I wish this wasn’t true. I sat staring at my computer trying to come up with an excuse not to write this but I couldn’t think of any. I’m not looking for sympathy or praise. I am trying to help myself. I’d really like to just move on with my life and forget this is even a part of it. My life is happier and healthier than it has ever been. Still, I suffer little blips in my mental health that are very real and I’d like to attempt to shine some light on them here.
My heart began to palpitate while I was eating lunch two weeks ago. I started the day innocently like most days begin before trouble starts. I thought nothing of it because I’ve dealt with little jumps in my heartbeat all my life. A perfectly normal occurrence, not to draw concern, unless you are like me. I didn’t think much of the palpitations until they happened again as I was lying in my bed that night. This time the palpitations were harder and faster- thump thump, thump, thump, thump thump thump- and they got my attention. I figured that whatever was causing them would clear away as I slept, so I tried to forget them and went to sleep. I woke up around 2 AM and felt the same weird thumps in my chest. Then I was certain, I was dying.
The next morning I woke up feeling not great but ok. The thumps lingered in my head like fog. I pressed two fingers to the big vein in my throat and counted hoping the numbers were normal. A doctor would have said, “you’re fine, quit worrying,” but I am no doctor. The palpitations returned mid-morning. I sat at my computer trying to work and they hit like lightning out of nowhere. Thump-ty thump, thump thump, thump-ty thump. I thought about a professional golfer I knew of who had recovered from a heart transplant to still compete on the PGA Tour. I wondered what it would be like to have someone else’s organ inside you. Heart ablation is another procedure I have heard about. I hoped I didn’t need one of those, whatever that is.
Google is an enemy of people like me. Search “tight hamstrings” and you are sent careening into an abyss of amputations and odd cancer. I avoid googling symptoms as much as I can. This seemed different, however, and I searched “palpitations.” Of course most of the literature is telling you to calm down because they are normal and you are fine. I skipped all of that and went right for the “A-Fib and sudden death.”
Recently I have been drinking too much coffee. I have quit all these substances: alcohol, nicotine, sugar, carbs. I am still clinging to caffeine. A common cause of heart palpitations is caffeine. I have been drinking about five big strong cups of coffee a day. The Monday after the palpitations began I decide to see if I can remedy the heart by quitting coffee. Ugh.
In the past year, I have strengthened my body and mind considerably. I have to remember and accept, though, that there is always going to be this chemical imbalance in my brain that causes these episodes. That is easy to forget when you are feeling good.
The second day without coffee is terrible. Caffeine withdrawal is real. I’m tired and have a headache pretty much all day. The palpitation episodes continue. I am experiencing one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one at night, like clockwork. I’m getting more and more worried as the week goes on. Palpitations aren’t THIS normal. The forth day off caffeine, Thursday, I’ve had it. The thumping continues despite not drinking coffee. One night I woke up and felt the thumps and got so mad I punched my pillow. I may be on the brink of death but I’m not going to be without caffeine. I start drinking coffee again the next morning.
Friday comes and it’s been a week and nothing has gotten any better. Remember, I have no other symptoms except in my head. No shortness of breath or pain or dizziness. I’m only feeling a few weird thumps for a minute or two and then they stop. In my head they go on for hours. I am able to carry on a normal routine in spite of the thumps. This is a major step for me because before, I would have sat around and stewed in misery for weeks. Some friends are coming to town that night and we are going out to dinner. I’m not going to let something as trivial as my imminent death get in the way of our good time.
The night out with my friends is great. The thumps are in the back of my mind, they hang over my head, but I press on. I feel them once or twice but I’m able to ignore them. I’m sober so while everyone was ordering dessert cocktails, I order some coffee. Decaf isn’t in my vocabulary. Usually coffee doesn’t keep me awake and I can drink it after dinner and be fine by bedtime. The night went on way too long and it was a blast so no one cared. I was not at risk of a hangover so I didn’t mind staying out until 2 AM. When I finally got in the bed, my heart was bumping. No longer thumping, it was bumping against my rib cage. I was high from the good time and I figured I would need to decompress for a minute or two until I fell back to earth and was able to sleep. It never happened. The thought of the thumps reinvade my brain and the bumps are almost shaking the bed. 3 AM, 4 AM. I’ve got to do my reading and writing in the morning, which I’ve done for the last fifty days straight. We are supposed to go on a boat cruise around noon and I’m never going to be able to do all of this if I don’t get to sleep. Terrible thoughts enter my head all night because of the past week of thumps. My heart is racing and whatever is trying to kill me has decided to let me have one more good night with my friends and then it’s going to let me die and they are all going to say how lucky they were to have one more night with me before I died and then life would go on and my chapter would be finished.
If you have never had a panic attack in your life, I really can’t recreate what they are like for you. Panic attacks aren’t, “Oh my gosh I’m going to miss the bus!” They are, “The bus is going to squish the guts out of my forehead!” The palpitations are exactly what they are. Nothing more, nothing less. I wasn’t in any real danger except for what was created in my brain. I had been building up to this moment for a week and the panic truck finally hit me that Friday night. I wasn’t dying, I was having a panic attack, although there may be little difference. I have Ativan for these very moments. I have gone to the hospital a few times because of these very moments. I take my pill and it helped get me to sleep. I think I slept for two hours. When I woke up, I realized what it all had been.
Thank goodness I only have these events about once a year. Part of the reason I quit drinking and lost the weight is because the panic came back and was happening more and more often. I thought I was cured of them because my anxiety has gone from like a 90 out of 100 to a 10 out of 100 this year. Friday night reminded me that chemical imbalances aren’t exactly “cured,” they are survived.
When you get to the next morning after a severe panic attack, you feel reborn and resurrected. You feel like you crossed over into a different dimension that is exactly the same as the one you left. I was drained of energy because I didn’t sleep and it takes a lot of strength to make it through one of these attacks. I weigh myself every day and this morning I was down three pounds from the previous day. I felt good because finally I figured out what everything was: just another panic attack caused by irrational anxiety. I didn’t do much that Saturday because all the people I was supposed to go on the boat with were hungover. I sat in my chair and finally felt alright for the first time in a week.
The thumps didn’t stop but they seemed to get better. I quit worrying about them. Sometimes I get the feeling that I need to go away for a few days and I was trying to figure out where I should go that Monday. If I left without figuring the thumps out, I would be risking another panic attack. Suffering an attack away from home is harder to deal with. Instead of going somewhere, I decided to call the doctor and make an appointment. This may seem like a mundane occurrence in your life, but somewhere along the line I learned to fear doctors and the anxiety increases the fear. It is ingrained in my subconscious. Anyway, I make the appointment for the earliest time they had, which was Wednesday morning.
The night before the doctor’s I am feeling nervous. I know that more than likely all I am having is anxiety and I will be fine. Still, the worry doesn’t go away. I thought I was dying for a week and then I realized it was just panic and by Tuesday night I was tired of it all. I was desperate for a normal day. I kept telling myself that things were going to be ok and even if they weren’t, I could deal with it. I didn’t sleep very well that night.
I have had two EKGs in the past few years. I’m 32 years old. As the nurse put the sticky pads all over my chest, I was reminded of the EKG I had two years ago. It was because of a panic attack. I felt so embarrassed. This ended up being the best doctor’s appointment I have ever had in my life. Not only was my heart fine, but it is the first time I’ve had a doctor congratulate me on the weight loss. She asked if I needed something for the anxiety and I said no because I really do have it under control. I didn’t feel that one of these attacks a year was worth trying to prevent them by taking Prozac every day. She agreed, refilled my Ativan and sent me on my way. I felt terrible that I was in a doctor’s office again talking about imagined death, but I was also relieved it was all imagined.
I understand that some people out there are dealing with serious physical problems. Real pain and struggle. I’m not trying to compare afflictions. But people dismiss panic attacks as some form of mental weakness. I believe people who suffer panic attacks are more mentally strong than “normal.” It takes a lot to survive them. Panic attacks happen in the brain; so does everything else you perceive. Therefore, panic attacks are real. What is the difference between thinking you are dying and actually dying?
For those of you who care, I feel great. Panic is something that I deal with and sometimes it is difficult, but I survive and move on. I said in the beginning that I didn’t want to write this because panic is a hard thing to admit and describe. Those of us who suffer panic attacks share a common bond because we are the only ones who know what they are like. Again, I’m not looking for sympathy. I think all I’m really looking for is understanding.
The only way to end the stigma behind mental illness is to talk about it openly. I’m lucky to live in a time when ideas are changing and you aren’t automatically branded a coward or weak because of a chemical imbalances in your brain. Although it may be flawed, I like this brain of mine. I just have to learn to live with the thumps and bumps.
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