Sunday, October 4, 2015

My mental breakdown and my spiritual breakthrough, Part One

Part I: The Beginning 

In the summer of 2014, I had what I consider a mental breakdown. I have no idea if that is clinically true, but from my perspective, that's what occurred. I will spare you many, many details, but I am so excited to tell you my story. That may sound strange until or unless you understand that the worst experience of my life so far is the one that I thank God for, nearly every day. I can say without any hesitation that my total breakdown was the very best thing that ever happened to me spiritually.

The first little wave of "trouble", if you will, came in April of 2014 when some tests from my routine physical came back with red flags. More lab work, several scans and images, and an invasive procedure finally ruled out anything serious. But the word "cancer" had popped up more than once, and it was during this week that I had what I call a mini-breakdown (not the big one). My beloved cousin Michelle was battling non-smokers lung cancer at the time, and that gave rise to inordinate fears for myself, I believe.

One thing that came up during those April scans was an incidental discovery of some small nodules on my lungs, which was not the initial area of concern. My doctor told me that they were almost certainly nothing to worry about, but that based on their size and non-calcified state, protocol dictated a follow-up scan in three months. I was a little uneasy, considering Michelle's own surprise diagnosis, but I put it out of my mind and went about preparing for the June birth of my first grandchild and the June wedding of my second daughter.

Here is where a perfect storm of incidents started to gather and rise:

~~ My younger daughter left straight from her wedding reception to her new home across the country. She had lived in our home until that day and it was devastating to say good-bye.

~~ My elder daughter and her husband had announced just weeks earlier that they would be moving half-way across the country themselves, and that this would occur six weeks after my first and much-anticipated grandchild was born. So, more crushing good-byes were to come within weeks of saying good-bye to my younger daughter. Both my daughters, my best friends, would be gone -- just like that.

~~ My father was in precarious health with a recent congestive heart failure diagnosis, a subsequent pacemaker and defibrillator implanted, and a recurrence of cancer. He was in decline, and we didn't know if he was going to live much longer.

~~ My cousin and dear friend Michelle, just 44 and a single mom, was battling deadly, metastatic non-smokers lung cancer, as I mentioned above. She had been the picture of health, vibrancy, and beauty just months earlier, and now she stood to leave us and her three teenaged girls.

~~ My children's most beloved little Catholic elementary school, tiny and loving and a haven of goodness, lost its lease and was closing its doors on short notice. We had been at Kolbe School for over ten years, and it was not only a school to us, it was our community. From faculty to parents to students, we were all family. This was a devastating blow, a real loss for so many. It was our own little diaspora.

~~ And finally, add to this the full-blown hormonal effects of peri-menopause. I had absolutely no idea that hormones could wreak such havoc on a person, especially with all the above stressors in place. I had no idea that a common symptom of peri-menopause was anxiety/panic attacks! How come no one tells us these things??

So many worries, changes, losses, and grief, all at once. But still I was steady and strong. I was coping.

But then it came: The trigger, the spark that lit this tinderbox into an inferno. On July 29, 2014, I received a phone call with the results of my CT scan of the lungs, the routine three-month follow-up after April's scan. Some new nodules found, one oddly shaped, one of the old ones had grown, no need to worry, can't completely rule out metastasis, but have another scan in three months, per protocol.

The stirrings of panic began. New nodules on the lungs? Can't completely rule out metastasis? No need to worry? I asked a couple of questions, pretended to be okay with the answers, and hung up the phone. My mind was a whirlwind and I was unable to concentrate on anything around me. I walked around the house in a daze. I called back and asked the doctor's assistant why I didn't need to be seen earlier, and why this was not more urgent? I feared waiting three months, but simultaneously feared knowing what the nodules were. I just wanted it all to go away. I love my doctor's assistant, and in her kind voice, she sincerely assured me that if the doctor had had any real concerns he would have referred me to a pulmonologist immediately. She could sense my anxiety, though, so she gently suggested that I call the doctor personally at 5:00 the next morning, when he always answered his own calls. I thanked her politely and told her I would.

That evening, Dean and I hosted an engaged couple in our home, to go over their marriage prep (FOCCUS) materials. I was on autopilot. I don't know how I got through it, but for the grace of God. I was full-on acting, because inside the terror was creeping forth, more and more. I went to bed full of fear, from head to toe.

After a fitful sleep, I woke early to call my doctor, and he answered immediately. He heard my fears and gently insisted that I should not be alarmed, that I needed to trust him (and he is a thorough and trustworthy doctor, one who truly cares about his patients). He spent a lot of time with me on the phone, trying to reassure me in different ways. But by the end of the conversation, with my flat affect and short, unconvinced responses, I'm sure he realized that I was not reassured; he probably also remembered my mini-breakdown that past April, when I had had a very uncharacteristic sobbing fit in his office. Those who know me know that I am not a crier.

Because of my clear state of anxiety, my doctor ultimately said that he would get me in to see an excellent pulmonologist, even though it was unnecessary, so that my mind could be set at ease. I knew at that point that nothing the pulmonologist could say would make a difference to me, that the visit could not pull me out of my panic, but I had no other course of action. I can't remember how or when, but before long I had an appointment set up for the following Friday, nine days away. I didn't know then that the pulmonologist didn't even see patients on Fridays, and that he made an exception for me at the request of my primary doctor. Looking back now, in a lucid state, I am grateful to both of them.

So, essentially, that initial phone call with scan results on July 29 marked the start of a 13-day, full-blown, unrelenting panic attack. I don't mean 13 days of high anxiety. I mean a 13-day panic attack. It started in one instant and it never let up until almost two weeks later, with more recovery that came after that. If you have ever had even an hour-long panic attack, you can begin to appreciate what I experienced. It was seemingly never-ending; it went on and on, day after day after day, night after night after night, with no relief.

In my next post, I will bring you into those two weeks with me.

To be continued...

Read Part Two, here.


  1. Leila, I'm so glad to see that you are sharing your story with us. But I'm sorry to read about how hard this was for you. Not having had a panic attack, I cannot really imagine what it must be like. Looking forward to the next installment of your amazing story.

  2. Leila, I'm so sorry you weren't through this storm, but I admire you for sharing it and seeing the good from it all. I have experienced panic attacks/high anxiety for a short time several years ago when I was engaged. It's all consuming so my heart goes out to you. I look forward to reading part 2 and compare "notes". :)

  3. Thank you for sharing this, being open about this costs a lot, being public costs a whole lot more. Who know who it might help.

  4. I'm sorry for your pain, but I have been looking forward to this series of posts for months. I know that many of us will benefit from these. So...thank you so much. Also, your posts about your mother-in-law were perfect, and they give lots of hope. Again, thank you for sharing.

  5. Thank you so much, my friends! I am working on Part II right now. :) I do hope they help others!

  6. Bless you for sharing your story, Leila. I cannot even imagine what it must have been like for you to experience all of this at once. I think I've told you this already but I am well aware of what panic attacks feel like. Like dying. But for 13 days? You are one brave and courageous lady.

    To make you smile: years ago I had one so bad that my husband had to rush me to the hospital. I mean, there was NO WAY even the teeniest little bit of oxygen was getting into my lungs. Not a chance. Uhm...or so I thought until I saw my oxygen reading. One hundred percent

    I can't wait to read part 2. Some things just change our lives forever.

  7. Mary N., that did make me smile!! Because I know you're past it, and we have to look back and just laugh! And yes, some things just change us forever. :)

  8. Wow, two weeks with a panic attack?! How does that even work, what with not being able to sleep at all?!

  9. Sarah, no kidding. I slept very "unrestfully". I looked like hell by the end of those two weeks (my sister used a different word!).

  10. What a nightmare! Thank you for sharing it. I look forward to reading the rest!

  11. You are an incredibly brave woman and I am so glad your are finding the courage to share your story. I know so many will be ministered to by your words of encouragement as you share the struggle you faced during that time. Anxiety is very real and it is such a beast to tame. I will be waiting for the rest of the story! Hugs to you!!!


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