I Spent 4 weeks in Volterra in Summer – with Anxiety

I Spent 4 weeks in Volterra in Summer – with Anxiety

The blog temporarily recommences!

Yes, back in late July 2020, Niamh and I spent 4 weeks over in Volterra; 2 of them working, 2 of them playing. However, this time I was not quite myself.

In very late April, I noticed a little diaphragm pain after a walk, but didn’t really think anything of it. Early Friday morning of that week, I woke with a burning sensation in my chest. It was alarming, but I shook it off after an hour or so and went back to sleep. It came back with a vengeance on Sunday night, along with tingling arms, sweats etc. It was the May bank holiday weekend, so my doctor was off on Monday. The symptoms stayed with me through Monday and Tuesday, so I called the doctor then and she agreed that I go for Covid testing at Tallaght stadium. I went next day, and got tested (well, that was weird!) – that day the symptoms had lessened, so I felt mostly ok. Then they came and went every second day, more or less. The problem with this was, when I was bad (sweats, tiredness, breathing issues had come too, limb and chest pain, general malaise, weakness in the legs) you couldn’t remember it every being good again, and when you were good you thought you’d shaken it off and wondered if it was really as bad as I remembered. Then it came back, and depressed you into the bargain.

Anyway, the results came back, and they were negative – the doctor proudly declared and was ready to hang-up. “Hang on,” I said. “Then what the hell is wrong with me?” She said maybe a chest infection, and asked me what I thought. I am no medical professional, so I went ahead with it. I was given weak anti-biotics and was told to phone if the symptoms worsened. I had just been treated for a chest infection a couple of months ago, and was for the first time in living memory on antibiotics, I thought myself hugely unlucky, as I feared I also had gastritis, and was supposed to get a breath test – but that was cancelled due to the emergency.

A week later, the symptoms came and went wreaking havoc with my nerves, so I called the GP again. Was put on to another doctor in the practice. He said that I should go to a Covid assessment centre. I’d never heard of these. Their existence seems to be kept quiet. Anyway, they were off on the edge of Naas, and a couple of PPE’d up doctors there give you a brief medical, take your very recent medical history and (without re-testing you), put their finger in the air and say whether or not they think you have Covid. Several crucial things happened here. In fairness to these doctors, they were probably on edge, and have to put up with potentially diseased people who could end them and/or their families – fair play to them for sticking their necks out.

1) I told them that I was an anxious person at times, but wasn’t clinically diagnosed; they gave me platitudes
2) I attempted to give them a medical history going back 6 months (chest infection, imagined heart issues, possible gastritis), but was cut across and asked about more immediate problems
3) They thought I actually had Covid, gave me a leaflet, asked me to isolate and sent me on my way

This was head-wrecking – why weren’t they testing people there? I went home an isolated and talked to a lady I knew who was getting over symptoms, who agreed that I had it. Again a week passed, and the symptoms came and (occasionally) went. Towards the end of another week, the symptoms still weren’t going away (after the purported 3 weeks), and I felt that my chest and heart were beginning to labour. I called my doctor and he sent me to Naas A&E. They were split between respiratory issues and non-respiratory. I was pretty much on my own, so I was seen pretty quickly. The doctor I got this time listened to everything I had to say (thank God), gave me a manual stomach exam and took bloods and gave me a chest x-ray. The results of the x-ray came back quickly and I was told that, despite having infection-like symptoms, my lungs were completely clear and my heart was ok. The bloods came back a couple of hours later, and everything came back clear (no issues with the heart or blood, kidneys etc.).

So again, what the hell did I have? He said, “Either you have clinical anxiety or are experiencing a major gastric event. Or both.” He gave me stronger anti-biotics, proton pump inhibitors (PPIs are pills with drastically reduce acid production in your stomach), pain killers and told me to get an endoscope down the throat, rather than have the breath test.

My GP got the results and told me I’d have to wait for the endoscope, as hospitals weren’t doing procedures until July. I asked him to set something up for me. I fixated on the results of that endoscope. It was a couple more weeks before I got call from the Beacon asking me if I could wait ’til July to be registered. I said yes, as I thought that I had to wait ’til July anyway. I experienced a few nasty mental-illess issues in the intervening period, and went and bought yearly subscriptions for Headspace and Calm on the iPhone. The former is excellent for beginner’s meditation; the latter is good for led meditations, and is a bit more spiritual, if that’s your thing. Also I experienced the following:

a) Waking up (presumably from a dream), in a panic attack. I didn’t know who I was for about 20 seconds but had a sensation that a group of people wanted me to do something. I saw Niamh, which grounded me as to who I was, but it was another couple of minutes before I calmed myself.
b) When going out for a walk I looked at people going by, kids playing etc. Normally I’d smile at seeing kids play, but the right chemicals weren’t firing off in my brain. They might as well have been stick figures. This happened a few times.
c) Sitting and watching Niamh. Knowing who she was, and that I loved her, but again the chemicals weren’t firing. I had to do some mindfulness stuff to calm myself again – but in truth I just wanted to go off somewhere and cry my guts out.
d) Insomnia (getting sleep maybe only 2 nights in the week). Thanks to Headspace, I was able to get something restful while just keeping my eyes closed.

Thankfully, most of these symptoms are gone – although insomnia is still an issue 2-3 times a week, and I also find it difficult to talk to people in work face-to-face, or drive/walk long distances without Niamh. I think this reduction in symptoms is because (sorry about all these bullet points!):

  • I had been taking CBT/Wellness-based counselling over Zoom – through my work’s Employee Assistance Programme, as well as using Headspace and Barry MacDonagh’s DARE book;
  • I read up on PPI drugs, and it would seem that, for some people, PPIs are the Devil’s piss – responsible for a huge range of side-effects, including mental issues. I arranged with my doctor to halve my dose (I’ve sinced halved it again) – note here: I may go back on these if my gastritis doesn’t ease up;
  • I was proactive and phoned the Beacon on a whim to see if they had a date for my exam. They called me back and said “How’s June 22nd?” I nearly leapt down the phone in an attempt to have carnal relations with the young lady on the other end. I gratefully accepted. In hindsight, I was a little mad at my GP for not fighting this fight for me.

I had the endoscope and then arranged for face-to-face counselling, on an accelerated basis – I’ve since had 18 weeks of it, and between that, the apps and CBT I’ve been slowly building resilience. The scope indicated that I had a little gastritis, so I still had to take the PPIs, but I quickly phased them out – I am not completely adverse to going back on them if my gastritis isn’t sorted. Biopsy results yielded nothing sinister, thank God.

So here I am with both anxiety and gastritis, but some good things are happening (last of the bullets):

  • I finished the second draft of my novel, and 3/4 of the way through the third!
  • My wife and family have amazing throughout all this;
  • Work has also been fantastic. They are allowing me to go to Volterra on July 22nd to work for a couple of weeks, followed by a 2-week holiday there… so a month in Italy – which I’m now (finally!) going to blog;
  • I have lost 50lbs during this time (I was quite overweight), while most sedentary workers have probably put on a few pounds! I have also proved that I can put the weight on, if I really need to.

My symptoms at the time of writing this are getting a full tummy on small meals, stress headaches, and feeling slightly breathless and having issues straying by myself too far from home. For a couple of months, I’ve been journalling my days, and have scored myself of Anxiety, Emotion, and Sleep Quality. The graphs of these, while seriously spikey, are trending in the right direction.

So, I’m going to blog (when I can) that month Niamh and I spent in Volterra between lockdowns – but I may be referring to anxiety from time to time. I hope you enjoy reading it.

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