When I first joined this site last year I told myself that I would not write my survivor story until I had dealt with this disorder for at least one year. That time has now come and passed.
I grew up without any anxiety. I often would get overly worried about health issues at times, but that was the only time I ever really worried. I never felt stress, and I certainly never got stressed out over anything in my life. I had a fantastic upbringing, and my demeanor was laid back, cool, calm, confident, able to take command of a classroom or speak in public with the greatest of ease. I was that guy who could make friends or hold a conversation with practically anyone.
On Friday, March 14, 2008, I had the privilege of standing halfway through my best friend’s wedding. I recall feeling nervous (I had almost passed out in other weddings - but it was just nerves, the heat, the lights, etc....) but honestly didn’t' think anything would actually happen. I was wrong. Everything happened at once...and the next thing I knew I was on the front pew in a cold sweat. I sat there for roughly 8 minutes (my friends in the congregation timed it for lack of something better to do), then jumped back up in line (I felt much better by then). I felt different...nervous of course, weak, but not humiliated. I mean, it’s certainly not rare to see people pass out at weddings. I made it through the reception just fine, even with tons of people there, I really had no problem, although I do recall just wanting to go home and lay down - I attributed it to feeling weak.
The next day (Saturday) I acted fine and told everyone I was fine, but I still felt "off." It's hard to explain, but I think most people on this site will know what I mean. That night I vividly remember being at my in-law’s, and just not wanting to talk about passing out, b/c I felt it could happen again. I had a constant feeling of “surreal-ness” or light-headiness. The next day was Sunday. My wife and I attend a very large church here in Michigan - Mars Hill Bible Church (Google it). I usually sit on the end, b/c I'm tall, but we had to move down for once and got stuck in the middle. During the singing I suddenly felt "off." I didn't think I was going to pass out, but I knew I had to get out of there. However, seeing as I was stuck in the middle, I told myself to pull it together and said "you'll be fine." After the service as we walked to the car, I remember telling my wife that I think I just had an anxiety attack (I had taught psychology for three years and knew about them, but was in denial this could happen to me.) I remember worrying that entire Sunday about the next day at work, and hoping I didn't get these feelings at school while I was teaching.
Monday morning came, 1st hour went fine. 2nd hour went fine, until near the end at the bell I started to have those "sensations again" - heat flash, cold sweat, etc.... At the start of 3rd hour I was feeling so bad I had kids kinda run the room while I sat in a chair off to the side. And then - BAM - it passed and I was able to jump back into it, albeit exhausted of course. And the rest of the day I worried and worried about what was going on.
Tuesday morning came, and I crashed. I had gotten up to shower and was sitting in front of the TV trying to eat my breakfast, and I couldn't. I had a huge lump in my throat, and I just couldn't go in to work. I woke my wife up and said "I don’t know why, but I can't do this anymore." I called in a sub - I remember driving to work to tell them I wouldn't be there and leaving lesson plans - and by the time I got home, I was just shaking, crying uncontrollably. I had my wife stay home with me and off I went to the doctors.
I had anxiety.
The doctor gave me Ativan to “take away my edge” and told me to check in with him in two weeks. I was told that this (anxiety) could happen, and I knew all about my brain chemicals and such. He attributed it to several things. Apparently I was genetically predisposed to anxiety. Plus we had a lot of happenings going on - a death in the family, followed by a death of a student at school, so I was surrounded by grief, as well as teaching an AP class, working on my Masters, volunteering as a tutor at an adult literacy program, volunteering at my church, playing guitar at my church, getting married - and everything came together and decided to surface on March 14th, during the lighting of the Unity Candle at the wedding. I passed out as one guy, and when I came to, I was a "new person." Like one of my doc's says, more than likely something changed chemically when I passed out. Either way, I now had anxiety, developed practically overnight. And my world was rocked onto its head.
I'll be briefer now. I was prescribed Ativan at first - hated it. I tried teaching with it, but all it did was put me in a zombie-like state. In the next two weeks, I missed 5 days of school, and during those days I was there, I could hardly wait to get out of there. My worst panic attack came at school the night of parent teacher conferences. A close co-worker of mine confided in me that she had anxiety, and told me about her life. She knew what I was going through. I tried to get ready for conferences, but I was having a really bad attack. I went to our Principal, who put me in a chair right away (she thought I was gonna pass out) and had me call my wife. I told her I needed time off to get this all figured out, and she agreed right away. That night I had a phone call from my boss recommending a great psychologist (my Principal’s spouse is a clinical psychologist and she knew ALL about what I was going through and some good recommendations – for this I am eternally grateful). The next day, I was sitting in my Psychologists office, wondering to myself “How did I end up here?”
That was one year ago last week. I am now on Spring Break. Last year at this time, I was the lowest I have ever been. I had never ever suffered clinical depression in my life – but I did then (as a symptom of anxiety). My wife took time off of work to stay at home with me – often working from home. Friends or family would want to call or visit, but I didn’t want to see anyone. My life consisted of my wife getting me out of bed every morning, where I would move to the couch. I would stare out the window or read a book on anxiety (“Hope and Healing for your Nerves” by Claire Weekes is highly recommended for first-timers to anxiety). I couldn’t eat anything at all except for a bran muffin everyday. I was placed on Paxil for my anxiety and depression, and Ambien to help me sleep. After about two weeks of this, I slowly started working on jigsaw puzzles to keep my mind occupied – often working 3-4 hours in one sitting just to stay focused. I always had the radio on a religious station out of Chicago that would broadcasts messages and religious programming which I constantly listened to as well. And that was my new life: Bran muffins, Jigsaw puzzles, and Religious radio.
Slowly I started to improve – it takes up to 8 weeks for Paxil to fully kick in to your system. Spring has always been my favorite time of year, and so I tried to fight the depression and worry. You all know how hard that can be though. I tried not to think about it, but I realized I would have to go back at some point, or at least try to – which absolutely terrified me. Until I went back for a visit – to see my students. I had written a letter to the staff and another letter to the students explaining my sudden absence, so everyone was aware of the situation. My kids were so excited to see me, and I was excited to be there that I didn’t want to go home but knew I had too. That was highly encouraging.
Eventually I came back part-time, then full-time, finishing off the year with no problems. I could write more about all that, but it overall went well. Summer vacation hit, and I was on the up and up, feeling like my old self more and more everyday. In fact, I started lowering my Paxil dosage on my own. I was still seeing my therapist once a week or so, but I was feeling better that I decided to take the summer off from seeing him too. Then the week before school started came upon me, the end of August, ‘08, and I realized I didn’t want to go back to school. At times I was excited, and at other times I wanted to go become a farmer or a monk. I work outdoors all summer long with no stress, and I was anxious about starting school again. The week before school started I had two small attacks – neither of them were very helpful in encouraging my triumphant return to teaching with no anxiety.
The first day of school started and I made it through all day with no attacks, but it was hard to do and when I got home, I just collapsed again. Medical Leave #2 J. This time I was serious about switching careers. I looked into Masters programs and other occupations. But I also stuck it out and waited. I had made an appointment with a Psychiatrist to see if I was on the right meds. My first appointment wasn’t until the end of September, and so I took the whole month off and spent a great amount of time on this site. After meeting with my new “shrink” I decided to go back to school and face my fears. This was with the help of an increase in Paxil, and also being put on Xanax. If I could do it – great, if not – oh well.
I did it.
It took a long time, and I started with one class, then two classes, then three classes, not returning to full-time until this past January. It was an uphill battle at times. I had to de-sensitize myself to the building. My biggest fear is that I would have an attack and pass out in front of the students. I can say now that in the last year, that has not happened. This semester has been great. I just got through parent-teacher conferences with no trouble. Oh sure, I still get some sensations at times, and its on my mind multiple times every day, but I have learned to cope with this and not get scared or worried. I jokingly tell everyone I’m a “walking controlled substance” and “I have to hide in the Staff bathroom every time the Drug Dogs come to school.” But I’m back at work, I’m happy, and I’m looking forward to next year (although I do still have the big “What If?” question in the back of my mind when I think of the future.
So as I begin to wrap up, let me say this - anxiety sucks. But there is so much life after that first development. I do worry at times that I could relapse, but I just let those thoughts float away and I don’t dwell on them. I was shocked at the number of people who came out of the woodwork when I openly discussed my situation. I know of several people who are still in the closet at work and in our group of friends who fear what others might think, or struggle and suffer in silence. Many people came up to me when I first had this diagnosed and told me their stories. Then I found this site and realized how common this disorder is (roughly 1 out of every 5 adults in America).
Everyday I wake up and do my same routine. On my way to work I say the same prayer in which I hand all my anxiety and worry to God, and tell myself if it’s gonna happen, it’ll happen, so no reason to worry about anything. I am calm again, I’m confident again; I’m more laid back at times than I was before the change. I realize now that it’s ok to say No to people. I don’t have to be on the go all the time. My wife and I have very secure jobs in this economic struggle, in the state with the worst unemployment in the nation for the last 6 years running (Michigan) and we have been blessed financially as well. Even so, I prefer to live slower, cheaper, not the high-life that other young people in our situation would live, and I attribute this to anxiety. Anxiety really put my life in perspective and I believe it was a way in which God has used me, and I’m sure will use me in the future. I often call it my “thorn in my side.” It still is. Paul didn’t have his thorn taken away, and I’m not sure if I ever will either. I don’t question God why I have this; I don’t think it’s our place to do so (or at least our place to demand an answer). I could just as easily have Leukemia, or an inoperable brain tumor. Instead, I have anxiety, and now I have to go create some lesson plans. J ttfn!