My Mental Health Experience

Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s a good opportunity for me to share my experience with anxiety and depression. I hope it helps someone. Or creates more awareness.

Before I began writing, I asked a colleague if he thought it appropriate to write about my personal experiences with anxiety and depression in our company blog. He responded, “Sure, just don’t go into too much detail.”

The more I thought about that, the more I disagreed. How can I share a personal mental health experience without detail?

I wish I had heard more details about mental health.

My bout with panic attacks, anxiety, and depression happened through 2000 and 2001. During the worst of it, I was completely lost. I scratched and clawed for as much information as I could get about what was happening to me. One of the most important factors in me breaking through was knowing that I was not alone. I wanted to know as much detail as possible, which is why I share mine now.

I was ambivalent about mental healthcare at that time. No, I didn’t see it as a weakness. Nor was I a “just get over it” type of guy. I just didn’t think it could happen to me. This was just unfortunate stuff that happened to other people.

Without help, it gets worse.

It started one evening while waiting to get my hair cut. Just sitting there, I started to feel a little dizzy and anxious for a brief moment. It left as soon as it came and I forgot about it. A few days later it happened again during a meeting at work. This time, it was worse. I couldn’t breathe and thought I was going to pass out. Voices became muffled and everything got blurry. Lights in the room changed. The more I thought about the embarrassment of passing out in front of people, the worse it got. Thankfully the meeting ended without incident and I moved on. But I was shaken.

A few days later, I had another episode. This one told me I had a major problem on my hands. I was at dinner with my family on a Friday night and the restaurant was crowded and loud. I sat at the middle of a long table, sort of trapped between people with the wall at my back. Suddenly, my senses became muddy and that feeling of passing out came over me again. I excused myself to walk around outside in the cool air. Along with the shortness of breath and dizziness I felt tingling in my fingers and lips. After a few minutes, I tried going back in to sit down, but once again had to abruptly leave. Finally, a family member came out and found me. I told her I thought I was having a heart attack.

A night in the ER provided no answers. They couldn’t find a thing wrong with me and sent me home. Relief at not having a heart attack didn’t last, because I knew I hadn’t imagined my symptoms. Or had I? I began to question if anything had happened at all.

These episodes happened again and again — at meetings, the grocery store, driving to work, and at home. It became really bad in meetings when I wasn’t talking. My mind would race. I’d get chest pain, feel hot, dizzy, and almost pass out. I had no control whatsoever, and was dogged by a constant sense of impending doom. Whatever I had, I was sure that only I had it.

Solitary self diagnoses didn’t help.

One day I was convinced I had a rare heart issue, the next day incurable cancer, then some unknown disease. I was hyper aware of every thought, pain, breath, and heartbeat. And the outside world began to disappear.

My doctor ran more tests. Nothing. I ran on the treadmill hooked up to monitors. Nothing. Had my ears tested for an infection. Nothing. Multiple trips to my doc produced no answers, which was the worst part of it all. What I didn’t know at the time was that fear of the attack often caused the attack. It was a vicious cycle.

I hit rock bottom one night at home, curled up on the hardwood floor with a pillow wrapped around my head, rocking back and forth. I wondered, “Is this how it’s going to be from here on out?” Severe depression started to set in. In weeks I went from my (seemingly) normal, happy, everyday life to being trapped in a cage in my own mind, paralyzed by fear and confusion. And I had no idea why.

Finally, my doctor called me one day and asked, “Has anyone talked to you about anxiety?” No one had. Besides, that kind of stuff  happened to other people. So I went in and we reviewed all of symptoms again. It added up. I finally had an answer that made some sense. That was half the battle, and I wish I had known enough to consider it weeks earlier. I wish I’d had more details.

Now how to treat it?

Everyone is different and I am not a doctor. Different kinds and levels of anxiety and depression exist. The causes and symptoms vary widely from person to person, as does treatment. Some people need treatment the rest of their lives, some do well with initial treatments and occasional help after that.  We are fortunate to live in a time that it is possible to live a long and happy life while being treated for anxiety and depression. And what worked for me won’t necessarily work for you.

I was initially prescribed medication, and took it for awhile. The meds eliminated the symptoms, but I hated how I felt. I know now that it takes awhile to regulate the dosage for each individual, to achieve an effective balance. Not me. I just quit taking it after a couple months and I didn’t know what would happen. That was a dangerous decision and not one I recommend. Consult with a physician.

I had immersed myself in the subject by that point. One key was breathing, so I learned some simple breathing methods. When I was starting to feel an attack coming on I would focus on my breathing and it helped tremendously. After a few months, my symptoms mostly disappeared. Not long after that, I didn’t have to remind myself to breathe. I also started exercising regularly, which also proved to be extremely beneficial. I’d read a lot about chemical imbalances having a major factor in anxiety and depression. I wanted to try this without medication, so I started to run and eat healthier.

I feel lucky. I haven’t had an anxiety attack in 17 years.

That’s my story! I hope it can help someone understand that they are not alone. Not alone by a long shot – 18% (40 million people) of the population are effected by anxiety disorders in the U.S. every year. People who share their stories (like Kevin Love) can make a huge difference for those going through it.

Last, if you are having similar symptoms and have gone through the necessary tests to rule out any physical conditions or ailments, please consult with your doctor soon. And remember, talk about it.

~ Chad