Catching My Breath After A Panicked Journey

Michelle Llamas
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Most of my life, I’ve had a crippling fear of failure and performance anxiety. For the first time, I am going to write about the scenic route I took in an effort to get better.

I am a writer by profession. I research the side effects of pharmaceuticals and medical devices. In addition, I tell other people’s stories of their struggles with mental health and the medications that destroy them. My own experiences allow me to connect with people abused by the medical system — especially when it comes to mental health. The scars I bear help these people to open up to me.

But I wasn’t always able to talk to others about their fears and their abuse at the hands of medical doctors and psychiatrists. I had my own demons to exorcise. For me, one dark night of the soul turned into weeks, months, and then years.

Back then, I didn’t know what anxiety or panic disorder was. I didn’t know how difficult it would be to get help when the levee broke.

In the early days, I disguised my disorders as competitiveness and drive. These are things society prizes, after all. I could just be the overachieving go-getter.

I couldn’t say no. Instead, I would just be proud of how much I could carry without buckling. “More weight,” I would say haughtily to the world. Bring it. I got some perverse satisfaction out of the abuse.

But I was fine. I told myself this all the time and so did my family.

As a kid, I remember being threatened with trips to the psychiatrist. A therapist was a boogieman, someone you went to if you were a bad kid. I had seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In it, the rebel — the person who was different — got a lobotomy. I didn’t want to end up a drooling mess like Jack Nicholson’s character. So I learned to keep quiet about what I was feeling or thinking and learned to suck it up. Keeping secrets was safer.

The human body, I found, was resilient. It could put up with a lot of abuse. I learned to use my manic nature to get ahead and excel academically — but exploring the core of my problems and dealing with it was out of the question.

I was born in the Philippines and went to an all-girls Catholic school started by American nuns. In the early 1980s, no one really talked about mental health. But there were urban legends about girls who had committed suicide at the school. Everyone was afraid of seeing the ghosts, but no one asked why they had killed themselves.

My family moved to the U.S. in the late 1980s. I preferred to be a loner in school because I couldn’t really relate to the other kids. I didn’t have issues with bullying or making friends, I just didn’t want to get close to anyone. In high school, I didn’t date, didn’t have a summer, and didn’t go on school trips. Because of my lack of relationships, my parents called me a “late bloomer.” Instead, I focused on how many awards I could get and how many honor societies I could join. Writing and reading fiction was my solace. To this day, I have boxes of notebooks filled with unfinished stories. They were about people I wished I could be.

Eventually, I got a full scholarship to the University of Florida with the intention of going to medical school. The other kids were rejoicing to be away at college. Leaving home only intensified my isolation and anxiety. I missed the few very close friends I had back home. At the same time, my parents were getting a divorce. My solution to these problems was purposefully failing classes so I would lose my scholarship. Without that, I would be able to go home — so, I threw it all away.

Losing my scholarship and dropping out of college was one of the biggest failures I had ever had. Outwardly, I was over-confident. I joined the workforce. But I withdrew emotionally from others and felt like I was adrift.

My closest friend gave me a book. It was called You Can Heal Your Life. The author Louise Hay talked about mental and emotional trauma and its effect on the body. She referred to disease as dis-ease.

I thought it was a load of crap.

It wasn’t science or evidence-based medicine. What’s more, I didn’t think I suffered from trauma, abuse, or mental problems. I shelved the book as self-help quackery. There was nothing to fix.

That gift foreshadowed my fate, because eventually, I did break. My dark night of the soul came on Christmas Eve in 2011. I was 33 years old.

I was alone. The night before, I had been up with cold sweats and everything in my bowels simply wanted to empty. I felt pins and needles in my fingers and feet. My heart was racing and skipping, and it felt difficult to breathe. I was dizzy and my vision seemed to blur. My chest was heavy.

This is it, I thought. I am finally having a heart attack or a stroke. I thought I was going to die.

For hours, I agonized about calling an ambulance while sitting on the bathroom floor. I thought about what would happen when people found my body. I thought about whether it was acceptable for people to find me dead in the clothes I was wearing. The shame of discovery was even more frightening to me than a heart attack.

Finally, I asked my dad to take me to the emergency room.

Once I got there, I said I was having chest pains. I didn’t know how else to describe the symptoms I was having. Right away, nurses hooked me up to machines, took my blood, took X-rays, and hooked me up to an IV. Not once did they question me about my life, mental state or medical history.

My blood pressure was through the roof. They pumped me full of seven different blood-pressure medications. Nothing worked. A nurse told me she was afraid I would “stroke out.” So, they put me in the ICU.

Two nurses rolled my bed through corridors and into elevators and then through more corridors. We passed other nurses and doctors. They would talk to each other as they passed. All of them pretended I wasn’t there.

In intensive care, I could hear the sounds of people dying around me. I inhaled the smell of the hospital — antiseptic mingled with sickness. The ominous sounds of beeping machines and ventilators provided a soundtrack.

They stuck patches of nitroglycerin to my legs. Every half hour, an automatic blood-pressure cuff would squeeze my arm. A monitor near my bed broadcast the results. I stayed awake and prayed for the numbers to go down so I could go home. Each time I would nod off, the fear that I would stop breathing jolted me awake.

A nurse asked me if I could walk. I said, “Yes.”

“Why did they put you in the ICU?” he asked. I told him I didn’t know.

“You should try to sleep,” he said.

“I can’t breathe when I do,” I replied.

“It’s all in your head. See?” He pointed to the machine dutifully monitoring my heart. “This would tell us if you weren’t breathing.” It was a poor consolation. I didn’t trust the doctors or the machines.

When Christmas morning came, they told me the myriad tests they ran were inconclusive — $24,000 later and no one knew what was wrong with me. They sent me home with goodies: blood pressure pills, a beta blocker to slow my heart, Prozac and Xanax.

That was the medical community’s answer to my “inconclusive” problem — a bag of pills. They couldn’t even tell me why I had to take them.

After being in the hospital, I developed a fear and mistrust of doctors. My general practitioner suggested antidepressants. More pills. It was all they could recommend. I wouldn’t take them.

My anxiety worsened. I was obsessed with the idea that if I slept, I would die. So, I stayed awake as much as I could. For an entire year, this was how I lived. Sleep deprivation only fueled my anxiety.

On my way to work one day, I started feeling the heart attack again. The nerves in my extremities were firing like crazy. It felt like ants were crawling in my veins. I pulled over in the parking lot of a fire station. I thought, “If something happens to me here, the firefighters can take me to the hospital.” But I was afraid to call for help. I got out of the car and my knees buckled. I couldn’t feel my legs. They felt like heavy masses of jelly. I called my best friend, and she “talked me off the ledge.”

Still, I didn’t know it was anxiety. I thought my heart was bad and my body was shutting down. I kept it all a secret. The only person who knew was my best friend. In my job as a writer, I researched diseases and drug side effects. It wasn’t long before I was self-diagnosing for every twinge I felt in my body.

I had doctors rule out cancer, adrenal problems and thyroid disorder. I took a stress test and had an echocardiogram. I had a 24-hour blood-pressure monitor. I had a halter monitor to keep track of my heartbeat. Once again, the tests were inconclusive. Everything looked fine beyond my blood pressure, which was always high at the doctor’s office. They didn’t give me any more options or choices beyond that bag of pills they had offered me in the hospital.

The worst thing was they didn’t give me any insight into what was happening with me. I needed the certainty of something, anything.

The attacks happened several more times. I began to develop a fear of being outside my house and driving. I was still afraid of sleeping. I even went on a date and had a panic attack during the movie we were watching. I will always remember that the movie was Gone Girl. The entire movie, I obsessed about whether or not to call an ambulance.

I lived on the edge for a few more years, terrified I would have to be thrown back into the ICU, or worse — that I would end up like a drooling Randle Patrick McMurphy from Cuckoo’s Nest.

Finally, I talked to a friend who suggested a therapist that she used. Reluctantly, I decided to go. Things couldn’t get any worse after seeing this woman, I reasoned.

I had never been to a “shrink” before. When I went to the small, unassuming office, I didn’t know what to expect. I had visions of that infamous couch where you would lie down and spill your guts or maybe get hypnotized.

The therapist came to greet me. She was wearing boots, worn blue jeans, and a leather jacket. Her haircut was short and spikey. Instantly, my preconceived notions of therapists were shattered. Her alternative appearance made me feel more comfortable. She didn’t greet me with small paper cups of colorful pills.

The office had a fish tank, a chair and a couch. But it looked like a living room, not a therapist’s office. I sat on the couch and pulled some of the pillows close.

“So, why are you here?” she asked. It was a puzzling question. No one had asked me that before. I told her what was happening to me. She listened.

“You have anxiety and panic disorder,” she said. I looked at her for a while without saying anything. “You have ruled out all the other medical issues,” she continued. I panicked. Visions of psych wards danced in my head.

“Do you have to medicate me? Do I need to be institutionalized?”

“No, not necessarily. Let’s try talk therapy first. If these issues seriously hinder your life, we might have to talk about medication. But, before that, let’s just talk.”

And we talked. The therapist helped me understand that my anxiety had started when I was very young and built up to a fever pitch. She also said that I had to make peace with the fact that I would continue to have panic attacks. She told me to embrace the inevitability. Worrying about when they would happen was more crippling, she said.

For the first time, I knew what was causing my symptoms.

I thought back to the book by Louise Hay that my best friend gave me all those years ago. While I didn’t agree with everything Hay said, it showed me an alternative way to treat my problems.

I started doing Kundalini yoga, past-life regressions, meditations and energy work. I tried cognitive behavior therapy. I kept talking to my therapist and goal setting. I wasn’t afraid of the dark inside anymore.

Next, I had blood tests for vitamin levels and genetic mutations. I recently found out that I had severe B12 deficiency along with severe iron deficiency. My body was compensating by making more irregular-shaped blood cells that were barely able to carry oxygen. A naturopath told me my anxiety and other physical symptoms could be caused by this. My body was essentially suffocating. Research I found made it a feasible diagnosis.

I showed the lab reports clearly showing the deficiency to my primary care physician. She told me, “Every woman who has a period has these problems. You don’t need any help for this. This nutritionist is trying to steal your money.” I fired her.

When those old familiar heart-attacky feelings come on, I have my go-to mantras and meditations. Each night, I spend some hours writing my novel or use guided meditations and some chamomile tea to help me sleep. I haven’t had a panic attack in years.

I took the scenic route to being a healthier human being. It worked for me. Your road might be different. Mine was long, bumpy, and often it meandered into darker places. But I keep walking.

21 COMMENTS

  1. Michelle – what a great story! Congratulations for not getting hijacked to the medication-for-life route. Getting the body in shape can work wonders. My Bredesen-trained dr sent me for lab tests and then prescribed vitamins, supplements and lifestyle changes for Alzheimer’s treatment/prevention. At 86, I’m thrilled with the results!

    Mary Newton

  2. Wow, I love this story. Thank you for sharing that! It’s funny that only an hour ago I was visiting Drugwatch. I love that you can look up lawsuits there.

    I also had panic attacks, but only for a year, and that was some 20 years ago, not long after shock treatments. The panic attacks stopped as mysteriously as they came, around the same time the cognitive impairment wore off.

    I imagine you know a wealth of information about drugs! I have been looking for lithium lawsuits, hope to find some to help me feel inspired. Thanks again.

  3. Michelle:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I appreciate it so much in so many ways. I, too, have been skeptical of the Louise Hay book, but now I want to take another look at it and see what I can get out of it (without having to agree with all of it!).

    There’s more I might like to say, but sometimes, even without using my real name, I feel too vulnerable to write much. Maybe later.

  4. Thanks for sharing Louise hay is confronting material as its basis is self love and extreme self care something we are not good at. Her mirror work book is also excellent take care and best wishes.yes definitely to magnesium I use the oil in foot bowl soaks as well as oral a very comforting and healing element thanks for the reminder bc Harris!!

  5. Glad your nightmare ended so soon, Michelle. 🙂

    I’m sometimes anemic too with low levels of B12, D3, and magnesium. I find monthly injections of B12 help immensely along with a daily magnesium capsule. Sometimes I take vegan iron supplements. Ferrous sulfate tablets upset my stomach.

  6. Great story, I hope things are working out well. You must know that changing countries, divorce, plus being highly articulate and driven are all indicators that life will not always be plain sailing. Definitely bang in the supplements whether they work, or you think they work its just fine, the way forward doesn’t have to be logical and ways of coping may come from odd places, but I think they come if we are open to them. I speak as someone who was very corporate, spent my twenties thinking about nothing but promotion on the company ladder, only to realise quite late in life that the best bits of me are actually the softer side – and I know why that is too.

    As an aside, I think the drugs are a terrible trap. I’m afraid to say that the line the they “work for some people” has to be claptrap – either there is a mechanism for their efficacy or there isn’t.