Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Back in the days when I had an intimate and passionate relationship with drugs and alcohol, I also had panic attacks that would level me. The effects were always the same: gut-churning terror, a feeling of impending doom, dry mouth and shortness of breath, difficulty in standing up and getting from Point A to Point B. The attacks occurred anywhere and anytime--at home, at the office during staff meetings, while driving or hiking, alone or accompanied. The only time they did not strike was when I was asleep, though I distinctly remember waking up in the morning seized by a sense of impending disaster.
Panic attacks are a response of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to a perceived threat. The physical symptoms are interpreted with alarm by the body and this in turn leads to increased anxiety, and forms a positive feedback loop where the attack itself creates even greater anxiety. Attacks may be hereditary. It is possible to medicate against them, and that is what I did.
First, I was given propralonol, then Welbutrin, and eventually Paxil and Xanax. These drugs helped, but the feeling of panic remained just below the surface. In time, I became addicted to Xanax, getting prescriptions from several doctors and pharmacies, and it was not until I completely gave up anything even remotely psychoactive--that is to say all external chemical substances that affected my brain functioning--that the attacks went away.
True, I still did not like heights much, but then again, I never had. Flying became OK, though, as did a lot of other minor actions that once would panic me. I remained blissfully anxiety-free for more than a decade.
Than on Bastille Day--July 14, 2004--while I was walking on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice on France’s Côte d’Azure, an attack levelled me. I couldn’t walk, or breathe. I got dizzy; I sat down on the grass in a nearby park stayed there for an hour before being able to return to the hotel. I’d stopped taking the anti-anxiety drugs long ago, and in fact hadn’t even packed any. The attack lasted almost three days, varying in intensity.
When I got back to the States, my doctor assigned me a non-addictive anti-anxiety medicine that I started taking daily. I stopped any and all caffeine--coffee, tea, chocolate--and began exercising more. It worked. I was panic free for another decades.
Three weeks ago there was another attack. I was driving at night in a misting rain on a crowded Interstate. I couldn’t see clearly, and as other drivers sped by, I felt the fear well up. I asked a friend riding with me to start talking, which helped. Listening to words and focusing on them lessened the anxiety. I wasn’t far from home and as soon as I got to my exit, the panic subsided. It was almost gone by the time I got to my front door.
But it’s still there. It maintains a low profile, but I can feel it waiting to pounce. It’s as if once again a nasty genie has been released from the bottle and there are no free wishes. Except I wish the attacks would stop.
Amazing what your own body can do to you.