“To talk of many things: Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax-- Of cabbages--and kings--And why the sea is boiling hot--And whether pigs have wings.”
I think I’ve alluded to this before here, but I have panic disorder, and since I haven’t written about it at length before, I think it is high time I got on with it.
I think I was born with it: one of my earliest memories is of a panic attack at the hospital while being held down by several nurses attempting to take a blood sample. I was two. Later, it showed up as a regular visitor: stomach aches so painful I would lie in fetal position on the bathroom floor, at least until my mother would nudge me with her foot and say “if you’re not going to vomit, get up and get out.” Later, the shortness of breath – suffocating, that feeling of my breath never “catching”, no matter how many times I tried. “Asthma!”, proclaimed my mother’s internist, who gave me a useless inhaler and never checked me again. It was bad in my teens, when my dad was gone and my mom appeared only to give me an update of her expectations of me (the implied “or else” never spoken, but I knew I was as abandoned by her as I was by the father who told me at 14, “I’m tired of this shit” and disappeared for 17 years*). As I grew up, grew more independent, fell in love, it all began to recede.
Until three years ago. Three years ago, I got shingles. We’d bought a house the prior September, and the following April I’d been laid off. Husband worked and worked and worked, trying to keep us afloat but at the same time disappearing into an impossible travel schedule. My body could only take so much, and it collapsed into excruciating pain. The shingles were five or so vertebrae down, so the pain was smack in the middle of my left chest, right over my heart. With the pain came the panic attacks – not just the stomach pain and breathlessness, but crushing pain, numb arms and legs, and an absolute certainty I was going to die. Finally, my sweet, kind doctor explained what was going on – all the pain, everywhere, was panic. It wasn’t asthma, it wasn’t anything else. My shingles case was healing well but I was getting worse, thanks to panic disorder completely out of control. He gave me some medicine, it worked, and as I left his office hot, angry tears rained down my face. All I could remember was how many times I’d clung to the cold bathroom tiles, how many times I’d gasped for air – and no one had ever cared to know why. I hated everyone at that moment.
The knowledge of what was wrong with me helped immeasurably, but the medicine didn’t. Every time I had an attack I needed more medicine. I feared I’d take too much and die, and wham, more panic would flood my body and I’d need more, and I’d fear I would die, and … well, you can see the merry-go-round, can’t you? Finally, after not eating for days I called my doctor at 10pm on a Sunday night and begged for the hospital. Yup, I sat crying on the bathroom floor once again, but this time I did something productive – I asked for help.
I checked myself into the hospital, where I stayed for three days without any contact with anyone. The only words in my head for those three days were those from the chorus of an old song: “because He lives, I can face tomorrow, because He lives, all fear is gone, because I know, I know He holds the future, and life is worth the living just because He lives.” The child who memorized hundreds of Bible verses couldn’t remember a one, but I could hear that song, and I prayed it all day. My doctor called in a psychiatrist who found medicine that worked, and I began to heal.
When I left the hospital, I began to put things back together. I took my medicine, I went to therapy, but I also went back to church for the first time in years. I exercised, I slept, and I selfishly did everything I wanted. What helped the most, of course, was re-discovering my faith. Or rather, since I never had much but a frightened child’s view of God, discovering what Christ could do with me once I gave up and let Him get on with it. Because of my pain and fear, I know that I need Him. Because of all of this, I know He loves me. He didn’t cause (or even “allow”) this pain in order to get me to obey him (take that, Mom!). Instead, it’s just that this world is broken and we all suffer from that brokenness. What Christ has done is heal my heart, and when the pain comes I have His love as a balm.
“I sing for joy, that You are in my life, and Your love, it covers me.”
Blessings, y’all. Thanks for listening to my free form of therapy.
*Just a note: my father and I reconciled when One was born, and have a wonderful relationship now – God is good!