To be faced with PANDAS is to have a lot of debilitating symptoms and feelings all at once that, in essence, make you lose who you are. There is much to say about what it feels like to have PANDAS, but if I had to sum up my experience in one word, I would say…
Fear has been a reality of my existence ever since my onset at age eleven. Sometimes, I’ve had specific fears, and other times it was general anxiety. There were times when I felt like I was afraid of everything, as I described so poignantly in a journal from 2009 when I was fourteen:
I feel like worry is taking over my life… I worry a lot about if I’ll die young. I worry about environmental toxins (like lead). I worry about hearing damage… I worry about getting sick. I worry about what other people think about me. I worry about house fires.
Over time, my fears would slowly fade away (presumably after I fought off whatever infection had caused each flare). But whenever I least expected it, the terror would come back out of nowhere.
When I was seventeen, I suddenly became convinced all over again that I’d committed an unforgivable sin. From then on, everything revolved around making sure I didn’t do something unforgivable that would send me to hell—but instead my OCD become a hell on earth.
I was a caged tiger after that night. I would pace around the house each evening, hoping that somehow it would help me escape the all-consuming terror that trapped me inside myself. The OCD told me I was about to think or say or do something unforgivable, and my mind was constantly full of intrusive blasphemous thoughts that I was sure could damn me.
In order to divert my mind from the horrible terror and despair surrounding the thoughts, I began to write for as many as twelve hours a-day, skipping meals and not leaving the room, to the point where my psychologist became concerned I was in my first manic episode.
The worst thing about PANDAS terror is that it is all in your brain, so there’s no way to make it stop, other than to get treatment or distract yourself. This disease can make you afraid of everything outside of you and afraid of the mind inside of you. It made me do anything—even things I knew made no sense—just to find some relief. Sometimes, those things were OCD compulsions. Other times, it was slamming myself into a wall or trying to jump out a window, just because I felt like I had to.
Sometimes, I used to impulsively run out of the house, because I hoped that maybe, somehow, getting out the door would get me out of the anguishing terror. It’s like having an allergic reaction and itching all over, and all you want to do is get out of your skin to make the feeling stop… But you can’t.
The need to get out of your mind in a PANDAS flare of terror is one reason this disease can be life-threatening. This is why I used to scream things like, “I want to die!” and why I couldn’t see how life could ever get better, since I was stuck with a mind that terrified me and was no longer my own.
But trust me, it does get better. I haven’t truly experienced the fullness of terror since getting my tonsils out this summer, and I’ve heard so many other recovery stories.
These days, what I live with isn’t terror so much as a constant, mild anxiety. While the most recent Prednisone burst for my last flare quieted most of my symptoms and got me back to being functional, it didn’t get rid of that all-too-familiar feeling of worry. Nowadays, I walk around feeling like something must be terribly wrong, but I have no idea what it is.
My anxiety is like the feeling you get when you’re lying in bed at night almost ready to sleep, and you suddenly realize that you didn’t do something important that you needed to do that day. It’s the feeling when you first realize you’ve lost your phone or your wallet, but you have no idea where it could be. It’s the feeling of dread when you’re about to go meet with the principal at school because you acted out. But unlike those situations, the only thing wrong is my PANDAS—not something external.
I’m used to the anxiety by now, and it’s no longer bad enough to make me want to run away from myself. While it’s certainly still disruptive, I’m able to go to class and get my work done anyway. I’m so accustomed to it that I almost don’t notice it, since I don’t know what life is like without being a little afraid. Besides, my non-PANDAS self knows the anxiety is brain inflammation—not based in reality.
Even so, my team of doctors and I are not satisfied with me feeling that something must be terribly wrong—not to mention the tics that have returned. We’ll be checking titers and Ig levels and possibly changing antibiotics, so I’m doing my best to look at the coming weeks with hope—not dread.