Heart Beats

I have been sitting on this post for a while but I’ve decided that it is time to finally time to publish it.  I have been reluctant to talk about it because it involved my health both mental and physical, but I think what I went through and what I learned might be helpful not just for regular readers of this blog but perhaps also to people just searching the web for answers like I did.

In the spring of 2010, about the same time my daughter Hazel was being born I was diagnosed with asthma.  I had been suffering from spring and fall seasonal allergies for a few years and those allergies in addition to causing the usual sinus problems were also effecting my breathing and in turn my running.  My doctor put me on a fairly standard treatment plan for both allergies and asthma involving once daily Singular and albuterol inhaler as needed.  That spring, as you can imagine, was a hectic one.  My running was very inconsistent and I was tired most of the time, which I think is pretty standard when you have a newborn to care for.  I felt I was breathing a bit better and my nasal allergy symptoms did seem to be under control, the treatment for both my allergies and asthma were working.  I did not have any idea that something might be wrong until early June when Hazel, Lisa and I were suppose to fly to Austin, TX for a friend’s wedding.

While I am not a frequent flier, I have flown all around the country averaging probably 2-3 flight a year for the last 20 years.  Flying with a 3 month old is not the easiest thing in the world to do, and I’m not a big fan of flying to begin with, but I’ve always managed to grit my teeth take deep breaths and fly the friendly skies.  This time however was different.  I was unable to get on the plane.  In fact I was unable to get out of the car in the parking garage.  As soon as I parked the car in the Rochester Airport parking lot I starting hyperventilating and shaking all over.  I just couldn’t bring myself to get out of the car and go into the airport.  We missed the wedding, and I was left trying to figure out what was wrong with me.  I eventually chalked it up to just being extra nervous about flying because fo Hazel, but by August I started thinking something much worse was wrong.

If you have never had a panic attack, I don’t think I can explain the feeling to you.  I can say it feels like you are having a heart attack, but having never had a heart attack I’m not entirely sure that is accurate.  I can tell you that it is scary as hell, and it does not become any less scary just because a cardiac specialist tells you there is nothing wrong with your heart and you aren’t going to do die.  In a way it is almost worse, at least with a heart attack they can treat you, with panic attacks as I found out there is much they can really do.  I had my first panic attack (not counting the airport incident that I hadn’t yet connected to these latter incidents) at the end of July while I was at work.  For about 30 minutes I walked around the parking lot at work talking myself in and out of calling for an ambulance thinking simultaneously I was dying and I was just being stupid.  Eventually the feeling passed, but a few days later on my into work it struck again.  This time I just turned off I-490 and drove myself to the hospital.  I spent the morning hooked into a bunch of machines before being told I just had a panic attack and I was fine.  It is amazing how terrible being fine can make you feel.  Over the course of the next 2 months I had several more panic attacks, did a treadmill stress test and wore a 48 hour ekg machine.  I was fine.  It was all in my head and time to go see a shrink.

I hated the first psychiatrist I saw.  He spent the whole hour explaining to me what a panic attack was, which having been born before 1920 I had already looked up online but he seemed to feel his laborious explaining was necessary.  You can start your own research here at the Mayo Clinic if you are interested, but the basic premise is your body is going into a fight or flight response for no apparent reason and you are not doing anything to burn off all that energy being created by the fight for flight response.  This first Dr. didn’t see any merit in figuring out why I would be so panicked, but promised he could teach me deep breathing techniques to clam myself if I started having an attack.  He also suggested exercising to help prevent them… thanks doc.

I will say this about deep breathing techniques, they at least give you something to do while you feel like you are about to die.  But as I was interested in getting rid of the panic attacks I decided to see someone else.  By this time it was early fall and cross-country season was in full swing.  I was back to running fairly consistently and Roadkill Racing was competing for the first time as a team in the Upstate XC series.  I was racing horribly, and I was become really depressed.  Every day I would wake up and my first thought would be, “Am I going to have another panic attack today?”  I was trying everything I could, meditation, deep breathing, of course I was exercising and I even cut out coffee but nothing was helping.  I was seeing a new shrink, this one at least seemed interested in helping me figure out what was causing the panic attacks and not just interested in helping me deal with them when they came.  He came up with a few viable theories, but none that really seemed to hit home with me.  I kept trying to tell him that I wasn’t a stressful person, that other than worrying about having panic attacks I wasn’t worried about anything.  he wasn’t buying that line of thinking, instead suggesting that unhappiness at work, having a new child and of course the old stand by “it’s your mother’s fault”, were all contributing factors. Great… we had some reasons, but no slow down to the attacks.

Then one day in early November, for reasons I don’t even clearly remember, I typed this into google- “singulair panic attacks” and got 1,150,000 hits in .23 seconds.  That day I went off the singular and made an appointment with my doctor (my regular doctor not the head doctor).  She did some research and confirmed that the FDA had issued a statement or warning that Singulair could cause anxiety and or panic attacks in some patients.  She switched me to an inhaled corticosteroid.  The panic attacks were gone, and within a few weeks I was running as fast as I had in years.  Life was good again, until that spring.  Corticosteroid inhalers are great for prevent asthma and treating allergy problems in your lungs but they do anything for your nose unless you inhale them into your nose, which I now do in the form of Nasonex, but was not doing in the spring of 2011.  In the spring of 2011 as the tree pollen filled the air I started taking Allegra which had just be made available without a prescription.  Within a few days I started having heart palpitations.  While this wasn’t as bad as having full-blown panic attacks, it still wasn’t a whole lot of fun to be sitting at my desk at work and suddenly feel like my heart was going to either leap of my chest, or just start beating with the rhythm of White Stripes song.  Because I’m so smart, and learn quickly from my past mistakes, this time it only took 3 months not 8 months to type “Allegra heart palpitations.” into google.  That didn’t have as many hits as “singulair panic attacks” but it had enough for me to stop the taking Allegra.  After 24 hours the heart palpitations were gone.

It has been almost 2 years now since I’ve had a panic attack, and over a year since I’ve had heart palpitations.  I saw no less than 6 doctors over a 2 year span some for my head and some for my body.  I had thousands of dollars of tests done (all covered by my insurance), and spent a long time suffering both mentally and physically with no hope in sight.  In the end it was up to me to figure out what was wrong, well me and the collective knowledge of the few billion people connected to the internet.  In the end here are the 3 key things I learned from this experience.

  1. Don’t let anyone convince you that you are unhappy.
  2. The human body can not be looked at as separate from the brain and it is way more complex than even the body/brain experts have the ability to understand.
  3. Hidden amoung all the idiocy on the internet is a vast world of good information.