Fighting Off Anxiety Attacks
Fighting Off Anxiety Attacks
“I was always on edge and nervous, worried
that I would have another episode.”
by sophia s. vilceus
Three years ago, I was a vibrant 20-year-old
African-American woman who lived a fast-
paced life in a fast-paced city. As a student
pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English and
Ethnic Studies at CUNY City College of
New York, I had to pack what should have taken 40 hours into a 24-hour day. My alarm clock sounded at 5 a.m. on most mornings, giving me enough time to shower, dress, eat and perform a few chores around the house before catching the Long Island Railroad train that took me to my 8 a.m. sociology class in Harlem.
I chose to commute an hour and a half from my home in Elmont, Long Island, and back each day because I am also the guardian of my younger brother. Our mother died in 2003 – when I was 14 and my brother was 7 – of what was clinically described as “cancer of no primary source.” My father shared the house with us, but after my mother passed, I had to grow up quickly. I was up at daybreak and back home in time to pick my brother up from school at 3 p.m., help with his spelling, review his homework and cook dinner. Though exhausted, I still had to carve out time to do my own homework, study, prepare for exams, grab a few hours of sleep, and start the routine all over again the next day.
Between classes, long train rides and providing a shuttle service for my brother, I began experiencing shortness of breath. At first I tried to ignore it, telling myself I needed to workout more regularly at Lucille Roberts Gym – if I could find the time. At my age, what could go wrong?
Plenty, as it turned out.
“I was among more than 40 million Americans
—nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population –
who suffer from anxiety disorders. ”
I made an appointment with my grandmother’s cardiologist on Long Island. After performing a series of tests, including an EKG (electrocardiograph), the results came back negative. As strange as it might sound, I was disappointed. Disappointed because I knew something was wrong with my body. I just didn’t know what.
Recognizing the Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety disorder symptoms can vary and include:
• Constant worrying or obsession about small or large concerns
• Restlessness and feeling edgy
• Difficulty concentrating or your mind “going blank”
• Muscle tension or muscle aches
• Trembling, feeling twitchy or being easily startled
• Trouble sleeping
• Sweating, nausea or diarrhea
• Shortness of breath or rapid heartbeat
Source: The Mayo Clinic
By the time school ended, I was working my summer job as a nanny in Baldwin, Long Island, caring for three children. It was a beautiful July morning and I had just dropped off the youngest one, Liz, for her play date. Matt, the middle child, was asleep and Steven, the eldest, was in his bedroom, either on his computer or playing video games.
I was lying on the couch in the den, watching K’Jon’s
“On the Ocean” music video on VH1 Soul. Suddenly, the beat of a different kind grabbed my attention. My heart began to palpitate loudly, each beat louder than the one before. I struggled to breathe; my tongue grew heavy and my airways felt constricted.
My palms were covered with beads of sweat and I began trembling uncontrollably. I was disoriented, wondering if I was dying or, at the very least, losing consciousness. I was light-headed and lost control of my limbs. In my confused state, I even started thinking about my funeral. What would they say about me? The pressure continued to build. I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew whatever it was, it couldn’t be good.
Somehow I managed to pick up my BlackBerry and attempted to dial Steven’s cellphone, hoping he’d pick up in his room. Fumbling nervously, I failed at that task and frantically shouted, “Steven, oh my God – Help!” The sight of Steven rushing downstairs calmed me enough to instruct him to dial 9-1-1.
The arrival of the ambulance brought on more tension. The paramedics placed me on a stretcher and, with emergency lights flashing and sirens screaming, headed for South Nassau Hospital while firing off a series of questions in rapid succession. I don’t remember what they asked and I certainly don’t recall how I answered. I do remember their telling me that my blood pressure was elevated and that they were placing an oxygen mask on my face. I also remember their telling me to “just calm down.” Calm down? This was no time to calm down. If there was ever a time to panic, this was it.
Upon arrival in the emergency room, as was the case when I visited my grandmother’s cardiologist, doctors administered a battery of tests. They took a blood test (they always want blood). They checked my blood pressure and gave me a pregnancy test, which was about the farthest thing from my mind at the time. After spending the afternoon there, I was discharged and a sister-friend picked me up. All that the doctors said was for me to stay hydrated and get some rest because sometimes these things “just happen.” Now I know why they call it the practice of medicine. They couldn’t give me a definitive answer about what was wrong with me. I am not a doctor and even I knew what I had experienced couldn’t be simply attributed to a lack of sleep or water.
Only 50 percent of African Americans with
mood/anxiety disorders actually seek treatment.
At this point, still unsure of exactly what I had experienced, I was nervous that whatever it was, it was bound to happen again. And again. And again. I became fearful of my own body, unsure when it would decide to turn against me.
In the days and weeks following my discharge from the hospital, I continued to experience exhaustion, irregular chest pains, shortness of breath and heart palpitations. I sought a first, second, third, fourth and even a seventh opinion.
Every doctor I saw, from the first opinion to the seventh, used the term “anxiety attack” to describe my experience. They did not seem certain about my diagnosis, but they made it clear that considering my hectic lifestyle, age and symptoms, anxiety attacks could not be ruled out. Despite their unanimity, I chose to deny what they were saying.
The last opinion I sought brought me full circle, back to the first general practitioner I saw after my trip to the emergency room. He could still detect my resistance to his diagnosis. The doctor slowly closed the door and had a serious talk with me about not needing to feel ashamed of my ailment. It was at that moment that I began to realize that there was no need to seek an eighth opinion.
But even in my begrudging acceptance, I did not want to believe that my problems had been caused by psychological rather than medical reasons. My stubborn pride and healthy ego blocked me from researching the subject. I was in deep denial. While I kept telling myself that I wasn’t having anxiety attacks, at the same time I took precautions in case it was true. I always made sure I had my cell phone and a bottle of water handy. Everywhere I went, whether on the train or in class, I staked out the closest exit. I was always on edge and nervous, worried that I might have another episode. Despite the doctor’s reassurance, I was embarrassed by my condition and didn’t want anybody to know about it.
But people did know, including those who came to my aid when I blacked out in a café in Harlem and another time on 34th Street, near Madison Square Garden. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, I began to accept in earnest the reality that I was among the more than 40 million adults – 18 percent of the U.S. population – who suffer from anxiety disorders.
That’s more people than the combined populations of the nation’s largest 25 cities, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia. If anxiety sufferers were a state, we would be larger than California, the most populous state. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that, like me, 75 percent of those 40 million people will have their first episode before the age of 22.
An anxiety attack is not usually focused on any one object or situation. It can cause a person to become overly concerned with everyday matters.
“Unlike the relatively mild, brief anxiety caused by a stressful event (such as public speaking or going out on a first date), anxiety disorders usually last six months or longer and get worse if not treated,” according to the NIMH website.
Generally, anxiety disorders are treated with medication, psychotherapy or a combination of the two. Although medication will not cure anxiety disorders, it can help keep the disorders under control.
NIMH observes, “With proper treatment, many people with anxiety disorders can lead normal, fulfilling lives.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services maintains that only 50 percent of African Americans with mood/anxiety disorders actually seek treatment. Even worse, a community study found that only 16 percent of African Americans with a diagnosable mood disorder saw a mental health specialist and less than one-third consulted a health care provider of any kind.
My physician prescribed two medications: Zoloft for depression and Xanax for anxiety. Although I told him I was not depressed, he assured me that both medications working together would alleviate much of my anxiety. On the first day I took the pills, I stayed home from work, resting and looking to see how my body would adjust to this new regimen.
When I returned to work the next day, I was nervous at the thought of returning to the place where I had experienced my first panic attack. Being there forced me to relive that initial ordeal.
After work, I picked up my brother and two younger cousins, ages 15 and 9, for an ice cream date at Cold Stone Creamery. I was not feeling or looking my best, which they duly noted. They lovingly assured me that we could reschedule but I decided to press ahead.
I am the type of woman who takes one dose of Nyquil and it will knock me out cold for the night, leaving me drowsy throughout the next day. These new powerful anti-anxiety/depression meds took their toll on me. I was fatigued and dispirited and was looking forward to some family time at Cold Stone as much as my young cousins.
En route, with my brother and two cousins in tow, I was driving through a green light in Hempstead, Long Island, when a pedestrian dashed in front of my car without warning. I hit him and immediately thought, “I just killed somebody.”
Frantic and crying, I pulled over as startled passers-by screamed for me to call the police. When the police arrived, they said I should calm down (again, not my favorite thing to hear), and tried to assure me that the man would be fine and that I seemed more hurt than he was. Paramedics said the injured man would need only a few stitches and was expected to make a full recovery.
I later learned that not only was the man drunk as he exited a bar, he was texting while walking into oncoming traffic, all corroborated by people who witnessed the accident. Still, I kept thinking police officers were going to administer a drug test to me, find the prescription drugs in my system, and I would be convicted of a crime. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. An accident report was completed and no charges were filed against me.
While people tried to convince me otherwise, in my heart and mind I felt that without those drugs in my system, my reflexes would have been quicker and I might have avoided hitting that man. The accident, more than anything, reaffirmed my need to not ever be under the influence of any drug, be it alcohol or prescription drugs. I realized I needed another way to deal with my anxiety, something that would allow me to be fully coherent and alert at all times. I couldn’t have these medications conquering me; I needed to learn how to conquer anxiety.
Not everyone can or should dump their drugs the way I did. That’s a decision best made in consultation with your physician. All I know is this was a personal decision I felt I needed to make at the time.
It took a long time to forgive myself for that accident. I was distraught for a while at the mere thought of driving. Even today, I still get a bit paranoid when driving and I see people standing on the sidewalk. Not only did I not drive for a while, I wasn’t comfortable riding as a passenger, either.
When to See a Doctor
Some anxiety is normal, but see your doctor if:
• You feel like you’re worrying too much, and it’s interfering with your work, relationships or other parts of your life.
• You feel depressed, or you have other mental health concerns along with anxiety.
• You have trouble with alcohol or drugs.
•If you have suicidal thoughts or behaviors, seek emergency treatment immediately.
Source: The Mayo Clinic
I couldn’t get out of bed on most days. Knowing I came so close to taking someone else’s life really damaged my psyche. Thank goodness for my strong support system of sister-friends. They came to feed me when I had no desire to eat, forced me to get into the shower when I preferred to stay under the sheets, opened the blinds when I didn’t think I deserved any sunshine coming into my room or my life. They showed me compassion and tough love when they forced me to get behind the wheel again to conquer my fears.
Slowly, I started to drive again.
“Today, I am a 23-year-old graduate student at
Howard University in Washington, D.C., who freely
acknowledges that managing my anxiety has not been an easy process.”
More significantly, I silently made the decision to see a therapist to help discover the root of my anxiety and ways to manage it. After a few dead ends, I found a therapist with whom I was comfortable. She was God-sent. From the moment I initially spoke to her on the phone throughout my regular sessions, she reassured me that I would get better and become a whole and healthier me again.
It took months of talk therapy to get to the bottom of emotions that I had suppressed. Through hours of talking, I learned that my first anxiety attack occurred on the day that my emotionally-detached father took a family trip to Six Flags and did not invite me. His new wife, who had just moved into the home my mother had created, was a part of the trip. The anniversary of my mother’s passing was also fast approaching. In my trying to suppress all these things, I conjured up an anxiety attack.
Through therapy, I committed myself to getting better. I no longer avoided reading about and researching basic information about anxiety. I used a particularly helpful workbook, “Panic Attack Workbook: A Guided Program for Beating the Panic Trick” by David Carbonell, and wrote down on paper my emotions and process of getting better. Another helpful resource was Angela Neal-Barnett’s “Soothe Your Nerves: The Black Woman’s Guide to Understanding & Overcoming Anxiety, Panic & Fear”. And more importantly, I prayed my way to getting healed.
Today, I am a 23-year-old graduate student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., who freely acknowledges that managing my anxiety has not been an easy process. I have learned to recognize the need to listen to my body when I experience chest pains, migraines and tension in my shoulders. I remove myself from particularly demanding situations that trigger attacks. At times, I can feel an anxiety attack coming on. Because I’ve learned to recognize the signs, I can now stop it from becoming a full-blown attack.
Getting to this place in my life has been accomplished through tremendous work and acknowledgement of my complete self. I am now in a comfortable and healthy place where I am able to not only manage my anxiety but also accept it for what it is — just another facet of who I am.