Wait? What? What just happened…..?

Do you know what a PHQ9 is?  Or a GAD7?  I do.  These are check sheet tests used by the medical profession ( among others ) for people who are showing symptoms of anxiety, stress and/or depression.  I have filled in quite a few of these test sheets.  One of the PHQ9 questions reads as follows: 

“ ( Over the last 2 weeks, how often have you been bothered by the following problems ) Feeling bad about yourself – or that you are a failure or have let yourself or your family down? ”

This question resonates with me emphatically.  Because that’s how I feel.  Like I’m some sort of failure.  A hopeless case.  Why?  As I’ve said in previous posts, MS has taken so much away from us, from me.  My role is not what society would deem to be the normal role of a husband, of a man.  Look at any newsagent’s shelves and you’ll see many instances of people undertaking caring roles.  These people are celebrated for their achievements and how they’re able to cope with what life throws at them.  Great, yes?  Look again.  And tell me what publications you see these stories running in.  Publications which are targeted squarely at the female market.  Now look at the male end of the market – anything from GQ and Esquire through Men’s Health to the likes of Loaded, Nuts, et al.  How many of these magazines are carrying similar stories?  None.  Nil.  Not one.  I accept that there are now magazines aimed at fathers, FQ to name but one.  Great, these are caring role models aren’t they?  Yes, to a degree.  But there are major differences in those fathers and doing what I do.  What they do and what I do are NOT the same thing.  I have no contemporary benchmarks in the mainstream media for what I do.

Being a carer is a very isolating business for me.  It’s physically and psychologically demanding.  Yesterday afternoon I was sitting outside crying to myself after a particularly fraught few days.  Little did I know that the day was yet to get worse.  I’d been trying to keep up appearances for a few days but secretly feeling a bit disconsolate.  I’ve not been able to see any brightness in life.  I’m 40 years old and I feel I should be getting more out of life.  And here’s where the question from the PHQ9 comes in.  Because all I see from society, from the media, are female role-models for carers, I feel like I’m not doing what I ought to be doing in life.  So I feel like I’m letting my wife down – more importantly, I’m letting me down.  I start beating myself up for getting so bogged down in it all that I begin to think about chucking it all in.  Which makes me feel like I’ve failed as a husband.  Failed as a carer.  Failed as a bloke.  But that’s not a great thing to do, right?  So, I bottle it all in and get on with what needs doing.  Until yesterday evening…

I was making dinner and I felt a gripping sensation at the top of my stomach.  It’s just wind, it’ll go eventually.  But 10 minutes later, it’s not gone away.  Try and drink something fizzy, that’ll do the trick.  No.  It’s got worse.  So I call the neighbours to come and keep my wife company.  Now I feel dizzy, and my fingers are tingling.  My heart’s thumping a gabber beat that I’ve no particular desire to dance to.  And I’m sweating.  A lot.  I can’t go to the GP as it’s closed so I try the out-of-hours service where I’m asked many questions and told I’d receive a phone call back inside 20 minutes.  20 FUCKING MINUTES!!!!  I FEEL LIKE I’M HAVING A HEART ATTACK!!!!  20 MINUTES IS NO GOOD TO ME!!!!  I dialled 999 and called for an ambulance.  When it arrives, I’m wringing wet with sweat and my heart’s gone speedcore.  I have various wires and nodes attached to me and my heart output is printed from an echocardiogram machine (ECG).  They take me to hospital where blood is taken, further ECG tests are done, and I’m left in a side room for a couple of hours while a doctor becomes free.


Because I am, otherwise, normally healthy, this is diagnosed as a panic attack.  A severe one.  Many questions are asked about the state of my mental health and I answer candidly, and because I’m waiting for an appointment with a counselling service, I’m discharged home.  Physically feeling better.  Definitely feeling more relieved ( I’m not dead!! ).  But still feeling bad about what’s happened.  Today I’ve been told by my GP that the panic attack was my body’s way of letting out the anxiety and depression that I’ve been bottling up, and that I need to start taking better care of myself or I’m heading for a breakdown and then what good would I be to me, or anyone?  Then how bad would I feel?

Don’t panic!!! (contains strong language)

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.