Have you ever had a panic attack? If not, then imagine being absolutely terrified- heart racing, palms sweating, breathing heavily, feeling certain that something terrible is going to happen and that you could die at any moment. Then, imagine that there is nothing around you to be scared of, that you are just in your room on a regular day and that this feeling came out of nowhere. Sounds fun, right?
Everyone I have talked to who suffers from extreme anxiety or panic attacks has different experiences, but the one thing that we all seem to have in common is that horrible feeling of dread, of …well, panic. It’s something about adrenaline releasing into the body and producing a “fight or flight” response. Basically, your body thinks that a bear or a dinosaur or something is chasing you, so every instinct you have is screaming at you to run away. But when there’s nothing to run from it really screws with your head.
In the past few years I have been through a lot (this is kind of an understatement, see A Brief Timeline of Crazy if you need the CliffsNotes) but my first panic attack was one of the most frightening things I have ever experienced.
I was between surgeries and having a pretty good day, so my mom decided to take me out to lunch. We were driving and I started feeling nauseous (which I now know can be a panic attack precursor for me.) I thought I was just hungry and asked her to pull over to the first place she could find. We stopped at a La Madeline, with it’s pseudo-French décor and soft music- not really the type of place you see in horror movies. While we were waiting, I started to get this terrible sense of dread. It’s hard to explain other than that all of the sudden I was sure that something horrible (like a terrorist attack, or earthquake, or Zombie apocalypse) would be going down soon at this Dallas strip mall and that we needed to get out NOW!
I communicated this to my mom and while she looked at me a bit funny, she humored me and we grabbed the food and hopped back in the car. On the 5 minute ride home my heart was pounding, and I began thinking that I might be having a heart attack or stroke- cue the “stroke symptoms” Google. I got in the house and ran to my room. Then I looked out the window and saw a tree. I looked again and it was moving (like probably because of the wind.) I then realized that it looked like the tree that comes alive and grabs the kid in Poltergeist and I told my mom to quickly shut the curtains before it “got me.”
I think it was at this point that she started to realize there was something really strange going on and she encouraged me to take one of my Xanax and call my therapist. No answer, so I left a message and continued to freak out. I could still see the tree through the sheer curtain and it looked even more menacing. I soon came to the conclusion that there was a distinct possibility I was going to die, like in the next few minutes.
I would like to pause here and note that there was still a small rational part of my brain that was thinking that perhaps the tree was not really going to come to life and strangle me with its branches, but it didn’t stop the panic. I kept leaping up like I wanted to run, realizing I didn’t know where to go, and lying back down. It was about this time that Sebastian came home and relieved my mother of crazy-person watching duty.
He suggested that I breathe into a paper bag. So I did- I breathed into a Whole Foods brown paper wine bag for like 5 minutes. I did not feel any better, but eventually I just felt stupid. Like I was in some unimaginative rom-com and the girl gets so nervous before the big date that she starts hyperventilating and her sassy (but not as attractive because she wears glasses) BFF gives her a bag to breathe into!
Eventually we got my doctor on the phone and she helped me identify what was going on. With a combination of a licensed professional talking me down and a few more Xanax, the terror eventually faded. Leaving me feeling exhausted and ridiculous.
See, that’s the thing, I remember the whole series of events and what I was thinking. In hindsight it seems absurd and even a little funny, (I was scared of a tree!) but at the time the feelings I was having were real. I can totally understand how a lot of people with panic attacks go to the emergency room. And I think there is a sort of stigma to that, “Oh, it was just a panic attack.” Like the person overreacted and the whole thing was no big deal. But if it happens to you, believe me, it is a huge deal.
That’s why I wanted to share my story, so that if you have never had a panic attack, maybe you will be able to be a little more understanding to a friend or family member who is suffering from anxiety. Also, if you are someone who has gone through this, you are not alone. I’ll get it when you say that the crowds in a subway set you off, or a certain fabric stripe made you dizzy and fearful. But don’t call me if a tree in your yard ever comes to life…that shit is freaky!