Tell-Tale Heart

Anxiety is a strange beast, able to shift and mutate seemingly at will. It can disguise itself as any number of symptoms, sometimes making it difficult to self-diagnose.

Per, some signs are as follows:

Emotional symptoms of stress include:

  • Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody
  • Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control
  • Having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind
  • Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless, and depressed
  • Avoiding others

Physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Low energy
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
  • Aches, pains, and tense muscles
  • Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent colds and infections
  • Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
  • Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet
  • Dry mouth, and difficulty swallowing
  • Clenched jaw and grinding teeth

Cognitive symptoms of stress include:

  • Constant worrying
  • Racing thoughts
  • Forgetfulness and disorganization
  • Inability to focus
  • Poor judgment
  • Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side

About ninety-percent of these apply to me (hello especially to chronic intestinal issues, being pessimistic, and inability to focus). It’s easy to discount the mass of symptoms on any given day. To think about them all would be to animate them, and that is too insufferable to face most of the time.

I began caregiving for Mom in 2017, but not until the end of last year did I really start to pay proper attention to the physical toll on my body and mind. In March of 2019 I experienced my first instance of intense chest pains, seemingly out of the blue. Similar to the famous scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, it felt as though someone had shoved their hand into my chest cavity, grasped my heart fiercely with an angry fist, and was trying to remove it. My body felt weird, not tingly or numb, but ethereal. I compare it to the body high that can happen when you ingest marijuana. It’s as if my body was a bit weightless, like it wasn’t mine and yet also mine, all at once. My body, for a few moments, was no longer in my control.

The day it happened was otherwise ordinary. Leading up to the moment in question I was sitting on the floor watching a kid play with his toys. I hadn’t eaten anything that could have triggered heart burn, which I had experienced before but knew with certainty felt different from this. The pain lasted about ten minutes or so. I was really close to calling 911, but the unreasonable hesitation that comes when asking for help for oneself caused me to wait it out.

Finally the pain subsided. Shortly after I called my medical provider and spoke with an advice nurse. After deciding against the emergency room, I went on with my day, cautiously. I made sure to tell Dad what happened as well as the friend I hung out with that evening. That way if it happened again, or I had other concerning symptoms, they could tell medical personnel on my behalf. It sounds nonchalant, I know, but there’s nothing to be changed about that day now.

A month after moving in with Mom, which was coincidentally also day three of being evacuated from our home due to a large wildfire encroaching on our town, it happened again. This time in the middle of the night. I awoke seemingly without provocation, until I felt the now familiar cinching of my heart. It lasted for about five minutes and I went right back to bed afterward, too tired and relieved it was over to do anything but return to sleep.

The third instance also came during sleep, jolting me out of bed after midnight. Ten minutes passed. It left as swiftly as it came. I spoke with an advice nurse again. Per protocol he offered for me to either call 911 or come into the emergency room if I felt it was necessary. After I declined he made an appointment for me to see a doctor that same morning, a few hours from then.

The doctor I met with for my appointment, not my primary physician, was wholly unconcerned. The only physical examination he did was to stick his stethoscope on me to listen to my chest briefly. He told me it was probably heartburn since I “didn’t have any family history of heart conditions,” despite my mention that a grandfather had died from a heart attack. Only after I started to tear up did he offer to schedule an ekg treadmill test for a few weeks later.

I ended up cancelling it because the appointment was two weeks shy of when my new health insurance would kick in, which meant that the out-of-pocket cost would be about a third cheaper. America.

Then I forgot to reschedule, too wrapped up in day to day life.

Unsurprisingly I had a fourth occurrence. This time it happened on Valentine’s Day in front of both parents. At its onset I promptly walked away from Dad mid-conversation and sat down on Mom’s front porch. I couldn’t talk, only clutch my chest. He drove me to my health care provider but they didn’t have any appointments available as it was a Friday and the day before a three day holiday weekend. I refused to go to the emergency room because at this point I knew what to expect from the chest pain. It was, unfortunately, routine. Dad was freaked out. Seeing my symptoms in person caused him to understandably be really concerned and almost panicked. He thought I was dying. Despite the pain lasting for nearly twenty minutes this time, I was calm. I spoke with an advice nurse for the entire car ride to the hospital. I repeatedly had to explain to my frustrated father that no, it wasn’t bad customer service for the doctor’s office to be unable to fit me in. Appointment based services are just that, for appointments. I knew the drill with this mysterious “heart attack”. It would eventually go away like it did every other time. So in an attempt to calm him down I told Dad to “go ahead and cart me off to wherever you want if it happens again today or if I pass out. I give you permission. I just don’t need to go to the emergency room right now.”

He made sure to tell me how stubborn I was being. I didn’t fault him for that because it was somewhat true, so I appeased his wishes. Sort of. He dropped me off outside of the emergency room, which I never stepped into. I sat on a picnic bench until my best friend came to pick me up an hour later. His parting words were “I won’t take any part in you dying. Call me when you’re ready to be picked up.” I valued his fatherly concern, as it was an absolute display of his love for me. But I also felt like I knew my body and the reoccurring symptoms. I wasn’t going to win no matter how much or little I tried to reason with him.

An appointment with my primary physician was made for the following week. After an ekg and a lengthy discussion, it was determined by both of us that I was most likely experiencing panic attacks. Often they can be mistaken for heart attacks because they have some of the exact symptoms. Chest pain. Dizziness. Paresthesia (a feelings of tingling or numbness). Testing can help distinguish between the two.

It has been a several weeks since that eventful Valentine’s Day, but I feel better now that I have a feasible answer as to what is going on. With diagnosis comes treatment, so I’ve been trying to be better about focusing on self-care, having better self-awareness when there are instances of extremely high stress, plan on signing up for therapy, and have been prescribed as-needed anti-anxiety medication.

Self care has obviously become exponentially difficult to do while being quarantined with Mom for nearly two months, but I’m doing what I can. I qualified for grant money that pays for respite care, but due to COVID-19 I have concerns about someone coming in our home to spend close contact with Mom. Anyway, where would I go for the day? It’s hard to plan when the rules of nature and laws can change day to day in these strange times.

I’ve had to take the anti-anxiety medication that my doctor prescribed, as well as CBD gummies, on several occasions since we first went on lock down. I’ve utilized yoga and tapping and breath exercises. I’ve danced. I’ve experienced numerous instances of fluctuating anxiety, melt downs, and crying fits. I’ve gotten flustered. I’ve yelled. On low days I laid in bed for hours. I’ve found it difficult to focus. I sometimes stay up until two or three in the morning, illogically fighting the sleep I know I need.

Not every day has been like this. Some have been quite tolerable, enjoyable even. But the tough days seem to outweigh their counterpart, especially during the first half of quarantine.

Let this be a reminder for myself, and to you, that if we don’t take care of ourselves we will not be able to sustain care for others. It’s the same as the oxygen mask principle on airplanes. Put on your own face mask before helping attach anyone else’s because if you pass out you’ll be of no use to anyone. This pandemic can make many of us experience “survival mode” to varying degrees, depending on how deeply we’ve been affected by this virus, but please, put on your literal and figurative masks. Not just for health and safety, but for sanity’s sake.

4 thoughts on “Tell-Tale Heart

  1. Judy

    OMG sweetheart! When is your sister going to take over for you? This is absolutely not ok. I am glad you are speaking your truth. And taking care of your health. When are you going to get the help you need?


  2. Mary F Ruffatto

    Thank you Lauren. I look forward to the day when we can sit in the garden and have lunch! By the way, your squash is growing faster and better than any other squash that we have planted this year


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