I had the first panic attack in late November, 2021, while I was sitting in a full Broadway theater seeing To Kill A Mockingbird. It was 30 minutes of all the panic attack symptoms described in Wikipedia:
“…intense fear and discomfort that may include palpitations, sweating… chest discomfort, shortness of breath, trembling, dizziness, numbness, confusion, or a feeling of impending doom or of losing control.”Wikipedia
I thought I was going to be that guy who literally stopped the show and left the theatre in a stretcher, dead or alive. It lasted about 30 minutes. It was awful.
By intermission, I was feeling mostly back to normal, but quite shaken. After the show, I smoked a cigarette on my way to Joe Allen where I sipped a post-theatre Shirley Temple and ate a delicious vegetarian dinner at the bar. I figured the episode in the theater was an isolated incident.
Nothing else happened for months until I felt it again one February morning on a walk with my dogs in Central Park. Out of the blue, this panicky sensation washed over me and shook me for a good ten or fifteen minutes. I wondered if this was it. Would I collapse right here? What would happen to my dogs? Again… terrifying.
About two weeks later, while I was having lunch with a friend, it happened again. And it was terrifying, again. So terrifying that I threw out my cigarettes and haven’t smoked since. That evening, I went to my local CityMD and got a cursory exam and an EKG. Heart and lungs sounded fine. Nothing looked amiss. The next morning, I saw a doctor and a cardiologist, both of whom suggested an anxiety issue rather than a physical/medical issue. The following week, I had two stress tests. One was the basic treadmill trot that took about 20 minutes. I passed with flying colors. Later that week, I had what’s called a “nuclear stress test,” which involves a radioactive material being injected into my bloodstream so that the scans could produce a three-dimensional picture of what’s going on with the heart. After the material circulated through my system for an hour, my heart was observed in various states of rest and stress, including another treadmill run. The whole affair lasts four hours, and the results ultimately showed healthy heart activity.
But still, something was up. I didn’t feel normal. I still don’t. It’s as if a switch flipped that night at the theater last November. I’ve never had panic or anxiety issues. And though I’d smoked for many years, I never had any cardiovascular issues. Since I quit drinking 20 years ago, I’ve maintained a pretty good diet and a reasonably good fitness regime.
Sometimes it definitely feels like a physical thing. I will experience tightness in the chest and palpitations, or that sinking feeling in the chest that feels like hitting an air pocket during a flight. Other times, it feels like a nervous system thing, where I get overcome with a nervous, anxious, panicked sensation, starting with a tingling in the nerves. It’s all so new, out of the blue and daunting. Meditation and breath work have been very helpful. Between Dan Harris’s Ten Percent Happier meditation app and James Nestor’s book Breath, I’ve learned and regularly practiced several tools of mindful meditation and nose breathing that have helped me through this one day at a time, but it hasn’t been perfect.
When I was visiting Cleveland a few weeks ago, I was on a walk with my brother and his dog when I was overcome with that nervous panic again. I have no idea what triggered the episode, which had my heart rate going fast for the rest of the day. By late afternoon, I wasn’t feeling much better and asked my sister to take me to the emergency room. After waiting six hours, I was finally seen by a doctor. Bloodwork, a chest x-ray and an EKG showed no physical problems beyond a rapid heartbeat. I was given an Ativan and a prescription for more. The doctor made it clear that the Ativan was a band-aid and that I needed to consult with my doctor for a deeper dive and a long term solution.
I flew back to NYC the following day and had an appointment with my doctor a few days later. After more bloodwork, there was still no evidence that anything is physically awry. And yet I’m often easily tired, I’m sometimes winded after two flights of stairs, I still get the occasional heart palpitations, I’m newly nervous in some outside situations and I’m frightened about all of it.
What I’m experiencing, though, seems to be very consistent with things I’ve read about post-COVID symptoms. In recent articles in The New York Times on heart health after COVID and treatments for long COVID symptoms, otherwise healthy and fit patients have suddenly developed cardiovascular issues and anxiety that nearly identically map to what I’ve been going through. But when would I have had COVID?
I almost certainly had it late January / early February 2020, before we knew what was what. At the time, I figured it was bronchitis. I had a really rough and dry cough, and I was sweating through my bed sheets. It lasted about 10 days. (And I NEVER get sick.) By the time I got my first COVID test five months later, antibodies were not detected. I was vaccinated and boosted as soon as the shots were available to me, and I tested negative whenever we had tests at my job at the time.
But, in the fall of 2021, when I had left my job and started working from home, there is a distinct possibility that I had gotten COVID and remained asymptomatic. I had not been tested between late summer and Christmas Eve. This suspected coronavirus infection is the best I can think of because, as I said, my experiences with these heart and nerve issues are perfectly described by these post-COVID reports.
What I’m hoping is that the symptoms eventually fade away, as doctors in the articles say they should with these post-COVID cases. In the meantime, I have some new medications: one I take daily and others I take as needed. I’m also seeing a therapist and just started getting help with my nervous system from a trauma and creativity coach. Add to that a very heart-healthy (and largely plant-based) diet, daily meditation, breathing exercises, bike rides and good sleep. I’m also making a renewed effort to connect more with the people in my life, since it’s distinctly possible that there’s a little PTSD after being thrown into such isolation for so long with the pandemic.
I also managed to score an appointment with Mount Sinai’s Center for Post-COVID Care, which is specializing in treatment for people experiencing these symptoms. Essentially, I’m throwing everything at this that I can think of and taking actions.
Some days, I feel good. Other days, I don’t. After a streak of really good days, I met my friend Will for lunch in the East Village this past weekend. On the subway ride to meet him, I started to get that anxious feeling again. The panic… the fear. I did some breathing exercises, which certainly helped a little. But by the time I stepped out of the subway, I started to feel like I did when I went to the emergency room in Cleveland. So I took an Ativan. It felt like a defeat. I had been doing so well.
When I met up with Will, who knows what’s been going on, I told him how I was feeling, that I took an Ativan and that I felt like I’d failed. He put his arms around me and I immediately cried with relief. He assured me that I hadn’t failed. The medication is there to help when needed, and I needed it. For the rest of the day, I felt normal. Even good. Maybe it was the Ativan, or maybe it was the love, the embrace and the reassurance from a friend. Or a combination of all of it.
I don’t know what’s going to happen. I do know that I’m not alone. Between my family, my network of friends, my doctor, my therapist, the coach helping me with my nervous system and, of course, my dogs, I have a good support team. The first step in assembling this support network was admitting that something was wrong and that I needed help – that I couldn’t do this alone. Thanks to the amazing people in my life, both personal relations and professionals, I don’t have to.
Thanks for reading. I’ll keep you posted.
P.S. If you’re struggling with something, ask for help.
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