Note – This post discusses a panic attack and emergency room visit as part of my mental health story from 2018 to 2020 and may trigger unwanted thoughts or emotions in those that have suffered traumas. This post is part of a story told chronologically.
The slashing stomach pains flared occasionally, but the acute pain in my lower right stomach never disappeared. My jaw aches worsened, so a month after I returned to Raleigh, I went to a TMJ dentist. After taking precise measurements, the dentist made a mold that perfectly fit my teeth. I was surprised that most insurance plans didn’t cover the cost, including mine. However, I was desperate to stop my jaw from locking. I was willing to pay the several thousand dollars out of pocket for a custom mouthguard.
I expected a larger return on the investment after spending this amount of money. Unfortunately, the guard didn’t help to a great degree. Though the guard forced my mouth to stay open, the stinging headaches only lessened a little. My jaw and teeth were still sore most of the day. I had to frequently massage my cheek muscles. Were my expectations too high? I hoped the guard would magically heal my pain and help me to sleep better. If I slept better, I expected the evil thoughts to vanish.
Homicidal thoughts came and left, normally reappearing when I wasn’t fully present in my work, talking to someone, or engaged in another activity. I prayed to remain present throughout the day to combat the thoughts. This became challenging, however, when alone at home or in the car. I didn’t want to become a burden to others by being on the phone with them whenever thoughts attacked. If I did this, I’d be on the phone most of the day.
My sleep hadn’t improved since the nightmare, even after taking muscle relaxers. I feared overusing pills and becoming addicted, so I reluctantly asked for additional medicine. But physically, I didn’t notice a major change to my body after four months of insomnia. I remember thinking I survived on three hours of sleep a night during boot camp, and I would survive this season of stomach pains, jaw pains, and insomnia. Many people thrive on fours of sleep, I thought.
This sleep deficit didn’t rear its effects until I fell on a Saturday in late February 2019. Like many days, I was eating my favorite meal, a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. I was mid-way through the sandwich when my heartbeat accelerated. I lost my breath and almost choked on a piece of bread.
I dropped the sandwich. Thinking it could be a panic attack, I rushed upstairs and tried to calm down by taking a bath. After ten minutes of trying to relax, my heart rate didn’t slow. It pumped fast. I dried, dressed, and paced back and forth in the dining room.
What should I do? Call an ambulance or a friend? Drive to the Emergency Room (ER) because of the panic attack? I recalled the first time I had a panic attack, a few years earlier at work. When thoughts of worst-case scenarios crossed my mind, I panicked. I told my boss I should go to the ER, and he followed me as I drove to the hospital.
Like that event, I panicked. I drove to the ER. Those twenty-minutes were nerve-wracking, and my heartbeat faster throughout the drive. I told the front desk I was having chest problems, and a nurse immediately took me to a room. After a series of tests, they put me in a bed, where I complained under my breath about the likely high out-of-pocket costs.
I texted two friends, and they dropped whatever they were doing to visit. One friends’ face mirrored my annoyance for being in the ER. Despite this shared frustration, his presence comforted me. In addition, the nurse assured me I did the right thing by coming to the emergency room. I told my friends I had never been this panicked. During three deployments, I didn’t worry about death or where I was going after death. I was at peace. I didn’t want to die, of course, but I had no expectations for life in my early to mid-20s. Now, I wanted a wife, a family, and a career.
The friends listened. Fortunately, this heavy talk didn’t last long, and we transitioned to lighter conversations and humor. After several hours, the ER doctor visited and reviewed the symptoms of a panic attack. He prescribed a sedative, then discharged me. Because of the sedative, I slept through the night for the first time in six months. Homicidal thoughts didn’t retreat as I hoped they would, but I certainly felt much better after a restful night’s sleep.
During the following week’s church group meeting, friends asked me if I should see a therapist. Yes, I told them. It was time to dig into root causes rather than treating the symptoms. Next week, I’ll share how I did this.