Sunday, October 13, 2013

What We Talk About When We Talk About Crippling Anxiety (Part 3)

III. After

(Part I is here. Part II is here.) 

The flight home could have been a lot worse. I took a five (ish?) hour flight from Bangalore to Dubai, and met my uncle at the airport, who was coincidentally traveling on business. Together we flew from Dubai to New York, and from there, Chicago. I kept passing "shards" on the way there, but it wasn't as  excruciating as it had been on campus, back in India. I mustered the courage to look in the airplane toilet after I had peed, on the flight from New York to Chicago -- still blood, but not nearly as much as there had been. The symptoms were going away. Was I recovering? Instantly, I felt a rush of shame. Was I getting better?

Could I have stuck it out in India? Was I a total pussy, deciding to give up and go home? Should I have just waited it out a few days longer? Embarrassment flooded me. I realized that other than a nagging ache in my back, I was able to navigate three international airports on my own, with no problems, without once getting a sudden "kidney stone attack." Before I could barely walk across campus. And now I wasn't peeing as much blood as before. I wasn't throwing up. I was a little nauseous, but otherwise ... I was able to travel mostly by myself. I probably looked like any other passenger, except for the slight limp in my step. What a total privileged princess I am, I thought. I get one tiny kidney stone and I throw up a few times and I high-tail it back to the States, where people speak English. What does that say about me -- that I'm only comfortable in a place where I understand the language, and the doctors wear lab coats? What kind of racist, privileged bullshit is that? 

Shame was a major component of my recovery, which meant it was a long time before I could muster up the courage to talk to a therapist. Surely it couldn't have been that bad, I kept thinking to myself afterwards. I stopped passing shards like, the instant I boarded the plane back home. And then when I got back to my parents' house in Chicago, I was almost totally back to normal. I probably could have stuck it out a few more weeks and have been totally fine. I could have finished out the semester. What a total pussy I am. Cut and run. But when I'd think about taking a return flight back to India, I would break out in a cold sweat. I would have to  put my head in my hands and take deep breaths to keep from feeling like I was falling. I would run to the bathroom and have instant, IBS-style diarrhea. Hell no, I'd think. If going home makes me a pussy, so be it. I'm not going back. I got out. I'm out. I'm okay. 

I had returned home in the middle of the semester, in the middle of February, so I was in a limbo at my parents' house until school started up again in the fall. Talk about culture shock -- I had gone from a wet, sweltering, hot, city where you literally could not escape from honking cars and barking dogs, to a large house in the middle of the Chicago suburbs, deafeningly silent in comparison and surrounded by snow. I spent the next couple of days just hanging out on the couch, happy beyond measure that I could snuggle up to my then-fiance-now-husband instead of lying naked by myself on a gurney in an Indian hospital. I went to my doctor's office (where I could understand what everyone was saying, where everyone washed their hands and wore white lab coats, where it was five minutes away instead of twenty minutes by rickshaw, where I could just get in the car and go instead of having to haggle and be harassed by an autorickshaw driver). They checked me out and told me I was better. I was better. I was normal. What was I supposed to do now?

I got a few part-time jobs, nannying and babysitting, and cobbled them into a full-time work schedule. I worked and saved. Friends and co-workers and acquaintences back at college would text, or call, or message me on Facebook, and go, um, did you come home from India? What happened? Are you okay? How was I supposed to explain everything? I'd start by saying Oh well I woke up one morning with this excruciating pain-- and then suddenly I couldn't breathe. It would feel like I had an elephant sitting on my chest. I'd get sweaty and have what my doctor calls trampada a la puerta -- a sudden urge to run to the bathroom. The gag reflex in the back of my throat would start to itch. I learned to abbreviate what had happened in the shortest way possible. "Oh, I got sick," I said. "Long story. Hospital. Surgery. Had to come home." Any more explanation than that, and I would start to feel faint. Sometimes I would relay parts of the story to friends or family who would ask, and after telling them about getting cathed, getting prepped before surgery, having surgery, even the ordeal of being in pain and trying to get to the hospital -- and I would have to lay down afterwards and take a nap. I was wiped. The only thing that helped me feel better was lying in bed and turning my electric blanket to its highest temperature. And sleeping. It was the only thing that shut off my brain. It was my only respite.

I had begun to experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

It was months before I went to the doctor, months before I even knew that there was any reason to go to the doctor. My mother, who I was living with and who had a history of anxiety as well, noticed my weird symptoms and told me to get myself checked out. Really? I'd say. I'm okay, though. Aren't I? I'd make plans to go into the city and visit friends, and then come down with all these flu-like symptoms. Chills. Body-aches. Even a low grade fever. I'd cancel plans and within an hour, I'd feel back to my normal self. That's weird. I thought. But not a reason to go to the doctor. Probably just some bug I'm fighting off. Any time I'd travel, or be in a situation I couldn't immediately get out of (like dinner with friends. Like riding in a car or traveling on a train) I'd come down with these weird flu symptoms. And if I went to dinner anyway, or rode in a car against my better judgment and decided to ignore all these "flu" symptoms, I'd start falling down a rabbit hole of pure panic. Hyperventilating. Uncontrollable crying. Immediate diarrhea. Shaking. And crying some more. What was wrong with me?

There were other triggers too. And slowly -- very slowly -- I noticed a pattern. Sudden, loud noise? Panic attack. If I had to pee and couldn't immediately get to a bathroom? Panic attack. If I was stuck in a traffic jam and couldn't "escape" if I needed to? Panic attack. I had a constant urge to escape (even if I was in the craft section of Michael's or something) and if I couldn't immediately escape from any given situation (like if there was some fat chick blocking the exit at Michael's) I would need to run to the bathroom and hyperventilate/cry for the next fifteen minutes. After a while, there wasn't much that didn't trigger a panic attack. It was hard to go outside at all. After all, pretty much anything triggered an attack. And once I had a panic attack, I was literally immobile. I realized it was a lot easier to just stay inside. I could avoid most of the triggers there. Or I could turn off my brain and sleep. Or I could stay under my warm, wonderful electric blanket and watch TV shows where there was virtually no conflict and no loud surprises. Nothing that scared me. Nothing that hurt me. No reminders of India. Or the hospital. Or anything medical. Or anything unexpected. I watched a lot of House Hunters.

I had begun to experience agoraphobia.

Eventually, I went back to the doctor. They gave me some xanax, and that helped, for a while. Ultimately though, everything got a lot worse before it got better.


  1. Thank you for writing about this. For me it was getting my hair cut, movie theaters, or travel away from home of any kind. I always insisted on driving when I went out with friends because I had fewer symptoms if I knew I could leave whenever I wanted. Any situation where having a panic attack would cause a scene was an immediate trigger. Any situation where I couldn't discretely slip away was the same. The days leading up to my wedding were horrible. I told the priest that I was afraid that I might throw up during the service. But by the time I walked down the aisle I felt much better and super confident. Thank you Xanex.

    I've really enjoyed reading your story. Panic is very isolating and the feeling that you're going crazy is intense. It helps to know you are not alone.

  2. Oh. My. Gosh. I just read all three parts, and I feel traumatized just hearing about it. Wow. You are so strong that you got through that. I'm looking forward to reading about the rest of your recovery, since I've had some PTSD issues over the past year. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this. I cannot imagine being in this situation or how absolutely terrifying it must have been. I hope you have been able to work through the shame, in my opinion there is nothing to be ashamed of.

  4. Were you on an exchange semester at a university in India?

  5. I just want to hug you. This series is riveting. What you wrote about shame and the impact it had on your experience is something that really resonates with me. I struggle with shame that I'm not responding in as stoic a manner as I think I should, that I'm not being tough enough, etc. Also, I'm pretty sure every patient in that hospital, given the chance, would have traded places with a patient in a first world hospital in a heartbeat. You are a brave woman to have been through this and even braver to share it with us.

  6. This is making me realize that I must have PTSD as well. I wish I were as eloquent and insightful as you were so I could figure out where the hell it's coming from!! I'm on Zoloft and have been for years but I'm in one of my cycles where it's not working so great. I will keep reading, I'm not done with your series yet!