The anxiety hangover – the worst kind

This weekend, I suffered the worst kind of hangover. Not the one that comes after an afternoon patio wine party-turned evening dance off. Not the one that comes with laughs over a greasy brunch with friends the following morning. Not the one that comes with gaps in your memories. I’m talking about the hangover you get after a massive panic attack.

The excruciatingly painful adrenaline headache. The fuzzy brain and inability to concentrate. The lightheadedness. The sore chest from having your heart beat so hard and so fast it nearly breaks through your rib cage. The desire to sleep for days.

And for me, the worst part is that I felt the same level of regret and embarrassment that I would feel if I had drank too much sangria the night before and did something stupid. But this wasn’t self-inflicted. I didn’t choose anxiety or panic attacks. They chose me.

I’ve been suffering from panic attacks for nearly a decade. Like many people, the first time I had one, I didn’t know what it was. I was checking out a customer at the grocery store where I worked when I suddenly felt hot. I felt myself get flushed, like I always do when I’m about to speak in front of a large group of people. I noticed my heart rate was increasing so I closed my lane and went for a walk. It was a beautiful sunny day, which made the changes in my vision all the more terrifying. I felt completely out of control.

Maybe I just needed to go back inside.

I walked as fast as I could to the back room to my supervisor. She must have seen the panic on my face – she told me to sit down and take some deep breaths. By this point, it felt like an elephant was on my chest and someone had their hands wrapped around my throat. My vision was blurry and I felt like I couldn’t focus on anything. I tried to stand up and fell. For a moment in time, I thought I might actually be dying. I was terrified.

She called an ambulance and by the time they arrived, the mysterious episode seemed to back off. They took me to a local hospital where I waited six hours to be seen.

Somewhere between the arrival at the hospital and the time I left, my symptoms had all but subsided, except for the slight knots in my stomache and thought that perhaps there was something seriously wrong. Or was it that I was just going crazy? Maybe it was all in my head.

After a clean examination, normal blood work results and some convincing from the nurse that I wasn’t completely out of my mind, I went sent home with the recommendation to see my family doctor.

That particularly panic attack spiraled into months of reoccurring episodes and depression and I was finally put on a daily medication and given a benzodiazepine to help alleviate the immediate symptoms of a panic attack. It took time but I eventually went to speak with someone, learned what my triggers were and how to manage them, came off the medication and for the most part, carried on my merry way.

When people spoke about their anxiety stories, I empathized and shared small portions of my own. The further away that episodic summer became, the less I talked about it. I stopped referring to what I had as anxiety and panic attacks and instead replaced it with high-strung or over-thinker. “I’m just a worrier” became my favourite line. Most people can relate to worrying about something at one point or another. I found that if I told people I had anxiety, they either became uncomfortable or thought I was exaggerating. So I just didn’t.

Admittedly, I thought maybe these attacks had disappeared and were just a phase. Had I outgrown them? Every once in a while I’d notice the odd time where I’d feel my heart racing or throat being squeezed but attributed it to an upcoming public speaking event, uncomfortable situation or just being overtired.

Last night, there was no denying anything. My friends and I had planned a festive Canada Day – walking in a parade to support a local business followed by drinks, board games and fireworks. But my anxiety didn’t give a shit about my plans.

During the parade, I started to sweat and feel uncomfortably warm. My cheeks felt like they were on fire and I was sure they were the colour of tomatoes – a stark contrast to my pale skin. Walking in front of thousands of people would make most folks uncomfortable, right? I tried desperately to ignore it while continually checking the status of the parade route. Only two more roads to go. Now one corner. At the end of this street we’ll be done.

When it was finished, I could’t get away from Granville Island fast enough. I was suffocating – the loud music and throes of people weren’t helping. I just needed out.

We stopped at the grocery store on the walk home and as we were checking out, I could feel my heartbeat in my neck – it was pounding so hard it could have been seen across the store. When I glanced at the cashier, a dark line appeared in my vision. I got outside as fast as I could.

“I can’t see” I exclaimed to my friend and husband. I realized how ridiculous I must have sounded.

“Maybe there’s make up in it”, I said, trying to downplay. I knew exactly what it was. And I wished it was just eyeliner. I sat down on a park bench and rubbed my eye. I had them both check it to see if anything was in it. Of course there wasn’t.

We continued walking and they decided I was just dehydrated and needed something to eat. I played along.

At my friend’s apartment, the feeling of being strangled intensified. I downed a few glasses of water and closed my eyes. I could still see the line that was causing my vision to skew even with my eyes closed. Was I having a stroke?

My thoughts were racing but I reverted back to the self-talk I used to do when I panicked. Take a deep breath. Everything will be OK. It’s just a panic attack. You’ll be fine. This will pass.

I started to feel a bit better and joined in a conversation with my friends, talking about my new place, summer plans and work all the while running this cyclical thought through the back of my mind that maybe something was really, seriously wrong with me. (For me, the cyclical thoughts are the worst part – they nag and nag and nag at me and cause my stomache to be in upheaval for days.)

When my arm and tongue went tingly and my stomache turned, I knew I was in trouble. (The mind is an incredibly powerful enemy in these situations.) This was bigger than I’d ever experienced. And the worst part was, I didn’t even know what triggered it.

The walls of the apartment were closing in on me and ran for the balcony. Even with the fresh air around me, I couldn’t find the strength to take a deep breath. I was being strangled from the inside out by my panic and thoughts.

My friend continued to ask if I needed anything – maybe a glass of wine would help? In her mind, she thought it might help me relax and I did appreciate her gesture – she was only trying to make me feel better. Under normal circumstances, yes, I love a little Pinot to help me chill out. A glass of wine in the middle of a full-body, full-blown panic attack would have sent me over the edge that I already felt I was teetering on.

I insisted I was fine before bolting to her bedroom. The group continued to laugh and carry on and I felt incredible envy – how come I couldn’t just be like they were in that moment, free and happy instead of trapped inside their own mind? I started crying and couldn’t stop. I was embarrassed; I was terrified; I was completely out of control.

My husband came in after a moment and tried to console me but I knew only one thing would make me feel better. He gathered our things and quietly said we were heading home. I wiped the tears from my flushed cheeks and came out to say goodbye.

The eyes on me were sympathetic but I still felt the need to apologize. I was incredibly embarrassed that as a 30-year-old woman, I couldn’t pull myself together – or at the very least articulate why I was so upset. I said I was sorry a half dozen times, that I was just a little crazy and I’d be fine – I just needed to get home and eat something.

I missed an opportunity to share what was really going on – something had triggered my anxiety and caused me to have a panic attack that was bigger than I could control in that moment. Instead, I hid behind the same lines that I had been using for so long; the same ones that continue to feed into the negative stereotype associated with anxiety that I so desperately wanted to help break.

By the time we arrived home and I got into my pyjamas, the panic had all but passed and the only thing that remained was the hangover. I put myself to bed early and tried not to dwell on what my friends could have possibly thought about my unusual behaviour. I finally managed to fall asleep.

I apologized profusely this morning again to my husband as soon as I woke up and thought about calling the friend whose party we had to leave early, even though I had told her how sorry I was, through tears, the night before. Thankfully I came to my senses.

Anxiety and panic attacks are not things that we need to apologize for – they’re just a couple of many mental illnesses and disorders that require treatment and support. Someone with diabetes wouldn’t apologize for being diagnosed, so for me to think I need to say sorry for having uncontrollable panic attacks and experiencing anxiety is equally ludicrous.

I won’t apologize for what happened because I couldn’t control it. What I will do is continue to seek support when I need it, and perhaps most importantly, change how I talk about it: I’m not crazy. I’ve not lost my mind. I have anxiety and experience panic attacks. It doesn’t make me any less of anything – it makes me me. If I change the way I talk about it to people, I’m hoping people will echo those words instead of feeding into the negative stereotype and in turn, better understand and support those who experience them. I didn’t choose panic and anxiety – they picked me. And they don’t define me – they’re just a small part of who I am.

I’d also like to respectfully ask for your help – if you suffer from anxiety, or know someone who does, tell them you’re there to talk, whenever they’re comfortable enough. Tell them it’s OK and that you’re there for them. Remind them to take a deep breath. Offer them a hug – or space. Tell them they’re not crazy, even if they insist – because they’re not. Let them know it will get better. Let them talk – or let them be silent. Ask if they want to go for a walk. Offer them a glass of water. Ask them what they need – just please don’t pretend it isn’t happening. Your support will go a long way.

For more information in Canada, visit the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health or BC Mental Health & Substance Use Services.

* Please share any resources you  have below.

Photo credit: PublicSafetyFacts.com.

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Back To The Basics: Father’s Day

This time of year is bittersweet for my siblings and I.
After losing our Dad three years ago, Father’s Day has become somewhat of a sad holiday instead of one we looked forward to. Dad loved spending time with us on Father’s Day, even if it meant just sitting in his backyard with a couple of beers and reciting lines from Ace Ventura.
The ‘first’ Father’s Day was hard, the second was a little less painful. I’m sure this one will be a little less again, but it’ll never reach a point where it passes and I don’t feel a twinge in my heart.
The first year he was gone, I chose to run in a Father’s Day race in support of prostate cancer research. Two years before, my father-in-law had been diagnosed with – and beat – the disease so I was motivated to support the cause that had given us more time with him in hopes of helping others. Plus, running helped expend the energy I would have inevitably spent crying balled up on the couch feeling sorry for myself.
At the race, I was envious of the girls young and old who were either running with their Dads or finished the race with an embrace as their proud Pops waited at the finish line. I distinctly remember watching a girl a few years older than I speed towards the finish line and into the arms of her Dad. With tears in his eyes, he kissed her cheek and thanked her. The back of her shirt said he was a survivor of the disease. I was sure this was a moment they’d remember forever.
My father-in-law remarked how proud he was I had taken the time to run in the race in his honour and raise awareness for the disease. I didn’t buy him anything that year – I had simply given my time to do something meaningful for him.
Apparently the gift of time is no longer good enough.
I heard an ad on the radio this morning, targeted at kids, that said something along the lines of ‘Dad doesn’t want a hug this year, he wants power tools.’ What?
When did Father’s Day become a commercialized, materialistic event? What happened to making Dad his favourite breakfast or taking him mini putting? Perhaps I notice it more because I don’t have the option to spend more time with my father or buy him something he probably didn’t need in the first place. In any event, are we getting carried away?
I used to think Valentine’s Day was the most commercialized holiday but over the past few years, I’ve noticed retailers are putting pressure on us to buy the perfect gift– a day at the spa to give Mom a break on Mother’s Day, an iPad for Grandma and Grandpa at Christmas so they can share those special moments with their grandkids, a new truck for your husband so he can look tough on his way to work while he sits in traffic.
People complain about commercialized holidays and retailers marking up the prices of certain items associated with those days. (Think: a bouquet of red roses on Valentine’s Day, which mysteriously seem to rise in price a few weeks before February 14. Is there an annual shortage I’m not aware of?) Retailers can get away with it because we continue to buy into it.
By participating in this cycle, we place more and more value on the things we buy people instead of the time we spend with them. Granted, I suppose there are people who would rather send their Dad a gift card in the mail instead of actually sitting in the same room with them, but for those who have relationships with their father, why do they need to feel pressure to find the perfect present?
The meaning of Father’s Day is to celebrate fatherhood and their contribution to their families, not provide them with absent-minded gifts.
A pair of Chaps from The Bay doesn’t scream ‘I appreciate you, Dad’; spending time with him and recounting a family trip or making him his favourite meal does.
So, here’s my proposition: while I’m sure your Dad would appreciate a shiny new power tool or a round of golf, chances are he’d rather spend the time with you.
If you insist on buying him something, get him something you can do together – take him for dinner, or if you’re budget-conscious, make him dinner. Show up with a board game or action movie and a few beers, or take him golfing instead of sending him out on his own.
The memories you make will far outlast the warranty on a circular saw.

An Enviable Legacy – My Dad’s Story of Donation

“Your father will never wake up.”
On a hot July afternoon in a cramped family meeting room at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, those six words changed my life forever.
Only five days before my Dad, Malcolm Higgins, had been in a single-vehicle car accident. He sustained a critical brain injury and was in a coma. At first, my siblings and I were hopeful. Over the course of the next few days, we quickly became familiar with diffuse axonal brain injuries, EEGs, and how the Glasgow Coma Scale worked.
When the doctor delivered the grave prognosis, I didn’t believe him. Surely, my Dad would recover. He was strong, he was healthy – he was just 49 years old.
By day, he was a paralegal and professor at Everest College. He was well-respected, passionate and intelligent.
By night he was a rock star, singing in one of the best AC/DC tribute bands in the country. He was incredibly talented musically and tried as hard as he could to pass it onto my three younger siblings and I.
As youngsters, instead of reading bedtime stories, he sang to us. The four of us knew the words to AC/DC, Steve Miller Band and Guns and Roses before we could recite the alphabet.
He was full of life, energy, and ambition and would never have wanted to live hooked up to machines indefinitely, completely incapacitated. We made the decision to withdraw life support, but I never imagined at 24 years old, I would be the one signing the papers to do it.
Shortly after we received the news, my siblings, my dad’s father, sister and I were approached by an organ and tissue donation coordinator who talked about the possibility of donating Dad’s organs.
The choice to donate Dad’s organs was an easy one – he had always discussed it with us and had registered to become an organ donor should the opportunity present itself.
For us, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make, just a decision made during a difficult time.
The night we let my Dad go, three of his four kids were by his bedside, along with his older sister. We brought in our iPod, played AC/DC and waited. In order for him to be eligible for donation, he had to pass away within two hours of being removed from the ventilator.
The wait was agonizing and as my Dad slowly slipped away before my eyes, I thought about the irony of the situation: he was in one of the best hospitals in the country and the very people who we had hoped would save him were standing around waiting for him to die. It just didn’t make sense.
Thirty-three minutes after we began the process, my Dad passed away. His final heartbeat was perfectly in tune to the last note of Thunderstruck, which was always the finale at his shows.
On July 14, 2010, seven days after his initial accident, I made the most difficult phone call of my life and told my grandfather his only son had taken his last breath. It gave me a small bit of comfort knowing that simultaneously, three other families were receiving the best news of theirs.
I knew donating his organs was the right decision and it meant we were honouring his wishes. I knew lives were going to be saved because of him. What I didn’t appreciate was the profound the impact his donation was going to have on my own.
A few weeks after my Dad passed, I read an article in the Toronto Star about organ donation. I was amazed the impact this gift had on the recipient that I reached out to the reporter to thank her for the piece.
Two months later, she emailed and asked if my family would like to be featured to talk about the donor side. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass.
Together with my sister, we told my Dad’s story: how he told us his wishes in advance; that he carried around a blank donor card in case he met someone who wanted to consent on the spot; and about the young child with leukemia he helped save by donating bone marrow so many years prior.
Five months to the day Dad passed away – December 14 – I received the most incredible Christmas present: letters from Dad’s double lung recipient and two of his family members. Trillium Gift of Life Network facilitates anonymous contact between recipients and donor families. Neither side is obligated to write a letter or reply to anything they’ve received but it gives an opportunity to reach out if you wish.
Here was his letter to us:
Dear Donor Family,
As I begin to write this letter of thankfulness, I have mixed emotions. I am so very sorry for the loss of your loved one who has so generously donated their lungs for transplantation.
I am so grateful to be the recipient of your loved ones generous donation. My quality of life has improved dramatically, as has my wife’s – my caregiver.
Prior to my operation, I had been on oxygen since 2003. Almost immediately after my operation, I did not require oxygen for life support.
I am so grateful to you, the Donor Family, for donating this precious Gift of Life to me.
Now I will be able to continue my life in good health with my wife, family and friends.
From a Grateful Recipient 
For a long time, I was angry my Dad had been taken from me. I was frustrated because I felt he had so much life left in him. I was angry at him, at the accident, at fate, at everything surrounding his death.
Getting these letters really touched me and proved to me what I knew all along: my Dad did have a lot of life left in him. His lungs give every single breath to a man, allowing him to hug his wife, kiss his daughters and walk up the stairs without gasping for breath. His kidneys saved two other men from the rigorous routine of dialysis and his eyes have given sight to two others.
After receiving the letters, I knew I had to become involved and continue telling his story.
I began volunteering with Trillium Gift of Life Network. The first year he was gone, his story was featured in several newspapers, placed second at a film festival in California, and was shared at more than 10 different speaking presentations. 
We also finally gathered the courage to write back to his double-lung recipient and within two weeks had another set of letters from him. This time, he shared he was visiting his family for the first time in Alberta in 10 years and that he was finally able to sing like he used to. He and my Dad had more in common than we realized.
A year-and-a-half after my father’s death, I was invited by a fellow volunteer, who was a recipient, to Toronto General’s annual lung transplant party. Merv thought it would be appropriate for me to learn about another piece of the donation puzzle – the wait list.
There were about 100 people at the party – recipients, family members, those waiting along with staff and physicians. Merv was walking my sister and I around the room, introducing us to nearly everyone. Just when I thought we were finished, he introduced us to a man named Richard. He was a short, older gentleman and looked to be about 70 years old.
He indicated he was a recipient – his transplant was July 2010 – and had written to his donor family. My sister and I were touched and thanked him immensely. After all, the reason I became involved was because the recipient had the courage to reach out to us a year before.  
“Do you know much about your recipient, because I know a lot about my donor”, he said to us. “I know he was a former police officer, he had four kids and he sang in an AC/DC band.”
For a moment, I thought I might pass out. My sister started crying as Richard slowly connected the dots. His chin began to quiver and his eyes filled with tears.
I managed to find my voice and said, “you have my Dad’s lungs.”
My sister and I with Richard.
Tears running down his face, he grabbed mine and my sister’s hands and pulled us through the crowded room to where his wife was standing.
“Joan, meet our donor daughters,” he said. She, too, couldn’t believe it.
Through our tears and hugs, we quoted the letters back and forth to make sure Richard really was my Dad’s recipient. After a couple of minutes, there wasn’t a doubt in our minds it was him. As it turns out, he and his wife live 20 minutes from my house.  We’ve stayed in close contact and even had the opportunity to meet his two daughters, who are my father’s age.
Since meeting Richard in December 2011, I’ve continued with my volunteer work. I wrote an article for the United Kingdom’s Live Life Then Give Life organization, who featured my Dad, a Scotland native, on their website. I started a group called the York Region Gift of Life Association to help raise the low registration rates in our community. In less than a year, we’ve attended or participated in more than 50 events and presentations and recruited a force of 30 amazing volunteers. We also spearheaded the largest organized registration drive in Ontario’s history, supported from all three levels of government. I’m humbled to be a very small part of what this inspirational group accomplishes – they truly are incredible.
Dad always said his four kids would be easily able to surpass his achievements in life and that we would amount to greater things than he ever could. I beg to differ.
There is no greater gift you can give someone than life itself, and he’s done that three-fold.
The man whose selfless decision saved three lives and gave sight to two others; the man whose selfless decision has been featured in three countries and dozens of articles; and he man whose selfless decision motivated his four children and countless others was my father and for that, I couldn’t be more proud.
April 22 to 26 National Organ and Tissue Donation Awareness Week. Right now, there are nearly 1,500 people waiting for a life-saving transplant in Ontario. Please, please register your consent at beadonor.caand speak to your family about your wishes.