Autobiography of an Agoraphobic: One Man's Struggle With Panic Disorder

Autobiography of an Agoraphobic: One Man's Struggle With Panic Disorder

by Michael R. Patrick

ISBN: 9781410786302

Publisher AuthorHouse

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Memoirs

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

"I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: My Heart has become like wax; melting away in my bosom" - Psalm 22:14

Imagine that you are in a plane at 30,000 feet. Suddenly two men start to pull you toward the door. Then a third man opens up the door. As the two men pull you closer your fear is building. You know something terrible is going to happen. When you get to the door of the plane, the three men push you out. You're falling, and you know when you hit the ground you will die. You start screaming, but no one can help you. You continue to fall, and fall, and fall, but you never hit the ground. You are in a perpetual, terrifying fear, and you know it will never end. You can't breathe, your heart is racing, and it will never stop.

If you can imagine how you would feel if this event happened to you, then you could get the idea of what a panic attack is like. My name is Michael Patrick. I live in the Midwest, a suburb of the largest city in the state. I have experienced the above event several hundred times in the 24 years I've had agoraphobia with panic disorder. I'm 49 years old, I'm Catholic, and by the time I was 30 years old I had been hospitalized for my condition three times. I'm writing this book because I want other people to know my story, and how God saw me through a living nightmare. I want to give hope to those who have panic disorder, and to enlighten those who don't. Since I led a fairly ordinary life until I was 19, I will begin my story there, at the age of 19, when I had my first panic attack.

In 1973, at the age of 19, I was attending college at a large state university in the Midwest. I was a normal college student who was very intelligent and tended to be a perfectionist. I had recently had my tonsils out the year before, and a short time after I had contracted mononucleosis, which I had for almost six months, causing me to miss the second semester of my freshman year. Just before returning to start my second year of college, I had contracted a virus, which caused me to have fatigue, loss of appetite, and a low-grade temperature. I went to college still sick, in the hope that I would soon be well again. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. Two days later, with a temperature of 103?, I went to the University health center, which misdiagnosed my illness as a cold. The doctor ran no tests, nor did he do a physical examination. All he did was look at my throat and told me to rest for a few days. I went back to my dormitory and I was so sick I didn't leave my dorm for two days. My friends on the floor brought food from the cafeteria to me. Since I wasn't getting any help from the doctor at the university, I called my own doctor, who was 50 miles away, and made an appointment. The day before the appointment I felt somewhat better, so I went into the recreation room to watch TV with some friends. All of a sudden, I felt as if I couldn't breathe. I inhaled more, and breathed deeper, but the sensation never went away. I said to my friends, "I can't breathe!" Then it got worse. I was taken to the emergency room of the local hospital, and the nurse on call told me I was hyperventilating. I thought certainly I would die. She gave me a shot of tranquilizer, which helped, but not much. For two hours in the emergency room I hyperventilated. I thought almost certainly I would die, but never did. My friends drove me to my hometown hospital, where I was admitted for tests. My doctor discovered that my liver was enlarged and tender, and after doing some blood tests he discovered that I had walked off a case of severe viral hepatitis, and he told me later that I could have died from it. He told me I was in no danger now; but I was still having attacks of hyperventilation, and the only advice I received was to breathe into a paper bag each time it occurred. This, however, never relieved the terror I had experienced, a terror that haunts me even to this day.

I was told I needed to see a psychiatrist, because in addition to the problem of hyperventilation, I had become very depressed from all that I had gone through, and had lost 30 pounds due to having no appetite for food. I was convinced that I had a heart problem, but my doctor could not find anything wrong with my heart, after listening to it and giving me an EKG. Many years later I would find out he was wrong, but since at the time everything pointed to a psychiatric problem, he recommended that I see a psychiatrist. So I made an appointment with a local psychiatrist, and this began my long road back to being normal and functioning, a road that did not come to an end until recently.

Chapter Two

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my cry?" - Psalm 22:1

I met Dr. Lupek (a pseudonym), a local psychiatrist, about a month after I came home from the local hospital. He was a big man, about 6 feet tall, overweight, and about 50 years old, who smoked cigarettes one after another. During my first visit he told that I had depression, and that it was caused by a chemical imbalance that was causing my fear, and he said he wanted to put me on medication, but I refused. I did not want to be dependent on a pill to keep me functioning. He said that I would probably do okay without medication, and he decided to treat my depression and anxiety with psychotherapy. He never once mentioned that I could have agoraphobia.

I saw Dr. Lupek for about six months, and then decided that I wanted to return to college. I went back to the same state university whose health center misdiagnosed my viral hepatitis as a cold. This was a big mistake. I was under a psychiatrist's care and then went away to school 50 miles from home. I lived in a dorm, which was extremely noisy, and there were racial tensions at the whole school. In fact, two windows on my floor had bullet holes in them from a sniper shooting into rooms at random. I decided I would finish the semester and then transfer to a Catholic University in the City. In the meantime, Dr. Lupek had placed me on 2 mg of Stelazine for my anxiety, and it helped somewhat, but not much. One Saturday, as I was watching TV, some of my friends had gotten together to play softball, and asked if I wanted to play. I was a good athlete and liked to play softball, so I took them up on their invitation. During the game, I was sliding into second base, when I hit a rock in the base path with my right knee. As it turned out, I ended up tearing a cartilage in that knee, and at the end of the semester, in my hometown hospital, I had it operated on.

The night before the surgery I felt tremendous fear. Ever since I hyperventilated a year before, I had developed a grave dread of hospitals, and especially of death. At that time, my faith in Christ was not strong enough to overcome my fear of death, because I suffered from panic disorder at the time and didn't know it. I can even to this day remember the first time I hyperventilated, laying on my back, looking up at the ceiling of the emergency room for my heart to stop beating. This was the same fear I had when I was wheeled into the emergency room for my knee surgery. Even though I had been given a large dose of Demerol, I was still panicking as they made preparations for me to go under the anesthetic. The last thing I remember before going unconscious was begging the anesthesiologist to knock me out so I would stop hyperventilating. You see, when you have panic disorder, the fear of death never leaves you. It is a haunting specter waiting to rear its terrifying head at any moment, and there's nothing you can do to stop it.

The surgery itself went well, however the surgeon failed to have me lift weights after the operation. My knee was weak, but I did not have any pain. I transferred to a Catholic University in the City and started school there in April of 1985. I took the train then walked a mile and a half to the campus. I liked the school tremendously, and did very well my first quarter, with straight A's in all of my classes. I continued doing very well for a year, and decided I would major in Finance, since I loved mathematics and Finance was heavy math. I also made a lot of friends at the Catholic University, and developed an active social life on the weekends, but still remained firmly committed to my studies during the week.

Then one day disaster struck. I was late for my train and was running down the stairs from the 4th floor of the University. I put most of my weight on my left knee, because my right knee was weak, when suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my left knee. The pain continued to increase as I walked down the stairs. By the time I got to street level, I could hardly walk due to the pain. I went to the same orthopedic surgeon who operated on my right knee, and he diagnosed it as a torn cartilage and said I needed surgery. In March of 1976, he operated on my left knee. Instead of a torn cartilage, I had a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and loose cartilage. He repaired the ligament, but left the cartilage in, in the hope it would tighten. Unfortunately for me, it did not, and instead became torn. In August 1976, I had my left knee operated on, but this time I had a different surgeon from the same hospital. As usual, I experienced the same terrible fear being wheeled into the operating room, and had a panic attack even though I was heavily sedated with Demerol. This surgeon discovered that not just the outside cartilage was torn, but the inside cartilage was torn also, and the underside of my kneecap had to be shaved to remove irregularities. The technical name for this is chondromalacia of the patella. I woke up from the operation in the most pain I had ever experienced. It felt as if someone had hit me in my knee with a baseball bat. But this was only the start of my troubles. The surgery was largely unsuccessful, and as a result I was in pain almost constantly.

I returned back to the Catholic University in the City in September of 1976 and started taking classes again. I was leaving class one spring evening with a friend of mine. We walked toward a parking garage near school, because he was going to give me a ride to the train station. I remember waiting at a traffic light and looking up at the stars. All of a sudden, the thought of the vast openness of space hit me, and I started to feel like I was falling. I felt dizzy, disoriented, and had trouble breathing. This was the onset of agoraphobia, but I was not to find that out until three years later. I shook off the sensation after a few minutes and went home. I went to bed that night with a strange foreboding of future problems, but I brushed it off as only anxiety, and finally went to sleep.

I went to school the next morning and on my walk to school I experienced the same frightening sensation I had experienced the night before, only this time it wouldn't go away. For some reason, instinctively, I knew I had to ground myself, to bring myself back to being in contact with solid earth again. I reached out and grabbed the nearest post, and held on tightly, shaking in fear. I held on as if for dear life itself, not daring to let go until the sensation had passed. I knew I was making a fool of myself in front of the people passing by, who looked at me wondering what was wrong with me, but I didn't care. I thought I was going to die, and it didn't matter to me what other people thought of me. If they thought I was weird, so be it. All I cared about was dealing with the attack I was experiencing. (Now you know why they call it a panic attack, because that's exactly what it is. It assaults you suddenly and without warning with an all-encompassing overpowering terror.) After the panic attack was over, I felt drained, but continued walking to the university, and completed the rest of the day and came home.

The next day I saw Dr. Lupek and told him what happened. He said I should take 20 milligrams of valium per day and just forget about it. He said I had a lot of fears, but was common in someone suffering from a biochemical depression. I continued with school, and over the next few months I experienced a panic attack almost daily. I kept informing Dr. Lupek of this, but never once did he mention the word agoraphobia. I told him the Valium was not helping, and at this point I was concerned that it may not be a mental problem at all, but something horrible like a brain tumor or a heart disease. He dismissed everything as anxiety, told me to quit complaining, and get on with life. At one point, when he was telling me something totally off the wall, I interrupted and said to him "yes, But ...". He got angry with me and sarcastically told me I was suffering from the "Yes, But" syndrome. He knew I thought he was a quack, which was what he was. The only reason I stayed with him is that I didn't know of any other psychiatrist I could use. He had a monopoly in the town I was in. Anyway, I continued going to college, and things kept getting worse. At one point, while I was walking from school to the train station, I had to literally run from street lamp to street lamp and grab on, all the while praying to God to not let me die. I had even gone as far as to be afraid of gravity stopping and me falling up into the large open sky, an agoraphobic's worst nightmare.

As a result of the almost constant fear of open spaces, I had to stop taking the train to school, because I could not walk the 1 1/2 miles from the train station to the university's campus, so I began driving to school. Fortunately for me, there was a parking garage about 100 feet from the campus, which allowed me to get to school and avoid the painful fear-ridden trek to and from the train station. But my reprieve did not last long. You see, with agoraphobia and with panic disorder, you gradually start to limit yourself to "safe places". The overall, main feeling in my case was a sensation of being "trapped" in an open space from which I could not escape. For the person who does not know about agoraphobia, I could liken the sensation as being the same as when a person with claustrophobia is locked in a tiny box just big enough to hold his body. The claustrophobic feels the panic, the absolute necessity of "getting out". For the agoraphobic, the opposite is true. The agoraphobic's main objective is "getting inside" somewhere to escape the open space. Only that will relieve his anxiety. In the beginning, for me the inside of my car was a "safe" place, but that gradually began to change. The expressway started to become frightening. I began to think, what if I had a panic attack on the highway? Would I lose control of the car and kill myself and maybe someone else? So now, I had constant fear while driving the 20 miles from my home to the university, and gradually I started to fear even leaving the house. This forced me to cut back on my classes and go to school only 3 days a week. Surprisingly enough, during this entire mental trauma, I was still able to hold a 3.62 out of 4.0 grade point average. I don't know how I did it. Perhaps it was just will power, because I was even getting panic attacks in class. I would hold on to the desk while sitting in it and silently suffer. I was begging God everyday to help me. I wished I were dead, but never thought of killing myself because I was too afraid of death. What if I died and in the next life I was stuck in an open space all alone for all eternity? It was a thought almost too frightening to think, but it haunted me everyday, and I was only 23 years old.


Excerpted from "Autobiography of an Agoraphobic: One Man's Struggle With Panic Disorder" by Michael R. Patrick. Copyright © 0 by Michael R. Patrick. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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