Lost in all the “World Food/Beer/Hobby Days” are days that actually have quite a bit of significance. Today is “World Mental Health Day” and I’m not sure when that started or who came up with it, but according to the chatter on Twitter, today is that day.
Mental health is something most people immediately associate with somebody who talks to themselves or an unstable individual who can’t function. That’s the vision we, for some reason, grow up with. It isn’t until we go through some life experiences or are exposed to somebody close who deals with something like anxiety or depression that we understand Mental Health is not synonymous with “mental patient”.
The mental health community is such a loving community. My experience comes on the anxiety side of things. In 2006 I jumped on a plane and headed out to Sugar Land, Texas to scope out potential neighborhoods to raise my budding family. At that time my wife and I had been married for two years and our oldest daughter was only six months old. While touring around with the realtor I felt a sudden rush of heat, I guess you’d call it a hot flash. I don’t recall my heart racing, just a real uncomfortable feeling like I couldn’t escape but I needed to get out. It’s hard to explain, but if you’ve ever had a panic attack before then you know exactly how I felt.
Internally I was freaking out, but somehow I managed to get through that moment. I was out there in Texas for two or three days and each day was worse than the last. Anxiety, for the first time, had all my attention and even going to a baseball game couldn’t take that impending doom feeling that I had. The only thing that helped me was sleep.
I couldn’t wait to jump back on the plane to come home. I remember telling myself that as soon as I get home I’m going to feel normal again, I’m going to be just fine. I woke up the next day, went to work and I was feeling on edge the whole time. It wasn’t like being amped on caffeine type of “on edge” but rather that there was something wrong and I was nervous about something, but there was nothing to be nervous about. Finally, after dealing with being uncomfortable for a couple weeks I made an appointment to see my doctor.
You can guess what the doctor did. He listened to my story and prescribed me some variation of Xanax. I’m definitely not adverse to medication nor to I admire anybody less for needing medication to ease the symptoms and exhaustion that generalized anxiety can cause. For many, it’s the only way they are able to feel like themselves and stay on top of things like their job and home life. For me, I needed to understand what was happening. For the first time I realized how powerful words could be when I read “Self Help for Your Nerves” by Claire Weekes. The way she explained what happens during a panic attack was as if she took my experience and wrote about me. I could relate to everything she was saying and just by reading her book made me feel at ease. I don’t think I ever took a dose of Xanax during that time, the book was enough. It didn’t happen over night, but over the course of a year or so anxiety was no longer what I thought about from the time I woke up to the time I went to bed.
Years went by and I faced anxiety just like anybody else would. I’d get stressed, anxious, sad, angry and carry on just fine. Panic attacks were gone and I had a clear mind…until October 2014.
It should be noted that from about 2011 to the incident I’m about to mention in October 2014, I had picked up a pretty bad habit of drinking a Monster Energy Drink every morning. I’ve never liked the smell of coffee, so it was never my thing, but I really enjoyed my jolt of caffeine from the Monster’s. It was a pretty hot day and I had lunch with my wife and kids at some burger place. Mowed down the burger and had a large coke with it. On my way back to the office I got that hot flash and “can’t escape feeling” that I thought would never come back. This time, however, it was all accompanied by my heart beating out of control. I immediately freaked out. This was beyond anything Claire Weekes wrote about, beyond any coping skills I had, I was dying. Images of my family being in tears because I died started flooding my mind…this was it. I called my wife, shaking, “Babe, my heart is racing, I think I’m having a heart attack”, as I fought back tears. My heart continued to race, I hung up on my wife, called 911 and pulled over into a parking lot.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“I think I’m having a heart attack, please send help!”
Paramedics showed up within a few minutes, I saw them rushing to me in my rear view mirror. They hooked me up to an EKG, check my pulse and ask me some questions. Have you taken any drugs? No. Any pain in your chest? No. Shortness of breath? No. They huddle of a bit and one of the paramedics says, “You know what your problem is? You’re a Chargers fan”. I have a Chargers bolt decal on the back of my car. I gave a courtesy laugh, didn’t sense any concern in their demeanor and after a few more moments I thanked them and they drove away. They did offer to take me to the hospital for a check up, but I said I’d just take myself. As they drove away I started to feel it all come back again and I headed straight to my doctor’s office which was also an urgent care facility.
Just like 2006, this doctor (different than my last one) listened to my story and prescribed me a Xanax knockoff.
Each year I get my physical and everything checks out good, that goes a long way when it comes to attacking your anxiety. At least it was nothing physical, but when the attacks happen it feels as physical as it can get!
I had another setback in February 2015 when the hot flash, impending doom and rapid heart rate came back while driving. I pulled over, took the Xanax and carried on with my day. I’ve had three prescriptions of Xanax over the last 10 years, and have taken it just twice. I do get it refilled once they expire because knowing you have something that is there to help you in case you need extra help to fend off an attack is a great reassurance.
This year has been tremendously successful for me. Anxiety is still there, but I don’t fear it as much. When you fear anxiety and the sensations that come along with it, you throw yourself into a vicious cycle that you won’t break free from.
I came across a program written by Barry McDonagh called Panic Away and immediately bought it. I figured it was as much as a video game, so why not try and help myself out. This led me to a book he wrote called DARE and it falls under an entire DARE program. I got the DARE book for free through Amazon (every now and then the digital copy will show up as free) and regularly chat with other “DAREing” people through their Facebook community. There have been so many things I’ve read, videos I’ve watched, and I can honestly say it all ties in somehow to DARE.
Essentially, the whole point behind DARE is to push through the fear. When you feel the anxious symptoms, ask for more, don’t fear it. It’s uncomfortable as all hell, but eventually you get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
I don’t want this post to be about plugging a product, program, or book, because there is lots of help and communities out there that will work for YOU. What I will say is that once I fully understood that all the scary things I felt (heart racing, adrenaline rush, etc) was simply my body trying to keep me safe and that I am never really in danger, it made it a little easier for me to push through and not run from the fear.
I have way more good days than bad now. I had a really bad day a couple months ago when I was playing softball, sprinted around the bases and I felt that warm adrenaline rush and my heart started racing. For the second time in 10 years I called 911 and just like last time I started to calm down once the paramedics arrived.
It takes a while to get going good again after a setback, but you need to expect setbacks and get back on the horse and keep pushing forward. It’s easy to want to avoid a situation where you’ve had a panic attack or where you normally feel anxious, but that’s when your world will start closing up. That’s how people become agoraphobic. They never want to leave their perceived safe place, which is generally their house. You’d be amazed at how many people can’t drive, can’t fly, never eat out, don’t go to the grocery store and avoid all social settings because they are afraid of having an anxiety attack. I talk to these people on a weekly basis, listen to their journey with anxiety and ultimately we all share our success stories.
I have so much more I could write, but I see I’m already over 1,600 words and don’t want to ramble on much longer. I just wanted to take a moment to recognize World Mental Health Day, especially those who are on that journey with anxiety and panic. Don’t let your world close up, keep pushing forward. Some days are going to be better than others, but eventually we can all get to a point where the good days outweigh the bad, and even the bad days will just be a little less than good.