Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Self-Diagnosis Three Years Later

It was the end of my second year of seminary and three heavy thoughts were burdening my life: the end of my internship with SMU Wesley, my 30 page credo (a long paper giving what your interpretation of the christian message is) due in two weeks that I’d only written five pages of, and what I was going to do for my third year of seminary. I’d basically decided I was leaving Dallas and going to serve in a ministry in Louisiana, though that search had turned into three mild leads that didn’t seem too promising.

It was in this climate that I woke on a bright Thursday morning in late March to find the room spinning only slightly as if I’d been turning circles in my sleep and woke up with perpetual vertigo. I got up and seemed to make it to campus, but it only got worse throughout the day, and in fact got so bad that I could no longer stand up and had to go. And yes, I drove home. Everyone asks that with surprise when I tell this part of the story.

By the end of the day it’d become unbearable and I was forced to call Andy and another friend to take me to the emergency room. Now, to explain what was happening physiologically, get into a swivel chair and spin yourself twenty times and try to walk around. That’s exactly what it felt like. I couldn’t hold my eyes open, I couldn’t walk, I could only lay down and even that felt like I was inside a barrel rolling down a hill.

When I got to the hospital they did a blood test to check my blood sugar, no diabetes. Then they did a test for an inner ear infection, again nothing. Then an MRI or whatever thing it is that they check your brain for problems, and that too turned up nothing. Then it was basic tests of any abnormal brain functioning. All of these turned out nothing definite and they sent me home with a bottle of valium and one week to see what happens.

Well, I hated the valium and I couldn’t do anything else, so I laid in bed for days until I could gain some functioning again. It was gradual but after four days I could watch a movie and by the next day I could read, though not for very long. After a week it was gone. No one knew what was wrong with me and no clear answers were given. Most people just said it was stress and left it at that. When I told my family, my grandmother on my father’s side said she and her siblings have had the same occurrences in their life, which was oddly comforting.

The consequences of this episode were that I had to drop the class where I had to write the 30 page credo, and I had to cut back from my work at the Wesley Foundation. Lastly, a job offer that seemed perfect and eased my worries came in the middle of April, and with that all the stress was gone. The episode is over and shelved as a odd event while I was in seminary in Dallas.

And that was it until yesterday. I was on my bike, riding down the Katy trail headed to work and listening to a new podcast I’d downloaded where one of the commentators had something happen to him that was strikingly similar to my experience where he was at a new job he’d started years before, and just like me the doctors gave him no clear diagnosis of the problem. He came to work and started to experience the dizziness and fear I described, and even thought he was having a heart attack. I felt similarly. The difference between him and myself is that he continued researching and found his answer with a psychiatrist he knew. She told him flat out that it was a panic attack.

Yes, a panic attack.

Some people have a tendency to interpret life events as dangerous, as if our brain has a switch that begins to interpret everything as harmful, and if this accumulates over time the body reacts adversely. This of course varies with people, some interpreting things that aren’t dangerous when they should, and others instinctively making nearly everything stressful when it shouldn’t be. Regarding the attacks though, some are acute and others are more prolonged. Mine, of course was very prolonged. I didn’t necessarily freak out but I did think I was having a nervous breakdown. What’s even more interesting is that it’s genetic, which explains my grandmother and her sisters having it too.

So, three years later that’s it. I have panic attacks.

What does a person do to counter these attacks? Simple stress relievers: deep breathing, meditation, and good old fashioned self care and self examination.

I’ve always said it’d be nice to be crazy, that way I could explain all the mishaps and weird things in my life that I do. Panic attacks aren’t what I had in mind, but I suppose they’ll suffice until it’s official that I’m insane.

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