In a previous post, I said I was too scared to write what I deemed a risky piece on my blog. This is that post.
Throughout my pre-cancer life, many people have admired my fortitude and tenacity. Tarnished by life’s traumas, I still kept my platinum mind focused. Many folks used to tell me I was the strongest person they knew: No matter how difficult the road, no matter the odds against me, I was a locomotive — confidently and courageously accomplishing my dreams and goals.
Then breast cancer came in 2001.
I am fortunate to have been NED (no evidence of disease) for so long. And I’m grateful for all my abundant blessings. Those with metastatic cancer have it so much worse than me, that it’s almost embarrassing to write this post. After all, comparatively speaking, I have it easier.
But now is the time for me to come clean.
I’ve been living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and panic disorder for 14 years.
Breast cancer and, more specifically, its treatments assaulted my physical health. But this life-threatening trauma shoved in my face has truly been my Achilles’ heel.
My mental health has been compromised. My brain chemistry is forever altered — and not in a good way.
In my case, untreated PTSD results in sensory flashbacks, such as re-living the cancer experience every night, smelling the chemo room, feeling I am in ICU again, feeling the prick of an IV needle, tasting the metallic sensation of treatment, and generally living terror-filled days. Any thought, emotion, and/or image can cause some mighty heavy triggers.
It is hell.
It is isolating.
During the time of my chemotherapy and radiation treatments, my oncologist introduced me to a low-dose antidepressant and my internist prescribed a low-dose anti-anxiety medication. I had admitted to running into bathroom stalls at work to cry. My car was my confessional chamber, where I would collapse, curl up, pray, cry, and isolate myself from the cruel world. I had several public break-downs. My doctors sought to decrease my mental anguish.
Then cancer treatment eventually ended — and I know how lucky I am for it to have ended — and my loved ones expected me to get on with life. But, instead, despite the psych meds I was on, my mental condition kept deteriorating each year with increased flashbacks, panic, and depression — thanks to having had cancer, the gift that keeps on giving.
The strong, rambunctious part of me was dying, it seemed.
Eventually, hesitatingly, I sought out the help of a kind, brilliant psychiatrist who ultimately figured out the right medication cocktail. I was initially wary of increased dosages and types of psychotropic medications. I was so afraid I’d become addicted to them. And I thought that seeing a psychiatrist and taking psych meds would dull my emotions, as well as label me “crazy.” Like so much of the public, I attached a stigma to those with mental health problems.
But I surrendered to my psychiatrist’s directives. And thus — with medication and psychotherapy — I fought my way back to mental health.
The side effects of the medications include balance issues that are difficult to live with. It’s hard navigating stairs, and I can fall easily. I’m unsteady on my feet. In fact, I can’t walk a straight line (yes, I would flunk a sobriety test). And there’s the weight gain (ugh). I exercise and mostly eat right, but these psych meds make losing weight seem insurmountable.
My internist reminds me, though: “It’s better to have weight gain and be mentally stable as you are than to be off the medication and lose the weight, but compromise your mental health.”
For me, medication alone wasn’t enough to quell PTSD. Right when chemo and radiation treatments ended, my relationship with a gifted psychotherapist began and continues to this day. We work on effective ways to cope with panic and depression. With her help, I’ve developed a rather effective toolbox, which includes art, exercise, writing, deep breathing, and being with friends.
But my salvation in eradicating flashbacks for the most part has been a treatment successfully used for war veterans, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). You can click here to find out more about it, but basically, EMDR is a therapy where a patient recalls a trauma while receiving sensory input, such as watching an object move from side to side. The thought is that eye movements help one re-process trauma and emerge with new insights.
I’m lucky that my psychotherapist is trained in EMDR, and I have responded exceedingly well to this treatment. I’m glad to say I rarely have flashbacks, though I still get triggers and have to be careful what information I’m exposed to.
What is great about this treatment is that there is no additional medication involved. What is not so good is that, unless one is a war veteran, insurance often doesn’t cover it. I paid out of pocket for two EMDR sessions. They weren’t cheap, but they were worth every penny.
After all, one cannot put a price on mental health.
For me, the road toward sound mental health is ever evolving and always enlightening. Nonetheless, I have no illusions: Every day still presents challenges for me. But, while PTSD and panic disorder are here to stay, I am living a quality life nonetheless.
And now that I’ve written this post, I finally am free.
As the American rock band The Eagles say in their song “Already Gone,” “So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains. And we never even know we have the key.”
A special thank you to my friends Sharon Greene for being so honest about her PTSD and Nancy Stordahl for writing her post “That Other ‘F’ Word.” You both gave me the courage to write and publish this post so shortly into the New Year.