Let me start by saying that this blog post is more for me than it is for you. I’m not trying to be insightful here, or persuasive, or anything like that. I just want to write about something for the purpose of writing about it and talking about it in public. I’d call it therapy if that didn’t make it sound weird.
Those who follow me on Twitter will know that I’ve been having some medical problems for a while, and that I’ve been talking about them in vague terms. I mean, I complain about migraines eight times a day, but I’ve been alluding to something else for a while now.
In a nutshell: I have a severe panic disorder.
For those who don’t know what that is, here’s the definition from the National Institute of Mental Health:
“Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder and is characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress.”
The first time I remember getting a real honest-to-goodness panic attack was in the summer of 2008, while I was doing my MBA internship in Minnesota. It had been a very stressful couple of months, working about 70 hours a week. My wife had just flown home to Utah, and I was alone there for about ten days, living in a cheap hotel. And one night, all alone in the office, I suddenly just couldn’t breathe. I felt completely overwhelmed with fear, like I needed to run or hide or curl up in a ball. (My response to this new, unknown sensation was to leave the office and relax. So, it being the summer of 2008, I went to the theater to see The Dark Knight. And let me just say: if you’re trying to relieve a panic attack, going to see The Dark Knight is not the answer. It was the most unpleasant experience I have ever had a theater, ever.)
The panic attacks subsided for the most part, and I went back to my normal life. Once in a while, they’d pop back up, and I’d freak out, and then they’d go away and I didn’t think a whole lot about it. (Well, what I thought was: “I’m really stressed, and this is a normal product of stress and worry. Suck it up. Muscle through. Tough it out.”) And that’s how things were for a couple years.
But about nine months ago, everything started to fall apart. The panic attacks got worse. They were more than just feelings of fear and dread; they had physical symptoms: chest pain and numbness and shortness of breath. And as they got worse, they also got more frequent. They were coming every week, and then several times a week, and then every day. It got to the point where I couldn’t even make it till noon without crushing feelings of doom and failure, and a racing heart rate and sweating.
More than once my wife would find me curled up on a chair in my office, head under a blanket, or sitting on the floor of the kitchen in the dark at eleven o’clock at night. At work I’d be in meetings and have a sudden, irrational, desperate need to get out of the room, to get out of the building.
Three months ago I told my writing group about it. For too long, I’d been making up excuses for why I couldn’t go, and I didn’t want them to think I was abandoning them and leaving the group. But I just couldn’t handle going. In fact, any social event is hard–I struggle to go to neighborhood parties, or group lunches, or even get-togethers with extended family.
And that’s when I finally realized it was time to see a doctor. Because this wasn’t normal stress, and it wasn’t something I could just muscle through. This was crippling my social life, my family life, and my work life. It was irrational and uncontrollable. I read the science behind them and tried to think myself through the attacks: I’d tell myself “This is just hyperventilation, and it’s not dangerous, and you’re going to be fine.” And it made sense in my head, but was accompanied with such feelings of intense terror that it didn’t help.
This week I got to see the doctor. He diagnosed me with a classic panic disorder. I am now in the early stages of treatment with medication, and may soon be going to cognitive-behavioral therapy.
So, why am I tell you all of this? I’ve wanted to talk about it publicly for quite a while, mainly because this is a huge part of my life and I’m tired of keeping it a secret. But I’ve been reluctant for many reasons. For a long time I felt guilty: that this is just stress and everyone gets stress and I should just deal with it. (That is no longer something I believe.) But I also have been reluctant because I don’t ever want it to come across as a convenient excuse: Rob can’t do X because he’s having panic attacks; Rob’s missed his deadline because of a mental illness; Rob’s a poor performer because he’s dealing with health problems. I’ll admit that it’s been difficult, and I haven’t been on top of my game for months, but I’m not posting this here because I’m asking anyone to coddle me.
For that matter, I’m not posting it because I’m looking for sympathy, or because I want you to tell me how your MLM’s superfruit juice can solve my problems.
I’m just telling you because it’s been too hard not to tell you. So, here it is. Carry on.