Hey there! I’m Amy. 33-year-old New England transplant loving life in Sacramento, California. Since this is my first post on this blog, most people reading it will probably be friends and family, so I’ll save the introduction for the “About Me” page, should you need it.
So those who know me or follow me on social media know 2018 started on a pretty high note for me. I had just landed a new job/promotion, my apartment complex didn’t raise my rent, and I was finally dating a guy who seemed like a real winner. Fast forward to 2019, and oh how things can change in a year. Mr. Right? Not so much. That amazing new job opportunity? Not so amazing after all. My rent? It got jacked.
So not surprisingly, I spent the first few weeks of the New Year pretty stressed out, working an extra, unpaid 10-15 hours a week just to get everything done at the office, while agonizing over my personal finances and eating inordinate amounts of cheese and chocolate to make myself “feel better”. Then came the health scare.
Let me preface this part of the story by saying two things to family and friends:
- I am fine. Seriously. It was a scare, so there was a point when I wasn’t sure if everything would be okay, but it is.
- Do not feel bad that you didn’t know what was going on. That was intentional. I’m usually a very open person, but I was simultaneously terrified and ashamed of myself, so I only talked to a few people about it. I wasn’t ready to share. And I didn’t want to worry anyone until I knew what was going on.
Anyway. It was Sunday night, January 13th. I was in the shower, relaxing (yes, I’m a night showerer – deal with it). Seemingly out of nowhere, I got a sudden, intense headache unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. It felt like the back of my skull would explode at any moment – what I imagine it would feel like to get smashed in the head with a cast-iron skillet. I crumbled to the floor of my shower, held my head and rocked back and forth, willing it to stop. The intense pain subsided a minute or two later, but I still had a mind-blowing (pun probably not appropriate, but intended) headache. I got out of the shower and went straight for the super-strength Excedrin. I don’t usually get headaches. When I do, they’re in the front of my head, usually due to caffeine withdrawal or dehydration. I stopped to do a quick check: no vision problems, no balance issues, no sensitivity to light, I wasn’t lightheaded and I could speak clearly. Maybe this was a migraine? I’d never had one, and everyone says they’re awful. I took the Excedrin, polished off a glass of water, and went to bed.
The next morning, I woke up and the headache wasn’t gone. And it wasn’t any better. It also wasn’t any worse, so I took some more Excedrin and went to work. I was just going to power through the day. But once I was at work, I couldn’t stop thinking about how strange this was, the way the headache came on so intensely and suddenly. I called my doctor’s office and spoke to the nurse. I explained everything to her. She agreed that it was very unusual and set up an appointment for me to see my doctor the next day. She told me I was doing everything right – that I should keep taking the medicine and drinking lots of water. If my symptoms got worse again, I was to go to the Emergency Room immediately. Fortunately, they didn’t.
On Tuesday, the headache was better, but not gone – less pain and mostly just a constant pressure in the back of my skull. I signed in at the doctor’s office and was quickly escorted in so they could take my vitals. I sat down so she could do the whole blood pressure/temperature/pulse thing they do all at the same time. “Huh,” said the nurse. “Your blood pressure is really high. Is it usually that bad?”
“It’s usually a little high,” I admitted with a nervous laugh. “I am pretty out of shape. I should really do something about that.” (I have a lot to say about the shame/stigma that is ingrained in so many of us surrounding body image and health issues, but I’ll save that for another post.)
We waited a few minutes so she could take my blood pressure again. This is pretty standard and it usually goes down a little the second time – in theory, because the patient’s anxiety about being at the doctor’s office has dissipated. That’s exactly what’s always happened to me. But not this time – the numbers were even higher on the second try. A third reading wasn’t any worse, but it was still really high.
When my doctor came in, I told her everything that had happened. She asked me a series of questions. Was I nauseous? No. Was I congested? A little – I’d just kicked a second sinus infection in as many months. How long had I been taking this exact birth control? Since I was in high school. Was this the worst headache of my life? Absolutely.
“Well, Amy,” she began. “You officially qualify for a whole bunch of tests. We need to do a MRI with contrast, so I can see what’s going on with your cardiovascular system. And we need to do a full blood panel to make sure your other levels are OK.”
“OK,” I said, a bit taken aback by the very serious tone she was taking. “One small thing though – how soon can we do all of this? I’m going home to see my best friend and my family in New England and my flight leaves first thing Thursday morning. That’s the day after tomorrow.”
“Amy. You are not to get on a plane until I tell you that you can get on a plane. Is that clear?”
“Umm. Yes,” I said, stunned. “I understand – if you tell me not to fly, I won’t.”
“Good,” she said, her tone softening just a little. Then, looking me dead in the eyes, “Amy, I’m really worried about you. Really worried. I’ve seen women in their 30s throw a clot before – women with high blood pressure taking your birth control.”
“I hear you,” I said. A blood clot… As in a stroke? Holy shit. “Tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it.”
Turns out, the type of headache I’d experienced is often a warning sign of a stroke or cardiovascular event (aka. heart attack). And it’s often the only warning sign you get.
She decided to order a CT Scan – since she was placing a rush on it, they could do it tomorrow (Wednesday). The results would be ready within a couple of hours. If it came back normal, I could go on my trip, with the understanding that we’d have to address the blood pressure issues when I got back and I’d likely still need an MRI, blood work and blood pressure meds. She also wrote me a prescription for a new birth control pill with no estrogen, that I was to begin taking immediately.
As I left her office, my mind was racing. I called my best friend on my way back to the office – as she always does, she talked me down from my impending panic attack. I picked up my new BC after work and went home. Where I promptly worried the night away.
There is a history of strokes and heart attacks in my family. And my doctor’s warning was ringing in my ears…telling me I was at high risk for developing a blood clot. I was so scared. Terrified that I’d have a stroke in my sleep and my cats would eat my eyeballs before anyone knew anything was wrong (I live alone). I went down a self-destructive rabbit hole of shame and guilt and self-loathing for not taking better care of myself. I barely slept at all.
I had my CT scan the next day – it was a surprisingly quick process, though the day felt like it went on FOREVER as I waited for the call from my doctor. It didn’t come until late afternoon.
“So good news,” she began. “After I scared you to death – sorry about that by the way – your CT scan came back perfectly normal! No signs of any bleeding or hemorrhaging in your brain.”
I’m pretty sure my neighbors could hear me collapse in a heavy sigh of relief. Thank god. I got the all-clear to go on my vacation, and we set up a follow-up appointment for the following week to talk about my blood pressure and any tests that I would still need.
The next week, my flight back to California got canceled (yay winter weather) and my follow-up appointment got pushed back to February. A couple weeks after that, I got a third sinus infection and emailed my doc, who prescribed some antibiotics to kick it for good.
As the appointment got closer, I started to get anxious again. I continued to kick myself for being so stupid. For doing this to myself. As part of my usual, self-destructive cycle, I ate ALL THE THINGS that I love, no matter how terrible for me, thinking this would be my Last Hoorah before my doctor would forbid me from eating everything wonderful and delicious ever again. I joined the gym, but I didn’t go – I was too busy drowning in a pool of self-loathing at the biggest pity party I’d ever thrown for myself.
I walked into her office expecting the worst – scary BP levels and the sternest talking-to I’d ever received from a doctor. It definitely started out on a rough note. I stepped on the scale and cringed, thinking to myself, “Fuck. I’ve never seen that number before.” I sat down, discouraged, and rolled up my sleeve for the blood pressure cuff. For what seemed like an eternity, I waited for the machine to stop trying to amputate my arm and just generate the damn numbers.
“Huh,” said the nurse. AGAIN. I braced myself for the result. “Your blood pressure is totally normal!”
“What?!?” I said, jumping out of the chair to read the screen. “How?!?” It didn’t make any sense – if anything, I’d been eating worse than ever lately and wasn’t active at all. She took a second reading, just to be sure, and again, it came back normal.
My doctor was equally surprised to see the numbers. “I thought for sure we’d be putting you on blood pressure meds today,” she said. After answering some more questions about my head (which had been totally fine since my last visit), I asked her how my blood pressure could come back down, when I hadn’t done anything differently. She thinks my old birth control actually caused my high BP. That, in combination with the stubborn sinus infection that was still lingering in my body (unbeknownst to me at the time), created the perfect storm, so to speak.
So I didn’t need meds or a MRI. Phew! But I do still need to get blood work (just to be safe and check all my other levels), make some dietary changes (bye-bye salt and booze), and take periodic BP readings at home. My next follow-up is in May.
I can’t even begin to tell you how relieved I was. I slept SO HARD that night. And then spent several days doing some serious soul-searching.
To say this whole thing was a wake-up call would be cliché, but it’s also true. I am 33 years old and I just had a stroke scare. For real. If I hadn’t listened to my body and hadn’t called my doctor, there is a good chance that I wouldn’t be here right now. That is not okay.
So I made a promise to myself. I’m going to stop saying, “someday.” Someday, I’ll get my shit together. Someday, I’ll get back in shape. Someday, I’ll start eating healthy again. And it’s not just my health – my career goals, finances, travel plans, hobbies and much, much more have been getting the “someday” treatment for years. This has to stop. I can’t keep waiting for “someday” to arrive. I have to start making the changes I want to see in my life.
IT NEEDS TO BE NOW.
I have since made plans – and started implementing them – to address some of these issues immediately, most importantly, my health. More on that in future posts, but now you know where I’m coming from, and – if you’re a friend – why I’ve been living more or less like a recluse for the past couple of months. This blog is my first big step towards being open about what I’m going through, and I plan to keep sharing. For a few reasons: writing is therapeutic for me, sharing helps me hold myself accountable, and maybe some of my experiences will help others dealing with similar issues.
Bear with me as I get this site up and running – it won’t all be doom and gloom and terrifying, life-changing health scares…I promise! 🙂