Living with Anxiety Part 2: A relapse

This is part 2 of a 3 part series. To read part one, visit this link here.

In the last blog post, I explained how I was initially misdiagnosed and eventually diagnosed with severe anxiety and panic disorders. I left off explaining how I was officially diagnosed in 7th grade and spent much of that time in between figuring out what was causing my symptoms. After the majority of the year had passed, the medicine had taken affect and I was finally getting better, having no symptoms for the entirety of 8th grade.

At the end of 8th grade, my parents decided it was time to move out of my old house and move to a new house. After looking around, my father picked out a great house in a new city in Massachusetts, just about 20 minutes north of where I lived. This meant I was leaving my old friends to attend a new high school in a town I hardly knew, but I was nothing but excited. I have always been thrilled to meet new people and interact with everyone I met. I’d miss my friends, but this was going to be a great experience at a great new school!

Jump to the first day of class, and I was enthusiastic about my classes and all the new people I was meeting. The school was small, but much nicer than the high school in Peabody. Everything was going great and I loved it here. On the 3rd day of school however, I noticed I was getting extremely dizzy while sitting in one of my classes so excused myself and went to the nurse. Maybe I was sick? Maybe I had just ate something the night before that disagreed with me? I don’t know. The next day…same thing but more severe. Something was wrong…this wasn’t supposed to be happening. I was happy to be here, loving the classes, and enjoying the people. What was going on?

The problem with anxiety is that, in many cases, it does not go away. Medications and therapies, depending on the type of disorder and severity, can manage symptoms and help lead to better control of situations when anxiety arises. That being said, sometimes when a medication is taken for a long time, the body creates immunity to its effects, similar to how the body creates immunity to viruses. This does not decrease the benefits of a medication to 0%, but does decrease them.

There I was; I’ve had my first panic attack in over a year and I was scared. I ended up going home that day early from the nurse’s office and thought about other factors that could have happened…Was it maybe just something I ate or some virus I had gotten causing a trigger for a panic attack? Doubtful. I went back to class the next day and the same thing happened. Things only got worse from there and the panic attacks became more severe and occurred every day shortly after arriving to class. There was no doubt the anxiety and attacks were back, and far more severe.

After about a week, we called my neurologist, Dr. Hart, and tell him everything is back and the medication no longer works. He advised I see a behavioral therapist to treat me in addition to the medication. Behavioral therapy is a fairly broad term when it comes to therapy, but in this case refers to a specialized psychologist who works with individuals with anxiety to overcome fears of triggers, fears of attacks, and help lessen the panic when an attack occurs.  Unfortunately, due to the lack of a trigger for my anxiety attacks and the severity, behavioral therapy was not appropriate for me. In many cases, behavioral therapy for anxiety and panic disorders can lead to favorable outcomes, and is a well-founded method for treatment both alone and in conjunction with other treatment methods.

The next step in the journey, after these methods failed, was to find a new medication to treat my disorders. This lead to another hiccup in my road to recovery; many of the medications were not right for me given an inherent sensitivity to medication. Many SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) have side effects that should be taken note of when talking to your doctor. If you are starting a new medication, it’s important to let your doctor know about any symptoms you are experiencing and how they may be affecting your daily activities. What is usually a very small period of finding a medication in the majority of the population, turned into a 3 year period of ups and downs on medications ( I’d like to note that this experience is atypical of what individuals will go through when finding a medication for anxiety and panic disorder, and was due to my sensitivity to medications.). In this time, I was unable to attend high school and did not have a formal high school education. Much of this time I spent in bed, at home, with daily trips to doctors. Despite all of the problems and despair, I did not give up my hope of one day attaining an education

From my experiences, I learned it’s incredibly important to find a provider that works with you and that you feel comfortable with. Anxiety and Panic Disorders are very hard on the individual that is going through it, as well as the individuals surrounding them. This can lead to a lot of stress and strain when it comes to communication with your provider. When medications are not acting favorably, it can also be difficult to point out what’s important. When entering an appointment, normally I would make a list of the following:

  • Do I have decreased or increased anxiety
  • Have I been experiencing any side effects (negative or positive)
  • Has this medication interfered with my daily activity
  • Am I happy with this medication
  • How long have I been on this medication
  • How does this medication compare to a previous medication (if there was one)

In my next, and final, installment I will talk about how my life turned around completely and I got to where I am now.

Living with Anxiety Part 1: An Introduction

My name is Jesse, I’m 24 years old and graduated from UNC in December, 2012 with my B.A. in Biology. I introduce myself as a successful recent graduate to not only mention my linkage to UNC, but as a mention of pride. This pride stems from the fact that, 6 years ago, everyone around me gave up on my chances to ever achieve more than a middle school education due to severe generalized anxiety and panic disorders. Despite years of struggling towards a goal that seemed to gain distance as I ran towards it, I am proud to say I am here, and I am proud to share my success.

From a world outside of the prison of generalized anxiety and panic disorders, our struggle is thought of as a challenge that can be easily overcome. With modern medicine, advances in pharmaceutical treatment, and an overabundance of various mental health specialists, why wouldn’t it be? Our generation has made leaps and bounds towards treatment and cure of dozens of diseases and chronic illnesses of epidemic and pandemic scales. Compared to those, something as common as anxiety is nothing!

In some ways, anxiety is something we all must deal with, and undoubtedly a feeling everyone has experienced, but there is a vast difference between the normal feelings of being anxious and the anxiety felt by an individual with an anxiety disorder. According to current guidelines, a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder is characterized by excessive worry occurring more days than not over a period of 6 months. When I explain my condition to the uninitiated, there is a common misconception between the normal feeling of anxiety about an exam coming up and the inappropriately experienced “fight of flight” sensation that occurs during activities as mundane as going to a movie or going with friends to dinner. From this perspective, I can easily see why our condition is easy misunderstood as one that is managed with ease.

My introduction with the terrors of panic disorder came swiftly, and gave little warning of the destruction that would domino out of control in the future. What began as a single event that occurred in 5th grade later turned into a chronic problem in 7th grade. When I originally sought help from my doctor, I was diagnosed with Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease. After over a month of suffering I was sent to see a neurologist where I was diagnosed with severe generalized anxiety and panic disorders. I was prescribed a common Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI)  that works by controlling the release of serotonin, the key malfunctioning neurotransmitter that results in these and many more neurological disorders. I was lucky at the time and after only about 2 weeks of headache, nausea, and consistent exhaustion, the medication began to work, though it took some adjustments to get back to myself. Due to my severe symptoms, I was placed on a medical 504 through the school system, a medical management plan for those with disabilities, allowing me to only attend 2 classes during the day and leave the classroom if needed. By the end of the year, this was no longer needed and I was anxiety free until the beginning of high school.

The question by now is usually, “How did they misdiagnosis two psychological disorders to be a viral infection?” The problem with my conditions, like many other mental health illnesses, is that diagnosing them is often very difficult, and usually is a process of elimination other possible conditions. My initial list of possible illnesses included Hand, Foot and Mouth disease (HFMD), allergic reaction, Hypothyroidism, and panic and anxiety disorders. A blood test ruled out the allergic reaction as well as hypothyroidism, which left HFMD and panic and anxiety disorders.

Based purely on my personality and behavior, panic and anxiety disorder was ruled out. In hindsight, I can now see the fundamental issues revolving around the perception of anxiety, panic, and other psychological disorders. This bias, however, was not limited to just medical staff. My teachers, school faculty, and even my family believed I was faking my symptoms in the beginning. I was an extremely social boy, loving to act as a class clown or get in front of my peers to entertain. I had already been in 3 performances in my school prior to 7th grade, and it was seen to be a ludicrous diagnosis by my school, even after seeing my face go pale and the frightened look appear during an attack. To them, this was an act, and to many physicians and clinicians, someone like me could never have anxiety or panic disorders.

I’m here to tell you, as many who face the same problems know, that like many psychological disorders, anxiety and panic disorders do not discriminate. In many cases, these conditions are inherited from your parents and we are in no more control of our condition than an individual with a chronic illness. Diagnosis of these disorders can’t be black and white, as many professionals sometimes may have you believe, and can happen to anyone. The stigma that appears seems to stem from a community that is unfamiliar with the detrimental problems that occur because of these conditions, and the struggles of dealing with them.

In a country where 1 in 5 Americans suffer from a mental illness, stigma and misunderstanding constantly surrounds the issues I, like many others, have faced.I am no different than any other individual who suffers from these disorders, but I am here to share my success story of perseverance in the face of opposition, and determination to reach my goals. It is my hope that my story can bring a better understanding to the challenges faced by those living with these illnesses, and encourage those dealing with them that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel despite how bad it may get. In my next entry, I will explain how my life was put on pause when my anxiety and panic disorders consumed my life, causing me to never have attended high school and how I have been able to get to where I am today; a UNC graduate.