I remember my first vividly. It was sometime during the summer of 2005 and I was on the back seat of a friend’s car. And it gave me a feeling that I will never forget until my dying day.
Now, given the fact that I’m 40, I think you can surmise that I’m not talking about sex ( I wasn’t a 34 year old virgin! ). I am talking about panic attacks. My first diagnosed panic attack. There was nothing special about this day from any other after my wife’s diagnosis with MS at the end of May 2005. She, I, and everyone in her circle were trying to come to terms with it all so a friend offered to take us out for the afternoon as we’d effectively been housebound after my wife’s hospitalisation. We got my wife in the passenger seat and belted her in, and I made myself comfortable on the back seat. If my memory serves me right, 2005 was a pretty hot summer. For some reason, our friend had some aversion to having the blowers going in her car and didn’t fancy having the window open… anyhow, cut to the chase…. I’m sitting in the back of a Ford Ka and I felt I couldn’t breathe properly. Fair enough, take a few deep breaths and you’ll be fine. No. I felt like I was knackered. My fingers began to tingle, then my lips. A few seconds later, I had the worst cramp running up my arms and neck. My lips were screwed up with cramp. Shit!! I’m having a heart attack!! In panic I shouted for help and got our friend to take me to the nearest place that had medical staff in it. A GP’s surgery. Within minutes he’d told me that I was having a panic attack and to try breathing into a paper bag along with some breathing exercises. “A panic attack? Is that it?”
“I have a wife with MS and I have a panic attack?? What’s wrong with me? Have I no sense of priority? My wife’s just been discharged from hospital with walking sticks, a walking frame and a wheelchair, and I can’t cope? I have to cope!!! I’m her husband for fuck’s sake." My inner dialogue gave me a right bollocking. Must try harder. Get on with it.
That’s the problem. In trying to just "get on with it” in the 6 years since my wife’s diagnosis, panic attacks and depression have taken me to casualty numerous times with what feels like a heart attack. My poor wife has been dragged to hospital more times than I can remember with me “wigging out” as it was dubbed. I have had my mother living with us to help me cope with it all. And what 30-something doesn’t enjoy living with his mother and his wife, right? One such panic attack ended up with me on an A&E stretcher, hooked up to an ECG machine, and crying like a small child. My wife, understandably, was pretty fed up with me calling for a taxi to take us to hospital on a frequent basis. I was lying there in pieces emotionally, thinking she was going to leave me and how my life, our lives, was a total mess. An on-call mental health doctor (psychologist/psychiatrist – I can’t remember) was summoned to talk to me. She was the first to use the words “depression”, “stress” and “anxiety” to describe what I was going through. She also told me that any psychological help in the area we lived in came with a 3 year waiting list. Helpful. It’s now 2011 and I’m 4 years into taking anti-depressants on a daily basis. The trigger for my stress, anxiety and depression is around me all the time, and isn’t going anywhere. I get by day-to-day because I have to but it’s an epic struggle at times.
I’ve been thinking about my experiences recently after seeing media articles about similar things happening to public figures. Sussex and England cricketer, Michael Yardy is battling with depression ( and it is a battle ) and his illness seems to have prompted some less than helpful comments *. Today, Caitlin Moran has used her column in today’s The Times Magazine to talk about her experiences with panic. Both Michael’s and Caitlin’s triggers would have been different from mine but the effects will have been no less frightening and intense. I’ve heard many other carers describe their experiences with stress, anxiety and depression – some have had help, others haven’t. A number of them attempt to “try harder” and “get on with it”. It’s not that easy. And I wish some people would stop assuming that it is.
* In the interests of balance, I accept that Mr. Boycott has spoken further on Michael Yardy’s situation.