During the summer of 1992, when I was 23, I began to experience unusual amounts of stress. There had been a lot of changes in my life, and I was having difficulty coping with them all. Motherhood, a new job, a new home, new expenses, etc., were all taking a toll on me.One summer night a short time later, I had been home alone with my son all day and I was extremely tired by the time he went to bed for the evening. At about midnight my husband came home from work. I woke up when I heard the noise and realized my bladder felt very full. As I stumbled back to bed after using the bathroom, I remember feeling extremely light-headed. The whole world seemed to be spinning around me as I climbed under the covers. I was lying down, but the feeling only seemed to get worse, and an hour later my head was still swimming. I began to shake uncontrollably and had two emergency trips to the restroom with a very upset stomach.
I called my doctor and told him everything that was happening, but all he said was, “You can’t faint when you’re lying down. Just go back to bed and relax.” I felt like I was on death’s doorstep. I decided I needed to go to the emergency room after two more hours had passed and I wasn’t any better. They examined me, then told me there was nothing they could find wrong and asked if I was under any unusual amount of stress. I thought back to all the recent changes in my life and conceded that maybe they were right – maybe it was all in my head. They told me I probably had had an anxiety attack, then gave me a prescription for an antihistamine derivative to help me sleep, then they sent me home.
In the days that followed, I slowly sank into hell. Every day a new symptom would appear – like insomnia, fatigue, panic attacks, migraine headaches, chronic diarrhea, chest pains, and tingling and numbness in my fingers – and I went to the doctor’s office all the time because of them. I was tested for diabetes, hypoglycemia, and an overactive thyroid; but all results were normal. The only thing slightly off-balance was my iron level, which was a little low.
I was put on: Zantac in order to try to control all the acid my stomach was producing, Xanax and then Ativan in order to try to calm me down, and finally Zoloft (a relative of Prozac) in order to try to control my so-called “depression.” I had never been on so many medications at one time before and I was determined not to have to rely on drugs for the rest of my life. I could feel myself becoming a hypochondriac, and I hated it. I lost about twenty pounds that summer, along with a major portion of my sanity.
That was my existence for three months. I accepted what the doctors were telling me, that it was “all in my head.” As time progressed, the symptoms began to get worse. I was advised to seek psychiatric counseling in order to get myself under control. I began to see a counselor and she helped me a great deal just by talking about everything I was going through. I still didn’t feel like I belonged there, and so I only went for a few months. But early one morning a short while later, I called her to let her know I was about to admit myself to the psychiatric unit of the local hospital – because I thought I was having a nervous breakdown.
That morning I hadn’t even been able to get dressed. I just sat on the couch shivering with cold – as if it were only 30 degrees – and wondered how I could manage to survive any longer. I was crying, and felt like I was surely losing my mind. She laughed and told me that if I had the presence of mind to call her and tell her I was having a nervous breakdown – she was positive that I was not. That made me feel better, but I was still shaking horribly and making repeated trips to the bathroom. My head was spinning out of control, and I felt like an emotional wreck.
When I got to the hospital, they had me speak to a psychiatric nurse who told me, after we talked at length (and asking me a million questions), that she felt I was not having a breakdown or going crazy. She began to tell me the most interesting story about her own mother who’d had symptoms similar to what I had described, and had been diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse.
I recognized the name of the condition. I knew my grandmother had it (and later found out that at least five of my relatives also have it). The doctor then came in and listened intently to my heart. I told him my doctor had found a heart murmur when I was sixteen, and that I had never heard anything more about it since then. I was then sent down the hall to have an echocardiogram done. The diagnosis was clear: mitral valve prolapse.
The doctor then had me hooked up to a Holter monitor that gives a continuous EKG recording for twenty-four hours so that we could record any periods of palpitations or racing. He gave me a prescription for Inderal (a beta blocker), then sent me home.
Since then I’ve struggled with a lot of symptoms and have had quite a journey. I’ve found that through the decades, my symptoms come and go — with some going away completely and new ones taking their place. It’s a constant challenge, but made easier knowing I’m not alone.