My most recent panic attack happened one week before Christmas last year. It was 6 o’ clock on a Monday and I was on my way home from the gym. I was singing along to a Red Hot Chili Peppers jam on the radio and waited for a red light to blink green against the sunset at a familiar intersection. There was a bakery to my right, the same one I pass by most days, and I pressed my foot down on the accelerator when the red light changed to green. And then, bam! It came out of nowhere. That is usually how it happens for me.
My palms became slippery on the steering wheel, my hands began to shake, and breathing suddenly felt difficult. That’s when I knew it was happening. But this time, not unlike every other time, I really thought I was going to die.
If you can imagine being chased to the edge of the world’s steepest waterfall by a bunch circus clowns carrying machetes and coming to a stop with one centimeter between you and a 900-foot drop-off and turning around to find the clowns wading their way through the water to get to you, than you will have imagined what a panic attack can feel like. It’s a nightmare come true that you can’t escape or control. If evil clowns don’t give you goose bumps, let’s say monster tarantulas. Monster tarantulas with machetes and sharp fangs running toward you at lightning speed.
These episodes embody the worst of what I suffer from as a consequence of a traumatic childhood. And I wouldn’t wish them upon anyone.
I experienced my first panic attack three years ago. I was walking through a shopping mall when it hit me and spent thirty minutes inside of a dressing room waiting for it to pass. At the time I thought it was normal anxiety about money and work and the fast-approaching Christmas holiday. It wasn’t until a year later that I understood that hiding out and hyperventilating isn’t typical of normal anxiety. Therapy helped me identify what was really going on and what to expect and how to cope with and treat the issue.
That’s not to say that I have gotten used to them — how could you get used to a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause? This paralyzing and logic-defying fear stuns and terrifies my body and mind in a way that is convincingly cerebral and completely crippling. There’s no real way to get used to such a sensation.
That Monday in December, I remember my chest beginning to feel tight and it seeming impossible to get enough air into my lungs. My breathing felt constricted and out of my control, which exacerbated the panic. It’s a cycle, you know. I pulled into an empty bank parking lot and tried to breathe. I felt outside of time and disassociated from the reality I was engaged with just one minute prior, thinking about how good my jog on the treadmill felt and the Chili Peppers song that came on. My head felt light and my vision became blurry as I tried to focus on and name my surroundings out loud — a way of “grounding myself” — a coping skill in which the goal is to regain connection with the body and mind so as to feel safe and at ease. I tried to count the crows perched along the wire of a telephone pole nearby, “one crow, two crows, three crows…” It didn’t work. I closed my eyes and then the hyperventilating kicked in.
This is it, I thought. This is going to kill me. I can’t breathe. I should call 911. No! I’m better than that. I’m better than this! I will be okay. PLEASE GOD let me be okay. That’s it. I must be going crazy. I am losing my mind. May as well call 911 and get it over with. But what if the ambulance doesn’t make it in time?
Thoughts about what was going on with my body and what I should do about it were racing 100 miles per minute through my head. I placed my hand on my chest and could feel my heart pounding deep down.
The worst of it is over. Just breathe. Don’t fight it, accept it. You’ll be okay. Don’t fight it, I repeated to myself. And with those words the haze that the panic had placed between me and the outside world began to slowly dissipate. I thought about what my therapist has told me to do at the onset of an attack. Once my breathing felt relatively steady, I punched in a text to my best friend.
“Panic attack. Bad. Can you call?”
Four and a half seconds later my phone buzzed. I picked up her call and before I could say anything I began to cry.
“I know you’re scared. Just let it out and hear my voice…stay with me and track what I’m saying…breathe…you got this…” She stayed on the phone with me for a half hour, coaching me on breathing exercises at first, then moving on to helping me feel comfortable, and finally, collecting myself so that I could drive the rest of the way home.
Asking for help is sometimes the hardest and scariest part about suffering from a mental illness. It’s hard because you feel like people will think you’re unstable, which is a devastating consequence of the stigmatization surrounding mental illness in our society. But asking for help is absolutely crucial to recovery, because sometimes, that is the key that helps you make it to the other side.
For the first time, rather than feeling sad and humiliated or insane, I was really proud. I didn’t mentally berate myself or beat up on my emotions for “allowing” this to happen as I have in the past. Instead I chose to zero in on the positive. I reached out for help. My best friend was there and able to walk me through it. I clung to the advice given to me in therapy. And I made it through.
Of course, not every panic attack will end this way. I will likely have another in the coming months and depending on the severity and surroundings and potential trigger that might cause it, it may be too much for me to handle on my own. For those instances I have medication to help. And that’s okay, too. This is a part of my life that I am still learning to accept and understand and draw strength from rather than pity myself for.
Maybe you can relate. Maybe you suffer from panic attacks, too. Or maybe you don’t. Either way, opening up the conversation and empowering one another to reach out for support is the best thing any of us can do in fighting the stigma and helping those who suffer in silence.
There may be nothing about a panic attack that makes logical sense, but sometimes the things that make the least amount of sense in life serve the greatest purpose in shaping and strengthening our character. And proving that even during the moments when we feel we’re being chased by a bunch of clowns with machetes to the edge of a waterfall, we will be okay. Because in our weaknesses and within our fears, there is potential for transcendence and redemption. My anxiety is a weakness that often holds me back and fills me with shame, but as it proved itself on that Monday in December, it can also be an opportunity for heroism and strength — the sort of strength you don’t realize you have until you’re talking to your friend on the phone, on the other side of a panic attack, happy to be alive, and glad to have overcome what you previously thought you couldn’t.