "last time I went to that cave a sabre tooth tiger nearly ate me" is much more useful for you to "learn" than "there were some tasty plants in that field"). Sadly we don't seem to have evolved much from this, (or at least I don't) hence the older I get the more experiences I've had to learn bad things from. Now I just have to relearn how to rationalise them.

    Oh joy!!

  • Hello Adamantium

    I just have to say your story of your life with anxiety peaked my interest more so than anyone else on here as I know exactly how you feel. Every day more than once a day I think I'm dying and the drs just haven't found anything wrong with my heart yet. I wake up in the middle of the night trying to get comfortable in bed and my heart is pounding I wake up every morning feeling so anxious and my heart pounding and differentl times a day I will have heart palpitations chest pain tightness in my chest heaviness feeling heart racing low pulse rate and that's only a few of the symptoms I get on a daily basis I usually feel weak and nauseas everyday and also dizzy and I'm afraid to drive and haven't in a while.

    My anxiety had gotten so bad and I'm so afraid all the time to be home alone afraid something terrible is going to happen and im there with just my girl so my little girl and I are staying with my parents. I keep saying we will leave once I'm better but that doesn't seem to be happening. I feel horrible and like the worst mom because my girl can start school this year but mommy isn't well enough to be home to even register her. There's no way I can get up on time every morning and get her off to school so I've decided she will just start next September and it doesn't help that her dad is on my case he wants her in school this year but he's not the one who will be getting up with her getting her ready and taking her to school picking her up as he only sees her on weekends. He really doesn't understand what I go through on a daily basis nor I don't think he care. He has no idea what it's like to be terrified every day.

    I've had 3 EKGs 3 sets of complete bloodwork hooked up to a heart monitor in the hospital and everything checked out fine.

    My dr has tried me on cymbalta which I had a severe reaction to and ended up at the hospitl and they couldn't find anything wrong then she tried me on citalopram and it just made my symptoms worse so she had now prescribed me Efforex and lorazepam which I'm scared to death to even try them. Making an apt to see her this week and see what we can do. I'm a 32 yr old single mom and I feel as if my life has ended. I refuse to live this way. I hate feeling like I can't function. I would give anything to feel like myself once again.

  • I am so sorry to hear you are suffering, too. It's worse when there are other people who are effected, and it makes me want to curl up into a ball and just zone out... sleep indefinitely... or just stop trying altogether. But I can't... I need to work... pay the bills.. have a life.... but even when I can muster the courage to do it, it doesn't feel like i'm enjoying anything. Everything is a trial... nothing feels real or worth it... and it makes it hard to press on. The only thing that keeps me going is the HOPE that I can fix it all... or for those brief, BRIEF moments where, for one reason or another, the fear leaves me and it's like the best high you can imagine. They only happen like once every 2 weeks for me, but when they do... it's heaven.

  • Hey Adamantium

    Thanks for the reply.

    I can totally relate when you's say you just want to stop trying all together. I feel that way every single day. I feel like I don't want to die but I also don't want to live like this and I refuse to live this way so I'm wiling to try anything except for the meds I'm terrified to try the new prescription. And yes that moment when the fear does leave you it's the most fulfilling feeling in the world and I'm having one now and I feel so alive when this happens. Too bad they don't last tho :(

  • I'm happy for you :) Enjoy that moment as long as you can!

  • Is that a real smile :)

    I hope so because we all deserve to smile even through this ugly thing called anxiety

  • Donna,

    I'm so glad you are having (had) a spell of normal, it is bliss. Next time, savour it like a lingering sunrise over the ocean.

    I talk to myself a bit to try and kick my ass.

    I tell myself, "this is now, forget about later, forget about before. Let go. They'll all get by without you. The world won't come to an end if you're not around".

    Peter.

  • Oh Peter me too it was wondeful while it lasted. Felt a bit anxious before bed but listened to my relaxation tape (which doesn't always help) but I managed to have another good sleep that's 2 nights in a row. Hope I'm not jinxing it.

    Yeah I always tell myself it's ok to feel anxious and i will tell myself why im feeling this way and it's not going to hurt me. It does work sometimes.

    I haven't checked out the first link you sent me. That will be today's task lol

    Hope your well :)

    Donna

  • Hi Donna,

    Hope you're having a nice afternoon. That's what you need that anxiety robs us of often. Sleep.

    So glad to hear that you've got a couple of good nights. you gotta keep it going!

    I had a good night last night, too. Just up about an hour ago and heading off for the day now. I was so tired, I came home yesterday, thought I hit the sack soon as I get home and don't care what time I wake up, like if I hit the hay at 6pm and sleep 6 hours, I'll get up at midnight, get on here for a couple of hours then try for a couple more hours of sleep.

    Didn't actually work like that. I hung around till about 10, then couldn't keep my eyes open, feeling a bit jittery and dull in the head. Hit the hay, lights were out almost immediately and woke up around 4.20. Bit over 6 hours, wasn't too bad.

    Got my naturopath appointment this afternoon. I wonder how that will go.

    Anyway I think you asked me somewhere how old my son and daughter are. My Son is 10 and my daughter is 8 on Friday. She is certainly the shining light in my life. When I'm down, I think of her and it picks me up. My son is more of a mummy's boy, I'd like a closer relationship with him, but I don't know if that is to be.

    You get another good night of sleep, ya hear, that'll help you keep up the fight.

    Peter.

  • Hello Peter :)

    Awe good I'm glad to hear you got some sleep you really needed it.

    I am having a good afternoon actually just my allergies are super ba today but that I can deal with. My little girl is tired she's been super cuddly so that helps to take my mind off things.

    Wow 10 and 8 bet they are awesome kids as their dad seems pretty cool :)

    You will deff have to let me know how your apt goes today. Headed outside with my girl she wants to swim in her pool.

    Look forward to hearing about your apt. Remember. Relax

    Donna :)

  • I get you on that one. It is pure bliss when you are calm. No tension or pain, just soak it up guy. Live in that minute and savour every second of it.

  • Hi again adamantium,

    Thanks for your story and more insights into this crippling condition. I am certainly humbled by the way you have led your life through all your torments.

    I can't say much to you other than I think you're with a good group of caring people here. We're all in this boat together. I feel almost embarrassed to talk about my anxiety and panic attacks, real as they are, I've only been having them for about three months. Nevertheless...

    Words of a great song, "It's the soul, afraid of dying, that never learns to live"

    Something tells me you're a fighter, a good guy. You'll be around for awhile.

    I've been around longer than you and I remember the world before it all went crazy. It is crazy now and it's a tough world to live in nowadays. We have to though, the best way we can. Hang in there.

    Peter. :-/

  • A very true quote. I wish you the best of luck in everything you are going through, and perhaps the fact that I am still here today after having gone through this for so long can be of some comfort. Perhaps not in a final cure, but in the context of life going on, no matter how awful things may feel as a given moment, because we don't have the option of just giving up... not if we want to fight for our humanity. I only wish that I could be more trusting of the world and of my own body and mind... I wish I could trust my resilience and my brain to fight through, but it is truly a war within myself.

    I am also a compulsive worrier, not just in my own health, but in my relationships, in my abilities, and in my future. I try to be a strong, confident person, the kind of person everyone aspires to be, but I often fall short. But then, at times, I think to myself how much I have been humbled through my own experiences... because now at even the slightest glimpse of freedom from this agony, I truly appreciate the beauty of my life and the world around me. I do not take a single clear-minded moment for granted, whereas perhaps other not afflicted in this way pass through life taking it all for granted. Food for thought :)

  • Hi Adamantium,

    Thanks for the well wishes, I think I'll be ok. Yes, you're story is certainly reason for hope. You do have a positive outlook and a great attitude, and that is what has got you through it. You'll certainly be ok.

    I have a good reason to be hopeful too, I have a young son and daughter who need their dad. I don't mean like I think I'll be checkin out any time soon, but they need their dad with full mental faculties.

    Have a good day, ya hear....

    Peter.

  • I wanted to thank you all for sharing your experiences in such depth. I started having attacks around age 10 and had a nice break for about 15 years. They have reared their ugly heads in the past year and are more violent than I ever remembered as a child, but then I have a lot more to think about now, and I know to be afraid of dying. I also take days to recover, and once i get there i have another.

    I am currently in therapy because I am terrified to take any antidepressants for the reasons you mentioned and I feel the snowball building to the point of no return. I do have a few ativan in my back pocket for emergencies.

    Medication has its place and may be necessary in combination with the therapy, but I really hope you stick it out with your counselor for the long haul. A common trait among us with panic disorders is our need for control. If we aren't in control something is wrong, and we feel that in the core of our being. I am also as stubborn as can be as a result of demanding control, so it has been difficult to open up to allowing the changes that the therapy is requiring. I feel as though the therapy has to find a magic button to fix what is wrong in my brain without me actually having to alter who I am, but who I am is a bit of the problem and I need to change that. It involves letting go, allowing myself to lower my expectations for myself, realizing that just because I have a way of wanting things done doesn't mean that is the only way or the best way, and that most things just don't matter that much.

    What has really been striking to me is my counselor continuously reminding me that letting go of the expectations for myself and my life is a loss in a sense and I need to feel and greive for that loss. It feels like giving up in a sense, becoming a slacker in some way, but its really what's going to save me in recognizing what is important in my life. You mentioned some things that sound like you have held yourself to a high standard and strive to achieve and I wanted to let you know that for those of us predisposed to panic, we unknowingly create a downward spiral.

    I have been asking myself, so what? Frequently. When I think about my symptoms and how the doctors have found nothing, I remind myself that it is panic, and the fact that an ativan can make the symptoms go away means there is nothing wrong with my heart. It feels like the last thing I want to do when having an attack, but getting up and really moving does wonders even when so dizzy that I worry about falling over because if I fall, so what? And you won't fall, because the panic we feel is our bodies gearing up for escape. We won't fall, we aren't having heart attacks, and we aren't going to pass out. We need to use that control freak attitude we have engrained as the root of this problem and use it to control our symptoms. We are stubborn and we aren't going to give into this. As you mentioned at the end of your post, if there is something that ends up killing us, there was nothing more we could have done to prevent it and at least we didn't let the panic take our lives long before it took our bodies. We need to be free to feel each day, each moment, and live mindful of the now, not the what-if or the what could have been. Have you ever sat and watched an anthill? I don't know how to meditate, but that's about as close to zen as I will ever be.

    The reason I have ativan and not an antidepressant is a because the symptoms of anxiety come out of nowhere, our neurons are tapped and misfiring, but if you can recognize it and begin to practice your panic control rational thoughts and breathing, you can limit the attack, theoretically to about 3 minutes. That's how long the adrenaline takes to dissipate. If you get caught up in your thoughts and fear the fear you release continuous adrenaline and can make the attack last hours. Having the ativan is for the times that I let the thoughts get away from me and I want to prevent an ER visit. The more you chart and practice handling your attacks the more you will realize that they are textbook and you are physically OK and you can stop this eventually, with guidance, and by allowing yourself to greive over the losses you have had. Cry every chance you can, sounds silly and counterintuitive, but our brains need a chemical release. Also when you begin noticing and focusing on symptoms, breathe out until you empty every ounce of your lungs. Notice I said start by breathing ouuuuuttt. We shallow breathe instinctively and that causes many symptoms. Don't worry about taking air in, think about getting it all out. You can do this, we all can.

  • Hi chippy84,

    Bravo! Everything you said makes perfect sense. To a large degree, I see myself there too. I am finding through this, something I suspected. That is, I'm probably a control freak too. A perfectionist. In my work, I've never been a team player, because that means you have to delegate and share AND LET GO of control! But look where that's got me.

    It's all so clear now. I must change the way I think.

    I was thinking on the way home in the car, I sing too, (too much info!), what if I invented an "anti panic attack"? That's where you turn the panic attack around on itself, like when someone fires a laser rifle (too much Start Trek here) at you, and you hold up a mirror to reflect it back to the sender. An "anti panic attack"! Why not? So I tried it. I told the next panic attack that it can go bite itself on the shorts, "you're not gonna get me anymore, you son of a bitch"!

    That's the control freak in me taking control, in a constructive way and telling the demon which lake he can jump into. I also tell myself that the world won't end if I'm not takin care of business. They're all old enough and wise enough to take care of themselves. I think, among other things, that's where my anxiety stems from.

    I used this you tube clip before to illustrate what we should do to ourselves, to get better, to make us understand that this war is winnable.

    But I think it's often what we ACTUALLY are doing to ourselves when we have a panic attack.

    I've been a bit jittery and airy, but managing to hold off an attack. Breathing, thoughts, etc.

    Take it easy.

  • I've hit that 'rock bottom' where I didn't sleep for 6 days (except for odd 20 min naps), the point where I couldn't stand up too long through pure exhaustion or lay down because I was so painfully anxious I couldn't stay still. So sleep deprived I was hallucinating.. Anyway, there began my journey with anxiety and anxiety treatment. Over the years I've tried all sorts of meds, from fluoxetine to citalopram to diazepam to trazodone.

    The only thing that really took hold was the therapy, learning to understand you CAN control this debilitating illness. The one thing that anxiety takes away is the feeling that you have no control. I went from a girl who went travelling across Europe alone to someone who couldn't leave the house and was afraid to go to bed in fear that I was going to never sleep again. I had to quit my nursing degree, lost my job, my (rented) home and almost lost my partner in the process.

    I've never felt so helpless in my life. But I'm slowly climbing out of this. Through CBT, relaxation audios and mirtazapine I'm learning to understand only I can control this. Which can be pretty rough at first, because you ALWAYS start with the cycle of 'but what if I can't...' but what ifs will always be there and always have been, and slowly you can start training your mind to break the cycle. I'm a believer in anxiety is a habit, and like any habit it can always be broken.

  • Well done..its so hard xx

  • It's definitely the single hardest thing I've ever had to cope with but if you stick with counselling or CBT you slowly start breaking the habit, the attacks come less and less often and you might even find yourself having that moment where you realise 'hey, I don't have to live this way, I can control it.' I didn't think I could, I was suicidal at one point - trying to save up my diazepam scripts until I had a big enough stash to down with a bottle of vodka - because I thought if this is how my life will be forever so I'm going to quietly opt out. But I stuck with the therapy and my quality of life is probably 90% better right now. If you use relaxation audios (I get them off youtube or on the app store for my iphone - my favourite is jody whiteley, but you can search through hundreds) when you feel the anxiety coming you replace the habit of anxiety.. so say something triggers your anxiety - you listen to a tape and over time that trigger will lose its hold on you because your mind will start to associate it with relaxation. It takes time but it's definitely possible. Stay strong x

  • I forgot, there's a free online CBT website called moodgym. I found it tons better than face to face CBT because you can go at your own pace and it all saves so you can go back over what you've worked through. Definitely worth a look x

  • Ahh thank you so much..I'll have a look. Did you say you still take medication then? I just worry I'm going to need it for life xx

  • Yeah I'm taking mirtazapine, it's done wonders for my depression and its sedating effects help my insomnia. I've accepted I might need it for life but that's a better alternative to going back in that hole of anxiety. It's kinda like a crutch. If it improves your quality of life then it's worth taking! x

  • Yes very true..your right. Glad your feeling better x

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