This column has nothing to do with rock and or roll. It is partly inspired by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and his honesty in detailing his history of panic attacks, migraines, and depression. Panic disorder is a condition I’ve been dealing with as well. As you may have noticed, during the month of February, I Rock Cleveland went on a bit of a hiatus. I wasn’t well enough to blog. Hell, I wasn’t well enough to do much of anything except visit doctor’s offices and hospital rooms. As the worst has passed and my life has returned to something resembling normal, I feel comfortable in sharing my story. Hopefully, someone out there dealing with anxiety, panic, or depression will see these words, and realize they’re not alone. There is hope.
February should have been better. February could have been better. February was a month I’d like to forget. Thankfully, there’s not much I remember about it. I remember vague scenes like being curled up in the fetal position on the couch for hours. I remember watching the clock, counting the hours that I’ve been awake in the early morning when I should have been asleep. I remember calling my mother early one morning, begging her to stay at my apartment for a few days because the anxiety was getting worse, and the panic attacks were getting more frequent. I remember shaking uncontrollably, popping another pill, then worrying whether I was taking too many pills, and fearing I’d end up like Heath Ledger from the growing number of medications working their way through my system, and finally not shaking so much for an hour or two. The scenes I remember are the things I’d much rather forget.
During the past six years I’ve had to learn to live with general anxiety disorder and panic disorder. These conditions run deep in my family. My grandmother went through many of the same things I experienced this past month, some 45 or 50 years ago. While, it hasn’t been a constant battle, it hasn’t been easy, either. I’d go one year on medications. One year off. One year with medications and therapy and the next two years I’d be fine. Then, this past February, the anxiety came roaring back. I’d been sick for much of January, first the flu for two and a half weeks, then a variety of GI issues. Never a hypochondriac, I found myself worrying about every little tick or twitch in my body. In order to alleviate my fears, I started making a list of everything I shouldn’t worry about. It started with panic attacks and how they’ve never killed me before, and soon grew to three or four pages long and included such illogical fears like worrying about worrying because I was worrying so much and the more I worried the more I feared the condition I knew couldn’t kill me, might just do that. Eventually, my anti-anxiety list wasn’t enough to keep my anxiety at bay. I ended the month of January with a massive panic attack work. Perhaps, the worst I ever experienced. I remember screaming “I’m not Ok” and “Call an ambulance,” and I remember being dizzy and confused and hyperventilating, and the ambulance seemingly taking forever to get to the office, although it couldn’t have been more than five minutes, then a few hours later, being discharged from the hospital with a diagnosis of dehydration.
While my official diagnosis may not have read “Panic Attack” I knew what happened. I’d been through all of this before. After my first panic attack nearly six years ago I went through a series of tests including an MRI to examine my head, and numerous tests to examine my heart. When they all came back clear, we were left with anxiety and panic attacks. Since I knew what I was up against this time, I really believed that this bout would be a short one. I called my doctor and made an appointment for Monday, I called the therapy center and made an appointment for Tuesday, I’d be back to my old self in two weeks.
Strange how things don’t always work out as planned. When I saw my doctor that Monday I was in denial over how bad my anxiety had been during the past month. I chose not to go back on the anti-depressant that had helped me in the past, and instead got a prescription for a medication to take during the times when things got bad. The following day, when I was at the therapy center, it was suggested I make an appointment with their psychiatrist. I declined. I was going cope this time around with as few drugs as possible. Little did I know that things would get bad, worse, and even worse than that. Within two weeks, my insomnia had gotten so bad that I wasn’t sleeping more than three or four hours a night. I found one pill in the evening could get me to sleep for an hour or two, and then when I was wide-eyed awake again at four or five A.M., another half a tab could get me another hour. When I finally woke in the morning, I’d often be shaking with anxiety. Another half a tab would calm me down.
I knew I couldn’t go on like this. I was always tired, but I couldn’t sleep. I was always anxious, and I had trouble bringing myself back down. I told myself that panic attacks, as frightening as they may be, were not deadly. Yet, when the next one came, that was no comfort. I could barely function at work. I could barely function as a man. It was time to go back to my doctor and get a prescription for the anti-depressant that had helped me in the past. Later in the week, after a cross town drive I had no business making on two hours of sleep, my therapist would provide me with a note giving me the rest of the week off from work, providing me some time to get adjusted to the new (old) drug. There was just one problem. Anti-depressants often take two to three weeks to work their way into the blood system in order to be effective. I didn’t have two weeks to wait. I needed relief as soon as possible and the pill I was taking in combination with the anti-depressant was providing less and less relief.
After one day of not leaving the couch and shaking and shivering all day, I called in reinforcements. Mom. The next week wouldn’t be easy, but at least I had support. There would many rough moments where I was wrecked with anxiety and fear, and more appointments and follow ups to other appointments, and at long last, some slight improvement. However, once it was suggested I could return to work, anxiety got the best of me once again, and I was on edge all day. I knew something had to be done, I just didn’t know what. My instincts said hospital, but without my doctor’s approval, whose voice mail was so inconveniently broken, and who didn’t have office hours the next day, I would not be able to be admitted. Yet, I tried anyway. The first time to the ER, I was sent home with two Valium and told to relax. They wouldn’t admit me unless I was suicidal, homicidal, hearing things, or seeing things. I couldn’t pass that test. The next morning, things were still hellish, so it was back to the ER with 50% more desperation than the last time. Still, I couldn’t pass the test, so I was sent home with a prescription for Ambien, and told to relax. It wasn’t until I took Ambien that evening, and had the worst drug trip of my life (legal or otherwise), and found myself in the hospital for the third time in a little more than 24 hours, that I was finally admitted.
I never imagined I’d end up in the psych ward at the local hospital, but that’s exactly where I found myself at 6 o’clock that morning. There’s not much to do there, but wait. The rooms don’t have tvs or anything with cables. The wing’s locked down. When you look around, you’ll notice a lot of depression, and a couple cases of people being way past gone. One, happened to be my roomie, let’s call him John the Ripper. Why John the Ripper? Well, all day and all night, John would rip ’em and it’d smell just like the hospital food. There was one other person who was beyond gone. She roomed across the hall from me and she would spend all hours pacing the halls, talking to herself in Spanish, sometimes she’d laugh, other times she’d be blowing kisses. At least she was happy.
My first day at the hospital was hell. My brain was still fried from the sleeping pill I had taken the night before. Instead of the recommended 8 hours of sleep, I had one, maybe two. To make matters worse, my insomnia kept me awake the whole day. And to make matters even worse than that, I needed a cigarette like I never needed one before, and my many pleas for some of that sweet nicotine gum went unanswered. When I met with the social worker, an attractive young woman whom I’d rather not have met in the psych ward, and she asked me how I was doing, I said, “I’d kill for a cigarette.” Maybe that wasn’t my best choice of words, considering my situation and my surroundings. Finally, when I saw the psychiatrist later that afternoon, and he looked at the drugs I was taking, we had a breakthrough. I had long suspected that the one was doing me more harm than good, but it helped hearing a doctor confirm my suspicions.
Things have steadily improved over the two weeks since I’ve been released from the hospital. I’m no longer on edge all day, and I haven’t had another panic attack yet. I’ve been sleeping better than I’ve slept in nearly a month, I’ve left my apartment for places other than doctor’s offices, and for the first time in nearly four weeks, I made it back into the office. I’ve even been writing again. It took a lot longer than I thought it would ever take, but I can honestly say that I’m on the highway to health. That being said, I’m under no illusion that this story is over. There may be more bad days, but at least now, I have hope. I know I’m winning this battle, and whether it’s two weeks from now, or two months from now, I will be back to the person I was before this latest round of anxiety and panic.
There are a lot of people I’d like to thank for helping me through this hard time. First my family. My mother and my brother have both spent time at my apartment while I struggled with my condition, and my grandmother has been an invaluable resource as she’s dealt with nearly everything I’ve had to endure. I don’t know what I would have done without them. I’d like to thank Chris and Harry for filling in for those days I couldn’t write. Also, I’d like to thank my friends Katie, Jeff, Jeff, Cami, Mike, Mike, Matt, Megan, and Laura and everyone else who offered their support. Next, I’d like to thank Wendy for reading my rambling, sometimes scattered emails, and recommending Brian Eno’s ambient albums — they may not rock, but they sure did the trick when I couldn’t listen to much else. And to my friends at The Grog Shop, Beachland, and Music Saves, and everywhere else we rock in this rockin’ town of ours, I’ll be seeing you soon.