Personal Perspective: Living Without Panic
I was diagnosed with anxiety and panic disorder in 1993. It started with worries about my health, especially since I have been overweight my entire life. I also was unhappy with my job, which had become monotonous and stressful. I began to have muscle pain, I wasn't sleeping well and would suddenly become dizzy and irritable. My edginess and worries began to increasingly affect the work that I was doing; I began to take time off and still my doctors could not figure out what was happening with me.
Then I had a panic attack at work. It was frightening. I had never felt something like this -- for no apparent reason I began to tremble and sweat, and I had chills and dizziness. I felt like my life was in danger and that I needed to get out quickly; to escape. But it only lasted about 15 minutes and by the time the EMTs arrived at work it was almost over. Many tests were run, even some to see if I had been using drugs, but they found nothing.
I stayed in the hospital for a couple of days in the emergency room, and spoke to a psychiatrist while I was there. I learned that what I was feeling was due to anxiety and panic disorders, and I was prescribed some medications. They helped some, and I managed to get back to work but was unable to function well -- I felt overly concerned about simple tasks. I was able to work for about six months but then I felt like I was losing control. I found myself constantly calling my doctors, convinced that I had some disease that had not been diagnosed. As a gay man I began to think it might be HIV, even though I had always been careful and had consistently tested negative.
I attempted to get back to work after I took a short-term disability leave, but was never again able to return full time. I was calling my doctor and psychiatrist almost every day. I noticed that at work I had panic attacks with increasing frequency and severity. I then took a long-term disability leave, and have not returned to work since 1993.
In the beginning it was difficult for me because I didn't know anyone who had a mental disorder. There was also the stigma of having to see a therapist and psychiatrist aside from my usual medical doctor. It took me some time to get used to the idea of having to see doctors that I thought only "crazy" people saw. Of course I now understand that mental disorders happen to many people.
With more time on my hands and with a computer at home I became very savvy about chat rooms and sex sites. I used them throughout the day, not only because I couldn't sleep but also because I was feeling lonely. I began to meet other men to have sexual encounters, inviting them to my house because I had begun to feel anxious when I went out. I felt less anxious when I had company and it became routine for me to have several sexual encounters a day.
Then in 1999 I became extremely ill. After losing a lot of weight (intentionally), I began to have recurrent respiratory infections. After a serious recurrence, I went to the emergency room where I was told that I had PCP, a pneumonia common in people with AIDS. I remained in the hospital for about four days and learned that I had a viral load that was in the millions and a CD4 count of four. I couldn't understand how I had become infected. I had always used condoms. I would become anxious thinking about who had infected me and how it could have happened. I was in denial. Psychiatrists needed to be brought in as part of my care team.
In the beginning I thought HIV was a death sentence, and I felt anxious for months. At the insistence of my care providers I began to attend a support group. At first I felt uncomfortable, but met others there who had similar problems to mine. People who had other mental disorders attended the group and seemed to be doing well, not only with their emotional symptoms but also with their HIV. I began to feel that everything would be well, and that I needed to take my HIV medications. I had learned how to handle my mental disorder, so now I needed to learn how to handle my HIV. Every once in a while I still have anxiety attacks but I have developed a strong support system: case manager, therapist, doctor, psychiatrist, and my peers at the support group. I know that sometimes I still get overly concerned about my health but I have also learned to control that and to stop calling my care providers almost every day. I also have the support of my family.
I am currently taking my "pastillas para los locos" (my "crazy pills" as I call them) and my HIV medications. My health is great. My viral load is undetectable, my CD4 count is 280, and I have not had an opportunistic infection since my PCP. I exercise -- don't want to put on the weight again, I still get anxious about that -- I meditate, attend my support group, seek out my friends and family, and meet with my care providers regularly.
Having an anxiety disorder pushes me sometimes to make sure that I am on top of my health, so I take all my medications. I prefer to be anxious about taking care of my health while I'm doing well instead of being anxious about not taking my medications and becoming ill again. I still have not managed to return to work, and I'm not sure that I would be able to do that. I take care of my health one day at a time, but understand the importance of taking all my medications. I've tried to learn as much as possible about my diseases since my diagnosis, but I know that there is lot more to learn.
This article was provided by AIDS Community Research Initiative of America. It is a part of the publication ACRIA Update. Visit ACRIA's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.