January 5, 2010

How I lost it and got it back again -- and how you can, too. Part 1

Download audio here.

A year ago today I lost it. I became so overwhelmed with panic that, after several hours of trying every trick I knew to thwart it (including trying to watch the movie Amélie -- who could have a panic attack in the middle of Amélie?), I told my husband to take me to the emergency room, the only solution I could think of. A few hours later, the drugs had finally kicked in and I was back home.

This wasn't my first panic attack, but it was my worst. I wrote a little bit here about the car accident 19 years ago that triggered my first round of panic attacks. After months of therapy in 1991, I got them under control and thought I had put them behind me.

But in 2008, they came back, and more persistently than the first time. The triggers were unpredictable. I couldn't fathom why I was having them again after so much time. Perhaps the house fire, a car accident, my husband leaving his job to start a business, a back injury and one of our 16-year-old kitties being diagnosed with cancer -- and my lack of tools to deal with the strain and upheaval -- had something to do with it. But at the time, it was all a mystery.

Whatever was going on, I needed to get it under control, as I could see the problem was escalating. I scheduled an appointment with a therapist for December 30. And not a moment too soon... I had to cancel our second appointment when I woke up exhausted, sick and groggy from the January 5 attack.

I'm talking about this now because I know a lot of you suffer from various degrees of anxiety. And I should make it clear that my panic attacks are not related to public speaking.

But I want to share this because I know what you're going through, at pretty much any level -- I've been there. And I've spent a lot of time learning about and using tools to combat the anxiety, both when it's happening, and as preventative measures before it strikes. I had a good head start 19 years ago when it happened the first time, but those tools only took me so far. This time around, I've gone much more in depth in an effort to resolve this issue.

To be honest, I was afraid to share this with you, for fear of undermining my own credibility as a coach. After all, if I can't get my own panic attacks under control, who am I to try to help you? But then I realized that that was exactly the reason I should share my story. Because I made it through the toughest year of my life. And I got it back together. And so can you!

Back to January 2009... Back at home after the attack, I fell apart. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. My stomach was in knots. I woke up every night with nightmares, and adrenaline rushes that enveloped me in wave after wave of chills up and down my spine. I couldn't bear to leave the house, except for basic errands, doctor appointments and Baby's appointments with the vet, the oncologist and several emergency hospital stays. I lost ten pounds in a month. I was constantly afraid.

One night while my husband was out of town, my neighbor invited me over to watch a movie. I tried to fight the panic with all my might, but couldn't do it. Our homes are only a few feet apart, but I couldn't stay.

After the ER visit and three days of being unable to sleep, eat, leave the house or stop crying, I was prescribed medication. One, a longer-term treatment for anxiety, an SSRI, and the other, a short-term, quick-acting sedative called Ativan. The uptake period for the long-term drug was painful and came with its own raft of side effects, and my doctor asked me to stay on it for a minimum of six months due to the risk of relapse, even after symptoms are gone.

Together with cognitive behavioral therapy, medication is standard treatment for acute panic, and I only ever considered it a temporary solution -- not something I intended to continue for the rest of my life. But really, I had no idea how long I would need this. I agreed to try it for six months. (In the past, I've written about the use of drugs for public speaking anxiety, and I stand by my previous statements; please explore all your options before deciding on medication. You should see a doctor AND a therapist before making the decision to use drugs; it is not a decision to make lightly.)

And so life goes on. I had clients, interviews and speaking engagements I had committed to. I had a blog to write (and thanks again to several guest posters who got me through that first month). I had a cat who needed treatment and constant care. It was brutal; I could barely take care of myself. I was lucky to have the support of my closest friends and my husband. I couldn't imagine going through this on my own.

One day, I walked into the overheated, windowless meeting room at a client's office, and immediately broke out in a panicky, claustrophobic sweat. I excused myself for a second to run to the restroom and I popped an Ativan, hoping it would kick in at the speed of light. It was quick, but not quick enough. I went back to the meeting and squeezed a tissue under the table in my sweaty left palm, discreetly dabbing the perspiration on my upper lip as I powered through the first half of the meeting with the client. And I mean powered. I had to be a machine, and I was. It was a great meeting.

I did have to cancel one speaking engagement that I had coveted for years. Realizing that I would have to get on a plane, deal with travel and crowds and be out of my comfort zone so soon, I knew I wasn't ready. It broke my heart to back out, perhaps never to have this opportunity again. I realized that, if I was going to heal myself mentally and physically, I needed to cut back on work commitments and slow down.

At one point, while I was going through a period of strange hyperactivity but still barely eating, we attended a friend's small poker party. I mentally prepared myself for being around people, I made a point not to drink, and I had a good time. Except that I became overstimulated from all the talking and laughing and lay awake in bed until 6 am the following morning.

When people asked why they hadn't heard from me or seen me in weeks, I said I had the flu, which also conveniently explained the rapid weight loss. Every day, I asked myself, "What the @#$% happened to me?" I had no answer.

In Parts 2 and 3, I'll talk about how I got my life back in order, got off the medications, and how I'm keeping it together now. Part 4 jumps a year into the future!

End of Part 1.

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19 comments. Please add yours! :

mary langan said...

Interesting post Lisa, good to see someone share their personal stories relating to their career.

Looking forward to hearing how you got on!

be gifted said...

Thank you so much for sharing. I had my worst year of my life two years ago and after many trips to the ER, passing out alone at home with my daughter & in a Trader Joes on vacation-with the beginning of thoughts that I could not live like this, I was told I had panic disorder, as well. I also have come so far from that time and am so looking forward to hearing the continuation of your story!

Heather Stubbs said...

I celebrate your courage, Lisa, both in the actual crisis and in writing about it. The crazy thing about fear is that most of the time, it's irrational, so you can't reason it away. I'm eager to hear the rest of your story. Thanks for sharing it.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thank you for your comments. I know not everyone can relate to this exact experience, but we've all had our bad times. And how we deal with it and move on with our lives is so critical.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Also, your comments are making me think of additional things to add to parts 2 and 3, so extra thanks. :-)

claudine hellmuth said...

your post is very timely! thank you for sharing!!

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks, Claudine!

Linda Menesez said...

Lisa, this is beautifully written. Your desire to be so open and vulnerable in order to help encourage others is something to be very proud of.

It sounds like you just had so much going on in your life at the time before your emergency room visit, that you exhausted your coping abilities and stress management techniques. Too much cumulative stress over a period of time often leads to stress exhaustion.

Sharing this so openly and honestly was a big step forward. It might be good to take whatever time you need, until you feel really ready to continue on with parts 2 and 3. That would also give your readers time to process through their own thoughts regarding anxiety and how it manifests itself in their own lives.

We all have varying degrees of anxiety and fear that we're either dealing with now or have dealt with in the past. I'm sure that your posts on panic attacks will be very empowering for all of us.

Thank you, Lisa.


Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for your comment, Linda. I'm so ready to continue with parts 2 and 3!

And the good thing about a blog is that the readers can come back when they're ready and the posts will be here, waiting.

Erich said...

*Thank you* for posting this. I found this link on Twitter while searching for panic attack. I just experienced my first attack today, complete with ER visit and everything. It's so encouraging to realize I'm not alone, and that it's not "in my head."

It's truly frightening how debilitating it was. Your post gives me hope that I can overcome this! I'm going to see my doctor tomorrow, with a renewed sense of optimism.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Erich, I'm so touched by your note, and I'm SO glad you found my post today. It's so scary when you don't know what's going on, and even when you DO know what's going on.

I'm glad you're seeing your doctor tomorrow. If you want to get in touch by e-mail, please do. You'll find my contact link at the top right hand side of the blog.

You can get through this!

Steve Cherches said...

Great post, Lisa. Most of us experience stress, depression, frustration, and plenty of confusion at some point in our lives. Thanks for being courageous enough to speak about your own challenges, and for helping the rest of us in the process.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for your comment, TPS! I'm glad to help in whatever way I can.

Olivia Mitchell said...

Gosh. I remember you having the "flu" last year. I totally admire you for being so open with your life and writing so beautifully so that you can help others.


Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thank you, Olivia. I'm glad to clear up that little "fib" now.

Allison Sumpter said...

Lisa - I'm so glad I found this post! I could take Olivia's comment and write it myself, word for word. I LOVE that you opened up your private self on your blog. It makes you more human, which connects to the humanity in all of us. So much to say on that - the direction we're headed with bringing more humanity into industry, branding, and, well US! We're human first, all other labels second. I have nothing but respect and admiration for your openness. It is beautifully written from a heart that obviously wants to share to educate and encourage from the most authentic place - the raw, vulnerable self.

Thank you for the gift you give with your writing about this.

Now moving on to Parts 2 and 3!!!!

Allison :)

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thank you so much, Allison. I'm all about authenticity and being human; I try to model that and teach it to my clients. How can you reach people as a speaker if you're not real?

Jim Zaccaria said...

Thanks for sharing...I too have had some 'interesting' things going on since being hit from behind just at 4yrs ago...What's Up with So Many of us requiring that kind of thing for a Wake Up Call? I'm trying to be better at paying attention Now because the Grand Awakening is upon us!

Lisa Braithwaite said...

It's unfortunate, isn't it, that so many of us need a car accident or a heart attack or some other major incident before we start to take care of ourselves?

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