I was in the midst of my routine at the gym, doing my bench presses on the incline barbell rack. In the middle of a set, a sharp pain appeared in the left side of my chest. Stirred, I carefully rested the bar in the metal brackets and waited, trying to get a sense of what was happening.
When I stood up I felt light headed, like I’d gotten up too quickly and air had sucked out of my head. Putting my hand on the bench I folded over to maintain balance. I
pressed my fingers against my chest, trying to locate the pain, figuring I just pulled a muscle. I stared at a clock on the far wall, a fixed point and watched the second hand tick. After about a minute the feeling dissipated, so I sat back down and continued my set.
By my third rep the pain returned, more persistent, demanding. It was accompanied by this tingling sensation, which started at the fingertips of my left hand and moved up my arm. Like a foreboding message squirreling through my body. I put the bar down again and sat up. This is not normal, I thought.
I took a drink of water and again waited for it to pass. This time, though, fear had begun bubbling up that I was trying to talk myself out of. If I don’t acknowledge it, it’s not really there. But it was creeping fast. Then faster. Then, as I stood up again, it was on me.
My heart picked up speed, rocketed forward and beat furiously, like someone slamming on an accelerator. I checked my heart rate on my watch monitor — 150 bpm per minute, significantly higher than normal, despite the fact that this was my normal workout.
Something about seeing the numbers, the recognition of the facts, sent me into a panic. I started to hyperventilate, and the room began spinning, the perimeter mirrors exacerbating the effect.
I have to get home, I thought. If I make it home — see Nicole — I’ll be ok. I scrambled outside for sunlight and fresh air, but the chaos of the outside world made it worse. My body felt like putty and I had to drag myself through the parking lot.
I found my car, fumbled with getting out my keys and the suddenly difficult task of opening the door. I let gravity drop me into the driver’s seat, and took a look at myself in the rearview, trying to reconcile that face with this person. I seemed like a stranger to myself, distant from my limbs, swimming and disoriented.
When I tried to throw the car into reverse, it felt like I was intoxicated. I couldn’t align my movements with the car’s and I pulled the car straight back into the curb. After struggling to re-park and getting out.
I found a bench in front of the strip mall to wait it all out. Nothing was balanced. The blue mailbox on the curb seemed turned on its side. The wooden bench wasn’t steady. Everything was is in motion.
I’m not going to die, I tell myself.
On the bench, my heart rate read 170 bpm. But my energy level was draining out of me, like a liquid, my arms heavy and my body beginning to lump. It’s as though a force is rising up from my limbs into my neck and then head. The ground is coming up to meet me, on an angle, like I am going to pass out.
I fumbled for my phone and dial 911 and moved down to lay on the curb, my arm wrapped around the pole of a street sign.
“I’m having a heart attack,” I said the moment I hear the click of someone answering. I couldn’t describe it any other way and know it will cut through with those words. A young woman’s tinny voice tried to calm me.
“Ok, stay there. We’re going to send help. Where are you?”
“I’m at the shopping center on York and Seminary. In front of the Rite Aid,” I told her. “I’m on the curb. I can’t move.”
“Ok, someone’s on the way. Stay there and don’t drink anything.” Her voice was
a thin noise from a distant planet.
“Please hurry up,” I begged. “I can’t do this much longer.”
She started to ask what I had taken and what I had been doing. I was struggling to breathe, much less talk. I tried to imagine each breath going through me. My eyes felt heavy as though I’d been awake for days. My mouth was dry and my body weakening, like air draining from a tire.
I felt trapped inside my own body, like a plane in a tailspin, hurtling toward the earth. I closed my eyes and said a prayer:
Lord God, please let me make it through this.
Allow me to raise my children
To see another day.
Please forgive my wrongdoings and create in me a clean heart…
I ask that your will be done
In Jesus’ mighty name Amen.
The next morning I skipped the gym and just a half of a cup of coffee, hoping to erase the previous day’s nightmare. But by late morning, it was back. Creeping and then on me. I was caught inside another attack. Then that night it came on again. Then the next morning.
Then the next.
Then the next.
My body was in a full-blown rebellion. The anxiety started to spread outward, like water seeking any and all cracks. I started to question everything, never feeling grounded or safe.
My sleepy neighborhood became a minefield of triggers. As days rolled into weeks, I became too terrified to sleep and too crippled to do anything. I was trapped inside the walls of my own prison.
This was the sequence: my heart would start beating hard, and then fast and faster. My mouth would go dry and then I would start to feel a dizzy, like the floor was curving upward or I could feel the tilt of the earth. A sensation would start creeping up my left side: fingertips, hand, gaining speed and intensity up my arm and left side.
Then I’d be hit with chest pains, and difficulty breathing that usually spiraled into hyperventilation. A powerful force I couldn’t see was smothering me. It was like I was at the bottom of a deep hole and dirt was filling in above me.
My own body had become untrustworthy and the world was dangerous. Nicole tried her best to comfort me, but she was as mystified as I was. Watching me obsessively check my heart rate, or seeing me get up in the middle of the night to drive myself to the ER, she felt helpless.
It was hard for her to watch this weakened man, scared to be home by himself, always seeking confirmation that he’d be okay. I was a shell of the man she had grown to know and love, as needy as our infant son.
Things got increasingly worse. After waking up in the middle of the night too many times, I started to sleep in my car in the hospital parking lot in case an attack came.
I refused to go anywhere that wasn’t a quick ride to an Emergency Room. Walls went up all around me. I was terrified by the loss of control, the inability to predict, the fear of never feeling normal again.
I refused to drive long distances and was afraid to work out at the gym, thinking that would keep it at bay. But I still had clients I had to train. I canceled and pushed a few sessions until I had to get back to work. I was secretly afraid of doing even the basic cardio or lifting that I had my clients do.
The thing I had once gone to for peace and strength was now terrifying to me. I often invented in- juries or other reasons why I couldn’t participate. I’d become a fraud, my life a spectacle.
Sometimes when I’d call 911, an ambulance would arrive, and it would dissipate once the paramedics reached me or once I got to the hospital. Once it just vanished right after I hung up the phone with 911.
The appearance, the suggestion, of help would negate its need. This was the first inkling that all of this was from a deeper well.
At the ER, they would hook me up to an IV, and give me a sedative to try to induce sleep. Then came countless blood tests, CT Scans and EKG’s, leaving me with no answers.
After every visit the ER doctor would say, “follow up with your primary,” but I didn’t have one. About a month into the attacks, I was back at the ER when they gave me a Lorazepam pill. It was like a cool breeze blowing through my body. It was a relief. It was magic.
The next morning I finally went to see a general practitioner; I had been putting off for the typical insurance reasons. Dr. Barnes was a tall white guy in his late fifties, with one of those large builds that told you he had once been heavy. He wore thin frame glasses and had silver hair along the sides — a bald highway down the middle — and a trimmed beard.
Dr. Barnes looked over all my blood work, tests, and medical records from all the emergency room visits, a virtual pile of information. I cycled through the explanation of symptoms yet again, which I hated doing because it was like unlocking the cage. An aura of panic floated into the room just by me saying some of those words.
During my recitation of stories and symptoms, he cut me off, putting his hand up. “Okay Quentin,” he said in his nasal voice. “It sounds to me like you have a severe anxiety disorder.”
“A disorder?” I asked, confounded. “You mean like a dis- ease.?”
“Yes. It’s very common. It’s called Generalized Anxiety and Panic Disorder.” I told him about the Lorazepam I’d gotten from the hospital and he prescribed it for me daily. I rarely took medicine as a child and vividly remembered my mother’s refusal to medicate me as a teenager in the psychiatrist’s office.
She knew the dangers associated with it a lot more than the average person because she was med-certified and had worked in the industry for 25 years.
There was also a cultural divide. There was not a single kid on medication for behavior in my community. One of my cousins was hyperactive and he was the only kid that I knew who took a medicine to calm down. I knew some diabetics, but that was it. No one took anything for anything.
But what choice did I have? I was a drowning man and the doctor had pulled up in a boat. I put my complete trust in my physician’s hands, relieved to know that my problem had a name and that the symptoms were treatable.
“How long do I have to take this?” I asked, staring at the prescription sheet. A strange mix of relief and suspicion weaved through me.
“Well, the disorder is quite severe,” he said. “Medication is the only option effective enough to control your anxiety.
He didn’t really answer my question, but I didn’t push him. I was just happy to have some weapon to fight back.