You would never guess, when you meet me for the first time, that I have an anxiety disorder.
I wasn’t even aware of it until my doctor explained it to me. I had gone to see him for my annual checkup in 2009, and had mentioned that I had experienced a frightening experience on a flight to Los Angeles the year before.
I told him that I had always enjoyed flying, and my husband and I were really excited to be taking this trip without the kids. We chose to take a float plane to the big city and then board our flight to LA. I was seated behind the pilot in the float plane, and all went well until he shut the door and started taxiing in the water to get enough speed to ascend. The door shutting triggered something in me that I had only experienced as a young child. My older brothers had once put me in a sleeping bag, zipped it up, and tossed me around like a piece of Shake ‘N Bake chicken. I was hysterical and crying and panicking to be let out. They did let me out, but of course that memory was so traumatic that it stayed within me.
On the plane, I was feeling completely trapped. The only thought was I HAD TO GET OFF THE PLANE and I almost ripped the headphones off the pilot so I could scream at him to TURN AROUND. But of course I didn’t do that. I was a highly-functioning, intelligent woman of 43! I just had to get through this; the flight was only 15 minutes and it would be over soon enough.
I explained my panic to my husband once we got off the float plane. He had no idea of course, as he was sitting behind me during the flight, and the noise of the engines prevented any talking. We laughed about it a little, and then boarded the flight to LA. We were seated at the very back of the plane, both on the aisle, me in front of him, in the last two rows of seats, right before the rear cabin’s washrooms. I had no feelings of anxiety until the seat belt sign was turned off and passengers starting lining up for the washroom. The plane was filled with families going to Disneyland, so lots of kids needed to use the facilities, and the aisle beside me was crammed with people. I started to get uncomfortable, and recognized the same feeling of panic I had had in the float plane that morning. I turned around with eyes as big as plates at my husband, unbolted by own seatbelt, and pushed past all the waiting passengers and nearly ran to the front of the plane. Once I reached the cockpit door, I stopped. I was in the first class galley, and a steward was there. He looked at me, and without skipping a beat said “Hey hon, what can I get you?” in a voice so soothing I could have cried from relief. Instead I said “Um, I am having a bit of an issue.”
He said “Can I make you a coffee?”
Moving from one foot to the other, wringing my hands, and clearly looking deranged didn’t seem to phase him at all. I am sure he is well-versed in passenger anxiety and odd behavior.
I accepted the coffee and stood there chatting with him for a few minutes. Apparently all I needed to do was get out of my seat and move around, converse a little, for the panic to subside.
I returned to my seat and we flew the rest of the way without any difficulty.
When my doctor heard this story, he asked me if I wouldn’t mind answering a few questions. Okay, I thought, here we go…get on board the crazy train! I said sure, and he asked me the standard depression scale questionnaire.
It revealed that I had a mild chronic depression. I asked him if this was a big deal, and he said “I have been waiting for you to bring this to my attention. I am surprised it took you so long.”
Wait, what?!? I wasn’t depressed. I was a highly-functioning, intelligent woman of 43 years of age! I had a successful marriage, two wonderful teenagers, a beautiful home and a great job selling newspaper advertising.
He explained that oftentimes, chronic depression is undetected in people who are good at ‘dealing with life’. Just because I could make it through crisis after crisis (both large and small), did not preclude me from chronic depression, nor indeed from anxiety.
He went on to say that in fact, depression and anxiety are closely related, and manifest in similar ways.
It was a lot to take in, but after discussing my options, he and I decided that I would start a course of Sertraline (generic form of Zoloft), on a trial basis. He prescribed 100 mg, and I had the prescription filled and started it the next day. I immediately felt ‘weird’. My heart was beating too fast, and I felt woozy, like I had just drunk five beers in five minutes. I called the doctor and he suggested I reduce the dose to 50 mg.
After that, I took my daily dose of ‘happy’. Actually, Sertraline is a serotonin-uptake inhibitor. For people who need it, it prevents serotonin from dumping all at once in the system, and instead doles it out in a sort of time-release pattern.
I continued on the 50 mg and felt that I was ‘cured’. I have since flown, and not had any issues. Voila! Sertraline to the rescue!
At my yearly checkup last summer, the doctor asked how my ‘anxiety’ was going. I said “Great! I only feel anxious just before I fall asleep, but I talk myself down, and then it’s fine.”
He looked at me as though he were dealing with a very small child, and explained “That is not good. Your anxiety is still there, and by pushing it down, you are making it worse.” He went on, “Let’s put you up to an adult dose and see how you feel.”
Apparently 50 mg is a tiny dose, and I was now ready to graduate to a real, adult dose.
After putting me back up to 100 mg, I can say that my nightly episodes of needing to push down any anxiety are gone, and I truly do feel that I am managing without any underlying depression or angst.
But the point is not that I am ‘cured’. For me, I need to know ‘why’. Why do I have to take a drug at all? What caused me to be this way? Genetics? Environment? Both?
After many discussions with friends, surfing the net, and reading whatever I could get my hands on, I have come to this conclusion.
I learned to live in crisis mode at a very young age. My mother had remarried when I was seven, and my step-father was a great guy, for the first few months. After that, he started to exhibit unpredictable mood swings and manic behavior. One day he was all smiles, the next day a total sourpuss. He was physically and verbally abusive to me, my brothers and our Mom. Not the raging wife-beater of a movie of the week, but very aggressive, angry, and frightening at times. We later learned that he had blood clots in his brain that were affecting his personality. He calmed down a lot after that, but he could still be unpredictable.
Even though I was a tiny girl, and very sensitive to boot, I was not spared the wrath. I received beatings in the form of a rubber belt, doled out for such egregious errors as leaving the hose running outside, burning a match to melt a red crayon to seal a letter to my grandmother, lying about vacuuming the kitchen, and stealing a chocolate bar from the corner store.
Lying, cheating, stealing: these were the three cardinal sins. If guilty, the belt was the punishment.
Avoiding the belt and having to walk on egg shells to not wake the lion, I have learned, resulted in my serotonin levels being disrupted. I was always in fight or flight mode. Fight or flight mode = anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorder manifests into chronic depression (over-sleeping, appetite control, addictive behavior, conflict avoidance, low self-esteem.)
I was boiling inside, don’t get me wrong. I hated my step-father, and was pretty mad at my mom for not doing something about it. But I felt powerless. I was a child, and had nowhere to go. I relied on my parents for all my needs.
So I did what I could do, which was to keep a low profile, be very cheerful, and do whatever was asked of me.
This continued until I was 18 years old. I was the only child left at home, and I had all the responsibility for the household chores. I also worked three jobs, after graduating with honours from high school. That October, my parents went on a vacation to Hawaii. I was left alone, and the only rules were ‘no one over, don’t touch the stereo’.
I had no one over, despite being in a committed relationship with my older boyfriend. But the stereo? Come on! I loved music, and we had an amazing stereo system, so of course I listened to music, who wouldn’t?
When my parents returned, the house was immaculate, the yard was mowed, the chicken coop was pristine, the wood was chopped and stacked. But wait! What is this? One of these equalizer buttons has been moved. “DID YOU USE THE STEREO?!?” he thundered at me.
This was IT! I had had ENOUGH!
“YESSSSSS!!!! I used the FUCKING STEREO!!!!! You are such an ASSHOLE! Who do you think you ARE?? I do EVERYTHING around here! I even rub your FEET AFTER WORK!!! You need to calm the FUCK DOWN and let me LIVE MY LIFE!!”
I wanted to say.
Of course, that was not the balance of power. In other words, he had it all and I had none.
So later that day, I called the newspaper, put in a ‘rental wanted’ ad, and moved out a month later to start my life as a self-sufficient adult. With calluses on my hands and inner demons I had no idea would surface at age 43 on a float plane!
There is no moral to this story. The only piece of advice I want to offer is this: mental wellness is paramount. Make it your goal to dig deep, truly get in there, and dissect whatever it is that you may harbouring or at the very least, not dealing with.
Then, if you are lucky enough to discover something, or things, then seek the help of a counsellor, doctor, or friend, and just let it all out.
The act of speaking about your demons releases some of the power they hold over you, and only then can you tackle them.
I am not prescribing drugs, or psychotherapy, or anything really. I am just telling you my story.
If it helps you in any way to live a better life, then that really does make me ‘happy’. But I will keep taking the Sertraline too. No shame in it at all.