You may have noticed that I’m funny, independent, loving, confident, creative and outrageously attractive. You may not have noticed that I’m also occasionally consumed by migraines, anxiety, agoraphobia and panic attacks. My migraines used to follow my cycle and laid me out flat with equal regularity. I’ve had one so intense my husband thought I was having a stroke. He took me to urgent care and they transferred me to the ER in an ambulance. That was a very expensive and embarrassing headache.
In my quest for treatment I discovered lots of research linking migraines to mood disorders such as depression, anxiety and bi-polar disorder. The discussion in the medical community is a bit “chicken or egg” at this point, but basically much of what happens in the brain during a migraine is very similar to what happens during a panic attack or bipolar episode. Additionally, if you suffer from migraines you are more likely to suffer from one or more mood disorders as well. Or is it the other way around? Chicken, egg.
My panic attacks are fierce but infrequent. They feel just like that moment when you witness something scary, such as a child falling or a car accident: your stomach drops, your heart leaps into your throat and you stop breathing. It’s just a moment but it’s enough to leave you wiped out, both physically and emotionally. During a panic attack that “moment” last for hours or even days. One took away my ability to speak for 18 hours. Another made me ditch a party and the date I’d come with because an intense and inexplicable fear–like a huge asteroid was about to crash down on us and I was the only one who knew about it–overwhelmed me. (It’s a shame too, because that guy was cute and I have no idea where he is to this day.) There is no immediate fix, no talking myself out of it.
These days I’ve learned to recognize the symptoms sooner, call someone to help with my kids, and avoid expensive ambulance rides. My most recent panic attack made me stare at my beautiful children and known that, at the moment, I couldn’t care for them and needed someone else to until the “moment” passed. I called my husband at work and said I was sorry, but he needed to take the kids and figure out the rest. Considering we are separated, I’m proud of myself for sucking it up enough to call him. I’m also proud of him for rising to the occasion and not flogging me for it. My next call was to a dear friend. I cried to her about how screwed up and incompetent I felt. She told me that at that very moment moms all over the world were having days just like mine. “It happens,” she said. “It happens even when we aren’t sick or in the midst of a failing marriage.” She didn’t tell me to snap out of it (thank goodness) but she did tell me to snap out of beating myself up about it. Double thank goodness for wise and loving friends.
I am not ashamed of any of this. I didn’t choose or create it anymore than I created migraines. Yet it isn’t something I’ve talked about with people outside my inner circle. The fact is our culture is not so comfortable with these conversations; but I think that’s changing. People used to whisper the word cancer; now we march, support, and talk openly about it. As we understand more about the brain and the causes of mental illness the subject becomes less taboo. It is socially acceptable to talk about headaches. People don’t walk on egg shells or wonder if you are stable enough to parent your kids, hold down a job, or be a good friend just because you have migraines. The rest is a different story.
The effects of anxiety and the accommodations I make for it create difficulties in certain social situations–just ask that guy from the party. In restaurants I sit with my back to a wall because open spaces filled with people are hard for me and walls offer an anchor. Sometimes I handle this gracefully and no one notices; sometimes I’m awkward. Large social gatherings take so much focus and energy I often appear hyper or aloof in ways that are off-putting to others. If you’re aloof at a dinner party people think you’re rude. If you’re hyper people assume you’ve dipped into their medicine cabinet. Saying you are riddled with anxiety can make people uncomfortable and may halt future invitations.
So while this all may not be dinner party conversation, it is definitely worth sharing. Let’s face it, we’re all nuts. I’ve met one or two perfectly sane people in my lifetime and they were so boring I had to excuse myself to go watch paint dry. I’m not always sane, but I’m almost never boring.