It was a morning like any other. I woke up and went through my daily routine, slopped on some hair gel and a few sprays of cologne, and made my way to work. I picked up breakfast, then headed outside for my traditional post-meal smoke.
There I was, sitting outside on a cool San Francisco Tuesday, when, suddenly and inexplicably, pain covered my chest. Squeezing pain, as if someone had picked me up from behind and given me a bear hug of massive proportions. I stood up, stretched and rubbed my chest, hoping for the pain to disperse. But it got worse.
I went back inside and sat down. My boss noticed my visible discomfort and asked if I was all right, so I described my symptoms. Then he asked a question that changed the course of my life forever: "Do you need to go to the hospital?"
I was a 25-year-old healthy man who'd never broken a bone or had anything more serious than an ingrown toenail. But that morning when I heard the word "hospital," I was certain that I was about to die.
"Yes" I mumbled. "I need you to get me to the ER; I think I'm having a heart attack."
I arrived at the emergency room and flew through the doors as a person in a life-threatening emergency would. "I'm having a heart attack," I dramatically proclaimed. The nurse rushed me to the back as I heard the call go out over the radio: "Possible MI, male, room two." (MI stands for myocardial infarction, i.e., a heart attack.)
The doctors entered and looked puzzled. I was pretty young to be experiencing chest pain. They confirmed I was the correct patient, then diligently ran a battery of tests. After several hours of being prodded and poked, they determined that there was nothing wrong with me, but that this was the product of stress.
I was utterly dumbfounded by the idea that I, always fearless and never really worried about anything, could have been reduced to a blubbering victim of stress. It made no sense. But hey, I thought. I wasn't dying. I had that going for me, and to hear I was medically sound made me feel pretty good about myself. I'd been checked out and now it was over, right?
Wrong. On a business trip a few weeks later, it hit me again, so bad this time that I was racing down the shoulder of the interstate trying to get to the ER. Once again, the doctors said it was stress.
At their recommendation, I sought a regular primary care physician. I assume that he had never felt the feelings that I was having. He referred me for a full cardio workup, just to ease my concern, scratched off a prescription for Xanax and sent me on my way.
By this point, my occasional outbursts of despair -- panic attacks -- had forged a constant fear that another one was on its way. I checked my pulse constantly to make sure my heart was still beating, I lay in bed with my hand on my chest to feel my heart, and I went into panic mode daily.
Five years, 25 emergency room visits and upwards of 30 doctors' appointments later, I have finally found some resolution in my battle with anxiety. For those of you who also suffer, or have someone in their life who suffers, I wanted to share what I've learned.
To those with a friend or loved one who has anxiety disorder:
I know that you don't understand this apparent madness, and I hope for your sake that you never do, but please be supportive.
Do not, under any circumstances, disregard or downplay the victim's feelings. For someone who has never suffered from anxiety, the idea of such an absurd and irrational thought process is difficult, if not impossible, to understand. But for those of us who have felt this way, it is very real and extremely scary.
We're a fragile bunch, and telling us mid-panic attack there's nothing wrong with us is the equivalent of kicking someone in the shin and then telling them the pain is all in their head. You may know for a fact that there is nothing wrong -- and rationally, we often know it too -- but the anxiety is very real and disregarding it just intensifies it.
Do remind us that we are going to be OK. That validates our feelings, helps us focus on how the situation will end and takes us out of the panicked moment.
To my fellow jittery friends:
My biggest piece of advice is to find a compassionate doctor who will give you the support and attention that you need. I finally found one after going through half a dozen or so, and she is amazing. So amazing that she even came to therapy with me, twice! Talk with your doctor and agree upon a medication or other course of therapy that will help you.
Find someone that you can talk to, someone who understands. You may find comfort in a support group, either online or in person. They're full of people just like us who are there to vent and be supportive of one another. No matter what kind of anxiety you experience, there is someone else who knows exactly how you feel.
Here's one for the moment when you decide that you are actually dying and are in need of immediate emergency care: Think about how it ends. Think about how it ends with you walking out of the hospital, carrying your discharge papers. This time, it will end the same.
Am I completely cured? No, and I never will be. But I have learned to manage much better. I'm proud to say that I haven't visited an emergency room in about nine months, a huge feat for a guy who was getting to know the staff by name. I have a network of very supportive people in my life, including my doctor, without whom I'd probably be doing my routine of pulling into a gas station and yelling for an ambulance, rather than writing this article.
I used to be a SCUBA diving instructor, fearlessly navigating the deep, coming face to face with sharks while keeping my students safe and alive. The last two times I dove, I was struck with panic and had to abort, but in a few months I will return to the depths of the ocean and I will conquer my fear.
I will conquer because I will not allow anxiety and panic to kill another day of my life. It's my life, and anxiety can't have it anymore.