Life Beyond Limits - a post by my sister Liz.
Back in the mid 80’s, when I was in my late 20’s, I remember driving home from a friend’s place after a quiet relaxing evening together and I had stopped at a set of traffic lights due to a red light. All of a sudden this sensation seemed to surge through my body. It was not a nice sensation and I could only describe it as an overload of adrenalin. I didn’t like it one bit.
The lights turned green and for some reason the unpleasant feeling subsided and I drove on home.
As time went on I started experiencing this sensation more and more; it just seemed to come from nowhere and I began to panic whenever I felt the onset of this rush of whatever it was. I didn’t know why this was happening. I was struck with panic attacks when I was in crowds, out shopping, sitting amongst cars at traffic lights, lots of situations. I avoided lifts and would walk up floors of stairs instead. I missed social events because I didn’t want to drive and was not openly discussing why.
I feared I was having a heart attack and I lost a substantial amount of weight as I was scared of swallowing and chocking on food.
My thoughts were dictating my life so I went to see a doctor who luckily had a special interest in what I was experiencing and I was finally diagnosed with a panic disorder with agoraphobia. You can have agoraphobia without a panic disorder but I went the whole hog and had both.
Because of very caring friends I was able to make an appointment with a psychologist who specialised in agoraphobia who worked with me and explained why this was happening to me and what I needed to do to gain my life back.
There are a few causes of panic disorder with agoraphobia but mine is a chemical imbalance which I more than likely inherited.
Even with all the knowledge I was gaining regarding my panic disorder my life continued to be quite insular as I was avoiding going places and doing things. I wanted to feel calmness and not panicked.
And for many months this is how I lived my life. There were things I couldn’t avoid and found myself having to go places reluctantly until that one time I was driving home and had this incredible feeling of courage wash over me and I said to myself that no this is not what I want my life to be. I was totally fed up with my panic disorder being who I was. It was a simple as that. There was that one moment in time for my thoughts to be clear enough to realise that I wanted my life back. My panic disorder was not going to define who I was.
I was born with a challenge having this chemical imbalance and I finally I was up for the challenge.
I began to put into place all the techniques I had learnt from my psychologist and some research I did myself. Practising cognitive therapy so that every time a negative, unrealistic thought crossed my mind I didn’t buy into instead replaced it with a positive, realistic thought. The more I did it the less negative thoughts I experienced. I was beginning to understand what was happening to my mind and body.
When I was with people my panic disorder was less prevalent because I wasn’t focused on my own thoughts, but when I was alone I was having new conversations within myself to think the positive choice and not the negative one. I was starting to get my freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted.
It was a long road back and from the time I experienced my first panic attack until I could say I was about 95% better I was well into my 30’s. There is a lot to be said for cognitive therapy, and cognitive thinking, it is a great method for recovery and it allowed me to change my thought patterns and see panic attacks for what they were. I learned how to rescue myself to a safe place if need be. I knew if I was around others I was more conscious of what was happening and what was being said by others to be concerned with my own thoughts.
As time went by there were days, then weeks, then months where I didn’t panic. I was doing things I hadn’t done for a very long time. I flew to Canberra for my brother’s wedding. I hadn’t been in a plane for 40 years.
Time went on and I am still having the occasional panic attack and every now and then one would get the better of me, maybe I was overly tired and stressed, but I stand my ground and let it wash over me. When I would be out and about I would no longer flee the situation that brought it on, rather I kept on going. Then there is a sense of victory.
In the early days I would not talk about what I was experiencing in case I was looked down upon as weak or not to be believed. But for a long time now I have spoken openly about my experiences so that others may know that are not suffering alone.
Today I am 60 and for the last 2 years, nearly 30 years later, have found myself again dealing with a panic disorder but in a totally different way brought on by extreme stress and pressure at work. But that is another story and another mountain I am climbing. This time I have the skills and awareness and cognitive therapy is playing its starring role again.
Elizabeth Aldridge (Yes relation)