Homebound No More
By Blaise Dismer
How It Started
My first truly overwhelming panic attack occurred on the morning of my twenty-first birthday.
Home from college that weekend to celebrate my big day with family and friends, the day started out on a positive note. My sisters invited me to the “Pancake House” down the street for breakfast – their treat – and after a good meal and several cups of coffee (only later would I make the connection that the caffeine exacerbated the anxiety I was already feeling), it was time to go.
Before I headed home, I drove to the Georgia Tech library to return some books that I had borrowed for a report I was working on in one of my classes at North Georgia College. Cruising down 1-85 towards the North Avenue exit where Georgia Tech was located, a tidal wave of fear washed over me, as I experienced the thought that I would somehow turn the steering wheel and run my car into the opposite lanes of traffic on the expressway. Unsure of whether I might actually act on that or not, and bewildered by the intrusive thought itself, I began to feel extremely nervous – more nervous than I had ever felt before in my life. I managed to turn off the expressway at the North Avenue exit and reach the Georgia Tech campus, but all along I seemed on the verge of losing control – of my mind, my car, my very self. I had never felt more frightened in all my life…. I was completely out of touch with my emotions. I was out of control, not knowing what would happen next….
Though I didn’t know it at the time, these horrible, anxious feelings were going to be my constant companions, with only the briefest of respites, for many years to come.
The anxious feelings I experienced while at North Georgia College continued unabated my entire senior year. It was difficult for me just to sit through some of my classes. In fact, there were some classes I couldn’t sit through. My teachers responded in an understanding way when I spoke to them individually, but that didn’t help to calm my nerves during classes or otherwise. I was nervous all the time. I was having panic attacks and drinking beer every night in an attempt to quell my anxiety. It felt like a living hell….
Dr. K was my therapist for several years. Over this time period, we explored everything from my relationships with various family members, to my feelings about life in general. Consequently, I made some positive gains emotionally. Throughout these years of therapy, however, Dr. K counseled me against seeking medication from a doctor. In his opinion, it would only impede my progress. In retrospect, I think that Dr. K was in error on this point.
Although I am not someone who believes that a person should take medication simply for the sake of taking it, there are many medicines that can be extremely helpful in coping with depression and anxiety. If one can achieve his goals through psychotherapy alone, that is a great way of going about the healing process. In many cases, however, particularly with individuals suffering from panic disorder, medication can be a valuable – and sometimes even necessary – part of one’s treatment.
Throughout my therapy, I continued medicating myself with alcohol. Obviously I made a poor choice. Alcohol is neither good medicine nor a useful coping tool. As I look back on this, knowing that Dr. K was aware of my drinking habits, I feel it would have been in both our best interests at least to discuss getting me some real medication. Certainly, any of the drugs used to treat such disorders at the time would have been safer – and more effective – than beer.
… My second therapist, Dr. L, was a psychotherapist grounded in the psychoanalytic approach. However, his advice for me was largely about what I was avoiding in terms of behaviors. He listened to me intently and offered some useful feedback. Specifically, he stressed that the only way to conquer my fears – whether they be driving on the expressway, being away from home, riding elevators, or anything else – was through performing the very actions I was afraid of, over and over and over again.
That certainly was not what I wanted to hear! I had hoped that what Dr. L could offer me would be the “key” to unlock the door that had shut out happiness in my life.
Dr. L didn’t have any keys, of course. What he did have was information – good information – along with a prescription for some anxiety-reducing medication. I remembered what Dr. K had once said regarding taking medication – that it would “impede” my progress – and I expressed these fears to Dr. L. He assured me the medication would do no such thing, and that in fact, it would probably help. So I acquiesced and began taking the medicine, which turned out to be Trilafon, one of the psychotropic medications available at that time. Even though I took a minimal dose, it was still enough to turn me into a walking zombie. However, it served its purpose and did indeed reduce my anxiety. That was a tremendous relief….
Support From Others
I began to assemble a group of people around me that would become my support team. Each one was helpful to me in some way. Although it’s important to stress that nobody – nobody – can recover for you, they can be with you in a helpful way as you work towards recovery. That’s how I experienced it….
From a spiritual perspective, I prayed about my situation much of the time. I spoke prayers of intercession, asking God to help me through my trials and sufferings. There were even times I didn’t think God was listening.
The first panic attack I ever experienced – while driving to Georgia Tech on that cold morning of my twenty-first birthday – was accompanied by prayer. I remember calling out to God and I remember that it seemed I got absolutely no answer! This disappointed me tremendously.
I spent many years as a wandering soul lost in the spiritual desert – from my twenty-first birthday all the way to my thirty-first birthday. But as I look back on this time in my life, I believe that God was with me through it all. He is with me yesterday, today, and tomorrow – I just don’t always recognize Him. I say to other pilgrims on the journey that God is with you, too, even though you may not always feel His presence. Trust that God, in whatever way you understand Him, is with you even so.
A Turning Point
I remember a particular incident that marked a turning point in how I dealt with my own fears. I have always enjoyed playing basketball. In fact, I’ve played it most of my life. One day, my cousin Peter invited me to play a game of basketball with some of his friends. My initial response was a definite “no.” I said, “Peter, I know this is ridiculous on one level, but I can’t get over this fear that I am going to have a heart attack and die if I get out there on the basketball court and get my heart pounding.”
It just so happens that Peter is a doctor – a pathologist and a very bright person who has always commanded my confidence. Even so, what he said in reply came as quite a surprise. “Well, Blaise, let’s just go out there and see!”
“Let’s go out there and see?” I thought. Didn’t he understand? I was talking about my life here – I may not make it through this experience! “Let’s just go out there and see” he says! And in a weird way it actually reassured me. Peter’s matter-of-fact response resonated. It was refreshing to hear, “Let’s go see what happens” instead of “Oh, okay. I didn’t know – maybe some other time.” His approach honored the part of me that had suffered so much – the part of me that had felt so much humiliation and degradation about not being able to work, or to play sports, or even to simply “be” because of these ethereal fears that only I could see. His words were freeing. “Well, Blaise, what the hell. Let’s go out there and let’s get your heart rate up. And if you’re going to die, let’s find out. And if you’re not, let’s move on with the business of living.”
And of course I did go out there and I did not die! Instead I experienced a rush of euphoria – a natural high – because I was being me. The old Blaise Dismer – the one who is unafraid, who loves sports, who is out there as “one of the guys,” the one who is free – was back. It was a significant victory.
….Of course, I still experienced anxious moments – but the way I experienced them underwent a profound change. Instead of running from my fears, I turned in their direction. I confronted my fears with increasing regularity, and for longer periods of time, before I let myself escape from them. The tide of the struggle had turned in my favor.
My Approaches to Healing
First of all, certain medications have been very valuable to me. I believe that there is a genetic component to anxiety and depressive disorders. In my own case, these maladies run in my family on both my mother’s side as well as my father’s. I come by it naturally! Although I do not subscribe to the notion that medication is a panacea or useful for all psychiatric problems, I do believe that in many instances – for example, those anxiety disorders which are chronically immobilizing or debilitating – it is a beneficial part of one’s treatment.
Certain medications are more effective than others. What works for you should not be too difficult to determine based on the recommendations of your doctor. Some of the prescription drugs used to treat anxiety disorders can be addicting, so ask your doctor if what he/she prescribes falls into that category. Because of such concerns, I myself have only used these medications on a very limited basis and only at the suggestion of my doctor.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Another component to recovery – and one that’s been proven to be extremely effective in treating anxiety disorders – is cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of therapy, alone or combined with certain medicines, can lead to real progress in one’s struggle to overcome anxiety disorders. I suggest that in the case of those of you with serious anxiety or panic that you seek out a health care professional trained in cognitive behavioral interventions.
Creating a Support Team
A third and significant component of one’s recovery involves forming a support system of encouraging and understanding persons. I was fortunate to have a loving family that supported me in a number of different ways.
In addition to one’s family and friends, I think it is wise to include professional members on your support team: a physician for your general medical welfare; a psychiatrist (in many cases); and a well trained therapist who knows about your specific struggles. Having such a support team on your side improves your odds of achieving a significant recovery.
Educating oneself about your specific disorder – or anxiety disorders in general – is also an essential tool. Bibliotherapy, or suggested reading, in the form of books, audio, or videotapes, not only provides useful information but advice and encouragement as well.
One of the writers recommended to me many years ago, when I was battling the frightening symptoms of panic disorder, was a physician named Claire Weekes. Dr. Weekes wrote some excellent books, including Peace From Nervous Suffering and Simple, Effective Treatment of Agoraphobia, that were so powerful that I received as much reassurance from them as I did from my own doctors telling me the same thing.
It is now widely recognized that spirituality plays a tremendous role in a person’s recovery. I am not speaking of one particular type of spirituality, rather, I am speaking about whatever gives you faith, hope, and inspiration. Many of us find this through participation in an organized religion. Although I am a practicing Christian, I work with numerous individuals of different faiths, and in some cases, no faith at all. I always search for a spiritual foundation to tap this powerful means of healing….
If you are interested in how spirituality may be useful in your recovery, I recommend the book Transforming Anxiety, Transcending Shame written by Rex Briggs, MSW, in 1999. I’ve had the opportunity to attend two of Rex’s seminars on spirituality and from those gained important insights into my own belief system.
Exercise became one of my primary stress relievers and even now it’s something that I highly recommend to my own clients. Exercise can be an untapped treasure, even if you find it distasteful at first. Most anyone can find some sort of aerobic exercise, which, when performed regularly, will become an invaluable weapon in one’s arsenal against anxiety.
Being Open to Trying New Things
One’s willingness to try new things, practice new behaviors, think new thoughts, and proceed in new directions is yet another catalyst for recovery. This requires a leap of faith – understanding that we aren’t really certain how the situation will turn out when we do try these new behaviors. Perhaps for you this leap of faith might involve going into a store that in the past you had been afraid to enter. Or maybe it means riding on the chair lift up to the ski slopes (or skiing down those slopes). Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of walking out your front door to get the mail.
Remember when my cousin Peter politely encouraged me to play basketball to see if my fear of having a heart attack on the court was valid? Aim for a willingness to take that kind of risk. Recalling all the misery that our various problems have caused us can in fact spur us on to take that leap of faith and move forward.
Role models help, too. Look to those of us who have already “leapt” and landed on our feet. Use our success for your own encouragement and as an effective personal motivator. Don’t settle for the status quo.
What “Full Recovery” Means to Me
I am able to do those “normal, everyday” activities and even some that aren’t! In fact, I am able to accomplish things today that sometimes people who don’t suffer from anxiety disorders aren’t able to accomplish. I remember asking my wife to ride with me in the glass elevator at Peachtree Tower in Atlanta up to the hundredth floor. She declined that exciting opportunity! It’s a wonderful feeling to realize that you can reach goals beyond your own expectations and maybe beyond the limits of those around you.
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If you are interested in reading my book, Homebound No More, click on this link: Homebound No More.
I would be happy to answer any questions you may have. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org