Point of view

My very first panic attack

It was sudden, and strong, and I've been dealing ever since. But I am dealing.

It was sudden, and strong, and I've been dealing ever since. But I am dealing.

(Credit: Christopher Campbell/unsplash.com)

It came on suddenly. A strong WOOSHHHH that rushed up my chest, then settled at the back of my throat. My heart started beating faster and faster, as if it was trying to escape. I had never felt it beat that quickly, even after a particularly taxing run or cardio-kickboxing class.

I took a few deep, measured "yoga" breaths. Surely those would calm whatever was happening in my body down.

Nope.

I muttered something about going to the washroom and shot up from the table. Walking as fast as my feet could manage, I felt my calves go numb. Pins and needles started to prick their way across my pinky fingers and up through my forearms. More numbness. I was freezing cold even though it was July.

My mind immediately scavenged for something, anything to make sense of what was happening. What it found was a tiny part of a story I had heard years before; someone describing the numbness that swiftly took over half their mother's body before she died of a stroke. My mind liked to dig that one up a lot, usually anytime I'd feel a subtle tingling in my foot after sitting on top of it for too long.

So basically I was dying.

The EMT equivalent of having to rescue a kitten from a tree

I texted a friend I was with and told her to call an ambulance, now. I called my Mom and told her what was happening, stuttering between sobs and the few breaths I was able to take.

It wasn't until what felt like an eternity, but was probably only 10 minutes, later that I was given a name for what was happening to me: a panic attack. At least that's what the firefighter who arrived to the scene thought it was when he grumbled in speculation to someone over his walkie talkie. You see, when you call in what's considered a 'major medical incident' fire trucks come as well. Two showed up that day with the ambulance. A whole bouquet of sirens...just for me!  

The firefighters drove off, probably to deal with a more material, flame-based disaster, leaving the EMTs to herd me from the section of concrete where I was pacing in a continuous loop and into the ambulance. Moving quickly, constantly was the only thing that made it feel like my body wasn't going to just shut down. Which it didn't, of course. And it hasn't the countless times that I've suffered from panic attacks since.

Even while convinced that the end was not near but here, I could see how ridiculous it was that I, a little white girl, had to be rushed away in an ambulance after wolfing down brunch at a fancy French restaurant, no less. Yes, that's where I was when this happened (and my $18 Smoked Salmon Eggs Benny was absolutely scrumptious, thank you very much) — I was pretty much the EMT equivalent of having to rescue a kitten from a tree. The kind paramedic laughed at that one when I tried it out in the ambulance, and I'll be forever thankful to her for responding to my dumb joke with grace. It was a tiny moment, but being able to see the silly where one might find shame made the horror that was coursing through my body a little less suffocating.

"I had, like, a panic attack"

Before I started having panic attacks, I really didn't know that much about them. "I had, like, a panic attack," is one of those funny phrases we casually toss around in a hyperbolic way when we really mean to say that we're overcome with some sort of stress or frenzy. But our cultural understanding of these words as something synonymous with "freaking out" not only minimizes what's part of an actual, real mental disorder, stripping it of the lived impact it has on those suffering and kicking the stigma around it into high gear, it blurs what those words are supposed to represent in the first place.  

Because of the ways that we talk about them, panic attacks are often understood to be fully mental. A chaotic mind racing out of control. Hysterical thoughts duking it out until only the most alarming of the bunch survives. But everything I felt was totally physical. The weight on my chest, the lightheadedness, the numbness. I hadn't ever heard those bodily symptoms associated with panic attacks, so I just assumed I was breaking down. I had experienced forms of anxiety my entire life, but this was completely different. I wasn't even in any kind of distress when the first one hit me, I was just sitting in a restaurant on a Sunday afternoon eating brunch with my friends.

Before, my anxiety, or what I later learned was Generalized Anxiety Disorder, had manifested only in mental ways. Basic social customs like having to make a phone call were agonizing. I'd spend weeks convinced that someone was going to break into my home, dissecting every cracking sound made by my floor vents and quadruple-checking that the piece of wood I'd placed in my screen door as a barrier was still there. Every mild headache was a spiral into the depths of WebMD, and bedtime was a grueling three hour process that usually involved going over and over a comment I had made at a birthday party in the 6th grade that someone could have maybe, possibly taken the wrong way.

For the most part, my anxiety-fueled fixations seemed to center around death, and it had been that way ever since I was a kid, when my parents had to pry the copy of Chicken Soup for the Children's Soul they had given me for Christmas out of my grasp because its "Death & Dying" section was keeping me up for nights at a time. This probably, on some level, made me a prime candidate for continued panic attacks, or what I later learned was Panic Disorder, which is characterized by the fear of attacks popping up again and again.

I tried a whole bunch of things to try and stop the episodes of panic that quickly began to overwhelm my life, happening almost every day, sometimes multiple times. Within two months, I moved apartments, quit my job, went back to school, began seeing a psychologist for CBT (or Cognitive-behavioural therapy) and, after finding one that worked right for me, went on medication.

Things that helped… me

I'm not sure what exactly made all the difference, but I'm positive it wasn't just one thing. I started to apply the tiny tools I learned from CBT, concentrating on the way my foot would feel on the ground and counting to five as I inhaled and exhaled, holding my breath at the top. I learned that the weird things my body was doing were to help me (it's that instinctual 'fight' mechanism kicking in) rather than signal my demise. Most importantly, I started talking about what was happening with my mental health and how I felt about it. All the time. To anyone who would listen. Eventually, the attacks stopped coming as frequently. I could go days, even weeks without having one. Or better yet, I'd feel one creeping up and was able to successfully squash it before it fully consumed me.

I still suffer from panic attacks. They suck, and they're not fun, and they occasionally feel completely debilitating. I know they might come back in full force some day, because dealing with mental health issues can be cyclical rather than just a forward, linear path that ends with being 'cured'. But, for now, I've learned to manage my panic attacks to the point that some days, the thought of them doesn't even cross my mind. I live with (or in spite of) them, and I know you can too.