When we asked readers to tweet about the moment they knew they needed to de-stress, the responses were alarming. Breaking points were marked by health crises, family problems and other types of suffering. We decided to go deeper into some of these stories in the hope that others can recognize signs of extreme stress and start to figure out their own paths to de-stressing.
I sat in the noisy MRI chamber taking stock of the straightforward view of the room that was provided by my little mirror. It was an all-white room with glass between myself and the operator, and as a naturally fidgety person, I tried to hold perfectly still. The kind of trying to hold still where I was concentrating so hard on it that even my heartbeat was making me move too much. I was referred out of the military healthcare system to the local civilian hospital for the MRI. Getting there was a hassle all of its own with traffic being how it is around a military base of 50,000. The prior few weeks I had lower back pain and extremity numbness and tingling. The doctors were reaching for an answer.
Out of the blue in August 2012, I started having weird back pain. I didn't quite know what to make of it. I had completed two half-marathons, multiple obstacle course runs and was training for my first full marathon. I was fit, not in the best shape of my life, but I was a CrossFitter and avid runner. I didn't think it could be my back giving out. After struggling to even walk due to the numbness, tingling, muscle pain and twitching and making the horrible decision to diagnose myself via the Internet, I decided to go to the emergency room. The emergency room doctors couldn't find anything wrong with me. They gave me muscle relaxers and said to come back if anything changes and to see my primary physician for a follow-up.
I reported to my primary doctor the following Monday. She couldn't come up with anything either so she scheduled me for an MRI to see if I had somehow injured my back. These symptoms: extremity numbness and tingling, face tingling, perceived limb weakness, physical back pain, throat tightness, muscle twitching, among others, continued for months. Two MRIs, a CAT scan, multiple visits to the primary physician and a neurology consult later, there allegedly wasn't a thing physically wrong with me. This turned into a health anxiety. What was wrong with me? I had to figure it out and I diagnosed myself with everything on the Internet.
After a couple of months of looking for a physical solution, and after about the millionth time of Googling my symptoms, I happened upon a chart with a list of the physical symptoms of anxiety. The list included all of the above. All I thought is that this couldn't be happening to me; anxiety is something that happens to other people. I've survived 30 months of deployment, jumping out of airplanes, field time in Germany in the winter. Anxiety is something that happens to other people, to weaker people, not me.
Then I read the symptoms of a panic attack and it sounded familiar. A couple of years earlier while on the runway taking off to San Francisco to visit my brother-in-law, I had one of those panic attacks on the plane. Having a panic attack on an airplane is a strange symptom for a paratrooper. Throwing up from motion sickness is one thing. But an anxiety attack? I wasn't even jumping out of the plane that day.
On one of this trips to the primary physician, I received a consult to behavioral health. I explained to the BH specialist that I was having physical pain; this wasn't in my head. I could barely walk. This was real, not imagined. In that time I had also happened upon an article that talked about the prevalence of back pain in veterans with PTSD. I certainly didn't have PTSD. That is also something that happens to other people, not me.
On the first visit to behavioral health where they squeezed me in, we sort of took stock of what was happening that might be causing me stress. I probably should have taken that as a clue to what was wrong with me before the MRIs and CAT scan. The mental health professional asked me about what was going on in my life. I don't know? Let's see, it was September, I had just started a new position for someone one rank above me with some major projects hovering over me. My wife was deployed to Afghanistan in February 2012. I was taking care of my 7-year-old, now diagnosed autism spectrum disorder son with ADHD, and preparing for a future deployment myself a few months after my wife's return -- when, by the way, she and my son would move across the country from Texas to Maryland while I'm deployed to a state that is not the friendly to people like us, you know, gun owners. Who would be stressed out about that? It's not like I was getting shot at.
What I failed to realize is that I was getting shot at. The enemy, life change and stress, was gradually wearing down my defenses and had taken large shots during my two deployments. Two extended deployments, the new position, the current deployment and looking to the future one, taking care of the kid and career and the future move all added up. I was being shot at, mentally and emotionally. I just didn't know it or failed to recognize it until it was too late, until it manifested physically. I think our bodies and brains are programmed to let us know when we've had too much.
It was around January, after months of suffering, when I began to realize that this was all a result of mental stress and anxiety. No sooner had I made that realization and accepted it than the physical symptoms started to fade. Only two trips to the behavioral health specialist and I was starting to get better after about six months of suffering.
So, what did I do different? Did I change my job, ditch the kid, escape on an extended yoga retreat? No, I didn't do any of that. I just recognized the problem and started getting back to the things that made me feel normal: the physical training, running and just doing my job. My wife returned home, which I think was a big help in the anxiety and stress arena.
Some people during these times turn to a higher power and as an atheist that's not a possibility. So, I just did what you're trained to during a close ambush: run directly at it firing everything you have. Address the situation head on, acknowledge it for what it is, accept it and fix it while always assessing.
The one thing this experience did for me was that it made me more empathetic for the soldiers that will address me as a leader in the future with mental/emotional health issues and physical health issues that result in limited duty. I have to sympathize because this can happen to anyone.
Is there a moment you hit a stress breaking point and knew you needed to change your life? If you'd like to share your story, please send personal essays under 1200 words to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration in this series.