You may be wondering why I haven’t been writing all that much recently, at least not the deep, well thought out works of non-fiction literature you come here to enjoy. (At least, in my imagination you’re wondering why I haven’t been writing.) I feel I owe an explanation of that, and finally I feel like I can actually talk about it.
It was Monday morning. The 20 minute drive from home to work through the crowded interstate and cluttered local roads was accompanied by the book-on-CD version of Issac Asimov’s I, Robot, instead of the usual political talking heads and local news chatter. Calm drive, really, just full of traffic. Got there around 8:30 AM.
By about 10 I had already settled down, checked my email and started on some work which I knew would eat up the better part of the week. That, of course, is what they pay me for, so no complaints there. In fact, I was still playing out some of the nuances from I, Robot in my head. At about that time, I started feeling a sharp pain in my chest. At first I thought my shirt got caught on a couple of chest hairs (yes, I have chest hair. Not much, but it’s there). I scratched it thinking it would go again, but it didn’t. Suddenly, I felt tingles going through my chest and making their way into my arms and hands, which had become numb. I started feeling dizzy and as if I was about to black out. Suddenly, my heart misfired and started speeding up:
Thump… thump… thump… KAthump… flump…………………. flump……………………. thump..thump..thump.thump.thump.thumpthumpthumpthumpthump…
I stood up. This can’t be, I thought. Was I having a heart attack? I needed to walk around.
I got out of my office and walked up and down the office building, thinking that if I just walked around a little my heart rate would calm back down. Maybe… maybe if I got some water…
I had always been able to control my heart rate to an extent. Unlike most people, I can feel my heart rate by simply concentrating on it, and with a little controlled breathing I could usually speed up or slow down my heart as needed. Not today. My hands felt cold, numb, and they were trembling wildly. My tongue felt as if it had grown in my mouth and was now trying to choke me, I felt short of breath, as if having an asthma attack, and I felt disconnected, like if everything I was seeing was part of a dream.
Something is definitely wrong, I finally admitted to myself. I didn’t want to go to the hospital, didn’t want an ambulance called, but if this really was a heart attack then I better just admit it.
It couldn’t have been a heart attack, could it? I’m too young. Sure, I’m overweight, but I’ve lost a lot of weight recently. I’d been eating healthier than I had in years, and exercising more. This couldn’t be happening to me now, could it? And if I went to the hospital, if I admitted something was wrong, would I die?
I went to the office manager, still trying to convince myself that if I could just get my mind of whatever I was thinking this would all go away. “I’m not feeling too well,” I said. I then asked her to talk with me. Scratch that, I told her to talk with me. After a minute the realization had grown in my mind that I should be going. Apparently she felt the same way.
“You want to go ahead and go home?” she asked, in her light Brazilian accent.
“Actually,” I said, struggling with the words, “I think you need to call an ambulance.”
While calling 911, one of the other workers stopped by. “Are you OK?” she asked.
“Uhm… no,” I said, with a shaky voice. I was now sitting in the office manager’s seat with my legs on another chair, raised, parallel to my hips.
The worker then left and came back with another person, an ex-nurse now working as a computer programmer. She did a couple of minor checks on me and talked to the 911 operators. After a minute she told me, “I don’t think you’re having a heart attack, but I don’t know what’s going on.”
She stayed with me for what seemed like a long while. In reality it had only been about ten minutes since I first started noticing the symptoms, but every minute lasted for an hour.
Just before the EMTs came I called The Wife.
“Hello?” she answered.
“Hey, hon,” I said in my still-shaky voice. “Listen, I’m not feeling well, I need to go to the hospital.” As I said this, the EMTs walked in. “I want you to know I love you. I gotta go.” Click.
As I got poked and probed by the emergency medical technicians (EMTs), an EKG revealed that my heart was healthy. Pumping fast, but healthy. My blood pressure was high, 151/73, but that, I was told, was expected after whatever I had just gone through.
I was taken to the hospital which, lucky for me, was right across the street. There I was again poked and analyzed, turned and x-rayed, and poked again. (Blood was drawn six times, from six different places during my time there. By students. I’m still sporting some of the bruises.)
A few hours later, after The Wife had come to the hospital, after a visit from my boss who observed that my shoes had not yet been taken off (“That’s a good sign,” he noted), and after trying my best to extract information from whoever was looking at me at the time (including the x-ray technicians, who let me look at my x-rays, see my heart, and commented that I had “huge lungs,” after revealing that at least one of them was a deep-sea diver), I was let go. By now it was 2:00 PM and all I wanted to do was rest, and enjoy the fact that I was alive. (In fact, the original name for this portion of the story was “Yesterday I Died. I Was Born Today.” This seemed a bit too melodramatic, though vis-a-vis what I discovered next.)
For the next few days I took it fairly easily. I worked from home, slept a good amount, and made sure I had nothing to worry about. I opened the windows, spent time out in the porch, smelled the air, and tasted my food with a curiosity that can only be attributed to someone who’s appreciating life for what it is.
I had a meeting with the cardiologist a couple of days after the incident, as well as a meeting with my family practitioner. Nothing new came from any of those meetings.
The cardiologist — a surprisingly attractive Brazilian woman who looked like she was in her late tweens/early 30s and therefore almost too young to be a cardiologist; I felt as if in a television show — took another EKG and scheduled an echocardiogram, but said that neither the blood work nor the EKG revealed anything abnormal. (“Your EKG looks good,” she said to me. “Phenomenal, in fact.”) She ordered another blood test to check for thyroid problems, which I had revealed to her run in my family. I don’t know much about these, however, only that my grandmother has problems with her thyroid, and that she’ll fall asleep in the middle of telling you something. By this time I didn’t fear the sting of the needle any more: I had apparently been downgraded to pin cushion, and a pin cushion need not fear piercing. I was also ordered to pick up a 30-day heart monitor to record any future incidents. Aside from caffeine-induced heart palpitations, I hoped this thing didn’t record anything else.
The family practitioner — Dr. MK I’ll call her, since I’ll likely be referring to her in the future — said something along the same lines: EKG looks fine, bring back the blood test results, and keep wearing that heart monitor.
The days following the initial incident I had felt fine. In fact, I felt better than fine. I felt great! Better than I had in… years? Certainly seemed that way.
As I studied this another possibility arose, one which had been mentioned by a few people, but which I didn’t want to accept: that what I had gone through was a full-blown panic attack. I went to the usual sources for information about this sort of thing — WebMD and Wikipedia — to see what they said about it. Here’s the Wikipedia description:
A panic attack is a period of intense, often temporarily debilitating, sense of extreme fear or psychological distress, typically of abrupt onset. Though it is often a purely terrifying feeling to the sufferer, panic attacks are actually an evolutionary body response often known as the fight-or-flight response occurring out of context. Symptoms may include trembling, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain (or chest tightness), sweating, nausea, dizziness (or slight vertigo), light-headedness, hyperventilation, paresthesias (tingling sensations), and sensations of choking, smothering and dreamlike and disconnected sensations. During a panic attack, the body typically releases large amounts of adrenaline into the bloodstream. Many first time sufferers of a panic attack believe they are dying, going insane or having a heart attack. Many say panic attacks are among the most frightening experiences of their lives.
This sounded exactly like what I had gone through, almost to the letter. In fact, the list of symptoms on the page was almost verbatim what I had told the doctors I was feeling. This looked promising, although frighteningly so. Still, the more I read the more I began to be convinced that this was it, especially in light of what was now quickly becoming the second choice, Hyperthyroidism. Hopefully that first panic attack would just be an isolated incident.
I was at a meeting that Friday, again at work, when suddenly there it was again: the tingling sensations, the pain in the chest, the racing heart rate — the works. I took my chances and instead of calling another ambulance I went outside for a while to walk, quickly, up and down the sidewalk. Luckily, my office is in a medical office complex, so if something went wrong I could get to a door quickly enough. I was hoping to burn some adrenalin by walking and stop some of the other side effects of the panic attack, if that’s what it was. For all I knew, I was having a heart attack.
After a few minutes, and after being joined by someone willing to talk with me during the ordeal, I felt myself calming down again. My heart rate came back to normal range, I stopped trembling, and my skin was no longer numb or tingly. Yet, I was scared now, very scared. What if these things kept going on forever ever time I came to work? The racing heart, the moments of pure fear, the need to run away from wherever I was, the vertigo, the nausea, the fainting feelings, the numbness, the choking… Would these things just keep going all the time, everywhere?
That weekend I had a few more episodes, none as bad as the first, or even the second, but bad in their own right. I could no longer tell what the trigger(s) could be. On one night, I had them for so long I eventually just passed out on my bed. After every attack I was hungry and very, very tired. That night I simply could not stay awake any more. Thank God for that. I didn’t want to stay awake.
The next week I had the echocardiogram. Pulse was around 58, which seemed right. I have yet to hear from any doctors about it so I can only presume that if they found something it wasn’t too bad. I remember when I had broken my knee a few years ago. They called me back that night to run a more invasive test, to make sure no veins or arteries were pinched. These guys, thankfully, don’t take chances, which in this case made the old saying “No news is good news” a truism.
I also had a meeting with Dr. MK wherein I revealed my latest findings. She suggested Zoloft if I wanted a pill for it, especially since the attacks were not isolated, but were now becoming somehwat commonplace, but I told her I didn’t want a pill. She then wrote me a referral to go see a psychologist to see if we could get to the root of the problem. Even if it was biological, the psychologist could help put my mind at ease. The fact that this may be panic disorder has not escaped me.
During this time, a conversation started up in itazuraÃŸeau’s blog in which the topic of panic attacks came in. (If you click on the link you can see part of our conversation, the public part at least. You may want to turn off your speakers. By the way, Beau, a.k.a. itazuraÃŸeau, is an old friend of mine from college who I spent time with when working on the USF music school computer labs. Oboe player. Very good. He’s now living in Japan.) He has helped me understand the issue a bit better and as served as a bit of a sounding board for me, one which talks back and offers useful advice, some of which I may share later here. Most of this advice revolved around medications and why not to take them, advice which The Wife, a psychologist by training, echoed loudly.
Anyway, so to the point of this post: now you understand why my posting has slowed as of late. I just haven’t felt like writing and frankly, for the moment I’m not going to do things I don’t feel like doing. Might sound childish and amateur, but frankly all I care about now is getting whatever issues are causing the attacks resolved. I have a few suspicions, but I don’t care to go into them right now, mostly because they’re just that: suspicions. If I start attributing stuff to them I may be doing something detrimental by building up walls which would later have to be torn down.
You may also be wondering why I’m letting all this out in public. Mostly is to bring light to the situation. Also because the original purpose of this blog includes it being a way in which I can learn of myself better. If you’re wondering, no, I’m not going insane, at least not any more than most other people. I’m just, apparently, dealing with a bunch of stress, stress I didn’t know was there. (That this happened now is surprising because the past two years have made for one of the calmest periods of my life.) Then again, if you’ve known me personally for any amount of time, you probably know stress something I normally feel that I thrive on and enjoy. Guess I got that one wrong.
So, will I keep my writing going? Yes, but on my own schedule, something I haven’t always felt at freedom to do. I’ll try to continue posting at least twice a week, and depending on time constraints and other considerations I may post more, but for the time being, until I get all of this sorted out my posting may be a bit erratic. My apologies in advance.
Take it easy. I’ll work on doing the same.