Stories of Healing:
The Story of Rita Howie

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Short Essays on Key Aspects of Healing

 

How It Started

I had my first panic attack in 1962 after the birth of my daughter.  I progressively got worse until I eventually became housebound.

The Suffering

My symptoms included dizziness, rubbery legs, feeling disoriented, depression, confusion and poor memory.  I was always depressed and afraid.  I was afraid to go to bed at night and I was afraid to get up in the morning.

It was extremely difficult for me to go out of the house, and when I had to go out, I took Valium.  Eventually, I became housebound.

It was hard on my daughter to grow up with a mother who couldn’t leave the house.  But I did the best I could.  Because we couldn't go on vacations, we made our backyard into a vacation setting, with a new deck and a large pool.  My daughters’ friends were in and out all the time.  They thought I was great.  They never knew there was anything wrong.

I did my best for my family, but my own life was a struggle.  I was in and out of psychiatric hospitals, trying for years to find some help.  Finally, I found help – in a newspaper article.

Diagnosis

One day in 1980, I saw an article in the newspaper about a boy who was taken out of a mall in a shopping cart because he got so scared.  That's the first time I heard the word “agoraphobia”.  I finally had a name to what was happening to me.  It was funny because I was in a psychiatric unit at the time.  When I showed the article to the psychiatrist, he wasn’t interested.

But that day, I started my recovery.

I contacted the lady who wrote the article, and I started reading everything I could find about agoraphobia.

Recovery

In the course of learning about my condition, I found out about a research program on panic disorder at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Maryland – 400 miles from my home in Springfield, Massachusetts.

I called NIMH and got all the information.  I talked to my therapist about it and told him I was desperate, that I couldn't live like this anymore.  He was supportive. 

As scared as I was, I decided to go.  It was the most difficult and the most courageous thing I have ever done.

To be accepted into the research program, I had to agree to several stipulations.  One stipulation was that I had to agree to have three spinal taps.

Another stipulation was that I was not to take any medication for three weeks before I entered the program.  That was the hardest thing I ever had to do.  Without my Valium,

I didn't know how I was going to function.  Somehow, I did it.

Then, I had to get there.  NIMH was 7 1/2 hours by car from where I lived in Springfield, Massachusetts.  Halfway there, my panic was so bad, I had to call my NIMH doctor, Dr. Vittone.  He had said I could call him anytime.  He was in a meeting, but, true to his word, he came to the phone.  I told him that I couldn't do it and that I needed to take a Valium or I was going to go crazy.  He said no:  if I took the valium, I would have to wait three more weeks before they could start the research.

Somehow, I managed.  I was many miles from home and all alone.  I hadn’t been alone in years.  I had always stayed close to my family and the security of my own home.  Somehow, I made it to Bethesda.

When I arrived at NIMH, I couldn't stop crying.  Dr. Vittone was very kind to me. 

I lived at NIMH for nine months.  Tests were done on me almost daily, including drawing blood.  At times, I thought the researchers were trying to kill me!

One of the tests involved inducing a panic attack, by injecting yohimbine.  The protocol was to give me an infusion, along with a normal volunteer.  It caused the normal volunteer to fall asleep, but it gave me the worst panic attack I have ever experienced!  Dr. Vittone stayed with me and held my hand.

My experience at NIMH was the hardest thing I have ever done.  But I guess I was a lot stronger than I had thought.  I don’t know if I could have made it through the nine months without the help of my roommates, Eve and Shirley.   21 years later, they are still my two best friends.  They were the “angels on my shoulder”.

When the research was finally over, Dr. Vittone told me all the medications I had been on, and which ones had worked.  He told me that I had actually reported more side effects on the placebos than on the medications.

He told me that Xanex had worked the best for me, but that it was necessary to keep increasing the dosage.  He also said he thought Xanex was addictive.  He told me that the ideal drug for me was imiprimine. 

And since I started taking imiprimine in 1981, I have been panic free.  

With the help of the medication, I gradually overcame my agoraphobia.  I started by taking baby steps – only doing the things that caused me the least amount of discomfort.  Because of the medication, I wasn't having panic attacks anymore, just high anxiety.  Each time that I had a success, it made it easier for me to try something new.

When I was recovering, I prayed daily for strength.  I’m not a churchgoer, but I have a lot of faith.  I believe that God gave me this condition in order to help others. 

Shortly after coming home from NIMH, I started a support group.  To this day, I lead the Massachusetts Phobia Society, an ongoing support group devoted to helping people recover from panic disorder and agoraphobia. 

Today

I am FREE.  I can  do anything I want to do.  I can make plans ahead of time without “catastrophizing”.  I love going on vacations and I love dancing.  I go out dancing three night a week, and I often travel great distances to attend a dance.

I am fully recovered.  I believe I'll have it for the rest of my life, but I'm not afraid of IT anymore.

My Message of Healing

Take things very slow.  Take baby steps and reward yourself for the little steps.  You didn't learn how to walk the first time that you stood up. 

Read all you can and practice everyday.  Start by changing your wording.  If everyday you wake up and say "what if", change it to "so what".  Do this until it becomes natural. 

In our support group, we still use these wonderful books by Claire Weekes:  Hope and Help for Your Nerves, Peace From Nervous Suffering, and Simple, Effective Treatment of Agoraphobia.  And just recently, we have started using The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund Bourne.  Reading from these books is essential to our success.

God bless and take care,

Rita Howie

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