Monday, 20 July 2009

Swine Flu Anxiety

Honestly today I am soooo much better. I can now say for sure that I am disease free - still weak, but today I can actually say the coughing has stopped and each day I am feeling stronger. But last week I had one of the worst nights of my life. No joke, I really thought I was dying!

As with most days over the past few weeks I woke feeling a little better, but in the afternoon my cough got worse and became very tiresome come the evening and into the night. This particular evening, feeling truly exhausted and in need of a good night's sleep, but unable to stop the coughing whenever I lay down, my husband gave me a sore throat sweet that included in it an anaesthetic to help relax my throat which he said had helped him.

Indeed my throat muscles did relax, but then I started to feel really anxious that there was mucous building up in my lungs that I was unable to cough up.

I gave up trying to sleep and instead decided to have a steam with some Vicks in hot water and a towel over my head. Whilst doing so I made the mistake of continuing with a read of 'An Imperfect Offering: Dispatches from the medical frontline'. It is the autobiography of James Orbinski, past president of Medicine Sans Frontieres. I was part way through the chapter which recounts his time spent in Rwanda during the genocide that took place in 1994, when an estimated 1 million men, women and children were butchered to death in a matter of just 12 weeks. I had reached a particularly harrowing scene which involved many orphaned children when I put down the book and realised I could read no more since I felt sick to my core. Empathy is one of my strengths and imagination is another; I had seen too much and was feeling traumatised by the scene which was now imprinted on my memory.

I then decided to try sleeping sitting up, since lying down triggered the coughing, so wrapped a quilt around me and tried to get comfortable on the couch. That is when I started to feel short of breath and my pulse increased. I also felt a little nauseous and started to panic that maybe I had overdosed on cough medicine - I had completely lost track of how much I had drunk. My husband came downstairs to find me in a traumatised state and unable to speak easily to explain how I felt.

My (doctor) husband, after running through all my symptoms (palpitations, high pulse, sweaty, dry mouth, nausea), started to draw to the conclusion that I was likely suffering from anxiety, that my symptoms where perhaps psychologically induced. I honestly believed him, everything fitted, but I still couldn't get rid of that feeling that I was fighting for my life, to the point where I suggested a few times that he call an ambulance (to which he replied 'what for? all you are going to do is sit in A&E for a few hours and then get sent home').

All night I felt sick, trying to control my breathing and slow down the palpitations, trying to get some sleep, but each time I shut my eyes I felt like I was fighting to get my breath and all I could see was horrific scenes in Rwanda that I would have liked to tell myself were just a bad dream, but which I knew had really happened. The anxiety continued throughout the night. I managed to snatch maybe 20 minutes sleep here and there come the end of the night.

The next morning I felt slightly better for a short while, and then the anxiety started to return. It was stronger than me and try as much as I wanted to control it I was struggling. After a few hours tossing and turning, and then a few hours pacing up and down like a crazy woman, I decided that I simply had to get a grip of myself or else face a life of complete hopelessness.

I agreed not to finish the book and to instead read some light material for a change. Also to stop listening to the news and counting the swine flu death toll. I also shut down my computer and agreed to do nothing for a few days except spend time with my children. All this helped. I spent the day at the park, but as evening drew closer, and I knew that my husband had to work that night, I started to feel anxious again with the fear that the night would bring back the same terror of the night before, only this time my husband would not be there to help.

I know that many young and middle aged women become somewhat dependant on tranquillizers and sleeping tablets as a result of anxiety, and for the first time in my life I understood why and just how destructive this condition can be. Probably fortunately for me I was also anxious of what effect taking a tranquillizer could have on me, so was reluctant to take drugs and first wanted to try all possible natural methods before taking any medication. My fear was also that if I couldn't get a grip of my anxiety without drugs to calm my nerves, that I would always need them in the future.

I first looked for a lighter read and returned to the autobiography of Barack Obama. Then I remembered how the Psalms of David had helped me in previous life trials and thought to read a few verses. And then I remembered my guitar. It had been years since I had played, but it had been a trusty friend upon which I had come to rely during times of solitude in a previous life.

I was surprised to find that I had not forgotten how to play and within minutes of playing and singing a few lines (to my creator) I felt all the tension drain from me and I knew I was going to be fine. That night I shut my eyes with peace. I listened to a subtle voice telling me 'relax and I will heal you'. I knew then that I didn't have to make myself cough, I just had to relax and all the mucous would just work its way up on its own. That night I slept for the first time in four weeks (no joke - had actually been much longer before I had got a good nights sleep, since before I was ill my son had woken be every night for 3 weeks with his illness).

I was only woken by my husband who called me from his work at the hospital to check if I was able to get to sleep or in need of some medication. I told him I was just fine and wasn't going to have any more issues with anxiety.

I know now that whenever anxiety returns in my life all I need do is play my guitar. Of course relaxing music has always been used to help calm people down, but I would suggest that a much more effective remedy, rather than just listening to music, is playing music (and getting in touch with your soul). Maybe all those people suffering with a long term anxiety disorder would be well to take up playing a musical instrument?

I suspect I am not the only person who will be suffering anxiety as a result of the swine flu. It wasn't just the swine flu that left me in this state, it was a combination of things (extreme fatigue, overwork, locking my keys in the car, housework building up, worry for my children's health, a growing interest in and concern for human rights and past atrocities, etc...) but the swine flu pushed me over the edge, since it exhausted me physically and it also worried me mentally.

If you are worried about the swine flu, I'd encourage you to turn off the tv, stop reading the media, eat healthily, sleep well and relax! Do lots of fun things and then maybe you'll recover a lot quicker.

For those with an interest in anxiety, here's the MedWorm topic on Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). For those stepping into my blog now interested in swine flu, make sure to check out my previous swine flu posts in the blog archive at the side, or you can start my swine flu experience here.

(Update: Now fighting fit physically, but the whole 'feeling close to death' thing has had a significant impact on me. Left me still struggling somewhat with anxiety and also revisiting some of my fundamental beliefs about life.)

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