ptsd and panic

Posted by in letters to the boys

The Mayo Clinic defines PTSD this way:

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety disorder that’s triggered by a traumatic event. You can develop post-traumatic stress disorder when you experience or witness an event that causes intense fear, helplessness or horror.

Intense fear, helpless and  horror describes my last three years pretty well.  Ok. So what at the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Upsetting dreams about the traumatic event
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Avoiding activities you once enjoyed
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Memory problems
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Being easily startled or frightenened

Yep.  That pretty much sums up how I’ve been feeling the last few weeks since the (mild) panic attacks started.

My first panic attack happened about three weeks ago. I take a class in a Meditation Room at the University. It’s a beautiful round room with floor to ceiling stained glass windows and vaulted ceiling with a starburst patterned window in the center. I didn’t realize right away that the room used to be the old hospital chapel and that it’s on a hallway that’s shared with current hospital. So the other day I walked out of the meditation room and almost ran into a medical resident, the first I’ve seen since being back in Boston at Christmas time. As I moved away from him so as not to knock him over I quickly took in the blue scrubs, white coat, short hair, tired eyes, patient chart and hurried walk. I don’t think he ever saw me. He had that far away look that medical residents always have because they are simultaneously thinking about their last patient, running tests, preparing for their next patients and trying to do all of this on no sleep.  I felt a surge of hatred?  Fear?  He evoked such a strong reaction from me that I was shaking and had to sit in a toilet stall until I could collect myself.

My second panic attack was just a few days later.  There is no parking on campus so I have to park in an overpriced parking garage near the hospital. I had just left another class in the medication room and had walked the short two blocks to the parking garage. Without thinking I stepped onto the elevator with a family, a mother, father, two teenage daughters and a young son. Almost as soon as the doors closed I felt it. They had just been visiting a loved one who was dying at the hospital. I don’t know how I knew this but I was certain I was right and I started to panic. I needed to get out of that elevator. I have been on so many elevators with so many families who are scared for the life of a loved one. I knew the looks on their faces, the way they held their bodies, they way they looked at everything except each other because there was nothing to say. Each had their own private grief, fears and feeling of being lost. And then there you are, clammed together in a small space, under bright fluorescent lights, with strangers.  The air was thick with grief, fear and things unsaid.

I’ve had two more panic attacks after seining emergency vehicles, a speeding police car with the light on and the siren blaring and a life flight helicopter flying over our house to the nearby by children’s hospital. “Someone’s dying” I think and by body freezes. And then I feel a rush of despair for the families and I am unable to catch my breath.

I just had another one tonight. I read a text from Emily who babysat Shiya while I was at class. She said something at the end of the email like, “Have a great class and no need to rush home. We’re doing well.” And I thought, “Don’t let him die tonight. Please don’t let Shiya die.” And suddenly I was terrified that Shiya might die tonight.  the thought came out of nowhere.  Or so it seemed.

So yeah. I am not doing well. I held my son in my arms and watched him suffocate. I tried for 2.5 years to do everything I could to save him and the result was him dying in my arms. The hole in my heart is unbearable and I never know what’s going to bring back the acute feeling of loss that takes my breath away and leaves me shaking and unable to focus.