Although in hindsight it was a panic attack, at the time it felt like I was dying.
My First Panic Attacks
On a Saturday afternoon in April of 1997, I called my father in a panic and short of breath. He picked me up and rushed me to the hospital. In the passenger seat of his car, I could barely speak between gasps for air. I felt dizzy and light headed. Once at the hospital, I wheezed lying on the floor of the waiting room in a crouched little ball. Maybe two hours had passed, but it felt like an eternity. I was finally admitted; doctors and nurses conducted tests and gave me intravenous fluid. I soon began to calm and feel better. I was cured.
Well, not exactly. The next day I had trouble breathing again. And then the next day after that. Then again and again. I was scared; suffering from something born of the mind and not the body; unable to trust my own thoughts and where they might wander. I marveled in horror at the power of thoughts; that they could convince my body of its own demise. I later learned that I was suffering from anxiety and its close relative, panic attacks.
Failed Strategies Coping with Panic Attacks
My primary strategy was to ignore it by distracting the mind with various activities; watching television, spending time with friends and family, listening to music, anything. Most days were desperate exercises in evading difficult emotion; avoiding myself. Metaphorically, I ran to any corner of the world that would allow me to escape fears of anxiety and panic; hoping that if I could appear fine, I could trick myself into feeling the same. However, I was turning away from my emotional world; afraid of becoming stuck in difficult emotions; that if I acknowledged them, they might stay forever. I tried to outrun anxiety. However, as I told a therapist a few years ago; “no matter where I go, I bring myself with me.”
Living with Anxiety
I trudged along in this manner for approximately 8 years; my solutions largely cosmetic and ineffective for long term mental health. Buried emotions simmered beneath the surface of existence; poisoning my mood, as well as impacting my personality and life choices. At times, the covered emotions would threaten to emerge; growing beyond my powers to conceal. The internal struggle was an invisible battle between who I was and how I wanted to appear.
Eventually, the struggle became a weight upon my soul; carried beyond awareness like a heavy backpack that couldn’t be seen or felt. It became me; my way of life; my mode of being. I had forgotten what it felt like to not be afraid. To those around me, I appeared fine. I even convinced myself on most days. But I wasn’t. I needed help. However, I would first need to admit it. When I eventually did, my life and mental health began to slowly change for the better.
In my next post, I will explore my journey to a life free of anxiety and panic attacks.