Friday, June 12, 2015

The Panic Disorder

I like to say my brain broke.

I couldn't leave the house, I couldn't walk on stairs ... or grass ... or wet anything, or street grates, or over trash, or in heels. I couldn't be in a car without having panic attacks, or around drunk people, or children, especially not drunks or children while on stairs. I couldn't watch movies where people might fall. I couldn't watch people on swing sets, because what if they jumped or fell.

At the height, I'd have over a hundred panic attacks a day. Mine take the form of hyperventilations, phantom pains, intrusive thoughts and at worst, total retreat into a cornered weeping ball of frenetic energy. I spiraled out of control, desperately trying both to control this automatic response to stimuli and to HIDE IT from everyone. I would lash out, make snap "run-away" decisions, be irrational and often just plain mean. If anyone saw me in this state, it would send me down a horrifying rabbit-hole of shame and self-hate.

I don't like to say my diagnosis. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and hyper-vigilance. I like to say my brain broke.

March 2nd, 2014, me and two friends were getting ready to go to brunch.

(just knowing I'm about to tell the story I start to feel triggered)

My cat, Super Bon Bon, ran out from under the bed where I was sitting. (now come the tears) She's cute, I went to chase her. I stood up, my feet stayed on the carpet and I twisted my hips to begin to chase her. This torsion (now my hands are spasming as I type) caused my lower right leg to break in four places, most notably the big bone was straight broken all the way through. I fell to the ground and looked up at my two friends and said "I think I just broke my leg." (<~ typing that is about where the video starts).

One says, "no way." Because the movement was so small, impossible. The other has a total look of horror, he says, "no, I heard it." They carry me to the car. At the emergency room, I was under a big doctor's care within 3 minutes of entrance. They thought I'd been in a car wreck.

The break was so clearly (typing that is where the hyper-ventilations start in the video) bad they admitted me right away. LONG story short, the doctors couldn't operate for over 3 days. Wednesday afternoon I went into surgery. They had to wait because I was at risk for compartment syndrome. Which (thank you McDreamy) I know means that if I'm not in surgery real quick when the swelling cuts off circulation then it's amputation.

Pictures: me in hospital March 2, 2014, a drawing of the 4 breaks from the cat chase.

No drugs touched the pain. That little jerk that happens when you first doze off kept me from sleeping for nearly the entire time. There were endless tests because finally in my life some doctor asked why on earth I had 16 broken bones over my life, each of them happening after what is medically called "minor traumas."

Apparently my body doesn't absorb vitamin D. All my panels came back normal/healthy except for that I had ZERO vitamin D in my system. It's not osteoporosis, it's not anything they could tell me. The doctor said the only thing I can do is take supplements and start lifting weights.

I had surgery, they kept me 6 days total for observation. Over a leg break. Then home to a month of required bed rest. NO WEIGHT on the leg. A powered ice pack (so it never loses its cool) on the leg for 24 hours a day. No coffee, no ibuprofin, I quit smoking. In bed for FOUR weeks.

When the time came to start crutching around, I walked out of my house and confronted the ONE tiny step down from my front porch to the walkway.

You know how you get that funny feeling when you are standing at the edge of a long drop off, and you think I could jump and feel all weird, but you also know that you are never really going to jump?

That's what that step was like for me. There was no fucking way I was actually going to step down that step. (typing this starts hand spasms up again) I've later thought that the amount of effort that square foot of step took me is equivalent to the amount of effort I put into getting my college diploma.

I was terrified. Because I'm imbalanced, on crutches, and it's guaranteed in my life that I will continue breaking bones. Hello, Ms. Glass, right? The hyperventilations began. I forced myself ... well, I take that back ... Mateo forced me to walk down that stair.

Mateo forced me very gently and with tremendous love to leave the house. He didn't know anything about ptsd or therapy, I was undiagnosed at this point, he is like a giant wonderful helpful puppy who just wants to go for a walk and have fun. Mateo suffered immensely at my hand when I was in the first stages of my panic disorder. I treated him terribly (tears now), and he just kept (mostly) happily after me. He was determined to give me my fun, daring, big and happy life back. He wouldn't let me give it up, he carried me when I couldn't bring myself to walk, he waited for me when I walked at approximately a mile/ a million years. He held me while I cried all night, inexplicably. He suffered and had bad days, too, but Mateo gave me a stunning gift with his love and help. He carried me through the dark.

Imagine if everyday, everytime you said to yourself "I'm not doing that" ... you knew that meant you had to do that thing. That's what the next few months were made of. It felt I couldn't do anything. I once collapsed because I needed to get to work and there was a mopped floor between me and my spot. I couldn't jump off that ledge. A co-worker had to carry me across while I wept uncontrollably.

One day a masseuse came into my work to offer free massages. She accidentally dropped her portable massage table on my right leg (I almost called it my broken leg, it's not, it's healed). I leaped out of the way and it barely grazed my foot, but set off a tremendous panic attack. Top level hyperventilations, total hand spasming, sobbing, backing into the nearest corner with that crazy wild eyed look of a trapped and injured mother possum, my head jerking to the spastic movement of my eyes, searching searching for an exit. The massage lady sees this and comes toward me (it's hard to not say at me) and grabs a hold of both my shoulders, asking (demanding) "are you ok?" This perceived aggression pushed my broken brain to the very edge.  I threw her arms off of me and literally ran out of the building, hid in an unused, outside stairwell and wept uncontrollably while shaking and holding myself and just saying "it's ok" over and over. I was completely deranged in that moment.

So here comes the shame and embarrassment of being caught in the complete control of my irrational mind. These people saw me in a state of utter weakness. Disempowered, out of control, incapable. As a person who loves solutions, I know there is no pat solution to this. I'm smart. I know that it is irrational and that I'm reacting to what might be and not what is. I even know that the more nervous I am, the higher the chances of actually hurting myself. I'm in love with logic, and there was absolutely no logic behind this panic disorder. It is beneath my logical brain. (ha! I mean that both ways). And then, having people see me be victim to myself was (is) mortifying.

I forced myself everyday to leave the house, to walk up and down stairs, to get in people's cars, to be around children, dogs, so many things. But most, the wet floor thing kept persisting. The first time I got in a bath (shower was a whole other challenge) was probably a month after I got home. Mateo had to put me in, stay with me and bathe me while I just openly wept and sobbed with both relief and terror. I slept for over a day after that. Summer was sliding by and you know ... winter's coming. At this point I had entered therapy for the first time in my adult life. The irrational and (shame) abusive behavior I inflicted on Mateo along with my total inability to take step on a wet surface prompted my to start seeing a professional.

Then came the first rain after a long summer drought. I'd been waiting for this day, and I'd promised myself that when that first rain fell, I'd go out and walk around in it. I've danced and played so joyfully in the rain in my previous life, and I would have this back. This broken brain was not going to keep me from joy.

I watch the rain fall over the bleeding hot day, the temperature breaks, falls ... I'm feeling brave and utterly determined. Mateo is with me and knows exactly that I've been waiting for this day. We walk outside together. It's funny to think of a 1/4 mile of Broadway Boulevard speckled with sprinkles as being the gateway to freedom. But, the aversion finally ebbed. I walked it, dotted with rain. I was back in the world.

There is so much to this story. Let's backtrack a bit to bring in the invasive thoughts. They are all centered around breaking more bones. When I couldn't leave the house it was because my brain kept saying "crush injury" over and over. The act of leaving the house would make me feel like every bone in my body would be crushed by the weight of the atmosphere. My body would not be able to withstand the pressure of going outside.

Then, one day, laying in my bed, I thought, "hmmnn, I feel that a bone just broke in my body." At this point I was undiagnosed and hadn't really put together the extent of my brain's suffering. I couldn't really move my leg at all yet, it was in air cast, so there was no way to test it by putting weight on it or testing movement. And of course I thought that I was crazy. It is insane that a bone would break spontaneously. I had a doctor's appointment in a week, so I put the thought out of my head, not being willing to entertain that irrational thought.

I got my x-rays taken, and the nurse pulled them up on the monitor in the room where we were waiting for the doctor. I could see clear as day that the little bone on the lower right leg was actually broken in a spot it was not before. Now, I'm up to 17! I immediately began having a low level panic attack. I held off on thinking until the doctor arrived. I recited poems to myself and did deep breathing and pretended I hadn't seen what I saw. You can see in this pic the brace they put on in surgery and if you look closely at the top inside little bone, you can see the new break.

The doctor came in and confirmed that I had a new bone splinter. He also didn't seem to think it was any sort of big deal and said it happens when the bones grow back together sometimes. My brain didn't care about that detail, though, because I KNEW when that bone broke. I felt it. And then the intrusive thoughts had a fact to work with, which gave them a whole new level of power and control.

A new sort of anxiety emerged, in addition to crush injury was joined there's a bone broken in my body. Most often, it's that little right leg bone, sometimes it's my left pinky. Frequently it's one of the other many broken bones of my life. Rarely, but in the absolute worst situations, it's the big bone in the lower right leg. I began doing checks to reassure myself that whichever bone wasn't really broken. I began fantasizing about full body x-rays. I actually have phantom pains. No more bones have been broken, but its like since I know it is inevitable, it already is.

At some point, I realized the checks were compulsions. That if I reached down and checked on the bone, I'd keep doing it. No amount of checking would totally convince me, so now on my list of "things I don't want to do" is not allow checks. That's a lot of double negatives, but I want to really highlight how much negativity and fear is embedded in the panic disorder. It is a rotting fruit, a malignant tumor, a growing sickness. I have to do the things I don't want to do and I didn't want to NOT check. So, no checking allowed.

At some point, having a panic disorder feels like you are completely out of control of yourself, and simultaneously you feel like you have to over-control every situation. There is no overstating how exhausting, futile and degrading the disorder made me feel. For months, I felt that I had in fact, died. The beautiful, charming, wonderful, together person I was had died. This shell of a woman was some damaged, irrational monster who was haunting my old body. I grieved for myself every day. I lost myself, I lost 37 years of growing and learning. I was nothing.

Still, like my love Sisyphus, I kept exposing myself, doing the things I didn't want to do. And I made a lot of progress, I mean a lot. I decided to make myself anew, to just keep pushing the rock. I've gotten to the point that I pretty much only have a real panic attack if I trigger myself on a big aversion, maybe once a week or so I'll do that. Little organic panic attacks happen about once a week, too. I recently moved in with some folks who have a pit bull, and the idea of taking this sweet and powerful girl for a walk gave me a tiny panic. So now that's on my list of things I have to do which I don't want to do.

Right now, I'm working on skipping. I can walk in the park grass, climb trees, swing, play in the rain, I walked on snow and ice over the winter. I have so much of life back. The leg is long healed, and I believe that the brain will heal too.

And I found out that I didn't die after all.
I'm so happy to still be here.


  1. Sorry to hear you have to deal with this. But I love your blog. Another very fine post.

  2. I love you. I love this post. I love your honesty and bravery and wisdom in keeping back whatever you didn't want to tell.
    I love that you are in the world exactly as you are.