It always begins with a little tremor. For a split second the ground seems to fall out from underneath me like a trap door.
That’s all it takes for my body to go from somewhere close to normal to full on fight-or-flight mode. One split second. After the initial head buzz wears off then it’s on to the tightness in my left arm, the tingling in my fingers and toes, the cold sweat on my neck and lower back.
Shortly after I convince myself for the 3,000th time I’m not actually going to die my stomach turns to knots—and not just regular knots. These are the kind of knots that you have to cut to untie. My stomach tenses, which makes my diaphragm tense, which makes my throat tense.
The combination of tingling extremities and the sensation that the passageway from my mouth to my stomach has constricted to 1/8 the size it normally is makes me feel like blacking out. Blacking out would be welcome respite from this feeling. Soon the tension makes its way to my face. You can turn purple from the muscles constricting. I’ve done it before.
To combat the intense, involuntary clenching you blow up your cheeks, fill them with air. But you’re in the middle of a panic attack; air is a precious commodity — one that you can’t afford right now. So your jaw locks into place. Your shoulders slump forward, compressing your already compressed insides to their limit. Now imagine holding the tightest abdominal crunch you’ve ever done. Now multiply that by 20.
That’s what happens to your stomach muscles during a panic attack. Since your stomach muscles are squeezing your insides to death you now have to defecate. But the idea of being in a small space like a bathroom throws you into even more of a panic. As all of this is happening your brain is screaming at you, “YOU’RE GOING TO DIE, YOU’RE GOING TO DIE.” You tell yourself, “No, I’m not going to die” but your brain says, “No, you’re wrong, this is it, this is finally the time you’re going to die. Everyone dies. How do you know this isn’t what it feels like, truly feels like to die? This is it, enjoy these last moments of gripping terror because it’s about to be over for you.”
You listen to your brain, perhaps your brain is right. I mean, everyone dies. That’s true. And then you remember you read something about panic attacks and heart disease and how anxiety can actually cause a real heart attack. Then you convince yourself you’re having a heart attack.
But you can’t tell anyone because you’ve been to the hospital five times for this. And it’s always the same. The doctor tells you “there’s nothing physically wrong with you.”
You want to beg them to do more tests. Is there a brain cancer-scanning machine? Is there a rare African diseases machine? Is there a machine that tells you what machine you can go into to diagnose this monster that is slowly eating away at your sanity, your friendships, your relationships, your happiness, your job, your life? But it’s always the same answer: rest, drink water, exercise, relax, meditate, find ways to calm down.
You nod and say thank you, knowing in your heart that nothing is ever really going to make this go away and you wonder what happened to you to ever trigger these in the first place. You feel lonely, isolated, insane, suspicious, nervous, and defeated.
That’s the strangest thing about panic attacks. Every time you come out of one you have the physiological sensation of beating death. In a sense each panic attack is a victory against dying. But you don’t feel like a winner. You feel defeated, sad, scared, and in fear. Because you never know when the next panic attack will hit. So you walk around crippled with fear, with this tiny voice that tells you it can happen at any moment.
And if you listen closely, the voice gets louder, and louder, and louder and then, in a split second, the trap door opens again.