Monday, June 27, 2011

~Mental Health Monday Guestblog~ On anxiety


Natalie Jeanne Champagne has published poetry in various anthologies and regularly contributes to mental health and addiction publications. At the age of twenty-six, after many years struggling with a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder at the age of twelve and various addiction later in life, she walked the road less travelled and somehow found her way home. You can find out more about Natalie, contact information and resources on her website, www.thethirdsunrise.com. She currently lives in British Columbia, Canada. The Third Sunrise is her first novel.

I cannot remember a time when I did not suffer with anxiety. When I was in elementary school I would tell my mother I could not go to school.

“Natty, of course you can go to school. You’ll meet lots of nice friends at school!”

She would hand me my brown bagged lunch and usher me to the school bus waiting outside my driveway. My heart would race as I slowly walked on the bus; I felt the other kids staring at me. My legs would shake and I wondered if I might fall. My face would flush and my hands would sweat.

At the age of ten I wasn’t sure why I couldn’t talk to people without experiencing these symptoms so I tried not to speak. I listened to the other kids laugh at recess and watched from the hill in the playground. I picked up dandelions and counted the tiny flowers; pulling each one out slowly and watching it fall to the ground.

My feelings had no name then; anxiety was not something usually attached to a child. It was a set of symptoms I could not escape. They followed me throughout life and I grew accustomed to them because anxiety was all I had ever known.

Five years later, in middle school, nothing had changed. I was still terrified but determined to fit in. I enrolled in figure skating and hockey, soccer and tap dancing all in the hopes that I could calm down and learn how to breath. I just wanted to be like the other kids; laughing and learning how to put lipstick on, smiling with ease and with the ability to make eye contact. I thought that if I wore the right clothes I might feel better; perhaps if my mother took me shopping I would be fine. But I wasn’t.

I struggled through the years with a slew of problems: bipolar disorder, eating disorders and later in life, addiction. It’s a curious thing: the early diagnosis of bipolar disorder instigated the anxiety, the eating disorders allowed me to step away from the anxiety and focus on my body and the addiction made it possible for me to finally talk to people. Under the influence of drugs and alcohol I was no longer afraid. I had friends for as long as I could keep myself floating and carefree.

At the age of 21 I had been an addict for 5 years and as I slowly pulled away from the counterculture, the lifestyle, of addiction my anxiety returned with a vengeance. Sobriety was terrifying because I realized I had nothing to treat the anxiety. I was sober but still sick. I was frightened by my feelings. The little girl playing with flowers, her heart beating madly, came back to haunt me. You cannot escape yourself for long.

I made an appointment with my psychiatrist, my mental illness was controlled with medication at this point, and explained to her that I could not make it to my college classes because I was afraid to walk into the class. I wasn’t sure if I should sit in the back of the class close to the window or right beside the door. I needed an escape plan. When I tried to get on a bus to make it to classes I would have anxiety attacks and so I walked over an hour in the rain or snow to get there−walking felt safer than being on a bus. The anxiety became debilitating and I took all the online classes I could.

My Psychiatrist looked at me, her pen tapping on the desk, the binder full of notes about me sitting in front of her:

“Have you ever taken Valium?”

I told her I might have, I couldn’t really remember, I had taken 100’s of different pills since I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 12.

I walked out of her office with a prescription for valium and promptly went to the pharmacist. I took one when I got home; I waited for something amazing to happen. I waited for the ability to breathe because my anxiety was always so bad that I struggled to breathe properly. It might be nice to be able to breathe. Forty-five minutes later my heart had slowed down. I felt normal, maybe, I wasn’t sure what normal felt like.

For the next year I took the pills just as the bottle told me to: three times a day and with water. As the months went on I noticed they weren’t working as they once did. I was up all night thinking about how I had to go to work the next day although I had kept the same job for three years. I wasn’t sure I could talk to people like I had just a month before.

I decided to go off the valium. I did a lot of research and found out that weaning off benzodiazepines (this includes valium and a whole bunch of other pills like klonopin) is not easy. It is, in fact, dangerous. The user can have seizures and become very sick. But I was determined. I did not want to rely on this drug to get me through the day−I took enough pills as it was. I told my Psychiatrist that I wanted to go off the medication and she warned me it would be tough. I would experience side effects which were worse than the anxiety I had struggled with my entire life.

A year later I have weaned myself down to half of what I took. Getting of valium has been more difficult then obtaining sobriety. My anxiety came back full force and I experienced horrible physical symptoms: sweating, shaking, and the inability to walk in a straight line, migraines and dysphoria. Suffice it to say, I wish I had never gone on this medication and urge people to do research before they take it. Benzodiazepines are generally used for less than three weeks because the body and mind become tolerant quickly.

While weaning off the valium I learned different coping mechanisms: I realized how important exercise and a healthy diet is. When my anxiety starts to flare up I go for a run. It works better then valium ever did and for this I am grateful. I teach myself things that come naturally to most people: maintaining eye contact, talking to people and reaching out to them.

Having an anxiety disorder is not a life sentence and does not always need to be medicated. It’s an ongoing battle which has become easier as the months and, with any luck, years pass. I cross my fingers that sometime soon I will be free of it. But for now it isn’t so bad: im learning and practising new coping mechanisms and I have learned how to live in the world without fear.

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