The Crows and the Frozen Food Section

“Do you think it wise to put in your blog that you take medication for anxiety and depression?”
This question was posed to me this evening. The answer is simple. It isn’t a matter of wisdom. It’s a matter of truth. I do. I’m not Tom Cruise and the people who developed the medication I take have my eternal gratitude.

According to Wiki Answers 9 million Americans suffer from depression, 340 million people in the world, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men. According to the US National Institute of Mental Health about 3-5% of the US population have PD and it is twice as common in women as in men.

I have suffered from panic attacks since I was 5. They started with swimming lessons and the noxious odour of pool chemicals still turns my stomach 30 years later. I left university halfway through my thirds year when they became so bad that I would arrive at university, be ill and go home.

Having a panic attack is a bit like having asthma. Once you are in it, it’s too late to avoid it. Panic attacks are not related to any rational reason. They come at you from nowhere and are usually triggered by the most inane thing imaginable. For me it starts with a fluttering in my chest until it feels as though a flock of crows are clawing their way out of my ribcage. I can’t breathe. I get faint. My vision blurs. I start to sweat and shiver. I feel like I am in a tunnel and the walls are closing in.

It sounds as though I am a basket case, but nuts I’m not. I can handle a client presentation, speak to a crowd of people and deal with highly stressed career without blinking an eyelid. I just can’t go to shopping centres or supermarkets. My panic disorder is linked with agoraphobia, which means that I have a fear of having an attack in a public place, which of course I do. So, I tend to avoid places where I do not feel “safe”. Work is safe. Home is safe. Kids’ birthday parties and frozen foods – not so safe.

Apparently shopping for groceries is enough to have me reaching for the nearest strait-jacket and checking myself in. Online shopping is a godsend. Why does it freak me out? I have no idea. I worry that I’ve bought the wrong thing, or that my credit card will bounce, or that I will forget something and have to come back. From the way my body reacts to these minor issues you’d think I was under attack by nuclear missile.

As for the numerous birthday parties my children must attend, they render me exhausted and a nervous wreck. It’s not the chaos of 30 odd children running around that terrifies me, but the ordeal of talking to their parents. Who, by the way, are lovely people. They just scare me. I never know what to say and I am aware enough of my own failings that I know if I open my mouth it’ll take a tube of super glue to shut it and all the wrong things will spew out of it. My friends know this about me. People I have just met may not share my absurd view on the world and the need for a petition against bubble skirts for grown-ups.

I let panic rule my life. It dictated the route I took to work, where I shopped, where I could meet my friends for a drink. I’d always take my own car, so I’d have an escape route. Okay, I still do. The thing is that I never stopped to ask for help. I had too much pride and not a little fear. I didn’t want to be mad.

When I was finally diagnosed with post-partum depression, the medication I was given changed my life. I went back to university and got my degree. When I stepped on that stage to receive that certificate I was far more proud of the fact that twice a week for two years I had managed to set foot on that campus without being sick, then I was at receiving the qualification.

Nowadays I don’t need to pop a Xanax each time I pop out for bread and milk. I talk myself through the experience, step by step. I take a list and don’t deviate from it. If I need to, I find somewhere to sit down and just breathe. I take a book with me so that if I need to distance myself I can lose myself in its pages and have a glass of ice water before trying again. I know when to leave. I also know that most people are too concerned with their own lives to be staring at me. Most of the time no-one notices.

The upshot is that I am not certifiable. That asking for help is not a bad thing. That if more people spoke about it, acknowledged it and recognised it, suicides, familicides and infanticides would be less likely to occur. It is not the end of the world. It doesn’t have to run your life. It doesn’t stop you being brilliant, ambitious and successful. It doesn’t mean you are an unfit parent. It just means you have a challenge to overcome and you can learn the skills to do it.

While I am horrified at how many people suffer from bi-polar disorders, depression and anxiety, I take comfort that I am not alone. That there are many people just like me. You probably know some. I know I do.

Anxiety and Depression help:
If you live in Johannesburg, I recommend Dr Hanan Buskin at the Anxiety and Trauma Clinic email hanan@atclinic.co.za or (011) 883-4552. Hanan is the in-house psychologist for SAfm and his show is aired weekly, on Thursdays at 11am.

Sometimes, the best help comes from people who have walked a mile in your shoes, in which case an excellent place is Panic Survivor.

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