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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mother's Little Helpers: A Story of Panic Attacks, Loneliness and Drugs

Okay. I love my friend Karen. For so many reasons. And after reading this post, I love her even more. For always telling like it is and for being so willing to share her struggle and her soul in this space. I hope you take the time to read her post.
Written by Karen, a mom without a blog

What’s a mom to do when she can’t help herself?

It was one of the worst pains I think I’ve ever felt, save for childbirth. It was this searing, clenching, doubled-over kind of pain. It squeezed my heart and absolutely took my breath away. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time I felt this, so I knew exactly what to do…

I took a quick second to collect myself, calm my breathing, and lay down on the couch. I forced myself to think peaceful thoughts. But not for too long, just enough for the pain to subside, then I was up and continuing with my day.

No calls to 911, no trips to the ER, not even any panicked text messages to my husband. Because it would pass, just like the hundreds of other times it had happened. I knew I was back to square one with this beast I couldn’t shake…anxiety.

This was March 2008.

I finally came to terms with the inevitable – I needed help. I couldn’t cope with every day life with this kind of pain constantly coming out of nowhere. It was becoming a daily occurrence. I finally went to see my primary doctor for the first time since I moved to Utah in 2001. I told him my symptoms and described my history. His question? Why did I wait so long for help?

Good question.

I was treated for these same symptoms about a year after moving to Utah. Back then, my husband and I thought doctors were going to find something terribly wrong with my heart and that my death could be imminent. So really, we felt a lot of relief when it was diagnosed that my chest pain was from panic attacks! It took a while for me to start to obsess on why I could possibly be suffering from a mental illness for the first time in my life – a mom now, a 35-yr-old responsible for children on a daily basis, why was this happening to me? I didn’t understand it and I couldn’t control it – which terrified me.

A myriad of issues contributed, one of the biggest being major changes in my life – I left my career in television production in Los Angeles to move to Utah. I took a small research job that I could do from home in my newly minted basement office. (I don’t really recommend basement home offices… unless you are ultra organized and are able to provide yourself with nice background music, plenty of plants and peace-inducing zen objects strewn about).

I was NOT organized (we still had many unpacked boxes piled here and there) and I didn’t have the foresight to look after my mental health while stuck in the basement by myself in the winter in Utah. Can you say LONELY?

Anyway, this very nice physician’s assistant prescribed the drug Effexor and revealed to me that there were large percentages of women in Utah being treated for anxiety and depression – more than almost any other state per capita! Now, I never did do the research to confirm this statement, but it made me feel a little scared rather than comforted. Where was I living that all these women were needing drugs to get by? This didn’t help my situation. But miraculously enough the drugs did!

It was hard for me to admit that I was taking a mood-enhancing drug, let alone that it made a difference. I didn’t tell very many folks about it. Of course, I didn’t have any friends or family in Utah, so who was I going to tell anyway?

After about 4-5 months on Effexor, I become pregnant (not planned, of course). I decided to go off of the drug ASAP and weaned way too fast. I couldn’t believe the mind trip I went on while weaning off this drug. It truly feels like you could be undergoing some kind of shock treatment. I called it “brain zaps” – heinous, really. It made me decide NEVER to go on anything like this again.

Fast forward to Winter 2007.

I was in the 3rd winter of being a mom of a child with special respiratory needs - basically house-bound for several months to keep her exposure to germs down. It had been two years since I worked. My life consisted of my husband, my children, my pets and the confines of my 2300 sq. ft. home and the inside of my mom taxi, I mean mini-van. For some reason, the joy in having my sweet miracle daughter with us could not overcome this heavy feeling in my chest. I tried more “dates” with girlfriends (I had a few friends by then, thank God), more exercise, more “me” time – but I couldn’t seem to expel the pain.

I felt like such a failure as I scheduled my doctor’s appointment last spring. That’s what took me so long - I just wanted to try to help myself first. I sucked at it. It pissed me off that I couldn’t fix this – I always was someone who prided myself in my ability to help my friends in need and come up with solutions on the spot. I found no solutions for myself.

In April 2008, I started on Celexa. Within a month, I started feeling better. By 2-3 months later, I hardly had any attacks. And by the end of summer 2008, I was chest pain free! My doc made me commit to the drug for a year, especially over the winter, as this was my trouble spot the year before. I decided to let go and trust his treatment plan. It was worth it to help me shift focus from pain back to what really matters – a quality life with my family.

So here I am. I am looking at my LAST bottle of Celexa. Hopefully. I could get a new prescription, but I feel like I’m ready to be done. I’m ready to take this on myself. I’ve been SLOWLY weaning myself off for about a month. I’ve suffered a few minor “brain zaps” but nothing to temper my resolve to be drug free.

How is it going?

Well, I feel surprisingly good overall. I have to admit, I’ve experienced a couple chest-tightening moments in the past few weeks and that scares me a bit. But I still want to stick with the wean.

Please don’t think I’m discrediting the need for drugs like these in my life or in other people’s lives by saying I can simply quit taking them. I know it is not that simple. Drugs like Celexa work for countless people in our stressed-filled universe, and I would never judge someone’s need for them.

They absolutely worked for me when I couldn’t help myself. My family and I benefited LARGELY from the addition of Celexa to my life. It gave me the leg-up I needed to put me back where I am supposed to be… in the moment with my kids with a grateful and peaceful heart.

But that said, I’d like to try to get back to being me without the assistance of a drug. I truly don’t know if I will succeed. I just want to give it a try. Emphasis on the “TRY.”

I’ll have to keep you posted.

Especially as another long winter is around the corner…


  1. I totally understand the need for an anxiety drug - Lexapro is my drug of choice. For me though, I have no desire to go off it and end up where I was before. If my doctor suggests it, I'll do it, but otherwise, I'm in full time. Which is kind of funny, because in my past I was a no drug kind of gal, with the exception of (legally prescribed) drugs that bring on a good buzz.

  2. Oh, and recently I took Xanax to get me through a long flight that I took without my family. It was a wonderdrug and I wrote about it in my blog - also titled Mothers Little Helper!

    Good luck with the weaning. I am excited to hear how it goes and I wish you success!

  3. I have had panic attacks before so I knew instantly what was happening to you. It is frightening when you don't know. You do feel as if you are going to die.
    I went a different route and sought out emotional therapy. It took weekly and often bi-weekly sessions for over a year and a half to help me through these attacks, figure out where the fear was coming from and how to change my reaction to the things I was fearing - like failure to perform as a wife and friend and daughter - and just failure in general. I think I was one of the lucky ones in life who happens upon the exact right therapist to connect with. Her method was Rational Emotive Therapy that teaches you to figure out WHAT you are feeling - that is often the hardest part - you think you are mad when you are really hurt or frustrated - those are very different emotions. It has been 27 years since that therapy and I still use it today.

    We each find our own way to feel better. What is so terrific about Karen's experience is that she knows that there is something that will help should she need it. I wish her well on her journey and look forward to hearing the rest of the story.

  4. Thank you for posting this Karen. I struggle with mild anxiety, the worst also landing me in the hospital for fear of heart attack, only to have an ER doc tell me I had GERD, and to stop eating spicey foods.


    Good for you for getting help. I've tried anti deps. in the past, only to get off right away because I hate the way they make me feel. Your experience has made me rethink how I'm handling this issue on my own. Maybe it's time to find a good doc :-)

    Good luck with the weaning - sounds like you're ready and prepared for whatever comes. E

  5. I had the same chest pains!! I never knew what it was.

    I stopped having them when I cut the drama out of my life. Family members who wanted to call and keep mess stirred, CUT OUT!

    My life is still stressful.I work full time, I go to school, I have 2 kids, one who has AUTISM, my hubby can be a big ol' ass...but cutting out the drama from toxic family members helped tremendously.

  6. Karen, I'm so happy you're feeling better. What is it about Utah? my family just moved back here and I'm already feeling the pressure! I'm here if you ever need someone to talk to - good luck!

  7. Karen-Great post...I too share in this "anxiety"..I have always had it though,but never was treated. After peanut..holy cow, If I didn't kill myself someone else would have..I am sure there was a line. Eventually I went on my "happy" pill, and to be honest...I am never going off it. Stepping back and looking at the situation, my families happiness is more important. And it appears to be hereditary, except some other women in my family are in denial...which leads to a whole new set of problems. Anyway, my point, thanks for putting it out there, and making all of us a lil more comforted we are not "crazy", it's just two receptors don't like to talk to eachother. And even if you have to go back on...don't worry, there are worse things in life. Have a great day!

  8. Karen, as always, thanks for such an honest post.

    My husband struggles with anxiety issues and is currently on Celexa. It took some time to find the right drug for him - one that wouldn't make him super tired etc. and finally he found Celexa - THANK GOD! He did the weaning, but is back on and is not fighting it this time around.

    Good luck with your wean. And, yeah ... what is up with Utah??? I think I smell a documentary topic ... maybe your next gig?

  9. You know what, I'm on pain killers because of all these muscles pains I have, and every doctor I've been to says I'm really tight and need to just learn to relax. That's the whole brunt of my problems, that I can't relax. I need to learn to take my stress in other ways, by going jogging, or by allowing myself to take the time to really relax, by listening to music, etc. It's a long journey. But I can't wait for the results. Good luck to you!

  10. I'm on Lexapro but have tried others. I like it but I basically just want to lie around and watch TV. I also take a Clonapin and one lowdose Xanax at night. The Clonapin is for anxiety and you don't even feel it, it just keeps you from bolting upright in bed and thinking your life is ruined.

  11. it's so interesting how your brain can know something, but your body won't cooperate. that's what is so fascinating about this sort of stuff... even if you rationally tell yourself "oh, it's only anxiety", you can't just 'turn off' your symptoms.

    as everyone else said, good luck with the wean! i don't know why i think that phrase sounds so hilarious.

    i know you can do it. as much as you have been through, and as strong and wonderful as you are... no doubts here!

  12. Oh,Karen--
    Thanks for being so honest and real! This was a great post!
    Hang in there and if the wean doesn't work, know that that is ok, too.
    Good luck!

  13. Karen, Thank you so much for trusting us (you know, the whole entire worldwide web (ha ha) : ) with such an honest account of your journey with anxiety and medication. You are brave. I tend to "hold my cards" close and am inspired by what you've shared so openly here.

    I am certain that you've comforted many who can commiserate and helped others like me to develop more compassion and understanding of this struggle that so many deal with. And as a someone who lives right here (in your 'hood!) in the heart of Utah, I also wonder about what the high percentages around these parts mean. Different post for that topic, I suppose.

    I hope you count me as part of your cheering section (we all need one of those, right?) I'll be cheering loud and strong for you on this one. And whatever happens, it will be perfect and as it should be. You GO, girl!



  14. Thanks for sharing! I think so many people feel weak and embarassed to talk about the subject of anxiety and depression but how much better off would our society be if we could all talk about it in the open.

  15. How wonderful for you to share this painful story with us. Hopefully there are others that read this that recognize themselves in this post.

    I was on Paxil for a couple of years. It helped me tremendously.. then we moved to another state and I did not find another doctor.

    I weaned myself off of them and OMG it was the WORST. I know exactly of the brain zaps you spoke of.. It was the worst feeling in the world.

    11 years later, I no longer need the meds, but they helped me a great deal when I needed them the most.

    Good luck to you. You have a great support system here.

  16. When I was 22, I had to be the family member who accompanied my father to his alcohol and drug addiction program (my grandmother would not do it). The primary lesson I learned at that young age was that people are scared to death to get help for mental issues. It made as much sense to me to seek treatment for a "head problem" as it would a broken arm or leg, and yet the rooms were filled with patients who were scared to death to be there. That's when i first came to appreciate the stigma attached to mental issues. Congratulations and thanks Karen, and others, for sharing something so common, and yet so hidden.

  17. Wow, Karen. Thank you for such a real, raw, and amazingly candid post. That takes true guts, girl.

    You can tell from the comments that you have brought up a subject that has personally touched many of us. I've certainly struggled with anxiety issues (but I admit have never been treated for them). I think a lot of anxiety is rooted in perfection and fear of failing. This wife/mother role is so freaking demanding...we women are juggling all these balls in the air, trying to do everything so well. And handle the stress. Yikes.

    I wish you the very best in your taper off the Celexa. You have such inner leaps from the computer when I read your words. Please keep us posted on your progress...I'll be rooting for you all the way! :-)

  18. Common's an intoxicating temptation, to turn off for a short pull back from those things that persist...

  19. I think anxiety is a mixture of emotional but also physical. Karen have you ever had your hormones tested? Magnesium? Iron?

    There are a lot of physical things that can contribute to anxiety as well

  20. I don't even know where to begin...or end. Painful post for me to read. But it was an excellent post; truly.

    You have incredible strength.

  21. Great post!
    Thanks for sharing!
    You have very interestingly described every thing.


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