The Progression Of A Panic Attack

Out of nowhere, that’s where they erupt from. You go from stocking the apples at your part-time job to walking as fast as you can to the break room, panicking. They come from nothing and everything all at once. You start to recognize the beginning signs that it’s coming, then before you know it, it’s on top of your chest and you can’t breathe. You’re in quicksand and no matter how much you struggle and reach for the shore, you’re only sinking more despite all of the reaching. You try to calm down and keep your mind off of it, but how can you focus on nothing when your mind is racing with thoughts of everything.

One minute feels like an eternity, and every sense is heightened to the point of being overwhelming. You hear everything, including your own breathing, including your thoughts that just keep hammering behind your ears. Every sound is like screaming and all you want to do is get away from all of it and block it all out. However you can’t, so you continue trying to focus on just the sound of your own breath. But you’re barely breathing. You can feel the rise and fall of your chest, sense the air rushing in and out, but with every inhalation, you swear you’re not getting enough oxygen, and this can’t be good, and inside you really begin panicking.

At the height of the panic, when your body can’t hold on any longer, you’re vision begins darkening. At first it was as though you saw everything; your eyes darted back and forth taking in all of your surroundings. Now, the little white spots start flashing before your eyes and from the periphery, the blackness starts seeping in. So you’re running because you know this is when you’re about to black out and you’ve gotta get off the produce floor at the job you’re trying to hold down. Through fading vision, you glide up the stairs and into the break room where you sit down and sip water from a dixie cup and try to stop the darkness from taking over.

Now seated, your legs begin shaking. From the back of your knees up to your hamstrings, the muscles tense up and you have to remind yourself to relax them because they’re shaking so hard that it becomes painful. So you focus. Not on your breathing, shaking, hearing, seeing, no, you focus on nothing and everything. Your mouth goes dry, your stomach wrenches up, nausea sets in, and you start sweating, but you’re also freezing and tingling. The tips of your fingers and toes start tingling as all of your blood rushes to your core because your mind thinks you’re under attack.

Finally, you’re home but the panic hasn’t stopped. You lay there on the couch and push into the armrests with your arms and your feet because if you can only push hard enough and put enough pressure on your muscles then maybe just maybe you can stop the shaking. Maybe you can escape your own body. You imagine pushing down hard enough with your feet that you’re able to shove your soul up out of your skull and then you’ll be free from the body that has stopped listening.

You can’t talk your way out of it, talking only makes you more anxious. You can’t think your way out of it, your thoughts are scattered and don’t make any sense anyway. You can’t breathe your way out of it, because you can’t breathe, to begin with. So the only option you have is to escape your body. You can’t escape your own body. All you can do is ride the wave, give in to the fact that you can’t control anything, wait it out, and pray for the ending.

They happen because they happen. They started in the back seat of my mother’s minivan driving somewhere at night when I was nine-years-old. They began out of nowhere and from that moment on they escalated to engulfing every aspect of my life. Like a tornado, they sucked up everything and sent it all into a whirlwind that fed on itself and grew larger and larger the older I got.

They ended the day I accepted that I can’t make my mind stop panicking on my own. That I have a legitimate chemical imbalance that can’t be counseled or talked away, that can only be controlled by medicine. That despite my best efforts, despite so many different strategies and interventions, the only way I can function today is by taking a tiny pill daily.

The panic has subsided and been reduced to almost nothing now. For years I’ve gone without a true-blue panic attack taking over me. But in the back of my mind, I’m always wondering when the medicine will stop working. When will I be back on that couch again pushing myself into the cushions trying to make the panic subside.

The progression of a panic attack is like riding a wave. Eventually, it has to come crashing into the shore only to be sucked back into the vast and infinite sea. The sea is where it builds itself back up again; churning and bubbling, growing larger and larger until it crests and comes crashing down again. The progression of a panic attack is a wave that I’ve spent my entire life riding.

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