When I had a panic attack right before bed in mid-November 2019, I knew something had to change. Now, I’m no stranger to anxiety. It’s loomed over me for years like a dense fog, obscuring reason and making me feel panicked in a myriad of situations. But I’ve learned how to clear the fog. I take deep yoga breaths. I replace negative thoughts with positive ones. I distract myself with a game, favorite TV show, or puppy cuddles. I tell my husband I’m struggling so we can have a conversation about it.
But this anxiety attack was different for two reasons.
Reason number one: it was completely unprovoked. I was wearing fuzzy socks, book in hand, ready to climb into bed and relax. I probably had a freshly brewed mug of tea in hand. I had exactly zero reasons in that moment to panic. But my body decided it was time for either fight or flight. My heart started hammering. Adrenaline shot through me. I was suddenly massively uncomfortable. And I was really confused about it.
Reason number two: my usual coping mechanisms didn’t work. I focused on my breathing, willing my heartbeat to slow. I sat down and closed my eyes. I told my husband what was happening. And got no relief. None. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
It was as if my mind and body had gone completely rogue.
You won’t be surprised to learn that this anxiety anomaly occurred during a particularly stressful season of my life.
My husband and I bought our first house together last year, and our financial situation changed significantly (homeowners, especially those in California, you’ll feel me on this one).
Our dog, Zen, was diagnosed with cancer in his foot after a routine vet appointment, which threw our lives into a tailspin of oncology appointments, impossible decisions, and difficult conversations.
My world as I knew it shifted when my best friend called and said four unimaginable words: “I have breast cancer.”
My dad fell and as a result, required shoulder surgery.
Another dear friend was dealing with important medical tests for her mother coming back inconclusive – multiple times.
There were far too many people I loved fighting battles for their health and the health of their loved ones. (Did I mention these all happened within a month of each other?)
Cherry on top, I had my own bizarre medical condition to investigate, a vein in my armpit that decided to painfully and visibly protrude like an alien ready to pop out of my skin. This required a barrage of tests since my GP took one look and went, “I don’t know what this is.” (Spoiler alert: I’m completely fine and the condition cleared up on its own, but damn, it was weird.)
It’s safe to say stress was wound tightly around me like bubble wrap encasing something fragile. It’s also safe to say I was that something fragile.
Perhaps my right-before-bedtime panic attack was cumulative stress and anxiety. Perhaps the fog had grown so dense and cold and pervasive, I couldn’t see anymore, even if the sun was trying to shine through.
Though I was relatively calm that night everything changed—my pajama pants warm and soft, my little family surrounding me, the comfort of a story in my hand—my body was raging.
Apparently, this was my new normal.
I was really nervous to talk to my doctor. I steeled myself and promised myself I wouldn’t cry. I vowed to keep it together.
I’ve never had anything against medication for mental health. I think it’s vital. It’s life-changing for many. It’s incredible science. So many people struggle with various issues, and personal happiness, executive function, the ability to get through a day without some sort of episode is…well, everything.
But for me, there was something pretty sinister about confronting the fact that I couldn’t control this anymore, even though I tried, and it was time to ask for help. Why is it so hard for us to do that? To ask for what we need without reservation or shame or fear?
Over the phone, I told my doctor about the stressers in my life and my newfound inability to keep my anxiety from swallowing me whole. I expressed my interest in treating my anxiety medically.
I can’t articulate how validating it was to hear the genuine compassion in my doctor’s voice. She quickly made recommendations, and her immediate willingness to help me felt like a warm hug. We talked about possible side effects, how I’d start on the lowest dosage possible and adjust, as needed. My prescription would be ready later than day. She’d call me the following week to check in and see how I was feeling. And if this one didn’t work, we’d find one that did.
When I hung up, I finally felt like I could breathe again.
Fluoxetine sounds like some sort of sexy element on a distant planet, but really, it’s just Prozac. And taking it has improved my life dramatically.
Fluoxetine is an anti-depressant/anti-anxiety combo and belongs to a group of medicines called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). It gives me a daily kick of serotonin, a chemical that is known to transmit messages between nerve cells, is thought to be active in constricting smooth muscles, and (here’s the important part for me) contributes to wellbeing and happiness.
I can happily report that I don’t feel like I’ve been emotionally run over by a Mack truck anymore. I have no side effects. I feel much more like myself. I smile. I crack jokes. I take better care of myself. My executive function is vastly improved. I’m not living in the fear of unprovoked or unexplainable panic attacks.
The moment I knew the medicine was working? When I opened my mouth to sing along with the radio in my car, something I hadn’t done for months. It was this tiny, mundane, seemingly insignificant thing, but for me, it was incredibly profound. Because it was a little slice of joy.
Let’s call this a comeback.
Inevitably, someone (perhaps even a handful of people), will tell me I’m brave for telling my story. The social stigma surrounding mental health and the medications that help it, yeah, it sucks. I’m not sharing this because I have guts; I’m sharing it because, empath that I am, I want everyone to know it’s okay not to be okay. I want all of us to feel better. And I want everyone to know it’s okay to want that for yourself, too.
The fog isn’t gone entirely. To be honest, I wouldn’t want it to retreat completely, even if I had the choice. Why? I still want to feel things. Every day can’t be unicorns and rainbows, because the marrow of life is sticky and complicated and difficult at times. I’m okay with peaks and valleys as long as I know where I am, who I am, and that this life belongs to me, not some chemical imbalance or misfire in my brain.
And if the sunshine is trying to peek through the fog, you better believe I can see it now.
And it’s priceless.