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.