We were in Chicago for a few days, and I took my boyfriend at the time to a neighborhood bar to see friends. Almost immediately I felt a light-headed, anxious rush come over me. We ordered drinks and food, but I couldn’t touch them. “What’s wrong with me? Nothing’s even happened.” I felt warm, nervously drank water, excused myself to the bathroom to breathe multiple times. I didn’t know what triggered me, but I knew I was panicked. Embarrassed, I asked my boyfriend to walk outside with me. I just needed some fresh air.
This isn’t working.
What’s wrong with me?
“Okay, get to a safe place. I need to get back to my hotel.”
We said a quick goodbye to my friends and caught the next bus. Heart pounding like a drum in my chest, eyes darting, unfocused, I remember laying my head on my boyfriend’s lap and repeating to myself over and over that I was okay.
“Am I okay? Am I dying? I’m dying. My body is shutting down. No, I’m okay. I think I’m okay. This is anxiety. This is a panic attack. Is this a panic attack?”
We arrived at my hotel room, and I fumbled for my keys. Frantic energy vibrated in my body, “I can’t find it. I don’t know what I did with it.” I crumbled into a ball on the ground. Attempting to pull in oxygen, I sat with my head in my hands, tucked between my knees, heart still racing, panic telling me my body was shutting down. My boyfriend miraculously reappeared with a replacement key.
Opening the door to the room, I felt a sobering rush of cold air hit me. I ran straight to my suitcase to pull out a prescription for Xanax that my doctor gave me in case of panic attacks. I had just started taking a daily pill for anxiety, and she said this might happen. I was nervous about how the drug would affect me, so I cut it in half, swallowed it with a gulp of water, and stuffed myself under the covers.
I waited for the the anxiety to go away, and it never really did. But I became sleepy. So with tired eyes and weakening will, I took deep breaths, covered my face with a pillow, and hugged my stomach. As I finally nodded off I felt a stillness settle in, deciding that I wasn’t going to wake up in the morning and that was okay. I surrendered. “I’m dying. It’s okay.”
That was my first panic attack.
To this day, I would consider that experience my worst panic attack, yet each time it happens it feels new, it feels almost entirely impassable in the moment.
I wish I knew exactly why panic attacks happen, so they can be prevented. The answers are varied and often buried in layers of memory and trauma. I can’t give answers. But I can relate.
Losing a sense of control. Unstable blood sugar. Helplessness. Life changes. Important decisions. Presentations at work. Arguments. Dehydration. Boundaries violated. Trauma triggered.
Anxiety expresses itself in many forms. Racing heart, sweaty palms, feeling overheated, difficulty focusing, tunnel vision, wildly irrational thought patterns, chaotic mind, frozen in place, dizziness, feeling sick to your stomach, trouble breathing, lightheadedness, a tingling sensation in the body.
Drugs are helpful, but not the answer to healing. And short term prescriptions may be useful if taken safely and appropriately. I took a daily pill for months before I recognized that it was a false peace. It did help me manage my anxiety when it was at its worst. It gave me hope that peace was possible. Occasionally though I would forget to take one and become super moody and feel out of control. Not to mention that I felt dependent on something for normalcy that seemed to be less and less effective over time.
After a particularly moody weekend, I decided I wanted to work through it on my own. But this was a challenge, as I barely knew where to start.. Eventually when the panic attacks became too much… weekly, daily, shit-I-can’t-handle-this-anymore often, I thought, “I need… desperately need to do something about this. I cannot go on living this way. It’s torture.”
So I took a big step. I talked to my doctor. I weened myself off of my daily pills. And I did two important things: I looked for a counselor and I scheduled a meeting with a holistic doctor.
I’m going to talk a bit about those things soon, because if there’s one thing I know about healing, it’s that it happens a lot faster with support.