It all started in November 2015. I remember I was sitting at home in the afternoon when a burning surge came over me; radiating from my chest and travelling at lightening speed down my arms. This wasn’t like anything I had felt before. It was searing. Convinced I was about to spontaneously combust, I sat down. My heart rate soaring. My breathing laboured. My body hot. But I wasn’t sweating. Was this a panic attack? Heart attack? What was happening? Scared. Anxious. Confused. It passed. Maybe five or ten minutes later. The anxiety however, lasted much longer. In fact, I am still battling daily anxiety and panic attacks that are rooted in the events of that November day.
The switch had been flipped.
One day I was fine. Leading a strong, independent life. Managing our home and family. Carting our children off to all of their extra curriculars (and there are many extra curriculars). Attending school performances. Cheering my children on from the bleachers. Volunteering in the community daily. Running errands. Caring for others. I was strong. I was a force to be reckoned with. I was a pillar of strength and dependability.
The next day, I was not fine. The switch had been flipped.
That was the beginning of my battle with this…this what? What do I call this? No one knows for sure. Although, the logical side of me, the side that used to reign supreme but is now hidden in the shadows of my anxiety, truly believes it is hormonal.
Since that first power surge in November, I have visited the doctor more times than I care to admit. Not being one to abuse the healthcare system, it is embarrassing to admit that I have likely been to my family doctor’s office at least six times and have spoken to her on the phone countless others. I have sought the services of a therapist who I speak with twice a week. I have seen a cardiologist. I have called an ambulance. I have been to the emergency department of our local hospital.
Why? No one knows for sure.
But the logical side of me is screaming “It’s your hormones!”. Listen up! Wake up! This is all hormones!
But the illogical side of me…the side riddled with “what if” thinking and excessive fear, reminds me that my family doctor immediately said that it couldn’t be hormones. That I am much too young for it to be perimenopause (I am in my early forties). The worst part is that I believed her. I doubted myself. I trusted our medical professionals and it caused deep rooted self doubt and rocked my self esteem and confidence.
Why do I believe it is hormones?
Let me give you all of the details.
After that single episode at the beginning of November, they started happening more frequently. Not right away. Little by little, things started to escalate.
A couple of weeks went by. Life was good. Life was normal (I despise that word!). I got my period (sorry boys, but we are going there). Now, my period has always been regular. 28 days. But in November, I got my period on day 24. Not only that, but it was 6 days in length and heavy. Not normal for me. A few days later, I had another episode. Burning surge starting in my chest and speeding down my arms. Racing heart. Panic? I don’t think so. I have struggled with anxiety throughout my life. I am your typical type A personality. I thrive in stressful environments, love a good challenge and a good confrontation, and never take the easy way out. High stress, tight deadlines, and a full plate is what I need to thrive. So naturally, anxiety has been something that creeps into my life now and then, reminding me to slow down and look after myself. So, I know this wasn’t panic. This wasn’t anxiety. This was something else. A switch had been flipped somewhere in my mind; in my body.
A few days later, another episode. This one started off the same. A burning surge in my chest. A feeling that I was certainly going to become a statistic, adding to the list of people around the world who had spontaneously combusted. The difference with this episode is that it actually resulted in a panic attack. The room was spinning. My thoughts were racing. My heart was beating so hard. This, I knew, was a panic attack.
Well, that panic attack set the stage for the next couple of months. It only takes one panic attack to shake you to your core. To make you question your sanity. To make you doubt every fibre of your being; doubt every thought that enters your mind. That was the turning point. Up until then, even though the switch had been flipped, I had held it together. I was still functioning; still managing. Not anymore. Down the rabbit hole I went.
I made an appointment with my family doctor and she reiterated this was anxiety and panic and I needed an anti depressant. Okay! I give. I surrender. Hook me up! Just make this go away. I was so elated there was a “quick fix” for this. Give me some medicine and send me on my way. I couldn’t wait to get back to normal.
I should note that my doctor did send me for blood work. The usual suspects; thyroid, CBC, hemoglobin, fasting blood sugar. I also had my blood tested on the third day of my period to check my hormone levels. Guess what, everything came back normal (insert diabolical laugh!).
I started the anti depressant at the end of November. My parents moved in to support me and help look after our children. My husband is in a high stress career that has him working long days and nights and he travels quite a bit. I needed help and I am so fortunate to have unparalleled support; a network of friends and family that I can depend on. I am truly blessed when it comes to my family and friends.
After being on the meds for 3 days, I had another episode. I was wrapping Christmas presents with my mom (trying to distract myself) and I had another burning surge. My mom said she could see the redness starting in my chest and moving up to the top of my head. My heart was racing. We called an ambulance.
The ambulance attendants were so great. My heart rate was 160 beats per minute and my blood pressure was high (I think it was about 180 over 120). They said my heart was fine and that it was likely a panic attack. They didn’t think I needed to go to the hospital (but would take me if I wanted to go, of course) and they encouraged me to see my family doctor and perhaps increase my medication. Worked for me.
We increased my dose and I had three consecutive days of burning surges. Then I started to feel a bit better and I regained my appetite. Then the burning returned, along with major anxiety. And low and behold, I got my period…early again. Day 25. It lasted four days and was light.
The burning surges continued along with night sweats (where I would wake up soaking wet and then be freezing cold because I was soaking wet!). I wasn’t feeling better. The anxiety had gripped me fiercely and would not let go. It was around this time that my well meaning sister in law, who is a doctor, mentioned that I needed to rule out a specific tumour (which I won’t get into because I don’t want to plant seeds and inflict undue anxiety upon you). I was not functioning. I was lethargic. I didn’t eat. I was sitting on the couch watching Netflix all day. I didn’t leave the house for fear of a power surge, racing heart, panic attack; for fear of any of these physical sensations taking over in public. I needed the safety of my home.
We called my doctor and she said I needed to increase the dose again. So we did. And that is what set my heart racing. Racing is an understatement. I would get out of bed to brush my teeth, which is literally ten feet from my bed, and my heart would escalate to 140 bpm. I was out of breath. I had no energy. I didn’t want to move for fear that my heart would race away until it stopped altogether.
That Saturday, in mid December, I went to the cardiologist. I had an ECG, and echocardiogram and was given a 48 hour holter monitor. Right away, the technician said to stop the anti depressant because it was likely the cause of my racing heart. Now, I need to state that I am not a medical professional and have no knowledge or training in the medical field. If you are experiencing any health issues, you need to see your own doctor. Now that we have that cleared up, let me continue. The technician said just to stop it and call my doctor on Monday. So, I stopped.
I did not take an anti depressant on the Sunday. By Sunday night, I was good. Okay, I wasn’t good, but I felt so much better. I cleaned my house. I made dinner. I wasn’t lethargic on the couch. I felt good. That week, I went Christmas shopping at the mall with my aunt (although I needed to take an Ativan to get me through it – shopping during Christmas can be overwhelming to say the least). My doctor called me back on the Wednesday and could not believe how much better I sounded. She apologized profusely for putting me on the anti depressant and continuing to increase my dose.
Now, I won’t tell you what anti depressant I was put on because I don’t want to plant any seeds in your heads. Anti depressants have a place in medicine and work for many people. I have also been told that you should never just stop an anti depressant because you can have serious side effects. You are supposed to wean yourself off of them. So please speak with your doctor and do not make any decisions on your own about the medicine you are taking or the dosage.
Christmas went by with a few bumps and struggles. My anxiety was still high. I didn’t really want to leave the house all that much. This was my safe haven. My husband was home for the holidays so I had someone here, which eased some of my anxiety.
New Year’s Day I was laying in bed watching Netflix because I had caught a really bad sinus cold (because hormonal imbalance, anxiety and panic just wasn’t enough!). All of a sudden, my heart spiked to 130 bpm. I know this because my thoughtful husband had bought me an exercise/heart monitor for my birthday in the summer. Worst gift ever (sorry honey, but you should have stuck with diamonds!). It stayed elevated for about an hour. I was not anxious at all. I was not panicking at all. I asked my husband to take me to the hospital so they could do an ECG and define what it was that was happening to my heart.
Four and a half hours later, the emergency room doctor said I had sinus tachycardia. My heart is fine, it just beats fast. I was fine (again, insert diabolical laugh). Sure, it could be hormones. But there was nothing they could really do and I was fine.
The next day, I got my period. Day 26. It last 2 1/2 days. Shortest. Period. Ever.
I should note that the last power surge of incinerating heat was in the middle of December. My anxiety was still high and my heart was still racing. But, no episodes of possible spontaneous combustion.
I had an appointment with my cardiologist on January 7th. My husband was travelling for work so my sister came with me. I was a disaster. My anxiety was through the roof. I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. I had to do a stress test. Walking in the door of the cardiologist, my heart rate was already 117. Wasn’t that stressed out enough!? After I (barely) survived the stress test, we met with the cardiologist. He asked his questions, I provided too much information in response. He said my heart was fine. Yes, it was beating fast. Yes, I had sinus tachycardia. But, there wasn’t anything he would recommend and it wasn’t going to hurt me or my heart. Normally, someone would be happy to hear that news right? I guess I was happy, but I was left with so many questions that no one could answer. He wanted me to wear a 24 hour blood pressure monitor as my blood pressure was high, but he was pretty sure it was because of the stress that the visit was inflicting upon me. I do not have the results of the blood pressure monitor as yet.
So where does that leave me? You have been brought up to date on the ins and outs of my life these days. My anxiety is excessively high. I am hyper alert to every single sensation I feel in my body. Brace yourself; you’re about to be given too much information! Intestinal gas can result in a panic attack. Jaw pain equates to heightened anxiety. Burping can cause my heart to skip a beat that can send me into panic. I have always had a very sensitive stomach (irritable bowel syndrome). Now, an IBS flare can send me into incomparable despair and panic.
More and more, I know this is hormones.
The racing heart. The power surges. The night sweats. The changes in my menstrual cycle.
But I don’t trust myself. My confidence is gone.
I should have also mentioned that after I had my first child ten years ago, I started suffering from migratory joint pain. I would say that at least four days a week, I would have joint pain. Debilitating joint pain. Can’t do up your own pants, kind of joint pain. One day in my neck, the next my wrist, the next my knee. I saw my family doctor and a rheumatologist; had all sorts of tests run. And, of course, I was fine. The reason this is important is that on the day that the switch was flipped in November and I had that first power surge, all of my joint pain disappeared. I went 71 days without joint pain for the first time in ten years (up until yesterday when my joint pain seemed to return…another switch being flipped perhaps). One switch was flipped on and one switch was flipped off. I mentioned that to my doctor a few times and she didn’t bat an eye; said it was unrelated. This is another reason I believe it has to be hormones. My joints didn’t start hurting until after the birth of my first child. Furthermore, after the births of both of my children, I was diagnosed with premature ventricular contractions (PVC’s). For about a year after each birth, my heart skipped beats. All the time. It was scary. But, as quickly as they started, with the flip of a switch, one day they just stopped. Well, for about a year prior to that November 2015 power surge day, my heart was skipping away almost daily. I wore a holter monitor around November 2014 and was again diagnosed with benign PVC’s. I told myself it was hormones then, just like it was before. When that first burning surge episode happened at the beginning of November 2015, my skipped heart beats stopped and they were replaced with a racing heart rate. Another switch was turned off, while another one was turned on.
Switch, switch, switch.
It is the only thing that makes sense.
So this brings us to today.
Today I woke up with my heart racing for no reason. I opened my eyes and felt it racing away like a hamster on a wheel. Running, running, running. Faster, faster, faster.
And, because the idea of hormones was dismissed; and because no one really believed me; I am left with no confidence; no self esteem; no ability to leave my house. I am trapped in here with my own thoughts. Some days are good (not good enough to leave the house alone, but good enough). Some days are bad. Today is bad. Today I am having a pity party. I feel depressed. I feel anxious. I am not motivated. I feel hyper alert to everything going on in my body. I wish someone had said, yes this is hormones. You are right. You’re not crazy! But they didn’t. They didn’t listen. They dismissed my views and beliefs. Don’t let anyone do that to you. It has sent me down a rabbit hole of despair that I don’t think I would be in if I had someone who had listened to me and reassured me that yes, this is likely hormones (even if we did have to rule out some other stuff first). The anxiety and panic didn’t come first. The physical symptoms came first. The switch that was flipped was physical. The anxiety and panic was a result of not having answers, of not being reassured, and of being put on a medication that made my heart race faster and made me lethargic. So now, instead of just battling one demon (hormones/perimenopause/physical symptoms), I am battling two. I now have to wake up every day and figure out how I am going to tame this anxiety and lead my life. Every. Single. Day.
My aunt called this morning. She is battling her own demons. She is battling a recurrence of ovarian cancer. She called to ask about me. To see how I am doing. So selfless. So loving. I broke down into a blubbering mess (which, of course, made me feel guilty for sharing my worries and problems with her when she is struggling with a serious health issue). She was so supportive, I am so blessed. She suggested I try journalling. Try to get everything out of my mind. Clean out the files. Clean out all of the cobwebs and bad thoughts and get it down on paper. That’s when we thought of a blog. No one may ever read this, but I do feel that it has been somewhat cathartic. A place where I can share my thoughts; my experience; my journey. Maybe someone will read this. Maybe someone who is on a similar road, a similar path, a similar journey. If you are reading this, and you are on a similar path, I wish you peace and strength and clarity of thought and I encourage you to share your story.
© The Flip of the Switch, January 2016.