So it seems I may actually be a little bit crazy. Many of you may be thinking “no shit, that’s why I read this blog. Your crazy makes me feel better about my crazy.” (insert humor defense mechanism)
Yesterday, I went to the doctor for mysterious, prolonged pain and sensitivity in my back and under one arm. Plus, I wanted to discuss why after four months of a slower-paced life, I still feel exhausted to my bones and want to nap after a 30-minute run.
It turns out I have atypical shingles—the kind that causes pain without the rash and is pretty easy to alleviate with steroids. Yay! I’ll be buff and growing a beard before the week is out.
It also turns out that quite possibly I have generalized anxiety disorder. Um, what’s that you just said, doc?
OK, so this wasn’t the first time a doctor has told me that my physical ailments were likely linked to stress. It was, however, the first time I actually listened.
Over the past five years, I’ve requested blood work three times, not because I’m a hypochondriac but because I was convinced I had a thyroid condition or a vitamin deficiency. Last year, I even added pulmonary tests to the mix because I was experiencing constant shortness of breath.
Each time, the lab results showed nothing but a healthy woman. And yet, I felt so unhealthy. It was easy to blame lack of sleep, job stress and a life running at full-tilt for my chronic fatigue, heartburn, tension headaches and overall feeling shitty.
But most of my big stress inducers have been eliminated with our recent move and I’m sleeping like someone who was sleeping on rocks for years and was finally given a comfy bed. So this time, I was quite certain I’d uncovered the problem: vitamin B deficiency. I have many clinical signs, I’ve been a vegetarian for more than a decade now and according to Dr. Google, this deficiency can take years to show up. I was certain I had found my answer!
By random luck, my appointment was with an amazing doctor. She listened and she asked tons of questions. She ordered up blood tests. She referred me for pulmonary tests because my shortness of breath had subsided but never gone away completely.
And then she asked if I had a family history of depression and anxiety. My mind immediately wanted me to yell, “I am not depressed!” But then I thought about the many women in my family who have struggled with depression and anxiety though perhaps never diagnosed.
As the doctor started explaining generalized anxiety disorder, a diagnosis that in the past I would have called nothing more than a bogus excuse for not being able to deal with life, I started an internal trip down memory lane.
There was the time in junior high when seemingly out of nowhere I started going to bed worrying that I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep and I'd work myself into such a frenzy that I, of course, couldn’t sleep. Then there was how when I was 16, I had to quit my job as a supervisor at a fast food restaurant because I was having chest pains from the stress of telling people what to do.
Oh, and didn’t I have a batch of pulmonary tests once before when doctors thought I may have asthma? Hmm, seems to me that was my freshman year of college and right before I broke up with my high school sweetheart. The second batch, last year, took place right after we decided to move back to the Midwest.
And then there was the chronic back pain about a decade ago. It took months of physical therapy, massage therapy, muscle relaxers and a TENS unit to get it under control. If memory serves, this pain outbreak occurred not long after I’d been laid off and then started a new job. Not long after I had a breakout of more than 30 canker sores in my mouth that were likely linked to worries over leaving our cat who had just had thyroid surgery with a new cat sitter while we went on vacation in France.
A suspicious pattern was emerging. When I told a close friend about my appointment and possible diagnosis, she was mildly surprised. She said she realized I had a lot of stress, but it always seemed like I handled it so well.
I always thought I did, too. After all, look at all the things I could juggle. Sure, I was sometimes overwhelmed by the balls in the air, but everyone gets stressed, right? I just “run a little high.” I'm type A. I'm obviously really good at acting like I've got my shit together.
My body, on the other hand, has been sending out SOS calls for years. Until my recent life of “leisure” (termed so because if I’m not totally crazed, I must just be lazy), I was just too busy to connect the dots.
My doctor talked about the mind-body connection, which was part of why I loved her so much. Over the past few years, I began recognizing the instant fatigue I feel after a rush of anger. I’ve learned ways to calm myself down before I’m in a screaming frenzy—it works most of the time. I’ve changed my lifestyle drastically so that I don’t experience so many triggers that make me feel overwhelmed.
Yet I still assumed that since I used to be good at handling so much, my biggest issue was burnout. When the doctor described generalized anxiety disorder, light bulbs of recognition—and acceptance—finally went off. Maybe it was time to acknowledge that my emotional reactions may be more extreme than what most people feel.
For example, maybe typical 7th graders who go to Disney World on a family vacation throw on the Mickey Mouse ears and the thought that their house could burn down and the fire will kill their dog never enters their minds. Maybe most 16-year-olds don’t get chest pains while flipping burgers.
Maybe most college students whose boyfriends aren’t home at 3 a.m. assume he’s a lying, cheating asshole instead of worrying so much that he’s been in a car crash that they call the police to make sure an accident hasn’t happened. Or at least this scenario doesn’t happen more than once.
Maybe most college-educated women living in a dual-income household don’t freak out while paying off debt and get plagued with worry that they will soon be homeless and living in a box.
After my doctor’s appointment, I sent my husband an instant message at work to debrief him. The shingles problem made sense to him and he was happy to hear there was a solution. I expected the anxiety disorder topic to be met with a “yeah, right.” Instead, his response was “yeah, maybe.”
I was surprised but I shouldn’t have been. This is a man who has spent 17 years talking me off emotional cliffs. He’s well aware that I’m an irrational lunatic. To his credit, he’s never said so outright. In his calm and rational way (which so often enraged me), he has simply walked me through my panic. He’s been my unpaid therapist, and his rock solidness is likely the primary reason I’ve never plunged off the deep end.
And now it seems, I may need an actual therapist or at least some tools added to my coping-mechanism box.
It’s possible my lab tests will indicate I really do have too much or too little of something essential. Or maybe once again, I will learn that my physical ailments are all in my head.
That feels like its own kind of deficiency, one that seems more difficult to fix and far more abstract, which is of course why I’ve rejected the possibility for so long. But there’s no denying that I’m probably not awake at 4 a.m. writing this blog post because I’m low on vitamin B.
Does the physical decline I’ve felt for the past few years stem from burnout or something deeper that’s been with me much longer, like an anxiety disorder? I don’t know yet, but I know that deep down it doesn't really matter because either way, I'm still me and I need to listen to my body.
Before this point in my life, I would have left that doctor’s office pissed off because a doctor was trying to label me and probably wanting to jack me up with drugs instead of taking the time to diagnose the mystery illness that was surely going to kill me by the time I was 45.
Now, I feel ready to accept that maybe I’ve finally been diagnosed with my mystery illness and that it doesn’t mean I’m a crazy psycho. It doesn’t mean that I am somehow deficient, that I’m not good enough because my head may need a bit of help. If our minds are part of our bodies, then is this health issue really any different than a broken leg that needs the support of a cast?
It’s finally crystal clear to me that what happens in my head plays out in my body in toxic ways. Maybe giving this thing a “label” is an excuse. Maybe it’s the excuse I need to finally give myself permission to take care of myself.
Many people instinctively know when to take a break and recharge. I hope you are one of them. In the past, I looked at these people in both awe and with the tiniest bit of judgment that they weren’t pushing hard enough. Now I will view them as role models for happiness and health.
I’ve spent a lifetime of glossing over my anxious ways. Now I’m finally ready to face them, and I feel surprisingly calm.
And thanks to sharing my rampage with all of you, the headache that left me unable to fall back to sleep at 4 a.m. is gone. Let’s call this therapy session number one. Please don’t bill me though—that blood work is going to cost a fortune.