A couple of months ago, I reached out to a few friends asking them to tell their stories and/or experiences dealing with mental health issues.
It is a big step for anyone to share and I am grateful they said yes. A few decided to stay anonymous (and that is okay). They are brave, loved, and appreciated.
In honour of Mental Health Week (May 2-8, 2016) - I would like to share Jason's story.
My experience living with anxiety (panic) disorder and more recently depression…
It was the late 1990s when I started to feel overwhelmed, out of the blue, and would start getting the feeling that I needed to escape wherever I was, whether it was in a classroom, a bar, a movie theatre, etc. – it wasn’t just places that one could view as hard to escape. My heart would also start to pound and more often than not I’d get sweaty and disoriented, almost feeling like I was going to pass out. At one point I had not left the city for over 3 years because of the potential to have one of these episodes.
After going to multiple physicians over a two-year period, it was at an appointment with a neurologist when what was happening became clearer. When the neurology resident came in to assess me she asked about all my symptoms and history around the issue, and when she came back she said ‘I think you’re experiencing panic attacks’.
The diagnosis then was sent back to my GP and she suggested I try cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) before trying any medication, to which I agreed. When I went to my first CBT group session I was surprised to be the only male in the group, and I was also the youngest person by 15-20 years. The sessions helped me realize that there were others suffering from panic attacks, and some of those in the group hadn’t left their house in over a year until coming to the group sessions. At the end of the final session, when going around the group and sharing what was helpful about the sessions, many said it helped them to know that a healthy, young male was also having the same experiences – that was me, but with the panic attacks I didn’t feel ‘healthy’ per se. However, this in itself made me realize that the CBT sessions were worth it, even if I didn’t find them extremely helpful, the fact that others benefited from my attendance was comforting.
After the CBT sessions I was still suffering from panic attacks, sometimes 5+ in a day. That’s when my psychiatrist prescribed me Paxil (paroxetine) and told me there was nothing addictive about the medication. Well I may not have craved taking it everyday, but during one visit to Calgary I forgot my medication at home and within 2-3 days I started to feel like garbage – light headed, with almost flu-like symptoms. After figuring out what may be the cause, I took a Paxil that one of my family members had and within a couple of hours I started to feel better. Perhaps the medical definition of addiction wasn’t there, but I knew I couldn’t just stop taking Paxil cold turkey.
I slowly increased my dosage of Paxil and was on it for 4 years. I went from having 5+ panic attacks a day, to having a couple attacks per week. It was almost like cognitive behaviour therapy to me as it helped me experience what it was like to not have multiple attacks every day. I did notice one major side effect was weight gain, which I wasn’t told about by my psychiatrist or pharmacist; in the four years I was on Paxil I gained 40 pounds (18 kilograms). The first time I went into my psychiatrists office after weening myself off of Paxil she said ‘sorry’, to which I asked her what for, and she said ‘I had no idea that the medication had that much of a weight gain side effect’. Before taking Paxil I was unable to gain any weight, despite being fairly active and going to the gym at least 3 times a week. My psychiatrist thought, at first, it was just a part of me maturing. I was not angry with my psychiatrist nor the drug itself as, like I said above, it helped me to learn what it’s like to live without multiple panic attacks every day.
I continued to visit my psychiatrist a couple times per year even after I was off of Paxil as I found it helpful. During my time while on Paxil and after I continued to take precautions so that I would remain as much in control as possible; for example, I would always be the one who drove to social gatherings, whether to the movies, the pub, or the like. This way I could ‘escape’ if I needed to. In fact, and I’m not proud of this, I would even drive after consuming alcohol, which I knew wasn’t right, but it was the only way I could continue to seem ‘normal’ while entering various environments.
For the first 4-5 years after being diagnosed with panic disorder I didn’t really talk to anyone about it, primarily because of the stigma around mental health issues, especially as it was the early 2000s. Looking back this caused a lot of stress and hindered personal relationships, in particular the girl I was dating at the time, as I would resist going to events where I didn’t know many people but never told her why. This eventually led to our breakup, and my realization that I needed to be more open about my condition and perhaps get back on another medication.
Being more open about my diagnosis was liberating in a way, but the other benefit that I had was that many people would confide in me about their diagnosis, whether panic disorder, another anxiety disorder, depression, etc. as they didn’t feel comfortable talking with anyone about it, again as there is the stigma around mental health issues. Once people started to come to me to talk about mental health, it confirmed that I needed to continue to be open about my diagnosis and not hide behind it. As with a lot of things in life, I also deal with stress and anxiety with humour, so I find that making light of some issues, such as the need to drive all the time, helps people understand my condition better.
The next medication that I was prescribed for my panic disorder was Effexor (venlafaxine). I felt like garbage when I first started taking it, something that my GP and pharmacist missed telling me may occur. However, once I got to the therapeutic dose I started to have a reduction in my panic attacks – the number of attacks weren’t as high as when I started taking Paxil, but they were increasing in frequency hence why I went on another medication. I was also prescribed Ativan (lorazepam) as a fast acting medication for when I felt a panic attack coming on. To be honest the first time I used Ativan I was about to get onto an airplane and was experiencing a bad panic attack, so I tossed the pill under my tongue; however, when I did that I started to panic even more as I had never taken it before and didn’t know how I would react to it. Needless to say it helped, and knocked me out for most of the 3-hour flight. However, the other times I have taken it, it hasn’t had the same impact (knocking me out) but would suggest anyone prescribed Ativan to take it before you need it to see how you react.
I ended up taking Effexor for a couple of years, but once I started to have minimal panic attacks I started to wean myself off of it; it was the worst two weeks I had experienced in quite a long time. I felt like garbage, with the flu-like symptoms and disoriented, but fought through it. However, after about 6 months I started to get more panic attacks and needed to get back on another medication. My GP prescribed me Zoloft (sertraline). I tolerated it well, from the perspective of my panic disorder, but after awhile I started to see the weight gain come back like I experienced with Paxil.
While my panic disorder was under control from the perspective of not having many panic attacks, it is always in the back of my mind that I could have one at any moment. This influences almost everything I do, from travel, to which events I attend, to which route I drive to get somewhere. I was also beginning to start having less interest in things I used to enjoy, such as going out with friends, whether to have some wings and beer, to a movie, or to a concert. My comfort zone was beginning to be my house, and would always think about when I could get back home when I was out of the house. It ended up that I had/have depression, and looking back over the previous couple of years from the time of diagnosis it’s clear that I was suffering from depression for a few years before the diagnosis; and here I thought I would’ve recognized the symptoms, especially in myself, but I didn’t. The depression has really affected my work and personal life, including being a big contr