Overcoming the fear and slef-loathing of panic attacks

2011-04-11 00:00

COUNTRY vets frequently make reference to the fascinating people, and especially farming families, with whom they spend so much of their working hours and who enrich their lives in whatever neck of the woods or hills they practise their vocation. Salt of the Earth folk, like Tony and Tisha Forde of Himeville.

When the young vet joined his revered senior partner in Underberg in the mid-seventies, Tony was milking about 130 cows at Inchgarth, his milking parlour big enough to hold 12 cows standing abreast.

For reasons known only to himself, Tony didn’t mind that the greenhorn vet did his monthly herd work and for reasons best known to herself, Tisha always provided a delicious cake for tea when the men had finished working with the cattle. This became a ritual, and must have contributed to his sprightly jumping out of bed when waking on the last Friday of each month, even if there was a 12-degree frost outside.

But, on that fateful last Friday in April of 1993, something dreadful happened.

It was alongside the big gum trees where the district road passed behind Ralph Hardingham’s house at North End. On a glorious autumn morning. Without a care in the world. A sudden tightening in his chest accompanied by an awful and terrifying feeling of doom.

He jammed on the brakes. Something terrible, awful, was imminent, he didn’t know what it could be, but a huge black cloud of doom began descending on him. Terror, sheer desperate terror.

He crawled across the seat and curled up into a ball where the passenger’s feet would be, closed his eyes tightly shut and began whimpering. He didn’t know how long he stayed like that. Maybe a quarter hour, a half hour?

Then the sense of awful helplessness, of doom, slowly passed, and in a state of befuddlement and drenched in sweat, he arrived at the cowshed. He didn’t mention it to his friend, and Tony’s good humour lifted his spirits somewhat. The morning passed, rounded off with Tisha’s usual bright personality and delicious tea and cake.

That night, after putting their two little daughters to bed, he sat up with his young wife. They were part of a happy community, had become part of a happy, successful and growing vet practice, and were in good health. His health was so good, in fact, that during the Easter school holidays he had spent four days camping and climbing to the top of peaks in the high Berg with his schoolmaster brother. Furthermore, he was in training for his seventh Comrades Marathon, and had hopes for another silver medal.

Sitting with his lovely wife that evening, he was torn between telling her of the frightening experience (and calling on her nursing experience and compassion) and on the other hand not saying anything that might cause her to fret. The latter option won through and they went to bed with his “turn” undisclosed.

The next day, on his farm rounds the anxiety was constantly coursing around and between his thoughts, and he was agonising that another attack would flatten him. Was he on the verge of insanity? His usual banter with the farmers and their stockmen disappeared. He forced himself to smile at any light-hearted chat, and he didn’t cojole them with Sundowns having thumped Chiefs the weekend before, as was his habit.

The day passed without another “do”. And the next, and the next, yet the fear that another weird episode would appear was always on his peripheral conscience.

Folk who knew him well asked kindly whether there was anything bothering him and he passed it off lightly with: “Aah, you know, just work-related stress, not enough holiday!”

The month passed without another hiccup. On May 31, he lined up for the Comrades Marathon in Pietermaritzburg with 11 000 other runners. As always, the fantastic vibe was electric, what with the Chariots of Fire music and lots of nervous first-time runners asking advice from an “old hand”. He was confident of a good race. The rooster call, the gunshot and, having a good seeding he was soon into his comfortable race stride. Life was good and as the sun rose during the mobs’ passage through Ashburton he felt like the proverbial million dollars.

At Camperdown, after about 25 kilometres, or two hours of running, his bladder requested a pit stop so he veered off the road to some big trees and he adeptly watered the weeds at their trunks. He turned to rejoin his fellow runners then froze … and collapsed.

The same awful avalanche of doom overwhelmed him: his legs turned to jelly and his mind went into turmoil. This time, the attack didn’t lift fully and after what seemed like an age he forced himself to get up and stumble onto the road. He was unable to run, with legs that felt pathetically weak. He couldn’t speak, his mind engulfed in inexplicable panic, so he walked slowly towards Cato Ridge. Hundreds of runners passed him, other silver-medal hopefuls teasing him on walking at such an early stage.

“Started a bit too fast, hey.”

“Underestimated the distance, did you China?”

To cut a long story short, that was about the longest, most horrible day of his life. He staggered and stumbled his way to Durban in a bewildered haze. While scores of runners galloped around the Kingsmead field with grins all over their faces, waving to the bright crowds, he walked woodenly, hating every step and hating himself for “letting the side down” and becoming a psychiatric nutcase.

He suffered a few more of these out-of-the-blue episodes during the weeks that followed and became quite introverted, convinced that his mind had flipped. No longer could he hide it from his wife, and with her encouragement he sought professional help from a boyhood acquaintance, now a respected specialist psychiatrist, Dr Stewart Lund.

“My friend, read this,” the doctor said after hearing the description of the Inchgarth, Comrades and subsequent experiences. He opened the pages of a reference book to a chapter on panic disorder. It all fitted in so well. With professional reassurance and a prescription for a tried-and-trusted anxiety and panic remedy, he returned to leading his normal idyllic life.

I began this piece of writing way back in 1993. I still look forward to visiting Inchgarth, every fortnight now, where David Forde and his excellent manager, Doug Armstrong, now milk over 800 cows in a 64-point rotary parlour.

The senior Fordes have moved to their second farm, Dieu Donne, on the Sani Pass road, where their son-in-law, Pete Bodmann, and their daughter, Sandy, milk another lovely herd of Holsteins. Tony and Tisha frequently join us afterwards on the veranda where we marvel at the view of Ndlovini mountain and behind it the great peaks of the Berg, laugh and spoil ourselves to second slices of scrumptious cake.

Soon after my condition was diagnosed, I attended some meetings of the support group in Pietermaritzburg, and was at first astonished, then in a way relieved, that many other successful and normal people have the same, or similar, psychoses.

Today, 18 years later, my story has helped console and reassure a small wagon-load of fellow sufferers and their families.

While society once saw anxiety, depression, panic and bipolar disorders as forms of weakness, or worse still, disease, thanks to groups like the South African Anxiety and Depression Support Group, these conditions are recognised simply as chemical imbalances in the brain.

We folk who are afflicted by them might just as well have diabetes, short-sight, crooked toes, big bums, be somewhat deaf or whatever, for all the stigma that was once associated with mood disorders.

With the Lord’s guidance and the use of a few little tablets and/or psychological counselling, folk who are prone to these mental wobblies can lead perfectly normal, happy and productive lives.

And can climb high mountains, run good marathons, eat chocolate cake and have lots and lots of very special friends.


• Tod Collins is still practising as a vet in Underberg.



What is a panic attack?

A DISCRETE period of intense fear or discomfort, in which four (or more) of the following symptoms develop abruptly and reach a peak within 10 minutes:

• palpitations, or accelerated heart rate;

• sweating;

• trembling or shaking;

• sensations of shortness of breath or smothering;

• feeling of choking;

• chest pain or discomfort;

• nausea or abdominal distress;

• feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint;

• de-realization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalisation (being detached from oneself);

• fear of losing control or going insane;

• sense of impending death;

• paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations); and

• chills or hot flashes.

Panic attacks usually begin abruptly, reach a peak within 30 minutes, and subside over the next few hours.

— Wikipedia.org

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