Two nights ago I experienced one of the worst panic attacks I’ve had in a long time.
I can usually anticipate their arrival. For at least an hour leading up to “the main event” I have that weird sinking feeling in my gut. It’s hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t felt it before. It starts out mild—like “I wonder if the yogurt I ate this morning was expired and if it’s going to make me sick.” Before long, the real worrying starts. “Did I leave the fan plugged in? What if it burns down the house?” Over the years, and through therapy, I’ve learned to curb this negative self-talk as soon as it starts. The shaking still comes, but I can usually breathe through it. If I focus, sometimes the panic episode doesn’t last longer than ten minutes.
But I didn’t know this one was coming.
I don’t remember feeling too anxious. Even after breaking off a key in a frequently-used drawer at work—my bosses weren’t upset, and we worked through it. I finished my shift at 9 pm, and was in my car driving home by 9:20. I turned on an audiobook, lost in the story, and suddenly felt my old friend wrap its hands around my heart and squeeze tight.
I started the breathing exercises immediately. Breathe in for six counts, hold for two, and breathe out for eight. After a few cycles, I’d feel the tension release for a few minutes, but it soon started over again. I had to pull over twice on my 45 minute drive home, and I probably should have pulled over more than that, but I didn’t want to be alone.
I texted my husband from a parking lot.
I’ve pulled off at a gas station for a moment. I’m feeling lightheaded and my pulse is up to 108. Not sure why. Just going to work with my breath. I love you.
I wondered if the gas station attendant would come out and tell me to leave. That thought just added fuel to the fire, so I pulled away.
My left side started to feel numb and tingly, which is a sign that things are getting out of control. At this point, in addition to counting out my breaths, I also had to convince myself that I was not having a heart attack.
When I finally made it home, I felt some of the fear of being alone dissipate. I convinced myself that maybe I was hungry, so I had leftovers and went straight to bed. There, my husband worked with me on my breathing and held me as I cried until I fell asleep.
That should have been the end of it.
But I woke again, less than an hour later, with my heart thumping fast and hard in my chest. I jumped up from the bed, practically gasping for air and went out to the living room to calm down. I took two Benadryl and was able to fall asleep again half an hour later, this time effectively ending the episode.
It lasted for a total of almost three hours.
Though I know people mean well when they suggest medication, meditation, or dietary changes to end this issue, after living with it for over a decade, I have found a specific combination of things that work for me (most of the time). It doesn’t include a prescription because every one that I have introduced has made things worse. So much so that I haven’t tried any for several years now.
A therapist that I visited for this problem once told me that the goal was not to stop panic attacks from happening, but to lessen their frequency and their duration. Sometimes, I go long enough in between the physical portion of anxiety that I forget what it’s like to live with it. When I do remember, I often don’t talk about it, because it’s embarrassing.
It’s not something people can see, so it’s hard for them to believe it’s real. “Just don’t worry so much,” other well-meaning folks say. As though it were that simple, to stop the fight or flight response by telling my heart not to worry. “We’re probably not going to pass out and die for no reason other than the chemical imbalance in our brain.”
Or reminding my lungs that there is enough room in them for air. We just have to breathe correctly without so much concentration and it will pass. “Just chill.”
And then there is the fear of someone believing you are incapable if they do understand that it is real. All of your accomplishments, your work ethic, and the passion you put into your work just disappear. They don’t matter in the face of the stigma that often accompanies mental illness. What no one seems to realize is that, after you’ve lived with it long enough, some people are able to work through the attack without letting anyone else know it’s happening. They go home exhausted, but no one is ever the wiser.
So it is a silent problem, and the most unfortunate part about this situation is that it shouldn’t have to be.
The more I talk about my own experiences, the more I meet people who share their own struggle with anxiety with me. Often in quiet rooms, hushed conversations, and behind closed doors.
“What can I do to fix it?”
“I didn’t want to tell anyone because I’m afraid they will think I’m crazy.”
Real people. Professional, strong, beautiful men and women who are terrified to admit their humanity for fear that it will set them back. As if the burden wasn’t heavy enough already.
So I’m sharing this on a larger scale, not because I want pity or advice, but instead because I want to strip my old friend, this terrible beast, of its power. I want other people to know they are not alone and that there are safe spaces out there to share these experiences. We are all human, and that means different things for everyone. It’s time to respect those differences, and be our best selves. It’s time to work together to defeat the monsters under our beds.
I’m ready. Are you?