Local woman recovering from panic attacks

April 30, 1999

Karen SulcerBy MEG H. PARTINGTON / Staff Writer

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

The quiet country roads that some people travel for relaxation used to unnerve Karen Sulcer.

[cont. from lifestyle]

Sulcer, 28, of Hagerstown, had her first panic attack about 4 1/2 years ago while visiting her sister in Maine. They drove up a mountainous road, the height of which made her anxious, and when they got out of the car to gaze out over a ledge, "I just froze."

On the way back down the tree-lined road, she panicked.

During a panic attack, her throat closes, her face and fingers go numb and her heart beats rapidly. She says she feels like she's about to die during the episodes, which last less than five minutes. Afterward, she's exhausted.


Driving to work at Citicorp on a road lined with piles of snow after a storm a few years ago caused Sulcer so much discomfort that she became housebound for a month.

Upon returning to work, she had to park in a visitor's spot so she could see her car from her window at all times. She wasn't able to put in a full eight hours.

Then she stopped going to work, but didn't tell anyone. She would wake up, get dressed, then sit in her car, sometimes for six to eight hours, often crying. Her husband figured out what was going on when the bills started to mount.

Sulcer says she was a nervous child. When she went on trips with her family, she had to know where all the exits on the highway were that accessed hospitals. At gas station bathrooms, she asked her mother to keep her foot in the doors so they wouldn't shut and leave her alone inside.

"Everyone goes through that anxiety. We just don't forget it," Sulcer says of herself and others who have panic disorders.

A combination of medication and psychotherapy has helped Sulcer expand her world. She takes the antidepressant Zoloft every day and Klonopin, used in treatment of panic and/or anxiety disorders, when she needs it.

Her therapy began with visualizing herself driving down a stretch of road while relaxing music played in the background. Then she started exposure therapy, a process through which she gradually faced the things that frighten her.

As part of that, her counselor is a passenger while she drives, a concept Sulcer heard about on the "Oprah Winfrey Show." On their weekly outings, the pair has gone as far as Frederick, Md., with Sulcer at the wheel.

That is a huge step for someone who, for more than four years, couldn't bring herself to go from her Hagerstown apartment to her mother-in-law's home in Keedysville. This past Christmas, she did it.

She can take drives in the area by herself now and is more comfortable on country roads, but still avoids interstates and dislikes crowded intersections. Her next goal is to make it to Frederick alone.

For years, she and her husband, Brent, haven't been able to take a vacation or celebrate their anniversary at the beach like they used to.

"It was really tough on him," she says.

But now they're pursuing plans to build a home in Boonsboro, which Sulcer considers to be yet another sign of her progress.

"I feel like I will get better as time goes by," she says.

"Before, you take everything for granted," she says. Now she says she thanks God for every beautiful day that she can enjoy outside.

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