I can’t remember my first one. I assume it happened during childhood. Anxiety was always just part of my life. It never even crossed my mind that it could be something abnormal because it all felt routine. Predictable. It was breathing.
I knew certain things: Dad would pick me up from school, my favorite TV show came on at 4 pm, and I’d fall into waves of nausea, a racing heartbeat, and incessant worries whenever the sun and moon swapped.
It was just who I was. I didn’t have the proper vocabulary at that age to explain, to understand why it was problematic. Or how it was hurting me.
There’s this kind of guilt that befalls those with chronic anxiety. I couldn’t pinpoint why I felt the way I did. It was before ever experiencing any major traumas. My parents were together. I lived in a pretty little house in a quiet town full of white picket fences and suburban cliches. My father was a professor so we kept the same school schedule. He made me breakfast, dropped me off at class on his way to work, and was there waiting to pick me up. My mom often worked from home. I was textbook “good childhood.” I had no reason to feel the way I did. My life was swimming with unconditional love and support. But that didn’t solve my anxiety. Because anxiety is a different beast altogether.
At night, I’d stay awake counting cracks in the ceiling, wondering if I would even wake up the next morning. I sensed danger in strangers on the street all the time and felt like if a kid sneezed on me, I was sure to contract some deadly disease and shrivel up and die within a week. My thinking didn’t make sense, but it was the only thinking I’d ever known.
My panic attacks were small at first. They weren’t even things I considered panic attacks until much later when I took the proper time to self-reflect. They were fleeting moments of intensity – a combination of dread and high alert. I used to joke that I hated roller coasters because I already had too much adrenaline pumping through my body. “I’m a human roller coaster, I don’t need the extra thrill,” I’d quip, promising my friends I didn’t mind holding their bags at the amusement park while they went on the rides I didn’t care for. And I really didn’t mind. Waiting on a bench was a much better alternative to experiencing a panic attack with a group of my peers at Six Flags.
The first huge one hit me in college. I made the mistake of discontinuing anxiety medication right before moving out – in retrospect, not a great choice to make right before a huge life change. I wanted to handle things on my own, reinvent who I was and the things I needed. But my brain had different plans.
The thing about anxiety is it can come out of nowhere. It doesn’t discriminate or choose moments that always make sense. It’s this nagging friend who you know could visit any second. They don’t bother ringing the door bell, no, they storm in. They jump up and put both hands over your eyes. Maybe that’s why I hate surprises.
I would be walking to class from my dorm room, earbuds in listening to my favorite songs, and my anxiety would find me. My stomach would feel punched and this all consuming nausea would come out of nowhere. My abdominal muscles would start pulsating, as if I was liable to throw up any moment. I was light-headed and everything would spin, looking around for an emergency exit. That’s what panic attacks do – have you looking for an escape route when everyone around you seems fine. They’re just walking, chatting, not freaking the fuck out. But you are. Your entire body begins waging a war with itself.
I realized these episodes were panic attacks because I’d turn on my heels and rush back to my dorm room, thinking I was dying or had the flu. I’ve never been high (unless you count the one time I tried to smoke weed and all I did was stare at my hands for a few hours) but I imagine it’s like the rush of relief intravenous drug users feel. It was this sudden washing away of everything else, the physical pain in my body and sweating extremities. I would flop down in bed, put on an episode of Friends, and I was fine.
Panic attacks are uncontrollable moments of sickness. People often rush to the ER because the feelings can mimic a heart attack. It can feel like you’re dying. I don’t mean that as hyperbole.
I mean panic attacks can really feel like you’re dying.
I don’t have answers. I don’t have a magic pill that I’ve been working away on in some Dexter’s Laboratory to suddenly unveil, “I’VE GOT IT!” I try to remember they are not permanent. They have an end. Panic will subside. Breathing. Visualization. Therapy. There are things I could suggest. Things I have found beneficial.
But the biggest thing about panic attacks is trying to explain them. This is just my experience and I understand that. I won’t generalize and say this is how everyone with chronic anxiety lives, but I will say understanding the severity is a good start. If you have a loved one, friend, family member who experiences panic attacks, do not underestimate what they feel. Do not assume this is melodrama or theatrical performance. This is something real. This is something they do not want pity for. This is something they might even be embarrassed to admit they have. Because nobody wants this damaging label of “weakness” slapped across their personhood.
And that’s the thing about panic attacks: they are NOT a sign of weakness. They are communicating something. They are a reminder, a sign, a lesson in strength. Your body is not weak. Your body just lives at a higher decibel. Your body is alert and aware and sometimes, it is too much. But you are not weak.
Panic attacks are a reminder that even when it feels like you’re dying, you have the strength to keep living. Because though they often feel like a forever condition, they do not last. All great pain eventually subsides.