Now I’m no hypochondriac but one valuable lesson I have learned is that no matter how bad you’re feeling it’s never a wise move to look up your symptoms on the internet. Slight headache? That’ll be a tumour then. Stomach ache? Cancer. Bleeding profusely from your ears and head only attached to your body by a thin bit of gristle? Actually, ignore that last one.
I blame the wonders of Doctor Internet (but mostly myself) for my first panic attack back in October 2009. I’d been feeling fairly grotty for a couple of days – which, with hindsight, I now know was the gastroenteritis – but still went into work on the Monday. However, sitting at my desk and worrying and unable to concentrate, I decided to go to NHS direct and enter my symptoms – Lack of sensation and/or tingling in arms? Check. Tightness across the chest? Check. Clammy hands? Check. “Submit”.
Call for an ambulance, came the quick response. Seek urgent medical attention. No word of a lie.
I could hear my heart thumping in my ears and I felt faint. I felt like I’d just seen my own gravestone. And somebody had carved 'Always in our hearts' on it. Fuckers. I staggered to my feet and across the office and asked one of my co-workers to ring an ambulance for me. “I think I’m having a heart attack”, I muttered.
The ambulance arrived in double quick time and I was taken inside. I was shaking so much that they had trouble administering me a sedative, and my ability to relax even when sedated wasn’t assisted by the ambulance driver saying she’d put the siren on to beat the traffic and radio ahead so a medical team could deal with me as soon as I arrived at the hospital.
Now, the fact I’m still writing this a year and a half later indicates that I didn’t die. Unless the last eighteen months have been one hell of a fucked up afterlife and I’m not in on the joke. Since that day I’ve had all manner of tests – initially they were concentrating on my heart, which turned out to be fine – although opinions still differ as to whether I’m suffering from arrhythmia or not, depending on who does my ECG. My lungs were fine, as were my kidneys and pancreas. The only way they could have done any more tests than they managed would have been with a post-mortem. And I refused to sign the disclaimer for that. Eventually it was the last set of tests months later concentrating on my stomach where a camera shoved down my cakey foodhole found the remnants of gastroenteritis that had nearly gone. A tiny little healed rash where once was a nasty virulent mess.
Problem solved. Worry over.
But it wasn’t. I’d have weeks of feeling fine followed by weeks of what I can only define as anxiety attacks. The majority of time said attacks are just uncomfortable – the annoying feeling of being pressed in the armpit, a general length of strength (or general tenderness of the skin) in the legs or arms.
Over time the normal periods have lengthened and the bad ones lessened, but the last week or so has been really bad so I thought it put it into words must as to strengthen my own sanity as opposed to anything else. And hopefully to enlighten those who don’t understand the condition.
The worst thing about panic/anxiety attacks, call them what you will (I’m going to start calling them “Sinister Colin”), or at least in my case – (I don’t claim to speak for all sufferers of this, everybody has their unique experience) - is that they’re self-perpetuating.
A slight pain in the arm that might just be from a knock or from having slept on it funny becomes a full blown ache because you’re constantly thinking about it. You’re so sensitive to changes in your body because of the adrenalin that’s firing your neurons into overdrive , and the nervousness tenses your muscles. Which makes your arm ache more.Which is the one of the signs of a heart attack, right?
That pain in your chest that started just as a little bit of tightness, probably just indigestion? You can’t stop scratching it or rubbing your hands over it for reassurance which is irritating the skin and making it sensitive. Which then makes you aware of every bit of discomfort that little bit more. And chest pains? They’re the killer, right? And the pain has probably spread to your back – and that can only mean there is something wrong with your pancreas. You read the symptoms on the internet.
If I sit back and think about my symptoms for a second - which oddly enough won't appear until I do think about them, here they are in order:
- My back is aching. Not until I mentioned it here, but I can definitely feel the chair is uncomfortable against my back.
- My right wrist is sore - It feels as though somebody has been scratching at the skin. Oh hang on, somebody has. It was me, worrying about my sore wrist and rubbing at it.
- My right arm feels inflamed, like it's been sunburned.
I’m not daft. I know I had a full MOT less than a year ago and it’s hardly like my body decided to suddenly atrophy and fall to bits the second I had my last doctors appointment out of spite, but the mental signals are very, very strong and very, very scary. And no matter how reasonable and logical I try to be about it, when the signals hit I have very little control over reason and logic any more.
You’re desperate to forget about them and think about something else, because that’s the key to getting better. While your blood pressure is elevated through fear the pain will always be there, but it’s so difficult to ignore it because these are very real confusing signals your brain (which is in turn incredibly confused from the mixed messages your body is hitting it with) is firing out.
I’ve gone through most of my life with a perfectly clean bill of health with very few visits to the doctors needed, but it seems that I’m become a semi-permanent fixture in my local surgery. Admittedly most of my visits had been for their (eventually successful) attempts to track down what was actually wrong with me, but my last one last week was simply, I feel, for reassurance. That I’m not going mad, that I’m not seriously ill.
Funny – I’d intended to write this as a guide for coping with anxiety but the more I write, the more I realise how badly equipped I am to do that. I’m not coping with it. I’m living with it, and it’s an unwelcome and evil house guest. At times it’s completely overtaking my life and threatening to overwhelm me, and I know it’s stupid and I’m worrying my life away over absolutely nothing but when you’re woken up by pain at 3 a.m. and you’re left with nothing but your own thoughts in the darkness it’s a genuinely terrifying thing.
Oddly, having a bath helps me. The second I get into a hot bath the odd signals stop almost instantly. Same with sitting on the toilet. Odd, but there you are. I've never been as clean, on the inside or outside.
So, there you are. Soul bared. Take it as a lesson in how not to cope with anxiety at best, a rant for me to vent my own frustrations at worst. I’ll be the first to admit I coped very badly when my wife was first diagnosed with depression a while back – I was the first to say “Pull yourself together” because I just didn’t understand it. And now I realise how harmful, naïve,cruel and futile a thing that is to say. You can’t just pull yourself together. The brain is a stupidly complex and ridiculous thing, and I struggle to convince it that we’re not dying. You'd think it would be back me up every now and then - we're in this together for the long haul, after all.