By Gina Van Thomme
This story was originally posted on Gina’s personal blog. You can read it here.
When I was five, I came to the realization that I was going to die and there was nothing I could do about it.
This profound realization resulted in night terrors, which essentially meant that one second I’d be laying in bed thinking about five-year-old things like Arthur and Furbies and the next, I’d be panicking over questions such as “How am I supposed to spend an eternity in heaven when I can’t even sit through an hour of church?”
I had the occasional night terrors throughout my childhood and adolescence, but the summer I turned 18, they happened with an increased frequency. While my peers were spending nights increasing their alcohol tolerance in preparation for college, I was in my parent’s bedroom sobbing as I panicked over my looming demise. My mother—thankfully for both me and my future college roommate who probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the calming sounds of her dorm-mate having nightly existential crises—brought me to the doctor.
Even though I didn’t really see any point in going to a clinic, the doctor I met with happened to be Faribault’s version of McDreamy. His first course of action was in telling me that death is a part of life and eventually everyone in the world will die. When he saw that my response was less “I feel much better now!!” and more “GET ME A PAPER BAG ASAP,” he quickly stopped talking and started prescribing. I left the clinic with a low dosage of anti-anxiety meds and the reassuring knowledge that at least Dr. Hottie and I would be dead together someday.
I began taking the pills, because let’s face it, I would’ve gladly accepted anything Dr. Hottie gave me, including influenza. Miraculously, my worries got better. I moved to college, began classes, and continued on with life as normal, sans the night terrors. And although I was feeling better, it was in no way related to my daily dose of Citalopram; my panic was simply put on the back burner because I was busy with classes / had begun working out / wasn’t worried about death as much as I was thinking about the possibility of failing public speaking.
I continued to take the medication while simultaneously rolling my eyes at its complete uselessness for the next several years.
During this time, I moved, I interned, I travelled abroad, I graduated, and I got a full-time job. I was feeling great. I began doing adult things like laundry and enrolling in health insurance. The latter allowed me to see a doctor for a yearly physical, which I did because I had a long list of WebMD self-diagnoses I wanted to talk to a professional about.
During my inaugural appointment with my new doctor, I mentioned that I wanted to stop taking my anxiety medication because I didn’t think it was doing anything and walking one block out of my way to get to the pharmacy was, like, really draining after a long day at the office. My doctor agreed that I could slowly wean off of the medication.
And so I slowly went off my medication, milligrams at a time until I was finally free and feeling thrilled with myself. Two weeks passed.
It didn’t take a trauma.
It wasn’t anything someone said or did.
In fact, nothing in my life changed.
I simply had a thought I didn’t want.
(Okay, sorry, back to normal paragraphs now, but wasn’t that dramatic?!)
My obsessive thinking snowballed. My tiny unwanted thought turned into a worry and guilt so all-consuming that I didn’t have any energy left to take care of myself. And just when I thought I could escape my worry, a new one started that was worse than the last. I bawled in the bathroom at work. I slept every second I was home. (Okay, that isn’t that unusual.) I had no appetite. (But that is!) I hadn’t even done anything, yet I was sick to my stomach with shame. Worst of all, I started to feel foggy again.
I had experienced this “fog” before.
When I was in high school, there was a period when I thought something was really wrong with me (medically wrong, to be clear. Quite frankly, there were lots of things wrong with me in high school [#bangsandbraces], but that’s for another blog post.) My every waking moment felt that slightly unreal way everything seems after staying up all night. I slept more and more, thinking maybe I was tired. I felt out of body; just slightly off. I would look at my hand and feel like it didn’t belong to me. I started worrying if I was even real or not. I thought I was going crazy. Nothing helped.
My mom thought it was Seasonal Affective Disorder, I thought it was mono (which was wishful thinking because the closest I’d come to sharing saliva with someone at that point was … never), my Google searches pulled up forums of people saying they felt the same way—some even for years. I tried to describe my state as a fog, a dream, a cloud, but no words could sum up how wrong I felt and how truly terrifying it was to not be able to snap out of it. Worst, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I felt, further decreasing my already minuscule levels of calmness and rationality.
For three months, I Googled and Googled, trying to pinpoint what could be wrong. I didn’t bother going to a doctor; there were no physical symptoms, and besides, I could barely figure out how to explain what was wrong with me besides the fact that something really, really was.
But then the fogginess was gone. So gone that I couldn’t believe I had ever felt so indescribably wrong before. The more time that passed, the harder it was to remember what it felt like or if it had even really happened. Was I making all of this up somehow? For months, I was on edge, thinking that the fog would come back. I eventually stopped thinking about it.
So when the fog settled again in the days following my unwanted thought, I didn’t waste any time wondering what was wrong.
Instead, I panicked. On top of the fact that my mind was playing the same irrational worries over and over and over like some shitty Kelly Clarkson song on KS95, I felt like I was losing control of every part of my life and body. I knew I had to do something.
I started with getting a new prescription. I hoped replacing the medication as quickly as possible would do some chemically science-y thing inside my body and repair me to new, but apparently science takes time and I wasn’t about to sit around and wait for it. I made an appointment with my doctor who, much to my horror, didn’t know what was causing my fog. She suggested I make an appointment with a psychiatrist, which turned out to be about as easy as finding your kid a Hatchimal for Christmas. More panic ensued.
As the number of clinic waitlists continued to grow, so did my hysterics. I went through the motions of day to day life, but inside, all of my energy was spent deciphering an endless loop of unwanted thoughts. Thankfully, my boyfriend stepped in and—in a beautiful demonstration of how to use Google responsibly—discovered that I was eligible for free counseling through my employer. I made an appointment for the next day.
Therapy was a turning point.
In that first session, I was finally able to talk about my worries without the fear of being misunderstood. Maybe it was the similarity to a confessional (#CatholicSchoolProbs), but being able to talk to a professional face to face about what I had been holding inside provided me with a sense of relief so strong, I felt physically lighter as I walked out of the office. I was still anxious, but for the first time in weeks, my racing thoughts slowed enough that I was able to focus on other things.
In the following weeks, I continued meeting with my therapist, sometimes desperately counting down the hours until we could meet again. I learned how to breathe in a square and cope with my unwanted thoughts by “pushing them away like clouds.” I learned that having a bad thought didn’t make me a bad person. I wasn’t completely better, but I knew I was taking steps in the right direction. I also began realizing my anxiety diagnosis was probably accurate (sorry it took me five years, Dr. Hottie).
Eventually my calls to the psychiatry clinic were returned, allowing me to make an appointment to see a psychiatric nurse. I was expecting to take some questionnaires and to get my meds tweaked. What I didn’t expect; however, was an answer.
My fog had a name.
Depersonalization-derealization is a disorder that, according to the Mayo Clinic (and NOT WebMD for once in my life), “occurs when you persistently or repeatedly have the feeling that you’re observing yourself from outside your body or you have a sense that things around you aren’t real, or both.” Many people feel like this from time to time, but when DPDR sticks around, it is likely a disorder or a symptom of another physical or mental health problem. In my case, DPDR is triggered when my anxiety is heightened and serves as my body’s way of coping with a stressful situation like high school chemistry or obsessive thinking.
Over the course of several months, my psychiatrist worked to find a combination of medications to pull me out of my fog and make me feel like myself again. These appointments not only resulted in a fuller medicine cabinet, but also helped me view my entire anxiety diagnoses differently. For years, I had refused to label myself as anxious, especially because I saw having anxiety and being stressed as the same thing. It was at these appointments that I began to realize that being debilitated by worries was not the same thing as being Type A or a perfectionist. I also realized that I didn’t have to deal with my anxiety alone.
Now, almost a year after my biggest anxiety attack, I am on three anxiety medications that I take every day.
I still have days where I am paralyzed by my thoughts. I still find myself feeling foggy in unfamiliar places and situations. I still have moments when I doubt myself and my relationships and my plans and my life. There are still nights that I bolt out of bed propelled by my fear of “what the heck happens when I die?” Sometimes I feel like I haven’t made any progress.
But this year I also learned more about myself than I ever wished to. I found a care team. I learned coping mechanisms and breathing exercises. I thanked my lucky stars for my family and friends and sweet, sweet boyfriend who takes away my computer when he catches me self-diagnosing off of Yahoo! Questions health forums. And I found the bravery to ask for help.