Illness (1/n)

22 Aug 2016

[Content note: mental health, weight loss, near-death experiences, anxiety, panic attacks, mood disorders, self-harm, boundary violation]

Twelve weeks ago, on the 29th of May, I became extremely ill. I’m still sick now, though I’m much better than I was even one week ago, and one week ago much better than I was a week before that.

I’ve never been this ill in my life, nor have I had an illness that’s lasted so long or been as chronic. The nature of the illness — namely, mental illness — is such that it is heavily stigmatised and often misunderstood. I’m extremely lucky in that I have a job, family and friends who understand much better than the average. With a lot of help, I’ve been able to recover.

I’ve recovered enough that I’m able to write about my experience. I write because this could happen to anyone; could happen to your friend, your family member, your loved one, or you. It struck me suddenly and without warning, and it has easily been the worst experience of my life.

I have spent unbroken lengths of days believing honestly that death was imminent. Despite being a healthy weight before, I lost more than ten kilograms in a week. I missed weeks of work, had countless doctor’s appointments, and have been on three new medications since it began.

I write because maybe helping more people understand the nature of mental illness will help counter the stigma surrounding it; to help convey that that mentally ill people do not want to be ill; that we do not lie about how we feel; that we do not do this for attention; that more than anything we wish for a normal life again.

The first month was living hell. Despite this, whenever I found a few minutes of normality, I’d write a few short lines on what had happened since I last felt lucid, in case I’d ever have a chance to look back on them. Now I do.

Because there’s too much to write at once, this will be a series of posts, covering a little bit at a time.

Saturday, 28th of May (day 0)

I’d had a good couple of days. The previous night I went out and had a nice time. During the day I went to a shopping centre with my kids; my mother and I took them to a play centre and they spent a good hour or two exhausting themselves while we chatted, had hot chocolates, and helped them find each other when they managed to lose themselves in the huge playground.

In the evening, I had a conversation with my partner — at that time overseas — that didn’t go so well. It wasn’t an argument; just, I was struggling with coping with some things and we couldn’t get to a good place in the conversation. Eventually it was time for me to go to bed, so we said goodnight and hung up.

I was feeling frustrated with myself: for being unable to cope with my feelings. I’d only recently realised that the diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder described me extremely well, and this realisation had necessitated a lot of self-assessment and viewing my past through a new lens.

This conversation triggered more of the same feelings: inadequacy in being able to cope with emotional triggers, in being able to control my own life, in being able to be a good person.

Sunday, 29th of May (day 1)

Lacking healthy coping mechanisms, after the phone call ended, almost exactly at midnight, I freaked out. Alone in the bedroom, I cried and screamed into my pillow, thrashed about and self-harmed, until I exhausted myself.

It was maybe only five minutes, but this was the trigger. As I lay in bed afterward, my heart wouldn’t stop racing. The minutes passed, but it only got worse. Soon I found it difficult to breathe, and my chest was beginning to ache from my heart beating several times a second.

Figuring this would go away after I somehow fell asleep, I continued to lie there. I occupied myself with my phone, put music on; tried to do any number of things to distract myself from the physical sensations. Eventually it was 5am, and I was feeling worse than ever. Bouts of lightheadedness would wash over me, and breathing felt closer to suffocating.

Googling symptoms indicated I was having a panic attack — albeit a five-hour long one — and that the lightheadedness was due to hyperventilation. Carbon dioxide levels in the blood drop, causing blood pH levels to rise. This produces dizziness, tingling in extremities, can cause fainting and even seizures.

Finding this out was a huge relief. I performed breathing techniques to counteract the hyperventilation and bring my CO2 levels back to normal. It didn’t work. Even when controlling my breathing for ten minutes, my heartrate would not lower, and I continued to experience worsening dizzy spells.

The situation now starting to seem serious, I drove myself to the ER. It took a few hours to be seen, and while in the nearly empty waiting room, I repeatedly had to rebuff the advances of a well-meaning but boundary-oblivious man, whose incessant touching and edging closer were enough to provoke anxiety all in themselves. A lone woman is fair game even in an emergency waiting room.

At 8am or so, I was seen. My lungs were clear, my heart normal. My heartrate was still elevated, but not as much as before. The doctor on call was confident I was physically fine and not at any risk, and that the symptoms were entirely anxiety-based. This calms me down a fair bit: I’m not going to die, even if I felt like that for a while. He suggests breathing techniques and to see my doctor if I’m concerned.

I head home, and start the day somewhat bleary eyed. It’s a Sunday, so I make myself tea and play League of Legends. Eventually lunch time arrives, and I walk down to my favourite little restaurant for a small lunch. While sitting and waiting for food, I notice my heartbeat again; this small feeling of being on edge, of panic. I do my best to ignore it — I know it doesn’t mean anything.

An hour later, I arrive back at home, and the symptoms of a panic attack are back in full swing. Breathing techniques do nothing to moderate it.

Suddenly, I remember that I needed to fill a prescription. I ran out of HRT the day previous, and it completely slipped my mind with the trip to the ER. Missing a day of hormones will just make matters worse, so despite feeling atrocious, I force myself into the car. I’m not even halfway to the pharmacy when things get so bad that I have to force myself to return. I couldn’t concentrate at all.

I don’t know how to explain the feeling of panic properly. Every part of your body is preparing to escape from some unknown predator. After this goes on for more than a few minutes, it becomes completely exhausting. You can do nothing but focus entirely on it, on the sensation that if you do not act immediately, terrible consequences will follow.

But I didn’t know what to do. I simply froze, wishing it would just disappear. With no cause sustaining it, it didn’t take very long to start feeling like death was certain. There was nothing to fear — nothing I was worried or concerned about except the panic — so the sensation of impending doom had nothing to be tied to but being alive itself.

I tried to tell myself that sleep would cause it to disappear, but every part of my body was wired with adrenaline. I still needed HRT. I hoped like hell my mother was available and called her.

Thankfully, she was. She picked up the script for me, and I tried to work out if I needed to go to the ER again. We resolved that instead I’d stay at her house for the night. I ended up staying there for the next three weeks; it was the first time I’d lived with family in eight years, the first time since I moved out.

In the car on the way to my mother’s, the closed environment and sense of impending doom led me further into despair. I couldn’t control my own anguish, crying and writhing in the passenger seat. Eventually, I calm myself down, telling myself that it’ll pass, somehow.

At my mother’s, I nearly immediately settle in the spare bedroom, and with Twitch on my laptop, finally found myself getting sleepy.