Living with Panic Disorder

As a new mom who has been recently diagnosed with Panic Disorder, I’m in unfamiliar territory. As I’m still new to living with Panic Disorder, I have yet to think, “I’m going to get through this.” Instead, I keep asking myself, “When will I get through this? Will I get through this?”

For those who are unfamiliar with Panic Disorder and how crippling it can be, I’ll share my story.

On April 20, 2014, my husband and I welcomed our first child, a girl. Naturally, we were completely enamored of her. And, having suffered multiple miscarriages over the years, I was ecstatic to finally have a nearly full-term pregnancy (she was 5 weeks early). During the first few months of my daughter’s life, things were expectedly stressful. Neither of us slept much, especially me with getting up every two hours to nurse the baby. Breastfeeding came naturally and easier than expected. It seemed…effortless. But, thinking back, perhaps this was where my anxiety began. I started becoming paranoid about not producing enough milk to nurse her. I was constantly counting diapers. Constantly taking her across the street to the pediatrician’s office to have them weigh her to make sure she was gaining and thriving. At the time, I figured it was a typical, paranoid, first-time mom response. My paranoia subsided as she kept gaining weight and I kept counting diapers. I felt fine. I felt lucky that I had been spared from the nightmare of Postpartum Depression.

In July 2014, my husband lost his job. After several weeks, he was hired for another job in New York State. We had no money and had to rely on the kindness and generosity of friends and strangers through GoFundMe to raise enough money to do a DIY move cross-country. Because of them, we were able to make the move. My husband drove a large moving truck while I flew with our daughter and cat to New York. We stayed with my mother-in-law for about a month and a half until we got the money together to rent a place closer to Albany, where my husband worked. During those six weeks, he had to drive an hour and a half to Albany and an hour and a half back five days per week. Around $200 per paycheck on gas alone. So…come November, we were very excited and relieved to finally have our own place closer to the capital.

Fast forward to January this year, and my husband found himself out of a job again. I stopped working in August so I could focus on taking care of our daughter.   He immediately applied for Unemployment Insurance and began looking for another job. I started looking as well. I dreaded going back to work. I wanted to stay home with my daughter. Just the thought of leaving her in the care of strangers made me…anxious. For over a month, both of us submitted resumes hoping at least one of us would end up back in the workforce. My husband had more success. He was called for an interview for a car dealership, and the pay was good. $41K plus commission, he was told. They offered him the job later that day and he started the next. Turns out, the $41K plus commission was a lie. They said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. That’s the salary for managers.” He makes $10 an hour. Not “plus commission.” He earns his check from the “draw.” Meaning, if he hasn’t made a sale that week, the next sale he does make goes back into the draw. What they should have told him was that it was commission only. He makes sales, but has yet to see any commission. He’s drawn only draw checks since he started on the sales floor. And he puts up with a great deal of abuse and derision from his coworkers and superiors. They call him, “stupid, slow,” etc. in front of other coworkers and customers. And I hear about this almost every day. And my heart breaks because my husband is none of the things they call him. But, I digress…

Living on $360 per week has taken its toll. We are constantly getting disconnect notices for power, our phones, etc.   We’re constantly making payment arrangements just so we can keep these things and not be completely isolated. Our Internet was cut off this week, so we have to rely on just our phones’ data for communication. We had to borrow money from a friend so we could get our passports renewed (more on that later) and to pay some things off before yet another move (more on that later). We are on food stamps. It’s all very humiliating.

So…at the end of March, after my husband had been in his new job for a few weeks, I got very sick. We were lying in bed with the baby for the night, and I remember thinking, “I don’t feel well. What if something is wrong with me? I feel some pain in my chest. Oh my god, what if I’m having a heart attack? What’s going to happen to Dina? Oh my god, I’m going to die.” And WHAM!!!! I felt dizzy, lightheaded, had hot flashes, chest pain, I couldn’t swallow…all the “classic” symptoms of a heart attack, right? I called 911 and told them I thought I was having a heart attack. They asked me a bunch of questions, “can you breathe?” “are you changing color?,” etc. Yes and no. The ambulance arrived and began taking my vitals. Heart rate: totally normal. Oxygen: normal. They told me I wasn’t having a heart attack, but if I wanted, they could take me to the ER so I could be looked over. They also said that I’d be ok to call my doctor and see what they wanted me to do. I opted to stay home. Shortly before the paramedics left, I started feeling cold. I started shivering. About an hour later, after they left, I started feeling nauseated. I threw up every hour for four hours. Violent vomiting. So violent I couldn’t catch a breath between hurls. (As I’m typing this, I feel a lot of the same symptoms. Talking about it leads me to it.) My husband called in the next day to take care of the baby so I could rest and take care of myself. I couldn’t really eat anything, which is challenging when you’re still breastfeeding. I felt “off” all day. I didn’t feel right.   I went to my doctor the following Monday (this was on a weekend), and he told me I likely had a nasty GI bug that was going around.

Exactly one week later, at the same exact time, it started happening again. I had my husband take me to the ER, where they did an EKG (after I kept telling them I thought something was wrong with my heart), said it was normal, and gave me some medicine for nausea.  They told me it was probably still the “GI bug.”

For the next several weeks, I was feeling on edge, that something was medically wrong with me. That I was going to die before my daughter reached her first birthday. I kept getting the hot flash sensations, even in my sleep, and I would snap out of the mindset and think to myself, “see??? There’s something wrong with me!!!” I started going to therapy because I felt like I was losing my mind. My doctor prescribed Zoloft after explaining that I had anxiety.

Then, a few weeks ago, it all happened again. Only worse. It started when my family was sitting down to dinner, and I was watching my daughter eat and smear her food all over my husband. I smiled to myself, then out of nowhere, I thought, “I’m going to die. Right. Now.” And I got hit with wave upon wave upon wave of the same feeling I had in March. When I thought I was having a heart attack. I felt out of my body, hot flashes, tingly, chest pains, lightheaded, my heart was racing, I felt like I was choking. I felt like I was having a heart attack. Again. I thought, “Oh my god. It’s really happening this time. I’m going to die. I was right.” I called 911. Again.   This time I told them I wasn’t sure if it was an anxiety attack or a heart attack. The paramedics came and checked me out. Again. Nothing was physically wrong. Again. But this time they did put me in the ambulance and take me to the ER. They did another EKG. Normal. Blood work. Normal. Everything. Normal. The doctor explained that I’d had a panic attack and suggested I take Xanax or something similar, but that I would need to stop breastfeeding to take them. I started crying. Started getting anxious all over again.

A few days later I went to my doctor. Again. He wanted to put me on Klonopin. I had done some research beforehand, and spoken to my daughter’s pediatrician about anti-anxiety medications while breastfeeding. Research and her pediatrician said that Ativan would be the safest to take. That there weren’t any known reports of sedation in baby like there were with the others of that class. I had to argue with my doctor, but he eventually relented and prescribed Ativan instead. He also scheduled me for an exercise stress test (to rule out my heart and to ease my mind), did another EKG (normal), and referred me to a different psychiatrist who specializes in anxiety and related disorders. I had my first appointment last week when I was officially diagnosed with Panic Disorder and my Zoloft prescription was increased to 100mg.

Apparently all these things I’ve thought and felt are “normal” for Panic Disorder. There is nothing “normal” about these thoughts or feelings. I don’t even feel like myself. I am constantly afraid that I’m going to have another attack, that it will be worse than the last; that a panic attack is going to kill me. Logically, I know it’s not true, but when your brain isn’t communicating the way it’s supposed to and your body goes into “fight or flee,” your brain doesn’t necessarily listen to reason or logic.  My therapist broke down the body’s response to these signals step by step, every single symptom and why it happens. And it made perfect sense. Logically. But part of me is still irrational and scared about it happening again. I have chest pain and I worry. Even though I know it’s because of the anxiety, and not necessarily during an attack…it’s just because I’m anxious, period. I know it’s not my heart because it’s been checked and checked and checked.

It’s. Anxiety.

It’s. Anxiety.

It’s. Anxiety.

I have to keep telling myself, “it’s anxiety.” Because if I don’t remind myself, I’ll get out of control with the thoughts again and think I’m dying. And fly into another panic attack. And, god, they. Are. Awful. The worst feeling I’ve ever had is a panic attack. And living in fear of having one isn’t fun.

“What if I have one when I’m giving my daughter a bath?”

“What if I have one in the shower?”

“What if I have one when my husband is at work and I’m alone with the baby?”

“What if…”

“What if…”

“What if…”

And all of this does nothing but contribute to my anxiety. It has all come together and taken me from anxiety to full on “Panic Disorder.” And it affects some 6 million people every year. Mostly women. I keep reading about how it’s more “common than you think,” keep hearing people say that to me. Yes, it is comforting to know that it is more common than I thought, but it still feels incredibly isolating and frustrating. I feel like a prisoner of my thoughts. And when a panic attack does strike, I feel completely and utterly alone.

I’ve been on the Zoloft now for about a month total, and it seems that it’s started to finally work its magic. I still have irrational thoughts pop into my head, and I still feel a bit anxious every day, but it’s not as much. It seems to slowly be getting better. I’ve added an anxiety relief yoga session to my medications and psychotherapy. I find I have to do it every day to remain calm. It’s working. All of it is working, even if it’s slower than what I’d like.

I’d like to say that I know I’m going to make it through this. That 6 million people get through this every year…but I’m not quite there yet. I’m still in the scared and anxious phase waiting for my therapy, medications, and meditation to fully connect and work their magic. Right now, I just want to feel like I can make it through a day. Or week.

I have a long road ahead of me. So does my family. I am not alone in having to suffer through this. My husband has to suffer through it as well. To watch me go through these cycles and spirals and … craziness. He feels helpless, even more so than I. I’m sure our daughter can sense the anxiety. I feel a heavy cloud over me every day. I’m just waiting for it to break. Any day now… Any day now…

And now that I’ve finally been diagnosed and started management for this disorder, we’re going to shake things up a bit again. (We’re at the “later.”) After months of searching for a good, stable job, my husband was offered and accepted a position in Seoul, Korea. So…back to Korea we go. Where we met. It’s a lifestyle that is familiar, and a country that is familiar…but it’s also new. I’ve never done an international move with a baby. With myself and a cat, yes. Not with a husband and baby. So, although the international moving is familiar, it’s also very new. New worries; new anxieties. Will I be able to ship a freezer full of breast milk? Will I have to dispose of it (god, please, no)…we have to do passports for us AND the baby (done), vet trips for the cat to make sure he’s good to enter South Korea again, wait for orders so we can get packed up and ship the car, etc. But this time…with a baby. This time…with Panic Disorder.

I know it is too much to ask at this point that my panic stay at bay, but I do hope that it can at least be kind and not come on as strongly as it has in the past. Now that I know what it is and what it does. Now that I am aware. Now that I have more information. Now that I know what is “wrong” with me.

And if Panic does make a close and personal appearance, I always have my yoga and Ativan to help. For now…