I never expected that this place would be a space to talk about my mental health but today I felt so compelled to write all this out and tell you about it. I feel vulnerable sharing this but I know that it’s important so here I go. If you are one who suffers from panic attacks like I do, I want to offer you a trigger warning going forward.
Anxiety has always been a very prominent feature in my life though it wasn’t until I went into therapy four years ago that I had a name for it. I was always worried and obsessed. I would check the locks in our house and make sure that the stove was turned off before bed. I’d walk around and make sure that nothing was touching any of the radiators, periodically. My mother would sometimes dry sweaters by laying them across the radiators and I just knew that was a recipe for a severe house fire.
I remember my first panic attacks started the summer that I was going into the 7th grade. In the 6th grade, where I lived, you were still in elementary school and you stood in lines and your teacher walked you from place to place. In the 7th grade you went to a new school building and you got a locker and you had 5 minutes between each class. This is when I got very obsessed with time. I would get so terrified that I wouldn’t be able to make it to class. Five minutes wasn’t long enough between classes! I knew for sure that was true, who made this rule?! In the weeks before school started, I would lay in bed at night and stare at my clock and time what five minutes feels like until I felt confident that it would be possible to move between classes in that amount of time and then I could fall asleep. I went to the doctor for a check up before school started and I remember him telling me that I needed to get 8 hours of sleep. So I decided that I had to go to bed no later than 9:00 pm and if I was laying in bed and saw the clock switch over to 9:00, I would freak out. I would cry and cry and cry and my sister would come into my room and tell me that I was crazy but it was going to be okay. It happened every single night in the beginning of the school year. She would lay down with me and finally I could fall asleep. This is about the time when I started sneaking gulps of NyQuil before bed until we ran out. Eventually the panic and obsession just kind of subsided on its own and I forgot about it entirely.
I had one panic attack in the middle of the night in college—during which I got into my car and drove the 4 hours home to my mom’s house. I fell asleep on the couch and in the morning no one asked why I was there and I was very grateful for that because I didn’t really have words for what had happened to me.
And then, when I turned 28 they started happening regularly. I was confused, too, because I was feeling really good about my life. I had an apartment all to myself, I had just started dating this incredible guy, I was paying all of my bills on my own with a job that I hated only most of the time instead of all of the time—I was a successful adult! But I would have these panic attacks—and I only knew what they were because of Google. Once, my boyfriend was out of town with his band when I had one. Probably the worst one I’ve ever had. I called Ryan who told me to call my brother—who just lived across town at the time. I called him and he was in a town 45 minutes away but he sped home to be with me through it. I couldn’t breathe and I just knew that my clothes were trying to strangle me so I’d ripped them off. When my brother had gotten to me, I’d calmed down significantly and was wrapped up like a burrito in my sheets but covered in tears and utterly exhausted from the fight. He sat on the bed with me for a really long time until I fell asleep. That’s when I started going to therapy and learning about anxiety and how to manage these things. By this point I’d been having them very regularly; sometimes as often as once a week. But it was dwindling down as I was learning what my triggers were and how to back away from them.
But sometimes they still happen. Not often. Maybe an average of once every six months or so?
I have to tell you that it really bothers me when people use the term “panic attack” loosely. A friend of mine once told me, “I couldn’t figure out what to wear and I basically had a panic attack about it!” And I know she didn’t mean anything by it but it still stung me. I still wanted to say, “No, that’s a real and terrifying thing and there are no lulz about it.” But I didn’t because we don’t always have to turn it into a thing.
I wish that I could show the people who are close to me what it’s like. I’m glad that most of them don’t know what it’s like but I wish that I could give them a sense of it from my perspective.
I didn’t know that I’d use this space to explore my mental health but this morning I woke up, after having another attack last night, and I couldn’t ignore the bug inside of me that was telling me to write it out. So I sat down and with my eyes closed I wrote the following. I hope it helps you understand my experience and the experience of others like me but also it’s really scary for me to put this out into the world. But I know I’m not the only one who feels very alone about this, sometimes.
It starts out feeling like you’re walking knee-deep in the ocean. It feels like you’re moving but you just can’t get by without a little bit of struggle. But you’re managing it okay. You’re in control of yourself. Then you’re suddenly knocked over by a small wave. And you can get back up but a larger wave comes and maybe you’re under water for a little while longer this time but by the time you get yourself upright, this time another wave comes and you’re breathing in water. And it’s pulling you out to sea. And you’re not the one in control anymore. You’re sucking down water and you’re getting yanked around and you’re clawing at the ground but coming up with just fistfuls of sand and it hurts and you can feel your chest burning and you know you’re going to die and you want to scream but you can’t because you’re out of air and you’re all alone and no one knows you’re there and you’re all alone you’re all alone you’re all alone and this ocean is going to kill you. And you feel someone stroking your arm and you’re not alone but you’re still struggling and still hurting and you still can’t breathe and you’re hearing him say, “shhh it’s okay, don’t fight it.” But you have to fight it because it’s going to kill you and you get only little gulps of air before you get dragged back down. And he’s telling you that everything’s going to be okay and it’ll all be over soon. But it’s not over and you’re afraid and he’s not making you feel less afraid but every time he touches you and every time he talks to you, you get another gulp of air. And you can hear another voice, it’s your own and it’s saying “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I ruined everything.” But it can’t be you saying it because you’re drowning and you’re clenching your fists full of wet sand and you can’t believe how long it takes to die from this. It’s been going on for hours—it’s been going on for years. You can’t remember a time before now and you know that it’s definitely going to end you right now. “Shh, it’s okay, don’t fight it.” And “I love you. It’s okay. I love you.” You’re not alone and you can feel your legs again and you can feel your lungs again and you can feel your bed, again, and you can feel your husband, again and you can hear him telling you how safe you are and how brave you are and you just feel ashamed and naked like your lungs are full of sea water and you thought that this part of your life was over. And you thought that since you were at such a happy point in your life, you wouldn’t have these attacks anymore because you’re not afraid. You’re doing okay. And you feel like you’re supposed to be better. And you hate yourself for breaking your record. Every time it happens you feel like more and more of a failure. But your husband is there and he is telling you the things that are true—that this won’t kill you, that you are not alone, that you are safe, that you are loved, that you love, that you have a life out here and that is really hasn’t been that long—just a few minutes, and you’re going to get through it and it’s going to be okay. And you realize that you got through it and you’re okay and your mind can sometimes split in two but you’re always going to be whole—albeit beaten all to shit sometimes.
He brings you a glass of water. He lays you back down, and he wraps you up in blankets and his arms and he tells you that he loves you. And you fall asleep like that and you wake up with a hangover but you definitely wake up and you feel grateful for that.
Later that day, you make a birthday cake for the two of you to share.