Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Revenge of My Beautifully Broken Brain

"With your feet in the air and your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, yeah 
Your head will collapse if there's nothing in it 
And you'll ask yourself 
Where is my mind?" - The Pixies

Where Is My Mind? by Pixies on Grooveshark

Stress and Anxiety are hellish things.  Those who are fortunate enough to go through life without having to deal with the constant insidious treachery these two demons bring to the lives of those of us who aren't so lucky cannot fathom the havoc they wreak: the mental anguish, the physical discomfort, the emotional turmoil.  You can try to ignore them; many of us do just that.  But they will not be ignored for long.  If they haven't been able to disrupt your world with their usual  incessant undercurrent of of bilious badness, they will temporarily retreat - just long enough to let you think everything is fine - and then they launch a salvo that brings everything crashing down horrifically around you.

I speak from experience.  I've been the victim of their salvos before.  About twenty years ago I began noticing areas of my body that were suddenly going numb: the heel of my left foot, a spot on my back, another spot under my chin, one on my arm.  All areas about the size of a half-dollar (those of you under age 30, go ask your parents what a half-dollar is), and each time dead numb.  Not foot-falling-asleep-tingly numb, but literally no sensation at all numb.  After months of test after frustrating test looking for everything from pinched nerves to Multiple Sclerosis, each test coming back normal, I asked my doctor in exasperation how I can be absolutely healthy on paper and yet be experiencing these very real symptoms?  And his response, indeed the final diagnosis: Stress. Anxiety.  These things can affect you physically, and yes their symptoms are very real.  You can, he warned, quite literally worry yourself death.  That experience was what initially spurred me to seek out therapy, which in turn introduced me to my personal demons, OCD and Social Anxiety.  I learned some coping skills and stress-relieving techniques, and after time, the numbness went away.

Some years later, having stopped therapy and living a reasonably happy life (or so I thought), I found myself dealing with intermittent pains in either my right side or my left shoulder and upper chest.  Again, a battery of tests quickly ruled out the expected causes.  One night I showed up in my doctor's office complaining of chest and shoulder pain, and my doctor was taking no chances.  Had the ambulance pick me up there and take me to the hospital cardiac unit - just in case.  After spending the better part of the night hooked up to monitors and machines and being given more tests, the word came back that my heart was perfectly fine.  Once again, the demons had struck a heavy blow.  Anxiety or panic attacks can often mimic heart attacks: shortness of breath, clammy sweating, and chest pain.  That, it was determined, is what this had been.  I had not been vigilant against my demons, and had allowed stress to build up until the dam finally burst.  A return to what I know works soon had me back to my "normal" self.

Now, I add a new chapter to the book.  My demons found a new way to express their rage and remind me that they are still (and always) very much with me.  And this time was the most frightening of all, because this time there was no slow build as there had been with the numbnesses, no series of preceding pains as there had been with my faux heart issue.  This time it was a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky.  No warning, no precipitating event, just a full-on attack.

My current job is in customer service, answering inbound phone calls.  On Wednesday, I was having a very normal day.  In fact, I remember thinking as I took my lunchtime walk around the office grounds that it was a good day.  I ate my lunch and returned to work.  Took a few calls as I normally would.  And then it all went to hell.

In essence, I must have blacked out, although my doctor is calling it an “amnesia event” and we don’t believe I ever actually lost consciousness, at least in the sense that I didn’t fall over or pass out. I was just suddenly aware that I was in the midst of a phone call talking with someone, but I had no idea who I was talking with or what we were talking about.  More unsettling was the fact that I could not make sense of the screens up on my computer.

After trying to regain a frame of reference and failing, I at least had sense enough to put the caller on hold and page my supervisor to my cubicle. I tried to explain what I was experiencing, and at this point I was physically shaking, more from being frightened by the event than anything. My supervisor had me transfer the call to another agent, then we looked at my screen.

I have no memory of actually taking the call, but when a call comes in we have to ask for either a Social Security number or a Member Number to find the person’s record in the system and pull it up. Obviously I had done that, although again I have no memory of it. However, I also had a second screen up of a completely different and unrelated person. I still don’t know why I had that screen up. I have no sense of time or duration of this event, although I imagine it couldn’t have been that long. I was, however, apparently functioning on auto-pilot.

I called my mother to come pick me up from work, then called my doctor. He couldn’t see me until 7:30 that evening, but because by the time I got home I was feeling fairly normal (other than being badly shaken up and feeling horribly embarrassed), the nurse didn’t feel it was an emergency situation. But, she told me if anything like it happened again before my appointment, I should have someone take me to the hospital.  My doctor gave me a thorough once-over, and said I looked OK – not ashen or flushed or pupils dilated or anything. He said it could have been anything from a sudden drop in blood sugar to a seizure, or – as my wise mother had already suggested – my old friends Stress and Anxiety. Of course, the doctor wanted to rule out the big stuff quickly (seizure, brain tumor, aneurism, etc.), as well as check my blood sugar levels and make sure I wasn’t anemic. So it was over to the hospital for a full blood work and a CAT scan of the brain. Because he asked for those two tests to be done “stat,” the hospital would keep me there until the results came back and he could talk with me about them. So, at 10:45 Wednesday  night, there I was sitting in the emergency room waiting area on a portable phone with my doctor, only to learn that, in typical fashion, both tests came back...wait for it...absolutely normal.

We’re not done with tests yet. I’m waiting for a pre-authorization from my insurance for two more tests: an EEG and a 24-hour Holter Monitor. Then I must schedule them and also schedule an ultrasound of my carotid arteries. Bets on the results?

So, its back to the coping skills and stress-relieving techniques.  Maybe it's time to get back to therapy.  Has there been a lot of Stress in my world lately? Oh you bet.  Being unemployed/underemployed for two years will bring the Stress in a big frightening way.  And, as I have mentioned in previous posts, those demons are cunning and wait until your defenses are completely down before they attack.  I am still processing this event; this post is part of that processing.  This was the scariest storm I've been through to date, so I think I'll be processing this one for awhile.

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