Continued from Part One, here.
(Note: This part of the story, like Part One, is pretty darn bleak. I won't be telling much of the graces and joy until Part Four, so be forewarned. I know this is hitting close to home for a lot of you who have experienced or continue to experience anxiety/panic attacks, so please don't feel you have to read it all. Also, I have received so many kind words and prayers, for which I am most grateful! I want to assure everyone that I am "back to my old self" -- even better than prior to the episode -- and so thankful for the fruits of this suffering, which will become clear in a later post!)
For the next nine days, until my appointment with the pulmonologist, I was spending each moment in full panic. For me, the feeling was a rush of adrenaline from terror (imagine losing your toddler on a crowded beach) that did not relent. The adrenaline coursed through my body day after day, and never stopped. My pulse rate was constantly elevated, my breathing was rapid and shallow, and my limbs, especially my upper arms for some reason, were often numb. I could not sleep, I could not eat, I could barely think. I was essentially non-functioning.
I spent most of my days laying in my bed, in stark terror. The fear that consumed me was not simply the fear of something malicious and malignant in my body (as horrifying as that possibility was), but more the fear of leaving my young children without their mother. I could barely look at their faces. Our oldest three were grown, and I knew that, although they would be heartbroken if I died, they were adults now and could find a way to cope. I knew that my husband Dean would also be able to draw upon friends and his faith if I were to go. But the five boys at home... I could not handle the thought of what the loss of their mother would mean for their lives. Two of my boys were teens, and although teenagers often seem cool and aloof, they still need their moms, maybe even more than ever. Two more of the boys were in elementary school, they had just lost their beloved and tight-knit school community, and we were embarking on a homeschooling year together. They were only 7 and 9 at the time, very much in need of a loving mother, for years to come.
And, oh, my youngest. He was only four years old, a complete mama's boy -- asking me to marry him every day since he could talk, showering me with more love and kisses than I'd ever had before, very tactile, needing lots of hugs and touch. This little one had been devastated when his sister Priscilla had married and moved away about a month earlier. He could barely comprehend the loss of his "second mommy" (who resembles me physically), and had been in mourning for her since she seemingly disappeared from his life. He questioned her absence constantly. When I thought that he would lose me, too, and not have either of his big sisters in town to be his mother-figures if I should die, I could not take it.
I had lost the ability to control my own feelings and my life, or even my thoughts, which always went to "catastrophe". I was helpless and living in terror. I couldn't even physically be around my children, due to my abject grief at the thought of their suffering should I die. I couldn't interact with them, except on a cursory, robotic, forced level. Occasionally, of course, the boys would wander in and out of my room and try to talk to me, and my youngest son would hop on the bed with me wanting to play or snuggle, but I'd soon send them away. In my mind I was dying, and I could not bear to see their sweet, innocent faces.
Believe me, the irony is not lost on me that while I felt terror that my children would be motherless in the future, they were, practically speaking, without a functioning mother right now.
In the mornings, after little sleep, I would force myself out of bed and make one egg to eat. Normally, I have a raging appetite, and I have eaten a full two-egg/ham/toast breakfast every day for 30+ years, just for starters. During these days of panic, I had no appetite at all, and eating that one egg a day was accomplished through sheer force of my will. I had to eat to stay alive; I knew that much. I would greet my kids methodically if they were in the kitchen, mechanically fry that egg and try to chew and swallow it with a mouth that was now perpetually dry, then retreat back to bed to continue my silent panic.
While laying in bed, I would try to practice deep breathing techniques, because I had to find some small relief from the symptoms. I could do that for a little while, but relief was minimal. I dreaded the night more than the days, if that was possible, and I went to bed literally clinging to my rosary in one hand (I couldn't pray it, but I could grasp it tightly) and a small statue of Our Lady in the other. I never slept without these items in my hands. Each time I dozed off from sheer exhaustion, I soon woke again in a panic, clung to my holy objects more tightly, and started practicing my deep breaths as the adrenaline ramped up. Mornings were terrible, as I kept hoping I'd wake up and feel better, or at least rested, but I never did. I'd wake up as fearful as before, full of adrenaline, and feeling my arms go numb from the panic that came with a return to consciousness.
This was my daily life for what seemed like forever. My poor husband Dean was utterly bewildered and, let's face it, a bit skeptical and even disgusted by what he was seeing (I caught an eye-roll once or twice). He could not understand, I am sure, why I couldn't just suck it up and snap out of it. Oh, how I wish that had been possible! He tried hard to be sympathetic, and he was wonderful in walking me through some muscle-relaxing and visualization exercises that I found in a book on anxiety. He would read the words out loud while I tried to visualize and relax this or that set of muscles, systematically, from my head down to my toes. This technique gave me a ten-minute break from the panic each day and was invaluable, although within minutes of completion, I was right back in full-blown crisis.
Everything I was thinking and feeling was totally irrational, utterly unreasonable, and even I knew that somewhere in my mind at the time.
One thing I did not lose was my faith, and my ability to cry out to God. Twenty years of trusting in God and immersing myself in His Truth had its effect, and I was never angry with God, never doubtful of His presence or love. In my personal agony, I kept thinking of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, and thinking how my suffering was only a tiny fraction of His. I couldn't comprehend the level of mental and emotional agony He must experienced, and how much He must love us to endure that for our salvation. How did He do it? I am sure I offered up my suffering, but I cannot recall for what intention -- I probably told Jesus to use it for whatever He willed.
I prayed for the the strength to endure this cross. I knew enough to understand that no cross is given to us without His permission and that it is only for our sanctification. I understood that I was in a crucible, and that no matter what, a loving God was in control. This deep, imbedded knowledge kept me from despair, although I was not sure how it was going to keep me from insanity.
Day after day, night after night, I prayed in the most simple and basic ways: "Help me, Jesus" or "I love you, Jesus". It was all I could say, over and over. I asked the Blessed Mother to be near to me, and I know that she was. I never felt completely alone or unloved or abandoned by God, but I knew that God and the saints were only accompanying me, sitting with me, not intervening.
At a certain point, my fears took a horrible but spiritually necessary turn.
In the beginning, my fears were of impending death and the thought of my children suffering through the years without their mother. But as the first week turned into the second and the panic did not abate, I began to fear that I would never be back in control of my mind. The greatest terror of all, I learned, was not death and its consequences for my children, but rather the knowledge that I now feared myself. I understood then that even if I were not dying, even if I didn't not have cancer, I had still "proved myself" unable to cope with suffering and death, which would inevitably come. I believed that when the next crisis came, I would not be able to deal with it, and this type of panic would repeat itself.
I could not believe how weak I was now that I was finally being tested.
That thought alone -- being unable to cope with future crucibles, even if I got out of this one -- fueled the panic, in a vicious circle, and any hope I had of getting out of this was fading fast.
It is precisely because one can never get away from oneself that to be afraid of oneself, to be afraid of one's own mind, is the worst terror of all. I had no idea this sort of fear could even happen!
At least three times as the days wore on, I lay in bed, eyes wide open in the dark, adrenaline pumping, heart pounding, palms sweating as I held my holy items, and I looked over at Dean as he slept and came *this close* to waking him up to tell him that he had to get me to a mental hospital, now. I felt I was about one millimeter from careening over the edge. I never did wake him up to say it, and instead I just prayed my desperate short prayers, and tried to breathe. Mercifully, God kept me from going over that edge, just barely.
This part is really a fog, but that first week in August was the week that my elder daughter Cecily and her brand new baby girl were living with us, as her husband had gone ahead to Omaha to set up their new apartment. Because she herself was heartbroken at having to move away, especially during the postpartum weeks, I am sure I spent some time trying to put on a smile, and I must have held and diapered my granddaughter (with a level of detachment, since I was saying hello and good-bye, and I couldn't take one more trauma). I just don't remember much about that.
I do remember having to go to lunch at a restaurant with my parents, my sister and nephew, and my daughter and the baby, as a "farewell" to them for some of the extended family. Just sitting there was excruciating. Again, I am not a crier, but I was on the verge of tears the whole lunch, and I was not able to think or interact (though I tried hard to fake it). My sister tells me now that I looked like hell (she used a different word, ha!), and I left the lunch early, alone. I had to get out of there. The grief and pain were overwhelming me. This was on a Monday, and my daughter and her baby left on Thursday morning. All I remember about that Thursday was Cecily coming to kiss me good-bye as I lay in bed. She was crying, and she gifted me with a prayerbook, which she left on my nightstand. I couldn't get up. Dean took them to the airport and they were gone.
Dear reader, I know that this looks bleak, sounds terrible, and it is -- it was. But as I sit here over a year later, I have joy, and I am full of gratitude for what God did with this. He can be trusted. Next comes Part Three, which will fill in the blanks of what I did during this dark time to find help for myself. I knew that I had to find a way out or else go insane, and I was determined to pursue every avenue to do so: Medical/hormonal, emotional/psychological, and of course, spiritual.