How I Learnt to Deal With Nighttime Panic Attacks

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I wake up with an intense nausea that floods my system. Running to the bathroom I’m convinced I’m going to be sick, but I’m not. Then comes the pain. It stabs at my chest and upper back to the point I can hardly breathe. I went to bed feeling relaxed and contented, but now I’m pacing the house, my heart pounding terrified I’m having a heart attack. The reality of panic attacks is the physical pain that cuts through you in great swathes. Having a panic attack at nighttime is very different to having one during the day. At night everything feels more intense, the atmosphere changes to one that is ethereal and other worldly. People that you count on to talk you through the experience are asleep and unavailable. You feel alone and desperate and not sure if you can get through the night. I’ve learnt some techniques to help me cope over the years, that have quelled the panic attack before it becomes too difficult to manage.

Thinking Logically

I know this is a panic attack. I know it’s painful but it won’t kill me. Twice I have been taken to hospital by ambulance because of the unrelenting pain I was in. Twice I’ve spent hours having multiple tests to find what was wrong, for everything to come back clear. What I know now is that although I have found myself in a great deal of pain, it won’t turn into anything sinister. I will talk myself through the situation by repeatedly telling myself this. I have to say it with conviction, to convince myself it will be okay.

Getting Out of Bed

Lying in the dark in bed during a panic attack is the worst possible thing I could do. The pain is all the more intense as I lie there, with nothing else to distract my mind. All the worst scenarios run through my head and all I achieve is making myself more and more anxious. I force myself to get up, go into another room and turn the light on. I force myself to have a drink of water and to do something, anything, rather than staying in bed worrying.

Therapy

I had CBT (Cognitive behavioural therapy) to manage my panic attacks, and to understand why I was having them so frequently. Therapy helped me to realise that I wasn’t dealing with stressors in my life, and that my worries and anxieties were manifesting as panic attacks. I learnt to face what was causing me stress in a situation and to deal with it there and then. Panic attacks for me often occurred after a stressful event. Once my body and mind were relaxed again, like going to bed on a Friday night after a difficult week, I would wake up in the middle of the night with a panic attack. It became vital to realise when I was going through a stressful time, so when that stress had disappeared I wouldn’t end up having yet another nighttime panic attack. I was taught breathing techniques to calm myself, which I still use today

Distraction

If thinking logically doesn’t work on its own and I’m up and out of bed, I’ll try and distract my mind. It might be watching a favourite tv show, something light and entertaining that I’ve seen before. I might sketch or get out a colouring book, that keeps my hands busy and forces me to focus. I love to play video games so I might turn on the console and try and figure out that Zelda puzzle that’s been bugging me. If I occupy my mind effectively and for long enough, I won’t even realise the pain and panic has gone.

Using these techniques has cut down the amount of nighttime panic attacks I have drastically; I haven’t had a serious one in a year and a half. What I’ve leant in therapy often preempts an attack completely. Changing the way I manage stressful situations and work through them has had a significant positive impact on my life.

The Mania Hangover

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The Best Feeling Ever!

When I’m in the grips of mania, I love Bipolar. The euphoria I feel is like no other drug. The feeling is addictive and I never want it to end. The mania is unbelievably epic, like I’m living in a blockbuster movie and I’m the star. The whole universe revolves around me. Continually going through my head are thoughts that instil an enormous, gratifying confidence: ‘I’m the best at everything!’ ‘I can do anything, be anyone!’ ‘Nothing can touch me. I’m invincible!’ It’s a feeling like no other and yes, when it ends I do miss it. Because of course, like any good thing, it has to end. I talk more about mania in this post Mania is…

Here Comes The Hangover

What I hate about Bipolar, above anything else, is what I call my mania hangover. First of all, I realise I’ve spent far too much. Imagine having a big weekend when you’re suddenly buying everyone shots, but that weekend stretches on for months. Or that clothes and shoes binge you’re on when you spend an evening sat in your pyjamas on the internet, but imagine it lasting weeks. I’ve found myself in crippling debt more than once, the first time meaning I had to move back home with my parents. I felt terribly embarrassed and an absolute failure for having to go back to live with mum and dad. Luckily I had that option.

Next, the realisation of my actions set in. I start to see with clarity and I realise I’ve done things that I’ll regret for years to come. I cheated on my ex, whilst I was away traveling in Japan. When I was feeling stable again the memory rushed toward me and I felt dizzy and sick over what I had done. It was completely out of character, and I was remembering it through a haze, as if I had been drunk. I see how much stress I put family and friends through with my unpredictable, sometimes rageful emotions. I’ve made family and friends cry with vicious words that cut them to pieces. I’ve done so many embarrassing, ugly things I regret over the years I can’t fit them into one blog post.

From constantly being full of energy and unable to sleep, now I’ve become emotionally and physically exhausted. I’ve been running on empty for weeks and not even noticed. All I want to do is to become a hermit, hide from the world in bed and eat junk food.

Hello Depression

Then, inevitably depression sets in. I hate the depression, and it’s usually part of the whole mania hangover. The juxtaposition between the mania and depression is ridiculous. I’ve heard the description of ‘it’s like living on a rollercoaster’ but it’s too simplistic a description. Rollercoasters for me are fun, and the lows of acute depression are far from fairground ride fun and games. Depression, just like mania, takes complete hold of you, and won’t let go. I can no longer function like the average person. I stop going outside, I have to force myself to shower and brush my teeth. Everything is an unbelievable effort.

My Hangover Cures

Ultimately, I would not want to be manic in the first place! To do this I check The Warning Signs of a Manic Episode that I have identified over the years. Even though at times it can be a tempting prospect to go back to that feeling of constant elation, it’s not worth the adverse effects. Taking my medication is the surest way to stop this from happening. If I do find myself with a mania hangover, I take the time to look after myself. I’ll take some time away from work and socialising. I’ll keep an eye on my mood and check for the warning signs of depression.

Childhood Grief

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I met Vicky when we were in Reception class, at just four years old. I remember walking up to her and saying innocently,

“Do you want to be my friend?” We became inseparable. We did everything together in and out of school. I was the tomboy who hated wearing dresses and pulled ugly faces in photos. Vicky was bubbly, full of fun and the one always in pretty dresses. We lived a five minute walk away from each other so we were always at one another’s house, playing after school or having sleepovers at the weekends. People say that we have the same laugh, we spent so much time together growing up.

Our Mum’s became close friends. Vicky’s Mum, Tracy, I instantly liked. She was lively and loud, and had a thick Geordie accent. It became our little tradition that I would have dinner with them every Tuesday. The ice cream van always came down their road, and Tracy would always treat us to a fab lolly. I was mischievous as a child, and was always pushing Vicky to do things we weren’t allowed to do. We would jump on the bed together singing along to our favourite music. Tracy would charge into the room and shout,

“Stop bloody jumping on the bed you two!” Every time she told me off I could see a twinkle in her eye that she didn’t really mind, and secretly loved seeing her daughter and best friend having fun. I felt I could talk to Tracy and would tell her about what was worrying me and I trusted her advice. I began to see her as my second Mum, someone who loved and cared about me. She was ambitious, and began a University course, which showed me it was never too late to better yourself.

When Vicky and I were Ten years old, Tracy suddenly collapsed one evening at home. They couldn’t wake her up and she was rushed to hospital. There, Vicky, her Dad and younger brother were told that she had had a brain aneurysm. She had been put on a ventilator, but they were told she would never wake up. She was only thirty eight. My Mum didn’t want me to see her in the hospital, but to think of her how she was. I remember my Mum coming home from the hospital in tears and telling me it was like she was just sleeping. Neither Vicky or I had lost anyone before. It felt impossible to get my head around that I would never see Tracy again and that Vicky didn’t have a Mum anymore. As I get older, I’m now in my early thirties, I realise just how young thirty eight is. She still had so much life to live and it’s so cruel that is was cut short in that way.

The funeral was gut wrenching. The room was full and we were all fighting back tears or sobbing. Everyone was in a state of shock and disbelief. It took place a week after Tracy had died, and I hadn’t seen Vicky until before it happened. I sat in tears, watching her cry, wanting to run up to her and hug her tightly and never let go. At the wake I went up to her and asked her if she was ok, not knowing what else to say. Her response was simply,

“I’m fine.” She ran off to play with her cousins. I was so confused. She was running around the garden and laughing. I went to my parents and told them what had happened. They told me Vicky was dealing with it in her own way and wasn’t ready to let go of her Mum and grieve yet.

In the following months we dealt with our grief in very different ways. Vicky wouldn’t talk about it to me for months, whereas all I wanted to do was talk. She became quiet and withdrawn. I felt like I was losing my best friend, but knew I had to stand by her. We walked home from school together everyday and on one afternoon, out of the blue, she started talking to me about her Mum. She told me how angry she was and how it was the doctors fault. Tracy had had heart palpitations in the weeks before and Vicky was convinced the doctor should have seen something else was wrong. I knew, as my Mum had told me, there would have been nothing for a doctor to find until it happened, but I couldn’t tell Vicky that. All I could do was listen and let her vent.

Grief made us grow up. We weren’t innocent ten year olds any longer. But it made our bond grow stronger. We realised that grief wasn’t a short term emotion, but that it lingered and caught you out when you weren’t expecting it. Vicky became quieter, but her bubbly side would surface every now and again. She tended to bottle up how she was feeling and only express herself to me when she was deeply upset. I became fiercely protective of Vicky, and when she was bullied in secondary school for ‘not being sad enough about her Mum’ I would lash out.

Vicky and I are still best friends, so that’s twenty seven years of friendship. As much as I have been there for her, she has supported me just as much through my mental health problems. I still think about Tracy all the time. To lose someone so close to you at such a young age you never really get over. In my own way I still celebrate her life by telling people about her. About her big, bold personality and caring nature. I’ll never forget.

 

 

My Hearing Voices Journal

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Last week I had an episode of psychosis, where I suffered from auditory hallucinations, or hearing sounds and voices. To help me through it, I journalled the experience in a notebook. Some parts are written during the episode, and some are written directly afterwards. It helped me make sense of what I was hearing and to ground me in reality and to help me deal with the shock when it had stopped.

“I think I’ve found the worst combination ever of physical and mental illness. Migraine, room spinning and doubting my sanity as I hear voices whilst sat in bed. I’m feeling very vulnerable and scared. I’ve felt physically ill all day today. We went out for a meal with friends but had to cut it short because I thought I was going to pass out or fall over from being so dizzy. This week has been an emotional rollercoaster with my moods all over the place. I’ve been ecstatically happy and hyperactive, busy working away on new projects. In a startling contrast I’ve felt hopeless, useless and deeply lost.

Now I’m home, and sat in bed. The noises have started. I can hear creaking. It sounds like it’s coming from the bed, but I’m not moving. It won’t stop. I’ve turned on my laptop and found the easiest, light hearted programme I can find, Friends. It reminds me of my childhood, before the voices started. I remember when it was first aired on a Friday night and I was allowed to stay up and watch it. If I can focus on this maybe the voices will leave me alone.

It isn’t working. Now the creaking has turned into banging on the bedroom window. The banging is urgent, fast and incredibly loud as if a fist is pounding on the window. The blinds are closed and I’m paranoid now that the banging is real and someone is playing a joke on me. Should I get up and check? I really should. I’ve been to open the blinds and there was nothing there. It’s windy outside, and all I could see were the bushes and trees swaying. The unpredictable and forcible wind today is mirroring my state of mind. The banging is making me really uncomfortable. I’ll turn the volume up on the laptop to try and drown out the noise. It’s not working, Fuck. What is my mind trying to tell me? How can I rationalise this or tell it to stop?

It’s suddenly stopped, thank fuck for that. I can breathe again. The cat has leapt up on the bed and has curled up next to me. It’s like she knows something is wrong. Stroking her and listening to her gentle purr is calming me down. I’ve just realised it’s getting dark outside and I’m sitting in the bedroom with no lights on. But I don’t want to get up because right now sitting here I’m not hearing anything scary or confusing. I don’t want to jinx it.

Now it’s dark and I’m still sitting in the bedroom, still too afraid to get up and turn the lights on. I can hear footsteps coming into the room, it must be my husband. I hear the bed creak as he sits down on it next to me. He says to me “Do you want any carrots? I think we need some more carrots for next week.” I’m confused. Why is he talking about carrots? I respond, “Yeah ok, I’ll put carrots on the shopping list next week.” I hear him get up and walk out the room. I’m not sure if that conversation was real. It was weird and random and now I feel really muddled and confused. I’ve turned the light on now so I could write this down.

Oh yay, hear comes the shouting. I close my eyes and try and focus my mind. All I can hear is “Fuck! Fuck!” “Get the fuck out!” Can’t take this anymore. I’m getting up. I realise I’m trembling and I feel as if I’ve been shaken roughly by someone much stronger than me. I sit down next to my husband on the sofa. I ask him, “Did you come in the bedroom earlier?” He replies “No, I’ve been in here the whole time, why?” I can’t be bothered to explain what’s been happening. I’m still feeling overwhelmed by voices. I’m asking him about his game. He’s playing Elite. I love how passionate he is about this game and the idea of space travel. I make myself listen to him intently, and the shouting starts to fade.

The problem with hearing voices is the paranoia afterwards. Is that banging from outside or in my head? Is that whispering in the background of the tv show I’m watching or in my mind? Unknown noises set my teeth on edge. I’m jumpy, full of panic with the fear it will start again.

At least I’m talking about it.”