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Nicola's Personal Story

Last Modified 2010-09-05 15:48:26

It is hard for me now to look back and remember how I have actually got through the last 14 years of suffering from Panic Attacks, Anxiety, Depression, Agoraphobia etc. What symptoms have I had? How did I cope? What did I do? What helped? Who helped? How am I now?

It was a difficult decision to make as to whether to publish this page or not as it is my private story, my life - but I have so many emails asking me what I went through that I thought it may help - I hope it does.

This page is my story and I hope will help you all in some way.

The 'beginning' of it all!

I had my first Panic Attack in May 1993 (when I was 27) - I remember it as though it was yesterday! I had been away on business in Glasgow (I lived in Sheffield at the time) and I was driving home on my own. The trip was about 5 hours but I chose to drive as I was not a great lover of flying.

The previous night had been a late one and we had all drunk far too much and went to bed after 2am so I was feeling a little hung over and had been working all day. I left for home at about 5pm.

I got on to the Motorway and suddenly felt faint. I had fainted before and remember that horrible feeling of tunnel vision and blackness before you pass out. Great - except I was in the outside lane of the Motorway in rush hour traffic and no easy way of cutting across 4 lanes of traffic to stop. I instinctively wound the window down and put the cold air-blowers on full. The initial feeling of faintness out went but I was still feeling a little shaken by the whole experience and desperate to pull over. Unfortunately I was now at the point where two motorways merged so there was no hard shoulder to pull on to. It was about a mile later that I could finally pull over and stop.

I calmed myself down, took my some deep breaths, got back in the car and drove off. I got about another mile and felt faint again. I then remember feeling really scared and alone. I was hours/miles away from home and there was no-one to help me (I didn't have a mobile phone then.

The journey home was a complete nightmare - I had to stop in every Parking space I could, calm myself down and then drive on to the next one and stop again. Needless to say it took me a long time to get home! When I finally got there I was absolutely drained and feeling scared and very ill. That will teach you to drink too much I thought!

That was the start of my illness.

What happened subsequently to this - over the next few days - was that every time I got in the car to drive, I remembered that overwhelming feeling of panic and fear and was convinced I was going to experience it all over again. Now the panic thoughts were already 'breeding' in my mind!

I then found that I was feeling terrible even when I wasn't driving. I went to the doctors the following month and told him that I kept feeling dizzy/faint all the time and he said it was probably stress and not to worry and eat more fibre!!

This continued on and off for another two years - I would get episodes of feeling really dizzy/faint and I would go to the doctor's and he would tell me it was nothing to worry about etc. He did a few customary blood tests but nothing was found.

I went to Majorca in 1999 but I was suffering quite badly at this time with the Panic and found the flight home a complete nightmare - I absolutely hated it, the claustrophobia had now set it and I just wanted to get off the plane. I then had a nightmare of a taxi ride from the airport to my car and this just re-fuelled the feelings of Panic and Anxiety.

The Icing On The Cake

July 1995 - The Panic was getting so bad that I had the partner follow me home from work to make sure I was ok as I knew that every time I got in the car I was going to get this panicky feeling again. Unfortunately this resulted in a car accident. He ran into the back of me and shunted me into the car in front and the one in front of that as well.

I wasn't badly hurt at the time and just wanted to get home. At this stage in my illness I had given up going in taxis and on any other public transport. In fact I wouldn't even go in the car with anyone! This caused me problems as I wasn't sure how I was going to get home that night. I was given a lift by a driver a few cars in front - the partner asked him to drive very slowly!! I knew later that night that I needed to go to hospital, as I was suffering with back pains, but how was I going to get there? We called the partner's parents and asked them to take me. His dad had to drive there at 30 mph as I was absolutely terrified of being in the car. At the hospital, I was a nervous wreck and waited hours to be seen. After being told that I was ok, we had to make our way home. I couldn't face a taxi or bus so we walked miles into Sheffield city center until I just knew that I couldn't get home without getting in a taxi. My partner asked the taxi driver to drive very, very slowly - explaining the fact that I had just been in a car accident - when really it was cos I was terrified of being in the car. He even paid him 5 pounds extra to do it!

The accident was really the 'icing on the cake' as I had now re-affirmed to myself that driving in the car alone was not a safe place. You can probably imagine how I was feeling - scared of the Panic and now lost my confidence at driving. I spent weeks driving around on my own trying to get my confidence back and I did manage to but I was still left with the terrible feeling of Panic.

Some days I was unable to drive home on the stretch of road where the accident happened and took a detour that was about 15 minutes longer just so I could avoid it. This of course meant that I was in the car longer and feeling panicky for longer.

I went to the doctors not long after the accident and was prescribed Atenolol (which is a Beta-Blocker). The next day I ended up in hospital as it affected my breathing (apparently it shouldn't be given to asthmatics)! They gave me Diazepam in the hospital and a cup-of-tea and sent me home a lot calmer.

I remember one specific incident that I will never forget. I had to go to the doctors and the car was still being repaired after the accident, so I had to walk. I was a bit apprehensive but desperate to see the doctor so off I went. I got half way there and I suddenly had an overwhelming sense of panic and fear. I just wanted to get back home and safe. I was literally frozen on the spot and didn't know whether to go home or to the doctors for help. I managed to find a wall and drag myself along it to a phone box and called my partner. I begged him to leave work and come and get me (I am sure his boss wasn't too impressed) but he did and by the time he got there I was a shaking wreck. He took me on to the doctors but I have never felt so scared of being alone and outside since then.

Anyway - once I was at the doctor's he prescribed Diazepam to help calm me down - which it did and I hoped that was the end of it all.

My life at this point was a complete mess. I was an emotional wreck and I ended up taking a month off work to try and pull my life back together. I hardly left the house during this time and became slightly agoraphobic. I carried on working from home cos I felt guilty for being off sick for a month so they brought me a computer round so I could do bits and pieces.

Treatment at last!

To cut a long story short, I went from bad to worse. The partner at the time left me and said he just couldn't cope with me anymore and I was left living alone with no real friends and family close by to look after me.

In February 1996 - nearly 3 years after my first Panic Attack, I was told that I was suffering from Panic Disorder, Anxiety and Agoraphobia. The Panic Attacks were uncontrollable and I was prescribed anti-depressants (Dothiepin).

In July 1996 I was referred to a Neurologist as I was still feeling dizzy all the time. They also did an EEG and said I was fine.

In August 1996 I felt that those particular anti-depressants weren't doing anything so I was taken off them. I still didn't improve so in November 1996 I was prescribed Prozac. I was on Prozac until I took myself of it in Jan 1998 as again I did not feel that I was getting any real benefit from it. I know now that it did help with the depression that I was suffering but didn't seem to help the panic/anxiety atall.

From January 1997 until August 1997 I saw a psychotherapist once a week for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This helped enormously and enabled me to understand why I felt like I did. I was set weekly challenges like going on a bus or going shopping. It was extremely hard work and definitely not fun but it was essential to me that I got some normality back in my life!

My life continued to be one big struggle and I have 'existed' through the years rather that 'live' them. I had good times and very, very bad times. The bad times most definitely out-weighed the good times but I continued to work and continued to hide my panic from anyone and try as much as possible to carry on with life "as normal". Yes it was hard - very hard but what else could I do - give in and give up? No, that was not me.

... And Now?

To be honest I didn't think I coped very well at all but looking back I must have done, as I am still here today and getting there bit-by-bit. I guess you could say that suffering for 12 years with Panic and Anxiety is in no way a success story but to me it is because I am still here and still fighting and I will never give in until I am cured.

12 years is a long time to waste and yes I have wasted it but not through my own fault orchoosing. I just hope that the next 12 years are better!

I am angry that the Panic Attacks were left un-diagnosed and un-treated for 2 years and 9 months and in this time my mind was conditioned with all the feelings and fears of Panic and Anxiety and this was going to take a long time to re-train. The Panic had been 'breeding' for so long that it was now a part of my everyday life. Have you heard the expression "fear breeds fear" well this is what was happening to me.

It would be wrong to say that I am cured but I think I have come a long way in the last 12 years and to be honest, and you may not like this, most of this has been down to me alone and no-one else - no drugs or therapy. I have tried everything but at the end of the day it has to be a "will-to-live" (though I hate that phrase) that will overcome anything. The anti-depressants seemed to have no effect (that doesn't mean they won't help you) and even the therapy I went to was only successful because of the enormous amount of effort I had to put it to get better. It is a case of 'helping yourself' as much as you possibly can.

One other thing will help you through this, and I did not have this in the early days, and this is someone who 'really' understands and is prepared to take you for what you are and all your problems with it! I have someone like that now and he has been an enormous support to me over the past 7 years - I certainly couldn't have done it without him. He is still there for me when I panic and he still sits there holding my hand saying "breathe, breathe"!

I stopped getting Panic Attacks and Anxiety in February 2002 - after starting a diet and exercise regime. You cannot imagine how this felt. It was such an overwhelming feeling of relief and I felt so alive again. My life was completely turned around.

I had a bit of a relapse in July 2002 as my partner's dad was in hospital dying of cancer. My first real Panic Attack (since Feb that year) came on the day he died and it did set me back somewhat, but I decided I had to fight back!

It is not easy and even today when I get a Panic attack, I completely 'freak out' and forget what it is like. I am finding it hard to drive again and all those 'old' feelings come flooding back when I drive to work and back each day, but I know that I have done that same drive for over 4 years now and not once have I passed out so I just have to keep telling myself that I will beat this again.

I hurt my foot on 24th August '02 - pulled the ligaments - and I was unable to walk let alone drive so I was confined to the house for 2 weeks. This was a blessing in disguise as I couldn't do anything so I spent 2 weeks resting, sleeping and being a couch potato. When I went back to work I felt much better - no panic or anything.

This was going great until 12th Sep '02 when I was driving home and suddenly felt the panic building up. I was reaching a stretch of the A1 where there is no hard shoulder so this made it worse for me. I wound the window down, put the cold air-vents on my face and tried to breathe deeply. I was so relieved to hit the roundabout where I turn off the A1. I was physically shaking when I finally reached the stretch of road that I felt safe on. Needless to say that the next day when I drove up the same stretch of road I was anxiously waiting for the panic to hit again but fortunately it didn't.

Updates - Jan 2003

Jan 2003. I have had a few bad episodes in the last week. The worst has to be last night but more on that in a minute.

Last Saturday we were out driving and I suddenly felt that awful wave of panic coming over me (I am sure you all know that feeling). I was starting to breath more rapidly and I knew that this was going to be a panic attack unless I took control. I tried the breathing exercises but couldn't control it. It had been so long since the last big attack that I had forgotten everything I had learned (and everything I write about on this site). In the end I had to get my partner to pull over into a parking place so I could try and control it. He put the air-conditioning on for me to cool me down and I was shaking and breathing rapidly. He talked me down (as he usually does) and I sat there for about 5 minutes feeling shattered and terrified. I had forgotten what it was like! That is good in a way but it took me so by surprise that I coped extremely badly.

We were able to move on eventually but I felt exhausted and on edge the rest of the day.

I still have problems with 'that' stretch of the A1 - if I am not feeling 100% I can feel the panic building up as I drive up it. I have not had to stop yet but I still feel like a failure as I drive up it and start the automatic reaction of getting anxious. I have even wound the windows down when it was freezing cold outside just to try and snap myself out of it.

Last night (30/1/03) has to be one of my worst for many years. It had snowed heavily most of the afternoon and when I left work at 16:20, the road outside the office was already stationery. I decided to 'risk' going the back way - which is mainly small single track country lanes - as I knew that there was no way I could sit in stationery traffic (it brings on panic). My partner later said to me "you didn't seriously go that back way did you" as it is quite a scary drive when the roads are dry. I managed it successfully - despite the niggling thoughts of "no-one will find you out here if you crash or get stuck". I only passed 3 other cars!

I reached Hitchin and knew that the safest road had to be the A1. I was doing ok until I sat in a queue of traffic in Hitchin and the snow was really falling heavily and it was dark and foggy. I suddenly had this overwhelming feeling of agoraphobia and claustrophobia at the same time. I wanted to be at home safe and I could feel the anxiety building up. The snow was really heavy so when I looked out the window I could hardly see anything and this made me feel even worse.

I struggled on to the A1, very slowly and I could feel the panic building up with each mile I went. I got on the A1 and decided that it was all getting too much, so I tried to call my partner. To my horror the mobile Network was busy. I then really panicked. I had now lost my life-line to someone who could talk me down from the panic. I tried deep breathing but that wasn't working cos I wasn't doing it properly. I was now driving into the snow and this was creating an illusion to me a bit like flashing lights. This made me feel even worse.

At the next junction I decided I had to get off the A1 and go the back route. I figured that I had done back roads once so I could do it again. Big mistake. It was treacherous driving conditions and after 45 minutes of driving we all had to turn back because the hill ahead was unpassable. I drove back down the road and took another turning, not really sure where it would lead. I then realised that the road went nowhere except back on to the A1 south bound. You can imagine my horror at this.

I spoke to my partner and told him that I had to go up the A1 but I would need him to talk to me whilst I did the dreaded bit that I hated. So, off I went - I decided to try it alone and not call my partner to see if I could cope. A good test I thought. I got in the outside lane as it was empty and surprisingly enough I got up to 30 mph and soon had the roundabout in sight. At last - I was nearly there and I had not panicked yet.

I turned right at the roundabout only to discover that some stupid lorry driver had blocked the road I wanted to go up and the A1 southbound was stationery so he was going nowhere either. I was now sat in the middle of a roundabout and nowhere to go, cos cars had pulled along side me - I was trapped! This was the final straw - I was now really starting to panic. I called my partner and was in tears telling him that I couldn't do it and I was going to have a major panic attack stuck on a roundabout.

He calmed me down the best he could and then the lorry moved - the relief was enormous. As soon as I got off the roundabout I knew I was safe. I got home 15 minutes later and burst into tears - I was shattered, drained, panicky, anxious and yet felt huge relief to be home safe. Never again!

It had taken 2 1/4 hours to get home and I can remember every minute of that like some bad nightmare. Today I am at home because I cannot get to work - it has given me time to clam down and reflect on yesterday. One thing I have learned is that I will probably never be completely free from panic and I am still not able to cope with it. I just don't want too many more episodes like yesterday.

Updates - Jan 2004

I thought it necessary to write an update or you will all think I am either worse or cured! Well a lot has happened in the last 12 months so I thought I would share one or two incidents with you all.

Well I did get worse (unfortunately) in June 2003 due to some medication I was on for my high blood pressure. I developed breathlessness and this caused me to have some big panic attacks - ones I hadn't experienced for over a year. I was taken to the local hospital (not A&E) and told that I was fine and and needed to calm down and relax. Easy for them to say eh?

I ended up changing the blood-pressure medication 3 times until I found one that I could cope with and the side-effects were minimal.

I think the panic attacks came back because the side-effects of the medication were so similar to those of panic and I was scared that it was all coming back again! Things have settled down now and I am free of any side-effects but very wary of taking any other medication whilst I am on them.

In October 2003 I had to drive to Leeds for a course and it was a long hard drive but helped by a work colleague who came with me and talked to me all the way. Whilst I was there I found it hard to settle and had those horrible feelings of agoraphobia and wanting to be back home where I felt safe. The drive back was quite stressful and by the time I got home I just burst into tears with relief.

I have continued to have episodes of anxiety but the driving panic is very much better and I am doing very well at conquering that. I have had to turn my thoughts around and realise that it can't hurt me anymore. This is not easy when your brain has been conditioned for so long but I am determined to get there.

I am writing this update from Bristol where I am spending a week alone on a course. The drive down was worrying me for weeks but I made it and here I am!! I had about 30 minutes when I felt anxious (though not panicky) so I turned the music up in the car and sang away to it to take my mind off it - it worked. I then tried to enjoy the drive because I used to love driving and I did start to enjoy it more than I have done for a long time. Well 3 1/4 hours later I arrived in one piece and not atall panicky so I am really pleased with my progress.

Updates - Sep 2004

Someone asked me the other day for an update so here it is. Well things have been up and down. I had to double the blood pressure medication in June and it made me a bit dizzy for 2 weeks which always brings back the panic feelings! I controlled it and managed to just get a bit of anxiety which was great.

Things are going well apart from the usual anxiety sometimes but NO panic attacks so I am delighted. The website and forum take up far too much of my time cos I work full-time too but I wouldn't give it up for anything cos I get so much pleasure from helping people and it is still helping me too.

I was back in Bristol again last week on yet another course. I decided to try the M25 & M4 this time and got here in 2 3/4 hours so not bad going. I was a little panicky at certain points but it was more the anticipation of what might happen rather than what did happen. E.G. every time I see a road works sign my heart jumps cos I am not good in road works when there is no hard-shoulder to escape to.

On Friday I drove 3 hours back from Bristol and then another 3 hours down to my mum's house in Surrey and I even managed to sit on the M25 in all the roadwork's and I did so well because I managed to control the panic and not let it get to me. I am still smiling at that achievement cos the last time I was on the M25 I had a lot of panic!

I know that I have to start pushing myself again soon to do some new things - trains, taxis, buses etc but it is so hard to push yourself back into situations that make you anxious and ones you have avoided. I will get there though - I have to !

Updates - Dec 2005

I can't believe I haven't done an update for so long so though I had better do one!

Well things have been good panic wise but I am still struggling with the driving issues and they have probably got worse this last year. I still get very panicky and anxious in road works and traffic jams so I decided to get some more CBT for these issues and I start in January 2006.

Health wise I have not been too bad but have had a problem with a recurrent sore throat since July and the feeling of not being able to swallow so I am being referred to an ENT specialist to get that looked at. I am sure it is nothing but need reassurance and then hopefully it will disappear again!

The website and forum are very busy and take up a lot of my time so I do get a bit run down with it sometimes but I am trying to manage my time on here with other things in my life.

Generally life is good and I am pleased that I haven't had a panic attack for so long now so it can get better in time.

Well that's it for now - short and sweet I know but thought I should at least do some sort of update for everyone that asks.

Symptoms

I get a lot of emails asking me about various symptoms that people get and are they normal. I thought I would just give you an idea of what I have suffered over the years (not to frighten you but just so you appreciate that there are so many):

Apart from the hyperventilation (which is very common in Panic Attacks and Anxiety), I have suffered the following symptoms:

Constant and re-occurring diarrhoea - sometimes for months on end.

Eyes twitching - I could look in a mirror and the corner of my eyes were moving!

Chest pains - I used to get a lot of these and was seriously concerned that I was going to have a heart-attack. I have since learnt that they are due to the constricting of the heart muscles and apparently the best cure is to start exercising and stretching these muscles to relieve the pain.

Stomach upsets - this I still suffer from. I get bad pains, upset stomach, indigestion, acid pains etc.

Sleeplessness - yeah I still suffer from this. I sleep so lightly that the slightest thing wakes me up and I find it really hard to relax and sleep! When I do sleep it is intermittent and I wake up many times in a night and then in the morning feel that I haven't slept at all.

Dizziness - my biggest problem - feeling that I am going to faint/pass out. This was most annoying whilst driving, as I was scared that I would crash. Other times I could just be sitting watching TV and suddenly feel light-headed. This symptom went on for many years.

Irritable/Moody - oh yes and with a vengeance at times!! I must have been impossible to live with!! I sometimes got very childish as well and would throw tantrums and objects!!

Depressed - I had a lot of depression in the early years of the Panic Attacks. I would cry almost all the time and could just see no end to the illness.

Suicidal - Although I had no intention of taking my life, I did feel that I didn't want to live anymore - there was nothing worth living for in my eyes.

Hurtful/hateful - I could be very hurtful towards others. I drove people away as I was so spiteful and aggressive - hitting out at the ones I loved just because they were there.

Feeling of being 'vague' or 'unreal' - I always described this to people as feeling as though "I was not really here". I felt that I was an outsider looking at the world through my eyes - very weird sensation.

Claustrophobia - this has definitely got worse since I started suffering from panic attacks. I am now very claustrophobic to the point that it restricts things that I do - e.g. going to the cinema, lifts, flying etc.

Fear of motion - I have developed a fear of motion - I hate been driven in the car as I hate the sensation of going from fast to slow. Weird I know but true.

Sensitive to drugs - every time I take new medication I suffer from every side-effect that it has. This is because I read the accompanying leaflet and then fear that I am going to get those side-effects and guess what - I do!!

I could go on but I think I will stop there for now!!

What I am/was afraid of

Here are some of the things that made/make life so difficult for me:

Supermarkets - particularly queuing. Many a time I wanted to just leave the shopping at the checkouts and walk out.

Cinemas/theatres - I am still not a great fan of these as I find them claustrophobic. The last time I went to the cinema was about 8 years ago. I have been to the theatre twice in the last 2 years but I prefer to sit on the end of a row so I don't feel so claustrophobic.

Cars/buses/taxis/planes - hmm, still a BIG problem. I very occasionally go on the Park-And-Ride bus but it is only for about 10 minutes maximum. I hate taxis with a vengeance - they always drive too erratically for me! I am never a passenger in a car unless it is with my partner. I have been on a plane 3 times in the last 3 years but I hate the claustrophobic feeling. These were always on the "Flying with Confidence" courses so it was a short flight (1 1/4hours) and everyone else on the flight was terrified too so I felt at home!

Motorways/road works/single carriage ways/traffic jams - This was a big problem for me and still is to some extent today. I have been known to pull off a motorway when it was approaching road works, as I cannot stand to be stuck in traffic where there is no escape. I always use the inside lane of motorways and dual carriageways so that I can more easily pull over if necessary. I hate traffic jams and will pull off the road if it looks like it is slow moving.Heat - I could not stand the summer months. I was always so hot and sweaty and then I would get panicky cos I felt as though it was so difficult to breathe.

Tiredness - When I am tired I can also start to feel panicky and dizzy.

Thunderstorms - I went through a phase of hating thunderstorms and was absolutely terrified if there was one. I couldn't stand it being so dark and the noise of the rain pelting down. There never seemed to be anywhere to hide from them and even in the house I didn't feel safe. Fortunately I am over this one now!

The dark - yep I was scared of this for a while, though mostly when driving and not at night when I was tucked up in bed.Strobe lights/sunlight - I remember once watching a Pink Floyd convert on video with the lights turned out, as their stage show effects are fantastic. The light show freaked me out and I had a Panic Attack. I also find that I do not like driving up a particular stretch of the A1 when the sunlight streams in between the trees lining the road as it gives a kind of strobe effect.

Being drunk! - Yep this can cause big Panic Attacks as alcohol is a stimulant and that is not what you need when you are already hyper-sensitive to changes.

Doctors/dentists/hospitals - sitting in the waiting room is the big problem here. I hate it. I start to feel claustrophobic and want to get out. Even worse is being pinned in the dentist chair for any length of time. I had to go to hospital once and they shoved me in this tiny little cubicle whilst I was waiting for X-rays. I had to leave the door open and I got some very strange looks from passers-by!

Going out/away from home/holidays - I am slightly agoraphobic in the sense that I like to be near home. This is not so bad now but previously I would start to get panicky as soon as I went on holiday (in the UK). I liked to be close to home as this is my safety zone. It would ruin the holiday as I just wanted to leave. I have not been abroad for over 7 years.

Pubs/clubs/meals out/entertaining - I used to hate going out for meals in restaurants, as you knew that you had to sit and wait for the food and then eat it before you go home. The whole experience was ruined because I just rushed through the meal so I get home again!!

Shopping - I am not a typical woman - I hate shopping. Give me catalogue and Internet shopping any day and I am happy. I do not like wandering around shopping centres and 'browsing'. Most things I buy are off the Internet or from catalogues.

That's Me!

So there it is - an incite into the life of a sufferer. I hope you enjoyed reading this and you do not feel so alone now. I am not trying to scare people and I do realise that most of this may seem full of doom and gloom but you can get better and you can get your life back.

Not all sufferers take 12 years to recover - mine was definitely hampered as it was left untreated for too long so it took me many years to re-train my brain.

I wrote this web site to provide help and support to fellow sufferers and I do hope that you have gained at least something from it.

Thanks for reading My Story.

Nicola