Dad was a jock. After dinner, he would take his three daughters onto the baseball fields across the street, and hit pop ups into the air for us to catch. He played tennis every day into his 83rd year.
When we complained of feeling sick, he would remind us, “You’re good stock.”
In his mind, like cattle we were bred with strong bones and heart. There was no excuse for poor health.
Mother believed that, too. The standard directive, if we complained of being under the weather on a school morning would be, “Get up and get dressed.” We went to school.
Dad and Mother’s heritage of valuing good health is one of the reasons I made it through a medical crisis two years ago. The nightmare was a ‘perfect storm’ of knee replacement surgery, pandemic induced isolation, and a wrong medication I had been taking as a treatment for anxiety.
I had my first panic attack when I was admitted to Labor and Delivery for my second child’s birth. The prenatal classes had warned about that, so I wasn’t surprised. Then, they became more frequent in my 30’s, appearing out of nowhere, when I traveled. I began reading self help books on the subject. They didn’t really help.
The people around you can’t tell you’re in misery because the symptoms are invisible. You feeling like you have to go to the bathroom immediately. Armpits sweat. Nausea rolls. There’s no blood spurting. “What’s the big deal?” They say unhelpfully. “Just stop it.”
When we moved to Florida, psychiatric doctors at University of South Florida did a thorough workup and labeled my condition “General Anxiety Disorder.” They put me on an antidepressant and also Klonopin, to help with the Restless Leg Syndrome I also had. Kill two birds with one stone. That was in 2005.
But the anxiety around travel didn’t totally dissipate. I wanted to enjoy life more.
In the next years, God gave me a gift: psychologist Dr. Mary Ann Frost. She taught me fresh perspectives on living with my feelings. Duane would go along on my visits. As a person living with a person with anxiety, It was helpful for him, too. Her ideas were practical. “Buy an ugly cheap chair and sit it in your living room. Every time you feel sad, you have to sit in that chair to think your sad thoughts. It’s the only place where you can be sad.” I got the point. Experience feelings, but don’t let them be the master.
I chose ‘be healthy’ activities to help with mood, and was walking, biking, and taking aerobic exercise classes. Then chronic knee pain, from osteoarthritis, began making it difficult to continue. In 2020, I had my first major surgery and had my right knee replaced.
I had been taking the Klonopin, for RLS, and mild anxiety, under my primary care doctor’s supervision, for almost 20 years. Duane never could refill a prescription for me. “It’s a controlled substance,” he said. That meant it was a serious medicine. I knew it.
The anxiety over those years was never completely out of the picture. Yet, like the T-shirts, ‘life was good.’ If anyone would ask me, “Are you depressed?” I would say, “Of course not.” But I did worry about panic attacks, and did have them off and on. I had sought out Dr. Frost to eliminate that segment of my life completely. She knew I was on the klonopin but wished I wasn’t.
When I came home from the hospital, Duane quickly realized that the medicines I was given to relieve pain after surgery would not mix with the klonopin. I had a miserable month; not from post op knee pain, but from drug withdrawal. I have a new compassion for people who are thrown into jail to go ‘cold turkey.’
I woke up every morning asking Duane to take me to the hospital.
“I want to get hooked up to something to make me feel better,” I pleaded.
Almost every night, as I sat on the sofa with my surgical knee propped up, I would have the shakes and panic. This happened during the height of the pandemic. Psychiatrists’ schedules were packed with patients fighting depression. I’m not sure how I found or got in to see Dr. Darren Rothschild. As a physician himself, Duane knew I needed professional help to know how to deal with the klonopin withdrawal.
At my first appointment, I found hope that I could feel better. Dr. Rothschild was also realistic about the challenge it would be, since my brain had ‘adjusted’ to living on klonopin for so long. He and Duane worked out a mathematically precise method for cutting back on it, over the next months.
“This will probably take a year,” he said. “That morning mental ‘darkness’ you’re feeling is actually the klonopin that’s not helping you anymore.”
I was motivated to be well. To get my brain health back. At the same time, I was scared. I argued:
“I agree I want my brain to be better. But klonopin has helped me have some control over anxiety.”
“The Klonopin is going to continue to wear down your brain function,” Dr. Rothschild warned. “I can give you another, safer medication to try, for dealing with the side effects of going off Klonopin.”
That sounded hopeful. And there was more help.
“You need to see a psychologist to talk through more strategies for dealing with anxiety. I have another recommendation: a psychologist specially trained in desensitization, Dr. Zavrou.”
Whoa. It seemed like I would be spending hours going to doctors. However, I would rather do that than face panic by myself. Duane was supportive, but couldn’t help me, like these specialists. I made the appointments.
With a new antidepressant, and new medicine for the anxiety, and hours of therapy, over the next months, much of the panic subsided. It did take almost a year before I was completely off the Klonopin.
“Some people never get off it,” Dr. Rothschild told me. He nudges, “Jill, someday I’d like you to believe that peace doesn’t come out of a pill bottle.”
I still take an antidepressant every day, and often consider Dr. Frosts’ words about facing life’s imperfections (‘Choose how to interpret events’). I choose healthy habits. I attend church every week and read the Bible every day. When I get discouraged beauty cheers me; a walk in nature, listening to classical music (Dad again) or looking through family pictures. The doctors taught me: Get your daily exercise. No caffeine. Keep going, even if you’re feeling sick/anxious.
I wrote this because I want my friends and family to know that they’re not alone in the struggle for good health. Another reason is that I believe the only way I was able to get off a strong medicine like Klonopin was with professional help. I want to encourage anyone reading this that help is out there; reach out for it. When I’m feeling weak or going back to old habits, I still hear Dr. Rothschild or Dr. Frost or Dr. Zavrou’s voices. I sense their calm confidence. Our health is worth it.
Dad would approve.