This week’s article is brought to you by Anxiety Guru reader Ashley. She was kind enough to share her story with us and provide a detailed glimpse into the world of health phobia and how she’s learning to cope. – Paul Dooley
I am a Christian. I have three beautiful children, a wonderful handsome husband, and a loving supportive extended family. I am a blessed girl.
I have always considered myself a worrier. But, it was more of a funny thing. Something that made me quirky. To cut right to the beginning of recent events, I’ll just start.
In the beginning…
My husband and I had some friends who were unable to conceive a child on their own. They would need a surrogate to carry their biological embryos.
We decided that I would volunteer to be their surrogate. They agreed and thus our story begins.
After about a year of contracts, lawyers and counselors, we were able to begin doctor appointments.
I began injections, pills, and patches to prepare my body to become pregnant. After a few months, we were ready to do our first transfer.
We transferred two of their embryos into me and waited.
Unfortunately, neither one took. After three months, we began the process again. More injections, patches, and pills. We transferred two more embryos.
This time, I was pregnant! We found out there was one baby with a heartbeat and we were so excited!
At around 8 weeks, we found out the baby had died. The heartbeat was gone and no longer visible on ultrasound. We were devastated. The doctor encouraged me to try to miscarry naturally. So we waited.
Three weeks later, when I began to be in a lot of pain, I went back into the doctor’s office. They did a procedure to try to help things along. This caused me to hemorrhage and I began to bleed a whole lot.
After about 30 minutes of bleeding, I began to get very lightheaded and passed out. I woke up to them calling an ambulance.
My mom was with me as well as my three year old son and my little sister. Everyone was very worried.
Once at the hospital I passed out several more times and had an emergency D & C. My husband came and by the time it was all over and I was headed home, only 8 hours had passed and I had lost 2 liters of blood.
The baby was gone and the miscarriage was over. I rested over the weekend and felt I was getting stronger. Sunday night, I had what I now know was my very first panic attack.
I was in the bathroom (of all places) and began to feel lightheaded and dizzy and my heart started to pound.
I flashed cold-sweat clammy from head to toe and began to cry.
I had no idea what was happening to me. I thought I was having some sort of complication from the surgery. I. Was. WIGGIN. My husband held me until I fell asleep.
I woke up Monday and decided that what happened to me was too scary to deal with. And that I would forget it. Literally pretend that it didn’t happen.
I showered, fixed my hair, did my make-up, got dressed all cute and then proceeded to throw away everything that reminded me of my surrogacy experience.
I threw away maternity clothes, frozen meals people had prepared for me, flowers people had sent me, cards, paperwork, everything.
People who would text me and ask how I was, I wouldn’t respond to. People who reminded me of surrogacy or pregnancy, I defriended from Facebook.
I straight pretended it didn’t happen.
And it worked! Or so I thought. I began to get stronger mentally and physically and moved on. During the next couple months, my son had his third birthday party.
My husband and I started our own business (Crazy, right?).
We began planning and paying for a once-in-a-lifetime super expensive trip to Disney World for our family. We bought a new truck.
I taught Bible study at Vacation Bible School. I started a community organization that promotes shopping locally called the cashMOB.
I planned play dates and parties and summer fun for our kids. I kept a clean house and made dinner nearly every night.
We attended church every Sunday and Wednesday.
I hung out with friends and went on dates with my husband. I was fine, I thought.
Anxiety meets the body
For about 4 weeks leading up to where the hit fit the shan, I had been having weird heart beats that felt like they were in my throat.
But, I just blew it off thinking it was maybe because of this weight loss stuff I had been taking. I stopped taking the weight loss junk, but the “weird beats” kept happening.
They would happen when I was just sitting on the couch watching TV. No exertion, no stress. I also got a fever blister, which I normally get after being stressed out.
But, I didn’t feel stressed. I just kept on truckin’.
The weekend before I broke, my kids were spending the weekend with my parents and my hubby and I were having a rare weekend to ourselves.
We went to dinner and I remember feeling not hungry (which is definitely weird for me).
I realized I hadn’t really eaten anything in a couple days and had hardly noticed. Still, I kept on being me.
We decided to redecorate our kids’ rooms while they were gone to surprise them. I never knew what was happening inside me. Never recognized the warning signs.
Everything changed on Monday, July 7. I took my kids to swimming lessons.
While waiting for a parking spot in the parking lot, someone backed into our car. It was a minor fender bender and everyone was okay.
We got it handled with the police and I got my kids all done with swimming lessons and we headed home.
In the afternoon, while my kids were watching a movie, I had another weird heartbeat, but this time, I flashed clammy-sweaty all over again, got very lightheaded, and began to freak out.
Welcome to cyberchondria
I then committed what I now know to be anxiety no-no number one. I googled my symptoms.
Panic at the disco. I have congestive heart failure. I stew and worry and stew and worry for two days.
Slowly and surely convincing myself that I have a heart problem.
On Wednesday, I went to the doctor. I marched in like one walking the green mile sure I would hear the words that would doom me to heart disease.
After all, I’d done such extensive research the last couple of days and I had every single symptom.
My doctor listened patiently and did an EKG. My heart was fine.
She said I had anxiety and gave me a script for some Zoloft and sent me home. I expected to feel relieved. But it never came.
In the past, if I’d ever freaked out about an illness or injury either for myself or my child.
Once I went to the doctor and found out that the big, scary thing I’d feared was not actually what the problem was, relief would wash over me and I would feel silly for being so irrational and emotional. Where was my relief?
I started the Zoloft, but I grew more and more anxious as the week went on. I decided I felt so bad, that if it wasn’t my heart, it MUST be something else physical.
Because no way could anxiety, a “feeling,” do so much to me. I took the Zoloft for 6 days and then stopped. I decided it was making me feel worse.
I called back into the doctor’s office, she called in something called hydroxyzine.
That did nothing but give me a wicked bad headache. So I quit taking that.
Anxiety research gone wrong
Then the cycle began. After the heart concerns, it changed to cervical or breast cancer.
After all, I’d had all those artificial hormones pumped into me and everyone knows extra hormones cause cancer.
In my Wednesday night class, we had been praying for a friend’s relative that was my age and had breast cancer.
In my head, I replaced her in the story, with myself. Taking her tragedy as my own.
As it happened, I already had my yearly visit to my ob-gyn scheduled for the next week. So I spent the days leading up to that appointment picturing my life with cancer.
Once again, googling every variation of symptoms I happened to be feeling at the moment.
I spent hours in front of the computer desperately searching for something that would convince me that I was healthy. Of course, I found the contrary.
When the day came for my appointment, I was a bundle of nerves, but yet again, resigned to what I was sure was my fate.
As my doctor, who delivered all three of my babies and I trust implicitly, assured me that I was healthy, I began to feel the relief I was waiting for.
He had examined me thoroughly and he told me I could move on from the surrogacy experience.
He said that everything looked normal and that the hormones would have no lasting effect on my body.
I went home with a blossom of hope that maybe this was over.
Nope. I began to have diarrhea frequently and noticed that due to my lack of appetite I was losing weight. For the first time in my life without trying.
It occurred to me one day that my dad’s mom died when he was 13 of colon cancer. Suddenly, I was sure I had that. More googling. More despair.
The next week, I felt something in the back of my throat. I felt it for more than three days in a row. Yep. You guessed it; I diagnosed myself with throat cancer.
My step-dad had just gone through that two years before. I actually went to the ENT over this one. Of course, I’m fine!
During all of this, I forced myself to carry on with my life. My birthday came and went and I pretended to enjoy it, for my family’s sake.
I made sure to make the last few weeks of summer memorable and full of fun for my children.
I kept going to church and visiting with friends and showering and cooking and cleaning and doing what I was supposed to do. It was and still is excruciating.
I had thrown myself into Bible study more than ever before. I read through a book called Calm my Anxious Heart, I spent hours in prayer, I started going to a group called Celebrate Recovery that is similar to AA, except for lots of other issues too.
“Hi, my name is Ashley, I’m a grateful believer in Jesus Christ and I struggle with anxiety.” The whole bit.
I got pedicures, I got a massage, I went to the chiropractor, I started essential oils for peace and tranquility, I tried to sleep longer, make myself eat better, have more sex, deep breathe, anything I could think of.
I started seeing a counselor. I went to her for three sessions. In those sessions, she told me I didn’t have an anxiety problem, I had a faith problem.
She doubted whether I’d ever been truly saved.
She said that by saying my fears out loud, I was challenging Satan to do them to me.
That by saying out loud, I’d never turn from God, I was challenging Satan to try to get me to. I quit going after that one.
She just kept quoting scripture at me. I knew the scripture, but something somewhere wasn’t lining up in my head. Did I believe that God would deliver me in His time?
Oh, yes. Did it hurt to live in it? You bet. I couldn’t, I can’t just sit in this misery.
While at a friend’s house letting our kids play, she told me all about this lady she knew who was our age who had gotten a case of strep throat and hadn’t gotten an antibiotic.
She thought she had healed on her own and carried on with her life. Turns out the infection moved to her heart and now she was in heart failure and was going to die.
She showed me a write up they had done on her in the newspaper. There she was, surrounded by her three children, in a hospital bed there with the fruit and flowers.
And, of course, I put myself in her place. And, boom, we’re back to the mother freakin’ heart concerns.
I stewed and googled on that one for a few days. And then a horrifying thought occurred to me. If there’s really nothing physically wrong with me, then I’m doing this to myself.
Am I going crazy? Like, no joke, fruit loop, for real crazy? Is this what it feels like? I then I began to picture it. My kids having to come visit me in the loony bin.
I got stuck here for a week, I think. This one was terrifying.
One evening I went to a rodeo with my family. While I was there I pointed at something with my left hand and noticed that my left hand was shaking. Like a tremor.
So I began to compare my left hand to my right in various positions.
Has my left hand always been shakier than my right? Wait, is that weakness in my left hand and arm? I spent the next couple of days looking at my hands. Comparing them to each other.
And staring at other people’s hands. Do theirs shake more than mine? Suddenly, something scary snapped into place in my brain.
Muscle twitches. I’d had them for years. I’d never really worried about them before, they were minor.
But now, combined with the tremor, that was there sometimes and not there sometimes and the dizziness that I thought I’d been feeling… I should google that. HUGE MISTAKE! I have ALS, or if I’m lucky, Parkinson’s or MS.
The more I thought about the twitches, the more I got. In new places that had never twitched before and harder, longer lasting twitches. When I focused on the twitches, they got worse.
When I focused on the tremor, it got worse. When I focused on the dizziness, it got worse.
I had a check-up appointment already scheduled with my doctor the next week. So I consumed myself in “research.”
After all, I needed to know what to expect. When the day of my appointment came, I could see a pattern developing.
I would go in expecting the worst and come out with a “you’re fine.” So I was about 50/50 hope and dread.
When I asked if the twitches, shaking hands and dizziness were normal for someone having high levels of anxiety, she replied, ‘what’s normal?’ and shrugged.
She then rolled her eyes at me, told me ‘I was on a roll today,’ and asked ‘if I’d had too much caffeine today.’
She then said she’d refer me to a neurologist. Wait. What? Do I need to go to a neurologist? If I do, then it must be BAD! Oooohhh SNAP!
I was beyond worried. When I told my mom what had happened at the appointment, she asked me to come to her house about an hour away. I went the next day and she made me an appointment with her doctor.
He was my Sunday school teacher when I was younger and I trusted him very much. She went with me to the appointment where I gave him the abridged version of my story.
He never examined me but listened patiently and suggested Buspar with Xanax for some temporary ‘band-aid’ relief.
I practically drag-raced to the pharmacy. I was so excited to get some relief even if it was temporary.
I was so disappointed. I felt nothing. I called my mom’s doctor to tell them.
They said to take two Xanax. I still felt nothing. I was so looking forward to the relief! There was none for me. I started the Buspar and was hopeful that it would work.
Though, I knew that it wouldn’t be immediate. I made an appointment with a new counselor.
During that appointment, I knew this would be a different experience than with my previous counselor. This lady seemed to have some idea of how to teach me to help myself.
But she said, that we needed to ‘get my nails out of the ceiling’ before we began to work on that.
She said the Buspar was a great idea and wanted to see me after I’d been on the Buspar for two weeks.
Once again, I was sent home still stuck in my bajiggity-ness with no way that I knew of to get out.
I was still convinced I had some horrible neuro-muscular disease. Twitching, tremors and dizziness were at fever pitch. In fact the dizziness was worse since starting the Buspar.
I read on the sheet that came with it that dizziness was a common side effect, but still I was convinced that worsening dizziness meant a progressing disease.
It was around this time that Robin Williams committed suicide. Apparently he had struggled with depression for decades. Though I’d never had suicidal thoughts at all, I imagined my life as his might have been.
Consumed with terrible thoughts in my head while forcing myself to carry on a seemingly normal life, until one day, unable to take it anymore.
The next day, I got on Facebook and up in the corner where it shows what’s trending, I read this, “Robin Williams’ wife reveals he had Parkinson’s Disease.” I. Nearly. Expire.
After I pulled myself together, I called my husband at work and asked him to change my Facebook password and not tell me what it was.
I removed the app from my phone. I also swore to myself I would never EVER google my symptoms again. But, you know what they say about best laid plans.
I joined Gold’s Gym. Maybe I’ll give working out a try. I worked out for an hour and a half 4-5 days a week. After a lot of cardio, the shaking was worse which freaked me out.
Even though I knew that in previous workout experiences, I get pretty shaky for a while afterward.
I just kept going day to day filled with worry over my health while trying to hide it and lead a normal life.
It was around this time that things began to shift ever so slightly. Remember when I said I wouldn’t google my symptoms?
Yeah, that didn’t stick for long. I typed in tremors, muscle twitches, dizziness and anxiety.
One of the things it pulled up was an article called 10 most hated anxiety symptoms. It was on a website called Anxiety Guru.
This website began to change the way I looked at what was happening to me.
I spent hours reading and listening to pod casts. I began to feel like maybe, just maybe this WAS all anxiety.
Building a solution
And I began to formulate a plan on how to dig out.
I was feeling more normal than I’d felt in so long. Not quite back to myself, but on the way maybe? I decided I was on my way out of this until Sunday at church.
I was volunteering in the nursery when my right bicep and tricep began to jump and twitch like never before.
It was visible to not only me but to other people. It was jumping hard. It lasted for nearly 8 hours. The next day the back of my right calf began to buzz on and off for two days.
Still I worked out and still I carried on with life, but more convinced than ever that there was something majorly wrong with me.
On Thursday the neurologist office called and said they had a cancelation the next day and would I like to take the spot. I agreed.
My mom came with me to the appointment. The doctor was beyond everything I had prayed for. He was paternal and understanding and very comforting.
He examined me and did a series of reflex tests and asked me to do various things like touch my nose.
He had me hold my hands out to see the tremor I was talking about and wouldn’t you know it, they were rock steady.
He assured me I did not have ALS and bet me a million dollars that I had googled it, even though I did not mention that part. I told him he was right.
He told me that next time I had the urge to google my symptoms; instead he wanted me to watch internet porn.
You should have seen my mom’s face! He said of course he was joking, but that he had gotten my attention.
And that now every time I went to search for my symptoms, I would remember when he told me to watch porn and I would remember him telling me I was just fine.
I left feeling nearly buoyant. I came home determined to tackle my anxiety problem and move on with my life.
I knew from reading on the AG site, that it wouldn’t be an easy fix, but I felt ready to get started.
I listened to some more pod casts on ways to face and accept my anxiety. I began writing this story I am typing now.
I woke up today feeling excited to begin this new chapter in my story. The healing part.
But, instead I found myself once again focused on symptoms.
Today while making cookies for my family as well as some neighborhood boys who were practicing football in our front yard, my left arm and hand began to tremor pretty bad.
The more I focused on it and tried to make it stop, the worse it got. I started wondering if the neurologist had seen it doing what it was doing now, would he have still given me the all clear? Should I make another appointment?
Call his office? I probably do have something horrible…
I read and listened to a pod cast on the AG site about hypochondriasis. Is that what I have? What I am? If so, it sucks. Bad.
So now I’m pissed off. At myself. At everything. Will I ever be able to get past this? Will I ever stop driving myself crazy with what ifs?
Did this stem from the miscarriage experience? Is it residual post-partum hormones?
Is this something separate? I firmly believe this will not last forever. It can’t. It’s too much. I am exhausted.
I feel God drawing me closer to Him though this whole thing and for that, I am grateful.
I’m still deep in Bible study, still taking Buspar twice a day, still practicing deep breathing, still planning on meeting with the counselor, still learning about anxiety on AG.net.
I’m still twitching, still tremoring, still dizzy, still going through the motions of my life, still going to Celebrate Recovery, still using oils, still drinking calming tea, still off caffeine.
I’d do just about anything to get above this junk. Maybe naked yoga on a mountain top somewhere… we’ll see.
Do you have a story that you want to share on AG? If so, email Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org.