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.

(Not) Home for the holidays

“So, any funs plans for Christmas?”

It’s a question I’m tired of answering, but equally guilty of asking.

The majority of us will take time off, gorge on food, spend time with family and friends, travel or get some much needed R&R.

For the rest, they’ll kiss their families goodbye and head into work.

Retail stores will close. Fitness centres will be dark. The malls will be empty. But the doors of our hospitals, after-hours clinics and emergency facilities and services will stay open for business.

Our first responders are on the clock 24/7. They give us their holidays, their kids’ birthdays, anniversaries, and weekends so our communities stay safe, our services go uninterrupted and we have access to the care we need regardless of the date on the calendar.

On Christmas morning as you open presents with family, there will inevitably be a nurse coming in for work, having snuck out of her house before her kids woke up to make it time for her shift. She’ll miss the joy of seeing her boys open presents and her mom’s world-famous turkey stuffing.

She’ll relieve one of her colleagues who spent all evening consoling family members whose loved one unexpectedly passed away – one of his patients. He’ll fight exhaustion and attempt to focus on his own family instead of the one he empathizes with who is grieving the member they lost.

While we bask in the post-present glow, sipping a Bailey’s and hot chocolate in our PJs, our paramedics will miss the joy of catching up with family while they tend to an accident scene that will change the course of another family’s life forever.

As we drive to our Christmas dinner, a police car will scream by on route to a call. It’s the officer’s first Christmas as a father but he’ll miss making memories with his baby because he’s made the choice to serve the people of his community, the community he takes so much pride in.

We’ll sit down to a full feast surrounded by people we love just as an on-call physician excuses herself from her own family traditions to assist with a patient who’s taken a turn for the worse.

These examples are only a few of those who give us so much not just over the holidays, but every day of the year. There are so many others who are equally pivotal to ensuring our services run smoothly: the housekeeping and food services at local hospitals, dispatch, organ donation coordination teams – the list goes on.

For these folks, they’re not raking in millions or getting special acknowledgement because they’re working on a holiday – they’re doing it because they genuinely want to help.

Most of us won’t need emergency health-care services, the help of firefighters or protection of police, to name a few, over the holidays. But for those who do, they will be there.

Please take a moment to think of those who give up time with their loved ones so we can continue to create positive, healthy memories with our own families on Christmas – and every day of the year.

Merry Christmas to all!

My adult Christmas wish list

As a kid, writing my list to Santa was one of my favourite holiday memories. I spent weeks thoughtfully researching my list, based on playground gossip, ads that appeared between segments of Saved By The Bell and Goosebumps and the weekly Toys ‘R Us flyer.

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My Dad and brothers in the midst of a wrapping paper tornado on Christmas morning.

On Christmas morning, there was a smattering of presents around the tree and I almost always found my entire wish list wrapped in colourful paper – and then some. Our tree was beautifully decorated, there was family around and plenty of food to eat – I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were luckier than most.

I distinctly remember one Christmas at my Uncle Jerry’s place; I was excited my grandparents bought me a Nano Baby so I could “practice” my babysitting skills. I glanced over at my Uncle and was horrified by his pile – tea towels, kitchen utensils and lame grown-up stuff.

Sensing my eyes on him (and noticing the scowl on my face), he said “wait ‘til you get older kiddo – these sort of presents will make you excited, too.”

I couldn’t imagine ever being thrilled about something as ridiculous as a matching tea towel set – there were just too many other cool things I wanted like new clothes and gadgets and a TV for my room and the latest shoes. Those were the important things.

Fast forward 15 or so years and, thankfully, I’ve changed my tune. (Yes, you were right, Uncle J).

In fact, I had a really hard time giving my fiancé ideas this year. There really isn’t anything I need – or want – for that matter. I have more clothes and shoes than I know what to do with; we can afford to pay our rent and still save a little; we have a fully stocked fridge and we live in a beautiful city. We’re healthy, happy and if anything, still spoiled by many people’s standards.

It got me thinking… if I could make a list of all of the things I wanted whether they were attainable or not, what would it look like?

So, behold, my first official adult Christmas list. (Bear in mind, I don’t have kids, so you’ll notice an absence of “a weekend away from parenting” type inclusions below.)

  • Health

I plan to be around for another 50 or so years and will do my part to eat well and exercise, but I know sometimes that’s not enough. So, if I could have a guarantee my health would be as pristine as it is now, I’ll take two please.

  • Family & friends

My family and friends are amazing, even through we drive each other mental sometimes. Still, I don’t know what I’d do without them so please keep them around for the next several decades as well.

  • A year month without bills.

I completely took for granted not having to pay bills as a kid – I had no idea my parents made monthly mortgage, hydro, food, water, electricity and insurance payments. And this doesn’t even touch activities or savings. Life is expensive and I wouldn’t mind a month off… or two. If you’re really feeling generous, a year would be spectacular.

  • Magical restocking fridge

Life is expensive (see above). Plus, going to the grocery store is about as much fun as getting a leg wax. How awesome would it be to have a fridge that restocked itself?  If it could also throw a few bottles of Pinot in there every so often, I’d be in heaven.

  • More time

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s found themselves out somewhere or on holiday or just sitting with someone and wishing to hold onto the moment a bit longer. So, I’ve added having more time for the things that are important – and the ability to hang onto those moments – as a wish list item.

  • A weekend of adolescent-inspired sleep

As a teenager, I could sleep through an earthquake. Now, if someone in the apartment three floors above me rolls over in their bed, I’m jolted awake – and stay that way for hours. Just for a weekend, I’d love to sleep in late without being woken up by something six floors up four times a night.

  • White Christmas

Call me a hopeless romantic, but there’s something so beautiful about waking up on Christmas morning to freshly fallen snow…. Except when it covers your doors and windows. So, if someone could arrange for a snow fall overnight on December 24 that’s not too excessive, and then melts before we have to drive in it, I’d be a satisfied customer.

So, there you have it Stu. I’m not entirely sure how you wrap some of those, but perhaps when you find out where to get them, the place will offer a gift wrapping service.

What’s on your wish list that money can’t buy?

 

Writing outside of my comfort zone

Last Friday, a group of friends invited us to go skating.

A lifelong skater, I jumped (absolutely pun intended) at the opportunity to get back on the ice. For me, the rink is a place that feels like home. I love the crisp air and the feeling of my blades on the ice.

For my fiancé, it was a completely different train of thought. Having not been on skates for years – and admitting not knowing how to stop – he was nervous to say the least. Nonetheless, the day came, he rented a pair of skates and stepped on the ice. The first few strides were wobbly and I can only imagine how intimidating it was to watch everyone else whip by while he was struggling just to stand up straight.

It took him more than a few minutes to get all the way around, he kept his eyes on the ice for fear of falling, and he hung onto the boards the entire time – but he did it. The next time around, he moved a little faster and relied on the boards a little less. By the time the hour was up, he was doing slow but steady laps by himself, his confidence noticeably improved.

He even said he wanted to go back again for regular skating sessions so he could continue to get better – and maybe learn how to stop. His attitude impressed me – he was completely out of his comfort zone but he didn’t back out. In fact, he embraced it. And what bad things came of it? Nothing – in fact, he gained confidence and a potential new hobby. (A gal can always hope!)

It made me think about my own experience with writing. Yes, my Dad’s story has an inspirational component around his organ donation and that’s easy to write about, but there are a lot of dark segments around my relationship with him, his demons and my own that are uncomfortable to share. Without those pieces however, the story just doesn’t make sense.

Staying in my comfort zone would mean dilly dallying for a few more years and shying away from the pieces that truly add pivotal context to the book. But I need to write those pieces for my audience and for the overall story. Most importantly, I need to write them for myself.

So, thanks British, for the unintended perspective. Now when can we go skating again?

 

 

A gift to Dad on his birthday

Today is my Dad’s birthday. He would have been 55 years young.

I say “is” because December 6 will always be my Dad’s birthday; I say “would have been” because he’s not been here to celebrate his birthday with us in five years.

The first birthday he was gone was five months after his car accident. I feared the day almost as badly as I feared the dreaded one-year anniversary.

I took the day off work, I went out with friends to do mindless Christmas shopping, and we took my Dad’s dad out for dinner at the Mandarin, my Dad’s favourite place to binge on Chinese food. We purposely left an empty chair at our table as a painful reminder of his absence.

I remember crying so hard on the way home from the restaurant that I became hysterical and had to pull over. As I was choking and gasping for air through my full-body sobs, I couldn’t stop thinking that it just wasn’t fair.

I felt so sorry for my grandfather, who was out marking his son’s birthday yet his boy wasn’t there to share it with him. I’ll never forget the sadness in his eyes or the hopeless tone of his voice. His only son was gone and he was never coming back – to him, it was a fate worse than death.

Fast forward four years and here I sit at 7 a.m. eating leftover Chinese food and thinking about my Dad. Not much has changed – he’s still gone, but the tears are under control and the cuisine is still inspired by him (although perhaps a poor choice for breakfast).

While each passing year has become more “normal”, I still miss calling him, meeting him for all-you-can-binge Chinese food and having him act surprised and grateful when my three siblings and I would pay for his dinner.

Three years ago, I started writing a book about my Dad’s passing and my subsequent journey. Yesterday, I found the query letter I sent to an agent about it – he asked for an exclusive when the manuscript was finished. I was thrilled someone was interested and started writing every day. I was convinced I would have a draft in 12 weeks.

Today, the manuscript sits at a mere 25,000 words; Dad’s death and my subsequent journey remain largely untold.

I have the support to get it done; Patti Hall is a memoir coach who has been mentoring me and subtly kicking my ass every now and then by way of “why aren’t you writing?” and “use me, I’m here!” messages.

I don’t have an answer as to why it’s not done, other than the fact that it seems daunting to do. A whole book? What if no one cares about my story? What if it never gets published?

Meeting with Patti again this week while she was in town has made me realize the biggest and scariest “what if” is “what if I just didn’t write it at all?”.

No one would know, really, except myself and a handful of others who knew I was writing. But I would know. And I know I would be so disappointed in myself if I didn’t give it a valiant effort.

So, today, on my Dad’s 55th birthday, I’m giving him the promise of a book proposal this year. I will write his story and his choices and our relationship and my journey in the hopes people will be inspired to make the same decisions and different decisions. I will submit it to agents. I will not be disappointed if it doesn’t get picked up.

OK, scratch that last bit – I’ll be disappointed, but even if it doesn’t, I did all that I could. In the meantime, I’m going to finish my chow mien and deep fried shrimp (which, by the way, are not-so-great the next morning) and put together a plan to make this happen.

Happy birthday, Daddy. You’re desperately loved and missed every year.

 

Getting back to “me”

The past few months I’ve been really distracted; I started a new job, I’m planning a wedding, we’ve had issues with our rental apartment and a myriad of other first world problems. This distraction has meant I haven’t done a proper blog post in ages, I haven’t been taking care of myself the way I like to and I haven’t been appreciating all of the little things I like to take time for.

When I moved to Vancouver two years ago, I walked to work every morning and found myself humbled by the fact that I had the privilege of living in such a beautiful city. I promised myself my walk to work along the seawall would be just me and my thoughts – no phone unless I was taking a photo. I looked forward to the views every morning and although they didn’t change, each day it felt like I was seeing it for the first time.

Somewhere along the way, my leisurely walk to work along the seawall was replaced by a route along a busy city street with significantly less scenery and a shorter commute time. I became so preoccupied with what was going on in my own life that I completely forgot to take step back  to enjoy what was going on around me. Sounds cheesy, but it’s true.

This morning, after realizing how long it had been since I had last taken that seawall route, I made a conscious choice to get back into my routine – and I’m so glad I did. The water was still, the air was crisp and the sand had been lightly dusted with frost; it was beautiful and peaceful and serene.

It took a few minutes longer than the other way – and even moreso this morning as I stopped to take it all in – but it really helped me feel back at home and made me realize I need to do “me” more often.

So, back to the morning routine, back to the gym on a regular basis and back writing again. Because, y’know, what’s the point of having a blog if you never use it?

 

 

In case you were wondering…

British is away on a business trip so, naturally, I’ve been binge eating the things I don’t get to eat often because he doesn’t like them: cold pasta, KD, goat cheese, ricotta and mushrooms to name a few.

It’s through this ‘nothing in moderation, everything in excess’ attitude that I learned a very important lesson today: there is such a thing as too much goat cheese in one omelette.