It was scary as hell.
It started with mild chest pains. Frankly, that was nothing new. Over the years when I’ve been in an extremely stressful situation my chest might hurt. I always put it down to muscle tightness as it generally was the entire chest, and often with neck pain and headache. I was definitely stressed out, and again the pain started.
But this time it was different.
Instead of an overall tightness, I had a very specific pain on the left side of my chest. This went on for several days, but oddly enough only when I was at work. Obviously, it was stress related. After about a week of this, I started to experience quick, sharp pain on the left side. It was just for a moment. It felt like a needle was being jammed into my heart, then immediately removed. And that started happening more and more. After a couple more days, I decided to see the company nurse to have my blood pressure checked. (I have hypertension, so I was wondering if the work environment was giving me momentary spikes). Sure enough, it was 160 / 99. I have been on the same hypertension medication for years, and always stayed a perfect 120 / 80, so this was very unusual.
No surprise. The stress level had been intense.
So, I went back to my desk, and did all the things I had learned about controlling stress. Deep breathing, meditation, visualization, mindfulness: anything I could think of that could help call things down. But the stress continued uncontrolled, and the pains became more severe and frequent.
One particular morning, the pains were much stronger than usual, and I again went to see the nurse. The blood pressure was now 180 / 110. The nurse suggested I take the rest of the day off, but with my work load that just wasn’t possible. Within the hour however, the pain started to move down my left arm. I started to get concerned, but tried to ignore it. And the pain increased. My fingers started to tingle. Later that morning we had a staff meeting that was particularly unpleasant. We were told about some new procedures that were being implemented that were going to make an already impossible job even worse. Walking out of the meeting, it felt like I had an elephant sitting on me. It was hard to breathe, and the pain was getting unbearable. I decided to go back to the nurse. She took one look at me, and told me to immediately go to the urgent care facility in the next block over. I kept telling her I was just over worked, but I was getting very concerned and agreed to go. The Nurse then called ahead to tell them I was coming.
They were waiting for me when I walked in.
My blood pressure was now 195 / 140. After a quick EKG, the Dr. came in and told me they had called for emergency transport to the nearest hospital. But, I’m hard headed and insisted that I could drive myself. I was hurting, but there was no need to take an ambulance. After a brief argument with the Dr, I signed a waiver and headed to the hospital 10 miles away. The Dr. called ahead to tell them I was coming.
They were waiting for me when I walked in.
I’ve never been seen so quickly in an ER before. As soon as I sat down, the triage nurse came out and took my blood pressure again. 200 / 165. Another quick EKG, and I was in a bed being hooked up to an IV. They must have given me something to relax, because before I knew it I fell asleep.
At least I think that’s what happened.
I lost track of time, but the next thing I knew I was talking with a cardiologist, who was telling me I was being admitted to the Cardiac Care unit. He said that the initial bloodwork had come back inconclusive, but with my family history (which is horrible) he still thought it was a cardiac event, and wanted to run additional tests. By then the chest pains had abated, and it was an uneventful night. The Dr. came in early the next morning, and said that all the bloodwork had come back negative for a Heart Attack, but he wanted to run a stress test to see how that affected everything. It was scheduled later that morning, and I passed with flying colors.
So what the hell was going on!
When the Cardiologist had me released, he said that he agreed it was just a reaction to stress, and suggested I take some time off work, and while out I should find a new job. I’m not the type to lay out of work, and headed back to the office.
By the time I got there, my chest and arm were hurting again. My boss told me to take the rest of the day off.
I happened to have an appointment with my Therapist the next day, and as I related the experience to her she kept nodding her head with a slight smile. “It was very simple” she said. “You were having a panic attack”. Sometimes the symptoms can be the same as a classic heart attack. The chest pains, arm pain, tingling fingers; it all fit. She suggested I take some extended time off work, and use the time to look for another job.
I kept working of course, and ignored the pains as well as I could now that I knew I wasn’t having a heart attack. Two days later, I had a follow up appointment with my general practitioner. She heard my story, nodded a few times, and said it was a classic panic attack. Her recommendation was to take some extended time off work, and use the time to find a new job.
Okay, that’s two.
As part of my follow up, I went to see the Dr. that has been managing my Psych drugs for me. Just like the others, she said it was a panic attack. The treatment was an SSRI, and a mild tranquilizer. I knew from experience I didn’t do well on SSRI, but I would try clonazepam. She then suggested I take some extended time off work, and use the time to find a new job.
I’m up to three.
And I went back to work relying on the Clonazepam. And the pains returned. After only one day, my boss sent me information on Short Term Disability and suggested I seriously consider looking into it.
And that’s four. I’m done.
And I went home.
I’ve had what I believed to be panic attacks before, but none of them came close to what I had been experiencing this time. I truly felt like I was going to die. Short of the cancer diagnoses I’ve never been so scared of a medical event. And now it’s an ongoing fear. All I have to do is think about work and I become paralyzed. I can’t do a thing except ignore what I should be doing and find something else to do. I’ve been out of work now for almost 3 months, and haven’t been able to find anything new, so I should really be getting back. And it scares me to death.
I haven’t found the solution yet, or figured out a way to deal with the fear. The anticipation of returning to my job remains debilitating. I’m not afraid of returning to the stress, but I’m terrified of having another attack like that. I’ve dealt with mental illness all my life, and I’ve never had anything like this. I always manage to come up with a plan to address current situations and have even learned to recognize signs and start dealing with things preemptively.
But this time I haven’t a clue. And this time I’m scared.