I wrote this very quickly so I’m hoping it isn’t rambling, but I decided it was more important to share now than to make this a perfect post. My Mental Health Story actually starts at age 13 but I decided this more recent experience was pertinent to some threads I saw on Twitter yesterday for Bell Let’s Talk. I suggest you use Brianne Cail’s #stilltalking to continue the discussion year round, not just on January 29th.
In October of 2018, when the museum season was over and only 2 or 3 events were left, I thought I would take three or four days off to just relax, unplug and recharge. Looking back now I realize I had been struggling already with anxiety, panic attacks and depression plus every 6 to 8 weeks I would get really sick for 2-3 days. I though I just kept getting some weird bug.
My few days off quickly turned into ignoring phone calls and emails, watching YouTube and Netflix, listening to podcasts, trouble sleeping, little to no patience with anyone or anything that needed my full attention and difficulty taking care of our new puppy. If I had to leave the house I was having full on panic attacks. I couldn’t deal with grocery shopping, board meetings, or errands. I also didn’t realize the extent of the depression because I had disconnected so quickly and completely.
Thankfully my husband and family noticed and I went to my doctor in early December to request a change in my medication. I’ve dealt with anxiety, depression and panic attacks since the age of 13. We all just thought my medication Venlafaxine wasn’t working any longer or I needed a different dosage. I think I’ve been on Venlafaxine (Effexor) for about 12 years or so.
My doctor prescribed Contrave after my Mom and I explained what we both had been noticing (multiple perspectives is always good). One of the effects is weight loss and I was super excited about that part. “Contrave contains a combination of bupropion and naltrexone. Bupropion is an antidepressant medicine that can also decrease appetite. Naltrexone is usually given to block the effects of narcotics or alcohol in people with addiction problems.”
Unfortunately because this is known as a weight loss drug, our benefits wouldn’t cover it. I ended up taking a mix of Wellbutrin and a separate naltrexone tablet to make up what what have been Contrave. Wellbutrin (bupropion) is an antidepressant medication used to treat major depressive disorder and seasonal affective disorder.
I took my first dose on a Friday evening before going to bed and Saturday morning I woke up at 9am, happy, energized, awake and thinking “holy crap I feel amazing! These drugs are a miracle. Is this what “regular” people feel like?” By the afternoon this had worn off and so begins the scariest three days I’ve ever experienced.
Saturday night my husband went out with some family and friends to a Christmas party, even though I expressed concern that I was on a new medication, but I understood he needed to socialize as I’d been non-participatory for a couple months in our household.
By the time he left around 7pm the anxiety had gone from my usual 2/10 to 5/10 and throughout that evening just got higher and higher. I was nauseous and forcing myself to drink ginger ale and eat crackers. If my stomach had a little in it, the nausea would go away. I tried yoga and stretching, and some ballet to relax and those didn’t work. I put Christmas music on the TV and got really emotional. I played Christmas carols on the piano which made me cry and then laugh because I knew intellectually how ridiculous this was. I was carrying on conversations with our new puppy. I should insert here that when I am depressed I have no emotions and during a panic attack only feel anger and fear, so crying was highly unusual for me.
I texted my husband that I was not alright as we agreed that’s what I would do, but he had no signal to his cell phone. Of course I was angry and scared which is totally not his fault as all my emotions were more intense then usual. Throughout the evening I had started experiencing what I now know are called brain zaps and they feel like your brain got an electrical shock. It is physically painful and short circuits your thought processes for a few seconds.
I also had to keep reminding myself not to focus on a past relationship where if my ex was at a party he was probably cheating, lying and not returning at the time or on the day he said he was. I was having real difficulty with these recurring thoughts and had to actively tell my brain who I was married to, where I lived, what year it was so I could combat these intrusive feelings from the past. It was literally a conversation between two parts of my brain, one who knew what was going on and one who was a speeding train heading off the track. By 11pm I decided to just try to go to sleep. I dozed off and on, had intensely horrifying dreams and just felt unwell.
Sunday morning I was still white knuckling through a 10/10 out of control panic attack, still taking this new medication, eating crackers and drinking ginger ale and water when I could. Now I was also having episodes where my body suddenly went to sleep but inside my mind was nightmarishly over active. I had dreams about hunting aliens as some kind of military person, bombs going off, violence and gruesome scenes and I’m sure there was more but I don’t recall it all which is probably a blessing. I do remember having to tell my body to wake up, to move even a finger. Again the conversation between the 2 parts of my brain.
As the day wore on like this I realized I couldn’t even let our dog out to pee and I would need help on Monday when my husband went to work. I think I was having trouble walking although the only times I moved off the couch was to go to the bathroom. To my husband I was just sleeping a lot and having a panic attack so he wasn’t especially concerned because we’ve dealt with these things most of our marriage. I was having trouble explaining what was happening inside my brain and to my body. I called my Mom to come over on Monday to take care of the dog and she agreed she could be there at lunch. She says now she thought that was odd but she wanted to get an update on the new medication anyway.
Monday I was able to let the dog out once or twice before she arrived, but I still couldn’t eat and I’m sure I was dehydrated (yes more crackers and ginger ale and water). I was having more episodes where my body was shut off and I looked asleep but my mind was over active in a scary way. When she arrived at noon I could barely form sentences to explain what was going on and what to do with the dog (she hadn’t had to take care of him before this).
I was getting more and more concerned as I asked her things like how long was I out when I would wake up and she said 15 minutes. To me it felt like I’d been trapped in my body and a nightmare for hours. When I was awake the brain zaps continued to be more frequent and painful. I couldn’t focus my eyes, my thoughts or my speech. We both decided (or maybe she decided) to call my doctor. I had been white knuckling a 10/10 panic attack since Saturday afternoon and I just couldn’t anymore.
My Mom explained to the receptionist what she was seeing but I had to get on the phone and explain what was happening inside and I know my speech was slow and I was having trouble finding words. They wanted me to come into the office and there was no way that was happening. I physically and mentally couldn’t operate to go anywhere. I suspect if they had insisted someone would have had to carry me to the vehicle? I wasn’t presentable to be in public because I had puked multiple times and I’m not sure if I’d showered since Saturday morning. The doctor wanted me to go another 3 days on the new medication and I forcefully said absolutely NOT! Had I done that I would have ended up in a hospital, whether that was a regular hospital for dehydration or the psychiatric hospital for the full blown panic attack I was white knuckling through. She offered to put me back on my old medication at higher doses which I agreed to and I begged them to let me take 2 Clonazepam so I could get some real sleep. You see what I’d been experiencing wasn’t restful sleep at all just a body shut down.
My husband picked up my old prescription from the pharmacy and I took some Clonazepam. It took 3 hours before I actually fell asleep. I think I slept for a couple hours, took my night time meds another Clonazepam and slept for a few more hours over night. It still took the rest of the week until I could eat a full meal. I did add bananas, toast and apple sauce to the crackers, water and ginger ale. I think my Mom came over Tuesday and Wednesday to take care of the dog and I but the worst of the drug reaction was over.
Thursday I was able to see my doctor and give her the whole story, do an errand and then see a therapist. I’m so grateful that our health centre has one day a month where those on the wait list can see someone. Obviously no wait list would be better but that one appointment was crucial to the start of recovering.
They have you tell them what’s going on and to set a goal you can work on during that session. My only goal was to make it to all my Christmas dinners (3), which I did, only having to leave 1 earlier than planned due to a panic attack. What I also found out is that the Venlafaxine could take 6 weeks to begin to work even though I’d only been off it for 3 days.
I’ll end this part of my story here on the positive Christmas went alright note. Life has gotten significantly better in the 13 months since this terrifying weekend, with therapy and support from friends and family. I’ll write about what I learned in therapy another time and earlier experiences of mental health as a teenager. I wanted to share my story in case you are going through something similar or you know someone going through this. You aren’t crazy and you aren’t alone. I’m sending you positive healthy thoughts and prayers. Happy to chat in the comment section with you.