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Anxiety: “I Thought I Was Losing It”

It was like any other Monday morning. I got up and got in the shower and began planning the day ahead. After a few minutes I started feeling dizzy while I was shaving. My heart started racing, my breathing became short and erratic, and an unexplainable sense of fear overcame me. The anxiety seemed to come out of nowhere and my thoughts started spinning out of control.

It was at that point that the panic cycle started into motion. First, the physical symptoms (light headiness, diarrhea, nausea, hot flashes and tingling) created a fear that I might die. The more I worried and focused on this fear, the more physical systems increased which, of course, increased the fear. The worst thing about this panic cycle to me was that it created feelings that I was “going crazy.” At times I felt like I was having an out of body experience and thoughts seemed strange and frightening. I had no idea what was happening to me and I became convinced I was losing it and would be spending the remainder of my life in a mental ward. It can be summed up as a paralyzing fear of losing control. Attorneys, by nature, generally have a strong need for control, and I thought I was losing it.

Though the immediate, intense physical symptoms eased off after an hour or so, I could not get rid of the fear of what had happened to me. As a result, I didn’t make it to work that day, and didn’t go in for the rest of the week. Instead, I stayed in the bed using my analyzing legal mind to try to figure out what was happening to me. All this over analyzing did was restart the hamster wheel in my mind, which started the physical symptoms again. For some reason I felt worse in the morning. I was so exhausted by the end of the day I would “crash” into the bed. However, I never slept that well because I would awaken at 4:30 a.m. everyday without fail. During this first week, I also went to the doctor to try to get a diagnosis of a physical problem so I could have a nice clean explanation for what in the hell was going on with me. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything physically wrong with me.

The more I sat around the house that first week, the more fearful I became and the more trapped I felt. Just what was going on with me? I was looking at my little daughter thinking I would never be able to function and provide for her, as a good father should. I had so many different thoughts going through my mind during that period of time that this article would turn into a novel if I tried to list them all. Suffice to say, I was miserable, scared and did not know why.

Fortunately, a couple of weeks later, I was on the phone crying to my sister telling her I had finally flipped my lid and was going to be screwed up for life. This is when I first heard the truth; I was having classic panic attacks. I, of course, immediately thought panic attacks were reserved for those “crazy” people who couldn’t handle their lives. I knew that I had read about panic disorders and anxiety disorders in the countless medical records I had reviewed in cases prepared for litigation. Surely I couldn’t be one of those nuts who had to take medication and receive some psychotherapy? She reassured me that I was going to be just fine. It was a wonderful thing for her to say, but at the time I had a hard time believing her and felt that she just really didn’t understand.  Nonetheless, at that point, I was feeling so badly I would have done anything to feel better. On the advice of my sister, I went to my family doctor who prescribed a brief protocol of medication.  He acted like it was no big deal and told me I would be fine.

What you have to understand is that the prescribed medication was an antidepressant, and damn, “I wasn’t depressed.” Depression was for those folks who couldn’t handle life, wasn’t it? The doctor told me that the antidepressants had been very effective in treating anxiety as well as depression. Nonetheless, I just didn’t want to take any antidepressants. It took me a while to accept that I needed this help, but thank God I did.

I was functional enough by the next Monday to go back to work and carry on my job competently, though my mind was constantly worrying over what was happening to me. I began to read everything I could put my hands on to understand what panic was and what this antidepressant was going to do to me. After taking the medication for about a month, I really started to feel like my normal self again. I learned that the antidepressant just helped regulate my seratonin level, which had somehow gotten out of balance. Understanding the chemistry seemed to help me deal with it better. Nonetheless, with panic disorder/anxiety disorder you tend to over analyze (which is only compounded when you are an attorney) and as a result I continued to scare myself with thoughts that I was sicker than most people with panic disorder. I pulled out the DSM guidelines (the American Psychiatric Association diagnostic criteria) and decided that I was schizophrenic, had a personality disorder, and was truly “mentally ill” in the classic sense. I think this scared me the most. I eventually learned that none of this self-diagnosis was even close to being accurate. This behavior was just a symptom of my over analyzing, anxiety ridden mind.

As the medication continued to help me function at my normal level I then entered the recovery process.  First, I had to try to understand why this happened to me. I had always led a productive “normal” life, so why did this happen? When I began to look back on the time leading up to this first major panic attack, I realized that in the proceeding years my mother had passed away of cancer, I had had my first child, I moved to a new town, I had taken on a new job, and I was paying a high mortgage for a home that I really didn’t like, and of course, the daily bombardment of dealing with peoples’ problems in the practice of law.

A lot of psychiatrists believe that major stressors, such as those listed above can bring on a drop in seratonin and the onset of anxiety, panic and depression. You may also have genetic tendencies that play a role. The great news I learned was that the condition is extremely treatable, and future recurrences can be held to a minimum or potentially never again recur at all.

There I was for the first time realizing that I would be “just fine” and that I could have my life back. It took time to reach this level of understanding, but I had to be patient and willing to take a proactive, honest approach to recovery. It was essential not to live in shame and denial. I had to get past the stigma of having a “mental” condition. It is amazing how rapidly you can make progress when you let go of your sinful pride and realize everybody, at times, has some mental issue they deal with in their life. It can only hurt you if you don’t deal with it. I am now weary of those who claim to have it “all under control.”

Recovery is an ongoing process. Though I stopped taking the medication and had my brain chemistry back in balance, I still needed to make some changes in my life. These changes are necessary so I can limit my stress and change my approach to dealing with life. These were the kind of steps that were important to help limit or prevent any further problems with anxiety. For me it was extremely important (if not the most important thing) to reconnect spiritually with God. I began to pray everyday to help focus my mind on the day ahead. It was also amazing to see that Jesus spoke about our need to not be anxious in his Sermon on the Mount over 2000 years ago and it was completely applicable to a lawyer in the year 1999. Secondly, I had to take a proactive approach to learning relaxation techniques and trying to change the way I reacted to certain situations. There are a lot of cognitive behavioral skills that can be learned to help your body and your mind counteract the effect of any stressful thoughts. Thirdly, I found it very important to be honest with those around me and be willing to share with anyone my experience. The idea of pretending like it did not happen and being afraid that people might look at me as weak or a mental case was simply out of the question. As stated above, everyone is a mental case to some degree. The real question is how we deal with it.

As part of this third step, I made contact with the State Bar Lawyer Assistance Program and its FRIENDS Program when I saw an article about it in a legal publication. I became a FRIENDS Volunteer as I felt compelled to be a part of a program that would help other lawyers who may have experienced something along the lines of what I have described. I think it is extremely important for people to share and talk about whatever issues they may have with others who can relate to them. Not only does it help you realize you are not alone, but it also makes you realize how we are all in this thing together.

Lastly, you also become more aware of your body and mind and you learn how to identify certain “triggers” that will start you thinking the wrong way. I did put myself in that position a couple of months ago and had a little relapse of anxiety. It was not comfortable, but the good news is I recognized what it was, talked with someone about it, accepted it, and, therefore, stopped or did not allow the fear/worry treadmill to begin. I didn’t feel good physically but I pulled through it quickly, which was a far cry from my first experience in 1999. In other words, I knew what it was and how to cope with it. Hopefully, I will never have another one as long as I live. But if I do, so what, I know how to deal with it.

Now, as I look back on the whole experience, I can end this article a lot more positively then it began. In a strange way I feel like, though it was a horrible experience, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me in my life. I have a better understanding of mental issues that all people deal with at some point in their lives. I have learned the tremendous importance of support and sharing with other people. I have learned to “let go” of a lot of things that once occupied a lot of my thoughts.

I must say that all the points I have discussed in my recovery need ongoing work and refining. This continued effort is not just for those that have to deal with panic or anxiety.  We all need to give attention to our spirituality and connection with other human beings, in order to let go of unnecessary worries and live fulfilling lives. I think Mark Twain once said that his life was full of misfortunes, most of which never occurred.

I say to anyone who reads this article: please let someone know if you are having a problem with anxiety, panic or depression and get the tremendous help that is available so you can recover and enjoy the wonderful experience that life has in store for you. I promise you are not going crazy, you will not die from an anxiety attack, and everything is going to be just fine!!  If you feel you might need assistance or if you know a lawyer who might need help, please call the Lawyer Assistance Program’s FRIENDS Program at 1-877-627-3743.

– by Ed Ward

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