I’ve wanted to write this entry for a while now, a couple of months at least, but have been sort of on the fence- and subsequently delaying it’s publication. I wasn’t sure if I was ready. I wasn’t sure how to even start it. I wasn’t sure how my readers would react to it, but this blog isn’t just about makeup, or movies, or recipes, or traveling. It’s about me. It’s about my life- the good and the bad.
Admitting to yourself that you have any kind of illness, or disorder- can be an extremely difficult thing to do. There’s always fear, uncertainty, pride, even- that stands in the way. Nobody wants to be perceived as any of the stigmas that often come with emotional or mental distress/trauma- “crazy”, “damaged”, “broken”, and it’s because of that reason that often times people simply deny their problems , forget them, sweep them under the rug and hope that they’ll just go away on their own.
Writing about those problems and telling the world can be even more difficult- but I wanted to share my story. I wanted to reach out to people who may be going through something similar and let them know they aren’t alone, that there are people out there who understand and who offer their full and total support. I also wanted to show that while some people may require medications for more severe cases, it IS possible to recover without the aid of pharmaceuticals.
*Please note that I’m not a Doctor. I’m not a therapist. I’m not any kind of specialist when it comes to anxiety or depression. Everyone is different and what worked for me may not necessarily work for others. This is just my account of my own, personal struggle.*
I am recovering from something called Hyperventilation Syndrome (HVS for short).
For those of you who aren’t aware what Hyperventilation Syndrome is (and I wasn’t until a Doctor diagnosed me almost two years ago and gave me a stack of paperwork to read up on the subject. It sounded like something someone just made up at random), it’s a psychological-based disorder brought on by a lot of anxiety and massive amounts of stress. Think of a panic attack, and then multiply it by 10, and that’s an accurate description of what it feels like. What makes HVS so scary is that the panic attacks share similar symptoms as a heart attack, so even if you’re young and active enough like I am- it’s easy to become scared out of your wits when you start getting sharp chest pains, disorientation, and your fingertips start tingling.
Let me just stop and rewind just a little bit to explain how this all came about.
I have been blessed to have never experienced anxiety or panic attacks the way some of my friends and family did in my childhood and teenage years. That’s not to say I wasn’t exposed to it. My mother, forever a perfectionist, would often have mini-meltdowns around the holidays when it came time to prepare for her in-laws, and our cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. to crowd into our home. I can vividly remember sitting on our couch one Thanksgiving before everyone arrived for dinner while she took strides around our dining room table, breathing deeply to calm herself because she had felt faint and panicky. At the time, I didn’t understand since I hadn’t experienced anything like it.
All of that changed in the Fall of 2011 when my father, who I was unbelievably close with and whom I considered a friend and a confidant, was diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer. At first, I was in denial at the possibility of him dying. It was just something that wouldn’t happen. He was strong, and vibrant, and he was going to live on to be a very old man who would tell my future children, his grandchildren, all the stories about his younger years in the 60’s and 70’s, and all the mischief that he got into- that he often told me. Losing him before he had the chance to celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary with my mother, or walk me down the aisle if and when I ever got married- was just unfathomable.
But as the weeks wore on and I saw him go through biopsies, and PET scans, and the words “transplant” and “chemotherapy” became part of the everyday vocabulary- I found myself realizing his death was very much a possible outcome, and I noticed a change in myself and in my health. I was having a hard time sleeping, and not wanting to be exhausted at work, I turned to consuming large quantities of caffeine to compensate, thus killing my appetite and resulting in me not eating much. Above all that, I was constantly afraid. I was afraid they wouldn’t be able to find a donor in time to save my father. I was afraid of getting the call while I was at work that he had passed away. I was afraid of going to my parents’ house and being the one to find him unresponsive. All of that fear made me tense all the time.
One day while I was at work, I experienced an intense feeling of vertigo, accompanied by chest pain, shortness of breath, and one of my hands going numb. Having never had a panic attack before, my automatic assumption was that I was having a heart attack- and I ended up in the ER for an 8-hour stay that resulted in nothing but a Doctor who couldn’t have cared less telling me my EKG results were irregular and that I should follow-up with a cardiologist, and a pretty nasty and painful bruise from where the nurse had stuck me a couple of times in an attempt to draw blood.
I had hoped the experience was a one-time thing, but when I ended up in a different ER some weeks later for the same symptoms, and was given the same tests and x-rays as my first ER visit- a more informed, and more compassionate Doctor informed me that I was suffering from Hyperventilation Syndrome- and that I wasn’t dying. I was told that there were different ways to treat HVS: therapy, medications, or, if I could get my stress and anxiety under control- it would eventually fizzle out on it’s own over time. Not having the time to see a psychologist a couple times a week, and not being one to medicate since I prefer to be in control of my own body, I opted to ride it out and see if I could conquer anxiety on my own. I was supplied with literature, exercises to help me stabilize my breathing, and contact numbers for support groups and Doctors who could be of assistance- and sent on my way.
Around the same time as my second ER visit, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute had taken over my father’s treatment, and were providing us with better news than we had originally been getting. They had a plan, and they seemed confident they could save my father’s life and get him cancer free by the end of 2011. I felt myself start to relax, slowly but surely. I was still prone to sudden and often painful panic attacks- but I had hope. On Christmas Day of that year, following an extensive and intricate surgery a few days prior, I brought my dad home and he began the road to recovery. It was the best Christmas I’d ever had.
In the months that followed, my father still had to go through chemotherapy and radiation treatments to guarantee the cancer was gone for good. I helped take care of him, as did my mother, and seeing him getting weaker and weaker with each passing round of chemo, and her trying desperately to stay strong for the both of them only further triggered my HVS. The panic attacks began happening once or twice a week, rendering me helpless for a half hour to an hour at a time.
Nearly a year ago, after a courageous fight, my father passed away at the home he shared with my mother, and I was there when it happened. His body just couldn’t handle it anymore and his heart gave out. It wasn’t the type of death you see in the movies where there’s a beautiful, poetic, final exchange between family members before the person quietly slips away and a perfectly orchestrated tearjerker of a song starts playing. No- my father was ripped, rather gruesomely and suddenly, away from us. When my mother, who was hysterical to the point where she’d nearly passed out, took the phone from me to answer the dispatcher’s questions while the paramedics were en route, I attempted to perform CPR on my father. I had taken one look at him before I began and knew he was gone- but I did it anyway because I was hoping for a miracle. I was hoping for my own movie moment where my dad would come back, make some sort of witty comment (which he was always famous for), and things would be okay.
I never got that moment. Instead, the paramedics brought my father to the hospital and briefly put him on machines in a desperate attempt to revive him. When there was nothing else to be done, I had to be the one to tell them to shut the machines off. My mother was inconsolable and I had never been given a chance to say goodbye to him. My worst fear had come true and as a result, in that tiny ER in the middle of the night- I came face to face with mortality, and my anxiety came back tenfold.
I’ve never really spoken about my father’s last minutes until now.
There is something about seeing someone die that changes you forever. We see it in movies and in television and while it can make us cringe or turn away, it’s not nearly as traumatic as seeing it happen right in front of you to a real person- to someone you love. I was consumed by guilt that I couldn’t save my father (for months I blamed myself, thinking I hadn’t done CPR properly), anger, depression- and I became so afraid of death after what I’d seen happen to him that every ache, every pain, every unexplained sensation in my body triggered me to have a meltdown in fear that I would be the next one to die suddenly. Chest pain? HEART ATTACK! Headache? ANEURYSM! These feelings were amplified when I held still for long periods of time (specifically at work when I was sitting at my desk, in my car when I was driving for miles, or at night when I was laying in bed).
Looking back, I knew it was crazy, but I was so far-gone and so out of control of my own body that even though I knew I was fine physically, the emotional and mental turmoil I was going through always managed to convince me otherwise. I let myself go- not eating properly, not sleeping enough, not exercising. My weight fluctuated- I lost, and gained, and lost so much and so fast that I always felt and looked sick. I went to work, had a panic attack, came home, had a panic attack, and attempted to sleep- only to lay awake and have a panic attack. The time I spent with friends and family was divided into normalcy when I could function like a regular person, like myself- and sheer terror when I would feel unnerved and out of my element and would have to excuse myself to calm down somewhere quiet where I could be alone.
I never thought I’d get better. Instead, I chose to adapt. If it was going to be a part of my life, then I better just get used to it and try to make the best of it.
But in recent months, more so out of curiosity and desperation than anything else, I began trying different tricks to attempt to curb the HVS attacks while they were still brewing before they had a chance to get so out of control that I couldn’t function. I started with little things- cold compresses on the back of my neck and on my pressure points (I carry a package of cooling towelettes in my purse that were designed to alleviate hot flashes for women going through menopause and they work wonders), keeping a fan or A/C on me since the noise and the cool air helps me breathe easier, drinking a glass of cold water (if you didn’t notice a trend = cold helps relax me), and counting to 100 while I waited for the panic to dissipate.
I also wrote down whenever I had a panic attack and what I was doing or thinking right before it started. By doing this, I learned the patterns of what would trigger my HVS, and from there, I could calm myself down before I repeated the same actions or thoughts. Once I had that under control, I worked on improving my overall health again- getting more sleep, not skipping meals and eating at normal hours, cutting back on coffee, becoming active again, and getting as much fresh air as I possibly can.
I also learned the power of my own voice. When I felt anxiety coming on, I would sternly tell myself, whether in my head or out loud depending on where I was at the time, “you’re okay, Ashley,” and “you’re in good health, just relax,” but the most important and beneficial one was “don’t be afraid.” It became a mantra of sorts, and now- after what felt like such a long struggle as I grieved, accepted that what happened to my father was not my fault and was out of my control, and came to terms with his passing and having to carry on and live my life without him in it- I’m not afraid anymore. I’m hopeful. I feel like myself again.
It’s been a couple of months since I’ve had a substantial panic attack. I get a little jumpy from time to time, but it’s nothing a few deep breaths and a glass of water doesn’t fix. It’s still infinitely better than what I was previously experiencing. I wouldn’t say I’m 100% recovered just yet, but I know I’m on my way- and that was something I never thought I’d be able to say ever again.
Of course, I couldn’t have done it alone. For months I’ve had the support of family and friends who have been so patient and so understanding with me, some of whom encouraged me to write this and share my story with readers who may not have known what was going on underneath the surface. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them or their love while I dealt with things.
Like I said earlier, everyone is different, and circumstances are never the same. What worked for me may not provide the same results for someone else, and that’s perfectly okay. You need to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. If you don’t think you can do the D.I.Y. route the way I did (and still am), don’t be afraid to reach out for help from a therapist. If you have to go on medication- do it. There is absolutely no shame in doing what needs to be done to get yourself to a good and healthy place mentally, emotionally, and physically. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
I appreciate anyone who took the time to read this. It was much longer than I anticipated, but it felt really, really good to write and get it out of me.
I’m not crazy. I’m coping.
And I’m going to be okay.