No one likes to admit mental health issues because mental health issues make you sound crazy and all Girl, Interrupted. I was diagnosed with Panic Disorder around the age of 19. I was always a nervous kid—or a worry-wort, if you will. But it escalated in college, and I started having really bad panic attacks. My friends told me it was all in my head, but if it was, then why did it feel like there was an elephant on my chest preventing me from breathing? Why was I shaking? Why did my face flush with that freaky cold sweat feeling and why did I pass out on several occasions? I tried to breathe, but all I could do was panic and think about not being able to breathe. I envisioned myself passing out and my ballerina roommate calling 911.
I went to the doctor, convincing him there was something wrong with my thyroid (because I obviously let the Internet diagnose me) and I wasn’t a mental case. He ran blood tests and I was fine. Great. He prescribed a low dose of Paxil and a low dose of Xanax to take when needed. I started the regime. I became one of the 40 million Americans who medicated to treat anxiety. At first, I felt crazy for swallowing the tiny yellow pill with my morning coffee, but within three weeks I no longer felt nervous. The frequent panic attacks went away—poof! I was back to living a whatever normal life is. I was back to sleeping well, eating enough and not freaking out in lectures or at bars. I no longer called my mom at 2 AM hysterically begging her to come to Philly from northern New Jersey RIGHT NOW because I was having a heart attack. (She came once. Stayed for a few days.)
When I got pregnant, my OB-GYN and doctor told me to stay on the Paxil because the benefits outweighed the risks. (Yes, I’ve seen the scary lawsuit commercials about birth defects, too.) So, I stayed on the Paxil. JD was born healthy and screaming—and peed on the nurse when he arrived in this world. As I got to know my baby, I found myself feeling extra happy, extra confident and honestly, extra willing and eager to take on the world in a more organic way. I was writing and exercising a lot and I know this played into my health. I explained this to my doc. He told me if I really wanted to go off the meds, I could, but I needed to do it slowly, so I did under his strict watch. Within four months I was pill-free (this was the fall of 2008). I was doing yoga, breathing exercises, writing, painting, eating right and taking care of my baby. Work was going great. I had freelance contracts and a book deal. All was right in the world—until it wasn’t anymore.
In the freezing, stormy winter of 2011, all sh*t hit the fan. I don’t know why. I peg it to being trapped in the condo because of blizzard after blizzard. I just remember being in my room alone watching a movie when JD was sleeping and BAM—anxiety attack. Cold Sweat. Shaky hands. Tears. Inability to breathe. I imagined myself passing out. Passing out and JD finding me limp and not moving, because I hit my head on the end table. I would be in a pool of blood when he found me. That one thought accelerated my attack and I had no emergency Xanax to make that feeling go away, but I did have friends. Friends in my building with wine. I called Kate and Liss and they both came over. They found me crying and shaking. Kate gave me a glass of wine. This may sound crazy, but my doc once told me in an emergent situation if you’re having a panic attack, a glass or two of wine or a shot of something hard will chill you out. And the wine chilled me out, but I woke up with that sinking feeling of dread the next morning. I couldn’t drink coffee because I was too amped up already. I struggled to get JD dressed, fed and off to school, because my anxiety was all-consuming. I managed. I had no other choice.
Once at the mag I spent intervals in the bathroom, crying, shaking and splashing cold water on my face. My mascara ran. I cleaned myself up. This went on for a good week before I called my doctor. I lost six pounds in that week. My hair was falling out. I couldn’t eat or sleep. All I did was worry and cry, and my mind just raced and raced, but again, I couldn’t pinpoint the problem. Fine, I’m a single mom and at times wish I wasn’t single, but everything else was really OK. My son is healthy. I have a career I love that supports my family. Still, the panic came, and it came with a vengeance. I needed help. There were nights when I made family members stay over because I was scared to be alone and evenings when I raced through reading JD story books just so I could do sit-ups to get my energy out. Not good. This was no life. No way.
I didn’t want to go back on the meds, but I wanted to be a good mom, so I did. Now I take a low dose of Paxil every morning with my coffee. I feel well and energized. I don’t care what anyone thinks of my Panic Disorder or “meds.” I’m functioning, and that’s all that matters to me. My OB-GYN said if the meds work there’s no reason not to take them. OK.
I know people don’t like to share their mental health problems, but if you want, please know this is a safe place, and I get it. Cold sweats, sinking, hopeless feeling, racing thoughts and all. So, share away!
Tips for dealing with a panic attack while caring for your child:
1. Break out the PLAY-DOH; I find creating something calms me down.
2. Go for a walk. Fresh air and exercise always helps.
3. Put on a DVD for your child, sit down and breathe. Just chill.
4. Try chamomile tea. It has a calming component and even if you think this is BS, I find the placebo aspect to really work for me.
5. Call a friend or family member if you really need help. NO SHAME!
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*Disclosure: I’m not compensated in any way to name brands in this blog.