Chapter 2: The brain is the most mysterious and coolest thing ever

The brain is the craziest and coolest body part

By the end of July, I felt like I was smooth sailing. I had gotten the stress under control and felt much more balanced. That’s I started to feel really “off.”

I was foggy, unfocused, forgetful, and felt like I could not regulate my temperature well. I was either exhausted or full of energy, starving or had no appetite. Lots of extremes. I felt constantly anxious and like I could not shake it, regardless of good stress relieving measures. It didn’t help that we came home from a fancy dinner one night to see a rat climbing down our kitchen cabinet. Total. Rat. Infestation. It’s never good to not feel safe and secure in the place where you sleep.

I kept telling myself I was just coming off the stress and emotion high. I was exercising, resting, sleeping enough (despite the rats) and eating healthy. I went out of town for a course in Ohio with my friend Blair (same Blair as before), and things really felt weird. I just didn’t find the relief in traveling and getting away that I normally do. I found myself having to leave the classroom and just sit in a bathroom stall or in the building lobby and quietly breathe. We would go on walks each night that I thought would relieve the stress-and it made me feel worse. I had no appetite, when usually I have ravenous hunger. The only thing going for me was that I was able to sleep.

We left the course and headed to the airport. I felt so anxious that I couldn’t sit still waiting on the plane at the gate, so I walked laps, working on deep breathing and trying to distract myself. At this point, I still didn’t know what was going on, but I knew something was really wrong. I kept telling myself “Just make it home and you’ll be ok.”

On the plane, I read a magazine and watched Frozen. This was actually a great distraction until we lost internet signal lower than 10000 feet. I tried listening to music and started to feel very lightheaded, then noticed the room start to feel dark, and noticed my heart was pounding quickly. Oh my god, I’m having a heart attack.

My dad had a heart attack in 2012 so I knew I had a family history. I’d had a similar episodes in 2009 while studying for my PT boards. Several thousand dollars and 3 million cardiology tests later, I was told I had nothing but sinus tachycardia (IE, a fast heartbeat). That doesn’t mean I didn’t fear it happening again.

I tried to take deep, slow breaths, and slowly, things started to feel somewhat under control, but then I was just very jittery and shaky. I was terrified, and even afraid of saying anything to Blair because there was nothing we could do and it scared me to think that she couldn’t possibly help me, either. We were trapped on an airplane. And for those of you keeping score-my 2009 episodes also occurred in situations where I was either alone or in a situation where it would be mortifying or impossible to escape or get help.

Interesting. My dad had been diagnosed with something like this in the past…

We were walking through the Atlanta airport and I was still feeling weird when I finally told Blair what had happened. She said “maybe it was just because you were in an enclosed space” and I agreed. Sure, claustrophobia. My gut instinct told me that I’ve never once had true symptoms of claustrophobia, but that idea held me over until I got home. I walked in to see my husband on the couch, excited to see me. His smile triggered instant tears. I completely lost it. That’s a really nice way to greet your husband when he hasn’t seen you in 3-4 days.

I sprawled on the couch and told him everything. I hadn’t divulged all of my symptoms to anyone at this point (note to self: don’t do that!). Hello, vulnerability, nice to finally meet you!. He calmed me down and said maybe it was just a freak thing and it would pass now that all of the “unknowns” were behind us regarding my health. He also helped me decide to cut out 2-3 nonessential activities so I could have more time for me.

I wasn’t so sure. Gut Instinct told me this was not all I needed to do. I opportunistically had the next day off and took vulnerability step 2. I called my primary care doctor and told them I thought I was having anxiety issues and they were pretty bad-but I wasn’t sure it was that and wanted to talk to the doctor about it. They got me in that afternoon. He agreed with Daniel and said that maybe it was everything built up from all the health scares, and it was all going to dissipate. He’d been through something like it before and it took time for things to calm down.

Ok, that was reassuring. But I told him in a very-un Julie, un-stoic, un-“everything’s ok, I’m fine” fashion that I thought I wanted to try an anti-depressant because what I was feeling was just too weird for comfort. I also told him I didn’t see this as a long term plan, but one to get me over the hump so I could reframe and reorganize my person and my life to decrease the buildup of stress I didn’t know I had built.

So off I went to the pharmacy, proud bearer of a prescription for 60 mg Cymbalta. We picked this one to help with anxiety and the chronic pain I’d had for a long time. He warned me I may feel a few weird things the first few days, but they wouldn’t be too severe. I can handle weird, I thought. I’m already there. What’s a little more?

All day after my first dose—I felt like I was in outer space. Hot, cold, spaced out, nervous, very jittery. It was way worse than the stuff I was already feeling, and it was definitely more than just “a little weird” per the doctor. I got home, fairly freaked out, and read the side effects of the medication. Check, check, check, check, check, check, check (the list goes on). I had them all. (Note to self: don’t read side effects of anxiety medication when you have anxiety!!!). I went on a walk with Daniel and tried to get some dinner down, tried to journal about my symptoms thinking it’d be a good idea to keep track of them, then we lay in bed and talked a bit before we fell asleep, unhindered.

In the middle of the night, I woke up to a racing heartbeat, extreme dizziness and inability to breathe. At first I tried to calm myself like I did on the plane, but it just worsened. I sat up frantically, turned on the lights, and woke Daniel, saying “I’m dying. I need help.” He tried to calm me, and told me I was really ok. My symptoms led me to believe otherwise. I cannot even describe the sheer terror and sense of doom I was feeling. He pleaded with me to calm down and that I was ok. I didn’t believe him and pleaded back for him to call 911. Given that we live so close to a reputable emergency room and cardiac center, he refused to do that and drove me himself. (For the rest of you-ALWAYS call 911 if you’re suspecting cardiac symptoms!)

I spent the 5 min car ride working on pursed lip breathing (Thank you, PT school education!) and started to notice the shakiness and numbness start to wear off. I was still shaking and trembling terribly upon arrival and had trouble walking into the ER, getting brutally annoyed with the security guard who said we had to park the car before I could go in (Really dude? The parking space is 4 feet from here! Just let me get out of the car!)

I walked in, told them I was having heart palpitations and felt really awful, and they put me right into cardiac screening. I met with a PA who did an EKG and asked me a battery of questions. We got to “have you taken any medications recently” and I mentioned the Cymbalta. He said “AH! It’s quite common we see people having severe reactions to the Cymbalta within the first 48 hours. I bet it’s that but we will do a full work up just to be safe.”

Several tests later, we determined my cardiac status was crystal clear and I’d had a panic attack. My gut instinct told me this was right, especially because by the time I was in the treatment room, I was completely calm. It felt so safe knowing I was in a hospital and if something terrible happened, someone would be able to help me quickly. Even Daniel noticed this and we discussed how I just felt so much safer being in the care of a medical professional.

They prescribed me xanax. The nurse told me over and over again that even with the xanax if I had another episode that I should come right back to the ER because I may need more serious medical intervention. At this point, I was feeling more stable, but still terrified. I didn’t want to go back home and have the same thing happen. I asked if there was a 24 hour pharmacy nearby and the doctor said “you can’t wait until tomorrow?”

NO DUDE! Apparently yesterday my body decided I couldn’t make it to tomorrow without incident and that’s why I’m here!

We went across the street to CVS, got my xanax and a whole bunch of make-you-feel-better snacks and treats (gummy worms fix everything) and I again sprawled on the couch, shaking and terrified. I took the xanax and passed out for about 2 hours (wonder drug!) then woke up feeling not much better. I couldn’t get my “to do list” off my mind. I knew I was going to have to take the day off and was terrified and embarrassed to call my manager and talk to her about why. I also knew I had only a few hours left (now that it was 5 am) before the office opened and I needed to communicate with them so that they could cancel my patients. I felt guilty about cancelling my patients at the last minute (that’s the last time I’ve ever felt that way. Daniel slapped a little sense into me.). I sent her a text and with Daniel as my witness, nearly had another panic episode. Hmm…so maybe that work stress was more of a trigger than I thought?

I took another xanax later that morning when I was allowed, and just felt completely hungover, drunk, and out of it.

To add insult to injury, Daniel was the hero of all heroes in this entire situation. I have not mentioned yet that he was supposed to be leaving that day for a 3 week bike race across Europe. I was terrified for him, terrified to be at home alone with a rat infestation, and now terrified at my medical state. So this mayyyybe had something to do with the timing of the panic attack, no? Psychology is a crazy thing, folks. There’s so much we don’t realize is going on with ourselves unless we pay attention. And even then we miss so many things. It’s a good thing I majored in it because that made me an expert, right? HA! Wrong.

Poor Daniel was so polite, but couldn’t believe I kept him up all night before he had a transatlantic flight. What impeccable timing! I felt so guilty and anxious about that, too. I spent the whole day pacing our house because I couldn’t sit still and felt better when I was on the move. I walked 2.5 miles in our tiny house. I hated watching him pack and knowing he was leaving. Late that morning, I called my mom (Vulnerability #3!) and burst into tears as I told her what had happened, asking for her to come and take care of me. Thank goodness Mom just retired and didn’t have to be in school that day! She and my dad came down and brought food. It is completely understated how comforting it feels to have your parents drop everything to come take care of you when you feel like you’ve completely lost control and hit the bottom.

Daniel left for Europe (I cried. A lot.) and Mom took me back to see my primary care doctor that same day. He said “welp, you didn’t have a “slightly weird” reaction, now did you? Maybe I should have given you the xanax!” He told me for the time being I could take more xanax at bedtime than prescribed by the ER doctor as needed until I felt more under control and like I could sleep. He lowered my Cymbalta dose, thinking maybe we started too high (ya think?). He also told me to come once a week for a while, keenly sensing that I clearly was much more calm in the presence of a medical provider. Hello, trust issues.

My physician also discussed with me the chest x-ray I’d just had done at the hospital to check on my heart. On it was a huge mass in my right upper lung. I told him that I’d known about that mass for 13 years and had been told by numerous specialists that it was no big deal, nothing to worry about, and nothing to further pursue. He didn’t buy it and said I needed to get all of my old medical records and we needed to pursue it. This triggered some really old anxiety from when I dealt with it as a kid/teen (just what I needed, right?) and I quickly wrote it off and tried to forget about it. If I don’t acknowledge it, it’s not there, right? And just like that, the thought was gone. Out of my mind.

So that night I took one xanax. No change. Two pills. Slightly more relaxed. Still feeling frantic, I asked my mom to come read with me and tell me stories (no joke. And yes, I was 30 years old). We smiled and laughed as we looked at pictures of our cute niece/granddaughter. I still didn’t feel great, so I took the doctor’s advice and took one more pill. That did the trick. I slept through the night without a panic attack. It’s all I wanted.

I awoke the next day feeling SO hungover and awful. I also was completely nauseated. We’re talking can’t-tolerate-Pedialyte, Gatorade, and Saltines-nauseated. It was a rough day. I was on the couch, barely able to watch TV, barely able to read or focus on anything because I was either so anxious, or so dull and “out of it.” I cancelled my patients the next 2 days and knew I needed some serious recovery time. Because 3 days apparently constituted serious recovery time.

You know that’s probably not going to turn out to be true.

My parents took me out to their house so I could get out of rat territory and feel safer. Man, it feels good to be in your old bedroom with all your old kid stuff. It was then that my #kidatheart was reborn. I began journaling and watching Daniel’s race online. I bought coloring books and markers and did coloring to pass the time and release some energy. After a few days, my appetite improved to tolerating Gatorade and saltines, but I could not sleep. I was dependent on xanax to help me sleep. I called the pharmacist and he recommended changing the timing of my Cymbalta dose and thought it was responsible for the lack of appetite.

I also made another huge step (Vulnerability #4). Gut Instinct told me I needed and wanted to talk to a professional. I contacted my colleague (the life coach I mentioned) and asked for her advice and help. She agreed to chat with me the next day and that was the best phone call I’d ever had. She patiently listened and explained to me what she thought was going on—and how holistically interrelated she thought all of my past few months of medical craziness had been…on top of the normal high-achieving, perfectionist Julie life I was leading. I felt so relieved. A new relationship was born and I was pumped to get her help.

Eventually I was able to walk with my mom. I moved into my parents’ house for the 3 weeks that Daniel was gone because I wasn’t allowed to drive as long as I was on xanax. I went to work, but worked an abbreviated schedule and took breaks every chance I could get. My parents cooked for me, did my laundry, and basically treated me to anything I needed. This. Was. Just. What. I. Needed. A complete break from life so I could recover and refocus. And yes, it was longer than 3 days.

Unfortunately, within a few days of beginning his race (and only a few days after my panic attack), Daniel was hit by a car south of Paris, France. He suffered 2 broken ribs and kidney and liver contusions that landed him in a Paris ICU followed by regular hospital for 6 days. I felt so helpless, but interestingly-not scared or worried at all. Thank you, Xanax, for completely numbing my emotions. I took on a new task of managing his care and insurance payments from across the sea. I felt terrible for him, but this new mission was just what I needed in the wake of feeling so broken to start to feel like I could accomplish something.

Poor Daniel’s hard-earned dream was cut short. I was just so thankful he was ok. He pressed on and stayed in Europe for the next few weeks once he was released from the hospital (shoeless and without money). He got everything together and ended up “finishing the race” and made it to the finish line in Istanbul via train just in time for the celebratory race end party. I was so, so proud of him.

I slowly recovered. I worked with Shawn, the coach, weekly. I fortunately had a ROCK STAR PT student who took care of all my patients for me while I supervised from a distance, feeling completely drugged and awful. I slowly regained an appetite. Most importantly, I gained a completely new perspective on life. I was sad to leave my parents when Daniel finally returned home, but glad he was back.

It was tough to return to “normal” adult life and I had some ups and downs for about the next month. I was overall moving in the right direction. I cut out things and people that didn’t matter. I got rid of drama. I eliminated commitments I didn’t need to be committed to. I focused on joy, positivity, breathing, wholeheartedness, playing, and meditation. I started to really study all of this stuff. I became a student of holistic living and managing anxiety. I watched every TED Talk I could get my hands on, began reading books, exercising more.

About 2 months in, I decided it was time to eliminate gluten. I don’t know why, but Gut Instinct told me it was the right thing to do (pun totally intended). I charged ahead and was kicking gluten’s ass, but I figured this was only a trial. A month later, in November, my friend Kate made me my favorite dessert, white chocolate bread pudding, for my birthday. I felt so sick the next day. I was so disappointed. I knew this meant I had to keep it out for good. Until our vacation in Jamaica that is…

Read on to Chapter 3: Out with the old, in with the new for more on this story!