It started innocently enough. I visited my granddaughter at college in early September—she’s the one that called me every day during the pandemic and the third of my four grandchildren off to college. The Friday after arriving home, I developed a horrific headache. I thought it would resolve quickly—sleep it off. But it lasted through September. Then came October. It would go away over night and come on quickly in the morning. Needless to say, I imagined the worst—tumor (even though the pain was mostly in my back and neck), long COVID (that didn’t occur to me until well into October), brain inflammation, Parkinson’s—a different catastrophe every day.
I saw an ENT doctor. Sinus? Allergy? I was clean as a whistle. As October wore on, I became incredibly anxious. One Sunday, Jim, my husband, had to talk me down as I learned to be anxious about being anxious—not a good thing.
My doctor did his best—a neurological test was perfect as was my blood test. He prescribed a pep talk—he believed in me; referral to a mental health professional; and an antidepressant that I was too anxious to take after reading about the side effects on the information sheet that came with the prescription.
In some deep place, I knew this was “all in my head” but anxiety overrode rational thought. Meanwhile, I was on a two-month waiting list for my doctor’s referral to a therapist, and everywhere else I called, all I heard was “We’re not accepting new patients.”
So I did what any good academic would do, bought and read books and scanned websites. There are some great resources out there, people committed to helping the suffering. One is Dr. Howard Schubiner, in Michigan, an authority on mind-body syndrome. By now I’d diagnosed myself. I bought the book and did his eight-week program. It helped. I also did PT, which also helped, but some days my neck and back felt on fire, which fed the anxiety.
About Thanksgiving I started feeling better, so I went ahead with cataract surgery. Maybe that would help. It didn’t, although the doctor called the results “amazing.” I was thrown into a new panic during my recovery and had difficulties getting new glasses. I postponed the second eye.
Muddling through Christmas, I faked it, while inside feeling woozy. I started carrying hiking poles because I was afraid I’d fall—then, another perfect neurological test. “Your balance is amazing.” I wanted Ativan, but all I got was a lecture about how bad it is for someone my age—really? I should live in a constant cold shower (one of the recommendations for lowering anxiety) because there’s a correlation between Ativan and cognitive decline? Fortunately, my gynecologist wasn’t so opinionated, although I didn’t take it often—it made me enormously tired.
In January, my turn with the psychologist finally came up—and she cancelled! A week later, I did my first virtual appointment and liked her immediately—the luck of the draw worked in my favor. She’s been supportive, available, responsive, and skilled.
Like any good consumer, I turned to Facebook advertisements—once you look at something, they never stop coming in your feed. I now own a sunlight, a device you hold in your hand to help you sleep, a neck massager with heat, a bra to keep my shoulders back, my own tens device, a device for stretching your neck, a Theracane, and lessons in loosening your fascia from Daily Om. American Express loves me.
I’ve learned a lot about pain—that it really is in the head mostly, that childhood trauma and other traumas settle in the body and the brain finds pain pathways. But the brain can relearn, too. People do get over chronic pain even when there’s a basis in the body. Two people can have the same problem, and one will have pain, while the other will not. I learned about an app called CurableHealth.com. It’s a program started by young entrepreneurs who had struggled with chronic pain and tinnitus. It saved me on many days—podcasts with experts, information, meditations, writing exercises, and brain training—all for $69 a year. Another is the DARE app for anxiety.
Whew! It’s been a journey with good days and bad days – and I am not alone. The National Council on Aging says that between 3% and 14% of older adults suffer from anxiety and that estimate is based on reported cases only. Older adults have more problems with medications, since they are often taking other medications. My doctor prescribed three different antidepressants, while also saying “There is no pill for this.”
That said, I’ve learned that there are supportive friends, spouses, and family; there’s an abundance of YouTube videos about reducing anxiety and meditations; there are apps for meditation and helpful books. These offer “solutions,” which, mainly advise “accept it and get on with the business of living and what matters to you”. Easier said than remembered when you awaken at 4am in a sweat, and you don’t know why.
My heart goes out to all chronic pain and PTSD sufferers, as well as those with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, the most common in older adults. Doctors can prescribe band-aids but getting to the root of the problem takes hard work and support. I see many articles in newspapers about the lack of mental health services for every age and the importance of having insurance coverage so people can access these services. I’ve experienced it firsthand and as one of the lucky, with insurance and now a qualified counselor.
In my bookcase directly in my sightline from my desk is a book entitled This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing. That’s my dream. It keeps me going as does an affirmation to get on with the business of life.