Friday, March 30, 2007

Round the Bend and Back: Part 3

Ok, so I left off my last post with my diagnosis of IBS and my discovery of Dr. Andrew Weil. But now I remember that Dr. Weil came later.

My anxiety grew from driving and dinners out, to elevators and subways (not that I had any occasion to encounter subways in G-town but we did sometimes go to Toronto and after one terrifying subway ride where the squealing made me feel like we were squeezing through tunnels way too small for the train, I wouldn't ride another one. I still haven't. Which is weird because I loved it when I was younger, as a teenager adventuring in the big city). Not long after we escaped from our crazy enraged landlord into a really nice second floor apartment in an old Victorian house with a lovely kind and conscientious landlord, I got a new job, writing and editing, which was exciting but involved a day or two in the Toronto office from time to time, high up on the eleventh floor, too high to take the stairs. I remember one day in the Toronto office, I spent all day fretting about how I could only reasonably get up or down by the elevator, which I hated hated hated. (It was yet another place where I could get trapped.) Although I managed to put on a competent front and get my work done and hold normal work conversations, inside I was like a guitar string, tuning knob twisting it tighter and tighter, until that moment just before it snaps and frays.

I finally sought outside help for the anxiety. I think I called the family counselling unit or something, next to the general hospital. I spoke to a counsellor and he proclaimed that I had anxiety with agoraphobia and suggested I join a group therapy. It was mostly aimed at people with social anxiety, people who were shy to the point of an anxiety disorder, but that wasn’t my problem. I really didn’t want to bother with it, because I wasn’t interested in group therapy. Especially since social phobia wasn’t my problem.

The agoraphobia diagnosis didn’t sit well with me either. Literally, it means a fear of markets or something like that, and I wasn’t afraid of going downtown, or going to work. I wasn’t completely housebound. When I asked the counsellor about it, he said that anxiety either comes with or without agoraphobia, it's so common, but I still didn't think it really applied to me. Later, I came across a definition of agoraphobia as being a fear of being trapped outside the home, which made a lot more sense to me and seemed a lot more applicable to my fear. That was exactly what I was afraid of. I was afraid of being trapped in a public bathroom or without a public bathroom, unable to get home.

I never saw that counsellor again, but he referred me to a psychiatrist. Maybe it was just him, but it seems to me that psychiatrists are pushers. He just wanted to test my blood to rule out a thyroid problem, which can apparently cause anxiety, so that he could get me on some drugs. I really didn’t want to take drugs. The way I saw it, my anxiety really got out of control right around the time I stopped drinking. I think my drinking suppressed my anxiety so well that I had no idea it even existed until I quit, pretty much cold turkey because of the intense nausea. (Later, I finally figured out that it was probably the Pill, which I'd started taking when drinking started causing the nausea. Once I stopped taking the Pill, I could drink without nausea again. I won't ever go on it again.) Anyways, I asked the psychiatrist why it was ok to take pills to eliminate anxiety, but not ok to drink. And he couldn't give me a satisfactory answer... he hummed and hawed about dosage and context but I came away with my belief intact that if I was going to medicate my anxiety, I would probably be best off doing it with booze. But I wasn't really interested in rekindling my alcoholism so I looked for other answers on my own. When I refused more drugs, the psychiatrist just sort of shrugged, metaphorically, and didn't provide alternatives for me. I never saw him again either.

I decided to quit smoking. I figured that since nicotine is a stimulant setting off little mini fight or flight responses in my nervous system, it might calm me down to stop sucking butts. Instead, all hell broke lose. I think what happened was that my body had gotten used to those jolts of adrenaline, and when they were taken away cold turkey, along with all the withdrawal and psychological cravings, my body decided to take matters into its own hands, and started setting off its own stress responses even more frequently.

Then I went on strike for eight very long weeks, which is when things really got bad. I tried showing solidarity and picketing, but I hated the divisiveness. I hated the Big Bullies that joined us from other workplaces and wore balaclavas and physically intimidated women who were crossing the line. The day I watched a big faceless balaclava'd bully holding up a rubber boot and a jar of vaseline to a woman I had worked with once and who was supposedly betraying our side, the man who was supposed to be on my side but who I'd never met or even seen his face, I went home horribly nauseous, sure I was going to vomit. It had been so long since I'd felt nauseous, but here it was back again and worse than ever.

Looking back, I'm sure the most stressful part of the strike was that I wouldn't even admit to myself that I was stressed out. I had enough to savings to (probably) get me through it, and once I realized the picket line was not for me,I had my days free, something I'd been wanting for a long time. I tried to make the best of it, but I was on month to month contracts when I wasn't on strike, so I think the uncertainty was just way too much. I had constant nausea for months. Even after the strike finally ended, eight weeks later.

One of my first days back at work, I felt that old shaky, sweaty feeling and ran to the bathroom, waiting for the diarrhea and vomiting to start. It didn't. I went back to my desk, shakily, but I still felt sick, so went back and forth from my desk to the bathroom. My colleague saw me and asked what was wrong and I said I must be coming down with the flu. She said she didn't think it was flu, she thought it looked like panic. Her daughter has panic attacks, and they look just like this. I disagreed. It had never ever occurred to me before that these episodes were panic. I went home, where I felt safe, and felt better shortly after arriving.

I think it was around this time that my grandma got in a car accident, and we didn't know if she'd survive. Sugar Daddy had to work, but I took Thursday afternoon off and Friday off and drove, all by myself, to London. I made it, but it was terrifying. The 401 between G-town and London is a pretty lonely stretch of highway through a rural area; in other words, not a lot of public toilets within easy access of the highway. Luckily, I didn't have an emergency, but I was so scared of the possibility, and felt so trapped in that moving car, that just thinking about the return trip made me weep with fear. I remember blubbering away in the hospital cafeteria, not about the state of my grandma who seemed to be doing well, but about driving by myself an hour and 15 minutes back to G-town. Through the blurry curtain of tears in front of my eyes, I remember noticing this mystified look on my mom's face. I think it was the first time she really saw just how bad my anxiety was.

As much as I knew intellecually that my fear about the solo return trip was irrational, I still just couldn't bring myself to do it. So I called Sugar Daddy and asked him to take the bus to London and drive back to G-town with me. And he did, with no questions, no mocking, no attempt to talk me into doing it myself.

Throughout all this (I think my grandma's accident was in May 2002, almost three years since I'd met Sugar Daddy, more than four years since I first got sick), Sugar Daddy was gently supportive. He liked going out for dinner, although I don’t imagine he liked sitting by himself very much, but he didn’t make me go and didn't make me feel guilty for depriving him of dinners out. I could order takeout and eat at home, because then I was close to our bathroom, and safe at home. He never tried to cajole me into staying at a restaurant if I did try to go out for dinner and panicked. He never tried to persuade me to stay for dessert. In short, he never pushed me. He let me push myself.

Some time ago I saw something about how to support someone with anxiety and/or panic. I think it may have been on Dr. Phil (shudder) but it may have been in a magazine or book. Anyways, it said to do exactly the things Sugar Daddy did naturally and unself-consciously. It said to never try to convince someone to stay longer somewhere if they're having a panic attack. And not to push them into going somewhere they don't want to. If they want to try going somewhere, if they want to push their limits, they (we) can only do it knowing they (we) have an escape.

It humbles me to know that if our roles were reversed, I would not have supported him the way he supported me. I totally would have tried to cajole myself out of my anxiety if I were in his position. Perhaps it took me so long to get over it because that was the approach I took with myself.

I wondered if maybe my coworker was right, that I wasn't actually sick with a mysterious illness but suffering panic attacks, but with the constant nausea (I remember popping Gravol once I got to work so that the wooziness would recede before I had to drive home but I would have some relief over the day), I went back to my doctor for help. We tried a few things, but eventually she said, “I'm sorry. I don't know what else to do for you. You don't LOOK sick.” After I had a panic attack at home, I started to feel like nowhere was safe. I became really desperate for relief from the near constant anxiety and dread. I was desperate, so I asked my doctor for a prescription. She gave me Paxil. But it made me more wired and unable to sleep, so I quit after two days. I read on the web that in fact Paxil is contraindicated in people who suffer panic attacks, because we pay SO close attention to every single little sensation in our bodies that the effects of the drug can bringon panic attacks. I was starting to realize that my problem was likely more psychological than physical, but that feeling better would likely require a holistic approach to support a healthy mind AND body.

Dr. Weil points out that western medicine does a few things very well, mending broken bones and curing bacterial infections among them. But it manages chronic, vague, undefined illnesses (like IBS) very very poorly. For example, my family doctor threw some pills marketed at IBS at me, which I took for quite a while, and I think there was some placebo effect, at least I felt like I was doing something, anything, to make myself feel better, and it gave me a bit of comfort when driving longish distances. But I stopped taking them after a while because they creeped me out, and there was no dramatic change one way or the other when I stopped.

When conventional medicine gave up on me, I gave up on it. That's when I started reading Dr. Weil, who has a lot of good advice for making small changes to your lifestyle that add up to good results. He is both an MD AND a naturopathic doctor, so he focuses on natural, lifestyle, food-related modes of healing, and he backs it up with good research. He points out that traditional Chinese medicine, and other “alternative” healing modalities manage the more chronic and vague illnesses, which conventional medicine can't treat, much better.

I discovered Weil's Spontaneous Healing. It sounds like a hoaky, new-agey title I know, but what it offered me was hope. Each chapter focuses on someone he knew personally, and the nasty symptoms they experienced and unsuccessful conventional medical treatments that were thrown at them. Eventually, each person turned to Weil or some other “alternative” healing modality, absolutely desperate and at the end of their rope. And each person is a success story. They became well, despite the fact that conventional medicine could not explain or understand or even believe their healing. Before I read this, I believed that I would never be well again, that my life would become more and more restricted with the mysterious illness that doctors didn't even really believe existed. But reading about people who were much sicker than I was, becoming well, was empowering.

Weil also emphasizes the mind-body connection, and believes that the placebo effect is a powerful thing, not something to discount treatments, but to capitalize on. This too gave me hope, which was what I needed more than anything else.

(If anyone reading this is suffering from an illness that is not being treated successfully by conventional medicine, if you're feeling hopeless about your prospects of wellness, let me know and I will mail this book to you. That's what a difference it made to me. Of course, you could check out your local library first. His other books are good too, and he's a really engaging writer.)

I made more changes in my life. I started eating food cooked with fresh chilis, much to Sugar Daddy's enjoyment. Previously, I'd been scared of their effect on my stomach, but in fact they are, counterintuitively I know, very healing, and anti-inflammatory, particularly for the stomach and intestines. I'd already figured out that spicy vegetable curries and rice rather agreed with me. But now I knew why. Ginger, garlic, chilis, turmeric... they're all anti-inflammatory, and/or antifungal, antibiotic, etc. AND I think eating spicy foods reflects and enhances a spicy outlook on life.

I started avoiding the news. Weil advocates occasional news fasts if you can't handle longer stretches without the news, because the news is mostly sensational fear-mongering. And we really don't need more fear in our lives. I still don't really watch much news. People tell me the things I need to know.

I made sure to get enough sleep. I became almost obsessive about being in bed by ten, but it made a difference. I always felt rotten the day after even a slightly later night.

I quit coffee. This was easy because I noticed an immediate difference in my stomach. I drink strong black tea now, which doesn't seem to have the same painful and anxious effect as coffee. I once tried a half-cup of coffee years later, figuring that my system had healed enough to handle a small amount. I used to LOVE coffee SO much, surely it would be ok. But immediately, my gut got that old familiar gut rot, and my mind started racing anxiously.

I started taking vitamin B6, but didn't notice much difference. Until I went to get a new bottle at the pharmacy, and the pharmacist told me that all the B vitamins work in a chain reaction, so it's best to take a complete B-50 complex. THAT made a huge difference. I noticed that if I stopped taking them for a week, I'd start feeling more vague anxiety and stomach pain. If someone is feeling stressed and anxious, I always recommend the B complex. It clears cortisol, a stress hormone, from your bloodstream, which I believes stops the vicious circle of stress leading to a faster stress response, leading to more stress.

I added nuts and seeds to my diet, which have so many wonderful things in them: fibre, protein, good fats, which help your brain chemistry, and magnesium, which has been shown to reduce arthritis and other pain.

I still can't separate out the anxiety from the IBS stuff. It's a loop, and the one feeds into the other. The more anxiety I felt, the more my gut reacted, and the more my gut reacted, the more I panicked. The gut is a central component of the mind-body connection. When our reptilian brain starts the fight or flight response, which usually happens involuntarily in the face of ANY stress, even the modern kind for which neither fight nor flight is an appropriate response, one of the first things that happens is our gut shuts down to siphon energy from digestion to fighting or fleeing. It's not accident that we talk about gut feelings or going with your gut.

Those changes helped with the bowel stuff, but I still had near constant nausea and intense anxiety. Finally, I called the employee assistance program through my employer, and they hooked me up with a counsellor. One who I could just talk to and who wouldn't tell me to go to a group session.

That's when things finally started to get better.


Mimi said...

What an amazing story! I'm so glad you were able to find a way to heal yourself: the panic attacks and the gut problems are really no way to live. You must feel so glad to feel like yourself again. Thank you so much for sharing this. Good for you for just surviving this all.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Anxiety runs in my husband's family, and he has it but mildly. However he does have serious stomach problems. Every evening when he comes home from work, he spends 1/2 hour in the bathroom. I always thought he was escaping us (me & the kids) but your story makes me take his trouble more seriously... I think I haven't been supportive enough. I always figured he'd take care of himself. Hm.

Thank you for writing this!

Alpha DogMa said...

Cin, thanks for sharing this story. I'm really tempted to pick up Weil's books.
Group therapy for people with social anxiety? I *heart* irony! Cruel though it may be.

NotSoSage said...

This is so great, Cin. I think it's amazing that you're putting this down. It would be hard for me to do.

My mom loves Dr. Weil. I have to admit that although I believed the philosophy, when she first started getting into it I thought it was hokey new-age stuff. That was probably 10 years ago. I should probably check it out.

Gastrointestinal health is so important. A friend of mine talks about the show Oprah did all about bowels and bowel movements. I didn't see it but my friend (a health freak and NOT an Oprah fan) raves about it.

Sugar Daddy is amazing. It's amazing that the two of you were able to find out how you worked. I always try to treat people's challenges as naturally as I can, hoping that they understand that if they ever need to ask for something, they know that they can.

Oh, The Joys said...

Wow. Such a lot to go through...

Mouse said...

You reminded me that I haven't had my B-complex yet today. I started taking it for energy and something else (obviously not memory), but am glad to hear about its effects on anxiety too.

My favorite aunt loves Weil and has passed some of that information along to me, but I've never actually read one of his books. I think I'll check him out now.

Nancy said...

I will definitely check out Dr. Weil -- the conventional treatment I take for my disease works fine for certain things, but not for others. I do suspect more attention to what I eat might help -- the holistic approach just could be the ticket to move me in that direction.

And the news fasts. What a great idea.

Thanks again for sharing your story.

Beck said...

Excellent posts.
I've had trouble with anxiety since I had The Baby - and now I'm having full-blown panic attacks. It's just so much fun, as you well know.
I know SO many women who've had troubles with The Pill that now I think that it's a horrible, horrible thing. My own Pill story is pretty yucky, too.

slouching mom said...

Thank you for writing this. There aren't enough stories like this, stories about REAL people who may not fit so neatly into psychiatry's model of categorical diagnosis.

Kyla said...

Amazing...totally amazing. I'm so glad you found something that worked. And isn't Sugar Daddy completely wonderful?? What a guy.

Bon said...

okay. going out tomorrow for B50, nuts and seeds, and some chilis...i'm by no means suffering at the level that you were, but i know i'm not where i'd like to be with anxiety, either. thanks for laying out your path.

and yeh, Sugar Daddy sounds rockin'. i'm new and need to do more archive-hunting, obviously. :)

Mad Hatter said...

I started this yesterday at work (5 mins before I had to get home to the sitter) and only managed to finish it tonight. I have very, very much enjoyed this series. I've been thinking lately about how ill I feel most of the time and know that I need to break the coffee/stress cycle. This personal history has been inspiring.

BTW, I barf on the Pill as well. No Pills in my life anymore.

Em said...

This is fascinating - I'm definitely going to follow your vitamin B50 advice. I'm so glad SD has been so supportive over the years - our blokes can suprise us sometimes can't they?

I got chest pains on the pill - no more for me either!

ewe are here said...

What a journey! I'm glad all the lifestyle changes made such apositive difference.

And Think I'll look into the B50 complex vitamin for myself.

slouching mom said...

Hey, cin -- I've just read through Parts 1 through 3, and I am moved by your honesty. These kinds of stories are so important, particularly for people suffering from anxiety similar to yours, and I say that from the perspective of someone trained in psychology and psychiatry.

Though why you showed up on my site as David I'll never understand! I'm dumb about computers.

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