As my mother was wheeled into the emergency ward, I clutched her hands tightly. “You’ll be fine,” I whispered, although I wasn’t sure. She was pale, breathing fast and had been complaining of feeling unwell all day. I hadn’t taken her seriously until her blood pressure began to go all over the place; she had been suffering from hypertension – high blood pressure – for 30 years, so we routinely used to check her blood pressure at home. “It feels as though my whole body is burning,” she said.
I was halfway through my two-week holiday in my hometown Rawalpindi, Pakistan, where I’d gone to visit my mother, Rubina Asad. She’d said she felt ill the night before and I now felt guilty that I hadn’t brought her to Shifa International hospital in Islamabad earlier. Her blood pressure was dangerously high and she was rushed for an ECG test to check her heart.
I paced the corridor, willing her to be OK, but this was nothing new. My mother was rushed to hospital time and time again with the same symptoms and always discharged after test results came back normal. But this time I was scared. What if this was something serious? I was so deep in thought I didn’t realise a doctor had come to speak to me until he tapped my shoulder. “Your mother’s OK,” he said. “Everything came back normal and I’ve given her some medication to bring down her blood pressure.”
I slumped, relieved. “So it wasn’t a heart attack?” I asked. He shook his head. “I’d say it was a panic attack,” he replied. I nodded, my relief tinged with frustration. My mother had suffered from them for the past 12 years and had even been hospitalised before, but we could never find a solution. Often, she would be convinced she was having a heart attack because the symptoms would cause her to have tight chest pain, and rapid breathing, and the anxiety would raise her blood pressure, causing a genuine health problem. Her attacks were triggered by fatigue, travel or any stressful situation.
She had been referred to psychiatrists who gave her symptomatic treatment – they treated the symptoms, not the cause, which I guess they were unable to pinpoint. So she was prescribed anti-anxiety and antidepressant medicines to help her relax.
She wasn’t a hypochondriac because she suffered from anxiety, which exploded into panic attacks, setting off all her symptoms, which were terrifyingly real.
It meant that she became more and more of a recluse, scared to go out in case she had an attack. Instead she would stay in bed, sluggish from the antidepressants, and avoid everyone but family. She also became overly sensitive and was easily alarmed and upset about even minor issues. A loud sound or a child crying in the neighbourhood would be enough to upset her. She would panic over what was making the child cry, or fear that something terrible had happened to them. A loud bang or noise would be enough to give her a headache.
Now, looking at her, I had to fight back tears. Where was the mother of my childhood – the woman who loved looking after me and my four siblings, who was an accomplished cook and loved socialising? She had been the centre of the house and the family when our father was busy with his government job. Now, she had shrunk into herself and didn’t do anything anymore. She was only 53 but it was like her life was over, she did so little and worried so much. For the next four days I helped my mother at home – the medicines the doctors gave her to relax turned her into a virtual zombie.
Stumbling on a solution
And then it was time for me to go back to my job at an oil company in Dubai, but I hated to see my mother suffering.
“There must be a cure for her,” I thought. Then one day, flicking through Friday, I came across an article on cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist Russell Hemmings. I found from his website that Russell has treated childhood anxiety, stress disorders, lifestyle changes to treat obesity, insomnia and bulimia, among others. He seemed to be the most popular because his name popped up in almost all my online searches.
After speaking to my cousin, who is a psychiatrist in the UK, I was convinced Russell could help my mother, so I contacted him.
I was sure this was the answer but first I had to get my mother to Dubai to see Russell. This was tough because anxiety had made her wary of flying and she detested travelling. “What if I’m unwell during the flight?” she worried. “I might get lost at the airport.”
Although she was nervous, she was so determined to be cured that she finally agreed to come. Luckily the trip was hassle free and we went to meet Russell the day after she arrived. He studied her medical reports and spoke to her in detail about her worries and fears, and what she felt and thought during her panic attacks. He explained she was actually triggering the panic attacks by worrying about having one. Only by breaking that vicious cycle would she be able to regain control over her anxiety using a range of behavioural strategies that are condition-specific.
Russell began treatment by hypnotising her. He made her relax totally and then got her to talk about her problem.
Russell explained that a cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist tries to understand a person’s triggers for panic attacks. Through hypnotherapy these triggers are addressed and thought patterns are changed to alleviate the cause of anxiety. He spoke to her in detail, understood the issues she was facing, explained the process and dispelled all her doubts.
He also taught her relaxing breathing exercises and played hypnotherapy recordings – 20 to 40 minutes of relaxing music interspersed by his voice addressing her subconscious mind to change the way she thought.
The change in my mother was instant. She appeared calm, composed and cheerful. One evening we went for a long walk. She was fine throughout, but as we were nearing home, I sensed a change. “I’m not well. I don’t think I can reach home,” she said, looking like she was about to have a panic attack. “It’s OK,” I told her. “Just do your deep breathing.” She took a deep breath in, then out and repeated it again and again, and soon she felt better. It worked. Once we reached home she did a brief self-hypnosis session – listening to recordings and practising deep-breathing techniques, which immediately helped.
She saw Russell for a total of four sessions and she became more confident.
Before she was to fly back to Pakistan she wanted to thank Russell by treating him to home-cooked kadai chicken, one of her specialities. It took her four hours to prepare the dish – including shopping for the masalas, chopping the vegetables, cooking and then cleaning afterwards. It had been several years since she had spent so much time in the kitchen and she enjoyed it – she was smiling and chatting as she cooked and there wasn’t a hint of anxiety. I was so happy – I had finally got my mother back.
Now, four months later, she is back in Pakistan happily leading a life that she deserves. She has travelled more in the past two months than she did in the past 10 years. She hasn’t had any panic attacks and constantly listens to Russell’s recordings to keep her calm, energised and believing in herself.