‘Don’t panic!’ Corporal Jones on Dad’s Army used to yell at Captain Mainwaring and the rest. I’ve been saying this to myself rather a lot recently, with about as much success as Jonesy had.
At the end of January this year, on a visit to my daughter in lovely Vancouver, I had to call on the emergency services to take me to hospital, following the onset of some worrying symptoms I feared might mean a heart attack. The paramedics and medics were wonderful, and thankfully my test results showed no heart attack – in fact it was unclear what had happened to me. I was sent home in the early hours, pretty much back to normal; a little shaken but hoping that would be the end of it. I went on to have a great holiday and flew home ten days later.
I was eventually billed over £800 for my emergency callout and examination, and although money is the least of your worries in such circumstances, this was rather a lot and I put in a claim with my insurance company. The subsequent battle I had with them is a story of its own, which I’ll refrain from telling here (eventual result: after months of stressful back-and-forth they finally paid up, minus a hefty excess charge, last week). All this has made me more appreciative than ever of our own beleaguered but still wonderful NHS.
Unfortunately, the symptoms recurred at intervals once I was home and I had a couple more trips to A&E in the following weeks, followed by a whole gamut of tests and monitoring. The good news is that they have still found nothing wrong. I’m now on several types of medication, partly to calm me down, and am suffering some uncomfortable side effects, but the symptoms have largely subsided (touch wood).
Yes, touch wood… I’m not normally a superstitious person but I’ve almost become one in my quest to work out what exactly has been prompting my ‘episodes’. Certain combinations of foods, certain clothes, sitting positions, even certain times of day now set me off worrying I’ll have another one. Sounds silly – sounds very silly. I’m not proud of myself, but it’s true. I’ve also become hyper-sensitive to the slightest sign of discomfort in any part of my body, worrying about what terrible condition or disease it might signify. Classic hypochondria – or ‘heath anxiety’ as it is now called. And no, I haven’t been Googling my symptoms – I’ve got more sense than that. But it turns out that my imagination, in cahoots with the scraps of medical knowledge I’ve picked up along the way, is more than enough to persuade me to fear the worst.
The panic that grips me when these fears get going is almost beyond my powers of description. It’s like a physical pain in its intensity and its refusal to submit to reason. Your body (or in this case, brain) grabs the steering wheel without consulting you, like when you go into labour. Apparently the amygdala, the brain’s emotional centre and chief panic station, does not receive much information from the reasoning, rational frontal cortex – most of the connections run the other way. This explains why I can’t talk myself out of panic, but it doesn’t really help to control it. And, of course, panic makes your heart beat faster, and if it’s your heart you’re worried about…
I’ve had what I now realise were relatively mild panic attacks before now, at times in my life when I’ve been under stress. And back when I was eleven, I went through a phase of worrying about my health – each new disease I read about, I was convinced I’d got it. My research was mostly in my grandmother’s Woman’s Realm – the problem pages and Ask the Doctor. I was actually trying to find out about sex – it was virtually the only way you could, in the Dark Ages. I remember my fears back then had elements of panic, not entirely unlike what I’m going through today. No one in those days had a clue what to do with kids who were worriers, so I didn’t get any help. I was told constantly as a child to stop worrying, and can remember at a very young age protesting that I didn’t have a ‘worry switch’. I still don’t, and I’m not sure many people do. But there are techniques and strategies that help and I’m beginning to learn what works for me.
Getting out of the house if I possibly can and going for a walk usually helps. It takes a while to calm down, but it happens eventually. This is hard to do, however, as my natural inclination is to stay indoors, somewhere ‘safe’, when worry strikes. TV can sometimes help too. I don’t normally watch a lot of it, but I’ve made some discoveries. The Big Bang Theory is effective for some reason, as is Homes Under the Hammer. I will never despise daytime TV again! Reading can also help, though not always. Old favourites like P. G. Wodehouse and Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books can sometimes divert my brain from its panicky pathways. Music, relaxation techniques and the like do not seem to help me much – they leave my mind too free to construct frightening scenarios.
Since all this began, my writing has suffered to the point of drying up. The well of ideas that normally sits (festers?) below the level of my consciousness seems dry. Or inaccessible, or perhaps filled with the wrong stuff, with worries about my heath rather than the doings of my characters. I miss their company terribly. It’s made me realise that this is the true value of writing for me. I don’t care, at the moment anyway, if I never publish anything or even finish anything again. I just want to be able to look inside and see my characters getting on with things, and to be able to listen in and write it down.
I’m doing my best to get through this, but it’s a bit of a struggle. Also, it’s not easy to admit to, on a page that may be read by lots of people I don’t know. I decided to share my experience in the interest of making mental health issues more widely known and helping to remove the ridiculous stigma that has been attached to them for so long. If this helps anyone at all, I’ll be very glad, but mainly it’s an exercise in being honest and open about my mental state.
That’s all for now. Take care, everyone.
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