Blinking slowly, I regained consciousness on the floor of the bathroom in my Residence Director apartment. I remembered walking in there minutes before and leaning against the counter, hoping to ease the pain that was gripping my ribs like a belt cinching tighter and tighter as my breath became shallower.
It didn’t make sense. These were the symptoms my doctor diagnosed as gallbladder attacks, culminating in my having my gallbladder removed. Was there such a thing as phantom gallbladder attacks? It seemed unlikely, but there also wasn’t any other plausible explanation as far as I was concerned.
It would take more then three years before someone would put a name to these incidents. I didn’t talk about them with friends, family, or doctors. But in the summer of 2008, I had a similar incident and because I lost consciousness in a more public place, sought medical attention at the insistence of those who were with me at the time. After a series of tests, including an EKG, my physician sat down with me and started asking me questions about stress, anxiety, sleep habits, and caffeine. As we talked about the things going on in my life and my general anxiety levels, she raised the notion that this may be a panic disorder. She provided me with multiple resources and encouraged me to connect with a therapist to better understand the disorder and how to manage it.
It took me another three months to call a therapist, to screw up the courage to admit I needed help managing my anxiety because it was impeding my relationships and my ability to do my job. When I connected with Rachel, who was my therapist for three years, she assured me that while a panic disorder and anxiety may not be normal, they are both manageable. And they would both be more manageable if I let other people in and asked for help.
I can’t predict when a panic attack will occur; panic disorder is complicated by the anxiety caused by the unpredictability of the disorder. It creates a self-perpetuating cycle of sorts — I worry about panic attacks, which are relatively infrequent, but then I’m trapped in a cycle of anxiety.
So what helps? Meditation. Breathing exercises. Exercise.
And my partner, Dan.
Dan is phenomenal in the moments of a panic attack (among many other times). If we’re apart from one another, he’ll stay on the phone with me until the panic passes. If we’re together, he’ll hold my hand and talk quietly to me while I try to regulate my breathing. He knows when it’s gone too far and I’m in danger of losing consciousness.
I always feel like Paul Harvey sharing the rest of the story when I tell this part, the serendipity that brought TallDan and me together —
Dan and I met via an online dating site. I initially ignored his outreach message, deeming him too tall for me. After my gallbladder surgery when I was confined to the couch and growing increasingly bored, I responded to his message. Were it not for my misdiagnosed gallbladder, I may have never found the person who is my source of comfort and peace in moments that are sometimes terrifying and isolating.
I’m fond of saying that I believe the universe gives us the people we need when we need them — and how could I believe anything different?
Stacy Oliver-Sikorski is the Associate Director of Residence Life at Lake Forest College, where she works with conduct, operations, and students of concern. She and TallDan married in September 2012 (though match.com diplomatically refused to sponsor their reception) and live happily in Illinois with six different methods of making coffee in their home.
To read more about “Committed,” a series focusing on sharing stories and continuing the conversation about Mental Health in Student Affairs, check out this post. Follow the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #SAcommits. Thanks for reading and supporting your colleagues!