How I manage panic attacks and stress-related cyclic vomiting syndrome
I was sprawled on the bathroom floor at three in the morning, out cold, blood pouring from my nose.
I had woken moments before, suddenly sick and typically stressed, worrying about tomorrow. Worried about all of the tomorrows. My stomach hurt. Nausea rolled over me in white-hot waves. I stood up and stumbled down the stairs to use the toilet. I then fainted without forewarning, falling backwards and pounding my head on the floor.
There I lay, a quivering wreck, ruined mentally and physically by the stress of work amid conflicting mental health crises. When I finally came around, starry-eyed and cloudy headed, my first thoughts were drenched in panic.
What if I could not make it in?
What if I had to take a day off?
What would people think, and how would I ever make amends?
My head was pressed against the cold linoleum. I could only move my legs. Mum and dad appeared out of nowhere – thankfully, mercifully. I think Nath, my brother, was there too, and he may have even been the one who discovered me in grim distress. I cannot remember.
Towels were ferried into the bathroom, mopping up the blood of capitalist exertion. My harrowing thoughts darted in fragmented shards of agony. I thought I was going to die.
My experience of panic attacks
To most people, this would be an alien experience. It may happen once, possibly twice, in a lifetime. But to me, this was life. I was mired in a streak of seven or eight consecutive months in which I threw up, fainted or blacked out at least once due to inner psychological turmoil. It became just another thing to deal with, on top of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, unrequited love and a narcissistic boss who did not understand.
Only recently, far removed from that toxic environment, have I come to terms with what happened during that period. I suffered with stress-related panic attacks and their attendant consequences. That was not how life was supposed to be.
Doctors never helped me in this battle. They ordered blood tests and heart scans, tilt tests and pressure measurements. One doctor even gave me folic acid, without much explanation, but that just made me worse. It catalysed sickness rather than curing it. I was left banging my head against a brick wall, often literally.
Every month, I had a funny turn, as mum called it. Once, Patrycja and I were enjoying a Christmas break in Wales only for me to vomit out the excess stress of a completed year. Another time, I woke up with my head against the front door, having fallen down the stairs and passed out. I fainted into the bath on another occasion, lying undiscovered, and there was a time when the illness struck on Merseyrail and I had to text family members to collect me at the station before another night of rampant sickness ensued.
Dealing with potential syncope
The closest I ever got to a diagnosis was syncope, which is marked by temporary losses of consciousness caused by falling blood pressure. Attempting to explain my most gruesome experience, one doctor told me that our blood pressure naturally plummets when we use the toilet.
However, it just never rang true. Not really. No matter how many times I regurgitated the history, no doctor could connect the dots between my mental ill health and my physical capitulation. I could, but nobody would listen.
I was told to take my time getting out of bed. I was told to stand up from my desk incrementally. I was told to sit down when I went for a piss. Apparently, this passes for treatment when a merciless Conservative government cuts healthcare resources to such an extent that doctors have neither the time nor the skill to suggest anything else.
How I overcame stress-induced cyclic vomiting syndrome
Frustrated and worried, Patrycja dug to the furthest reaches of Polish Google, unearthing a rare disorder known as cyclic vomiting syndrome, which appears to list all of my symptoms: sickness, dizziness, sweating, shivering, stomach cramps, hallucination and, yes, vomiting. It seemed like a match, but I knew there was more beneath the surface.
I never missed a day of work while suffering these episodes. They happened almost exclusively at night, usually well after midnight. After a few hours of intense pain, nausea and bewilderment, I typically crumbled with exhaustion, falling asleep with a cold flannel on my head, surrounded by concerned loved ones. Then I answered the call three hours later, hauling myself out of bed and into the office.
Why did I do that? Well, somebody had to. I was the Commercial Director of a multi-million-pound company, and a certain dedication is expected of such people. Meanwhile, the firm was plagued by a toxic culture surrounding mental health, and disclosing psychological troubles led to a chorus of prejudiced garbage from all sides. It was easier to say nothing and suffer in silence than open up about relatively inexplicable trauma.
Senior personnel ordered me to stop taking antidepressants. Managers questioned my dosage. People gossiped about my appearance and behaviour, freely discussing my weight and medical history. They used phrases like scatty and all over the place. Every day, there was a public forum to determine whether I had taken my happy pills. The whole thing ruined me. I felt imprisoned and unsupported. Lest anyone remember that I made the company £4.9 million on my own in two years.
After struggling with suicidal thoughts, I quit my job in a bid to reclaim my own mind from the corporate morass. That was eleven months ago. I have only had one bout of sickness since, and that was attributed to food poisoning. Never be afraid to cut people out and make positive changes in your life. It can make a world of difference.
I still struggle with anxious distress and panic attacks, but the murky nadir of work-induced sickness is long gone. I no longer sit clutching my stomach at four in the morning, retching up depression. I no longer wake up to be terrorised by competing illnesses. And I no longer lie on linoleum floors after midnight, paralysed by the weight of capitalist-wrought harassment.
What does a panic attack look like? Decoding the stigma
Now, I mainly struggle in neon-lit supermarkets and overcrowded sports stadiums. Yes, I’m the guy who stands outside Primark holding the bags while his fiancé shops inside. At least once a week, I find myself walking out of a room, situation or building to find some space. I’m drawn to fresh air, which acts as a temporary cure for my meltdowns.
Panic attacks are not confined to dramatic panting and theatrical outbursts. The silent ones are often the most difficult to overcome. I’m keen to raise awareness about this overlooked and misunderstood area of mental health, teaching through experience that stress can be managed, stifled and eradicated, replenishing life that once was devoid of hope.
Most people I meet or speak to have no idea about my struggles. It seems logically redundant that somebody can be sat at a desk, smiling through the small talk, while dying inside, struggling to control even the most innocuous of thoughts. Yet that is what happens every single day in every single office up and down the country.
Tomorrow morning, take a look around and see if you can ease that burden inside somebody else. Compassion is the key to unlocking a panic-free future. Together, we can deal with this worrying epidemic and recalibrate the human mind for happier days ahead.