I was in my mid-20s when I had my first panic attack. It came out of the blue. I wasn’t involved in something that frightened me, or unnerved me, or any type of thing that you can imagine that would inspire panic. No, I was laying in bed watching TV – something highly familiar and comfortable.
I can’t remember what triggered it. It was probably just a numbness in an arm, or an odd pain. But soon I was feeling as if I was going to lose consciousness. Nay, not merely lose consciousness, but actually die. I needed to get outside where someone may see me or rescue me, some place where I could breathe. My legs felt like they could not support me since they had gone numb like much of the rest of my body. At the time I lived in an apartment complex where I had become friends with one of my neighbors. I managed to ring her doorbell. I couldn’t really describe my symptoms besides, “I’m dying.” I guess she didn’t take me too seriously since she didn’t rush me to the hospital as I expected her to do, but instead rang the doorbell of yet another neighbor, a nurse.
The neighbor-nurse asked me a few questions about my health history, medications, symptoms, etc. The diagnosis came quickly: I was having a panic attack. Despite my mother being an agoraphobic (which is basically the end result of untreated panic disorder), I knew nothing about panic attacks. The neighbor-nurse offered me some orange juice and let me lay down while she gently explained what was happening and reassuring me I wasn’t dying. A half an hour later the symptoms had subsided and I went home, feeling shaken but relieved it was over.
It wasn’t until years later that I had another attack. This time I was older and there were no kindly neighbors to talk me off the ledge. Again, it happened late in the evening while relaxing in front of the TV. First a numbness and then the thought, “oh my god, I’m dying.” I drove myself to the emergency room. I suspected it was just panic – I knew a lot more about it by then – and I just wanted someone to take my blood pressure and tell me I wasn’t having a heart attack. But, it was a busy night, so I spent much of the night in the waiting room. The comfort of knowing there were a gaggle of doctors just beyond that swinging door and the distraction of a busy ER calmed my symptoms quickly. Why I continued to wait, I don’t know. It was probably close to 4 hours before I saw a doctor who, upon hearing my faded symptoms, and my family and personal history, quickly diagnosed panic. My blood pressure was slightly elevated, but nothing to be alarmed about.
In the years since I have gone through periods where I tend to have more panic attacks. Always it is the same: at night, alone, triggered by some minor ache or pain. The type of ache or pain that most people would react with maybe an “ouch” or “maybe I should change my position so my arm doesn’t fall asleep.” Not me, my mind goes from “Ouch! What’s that?” to “No doubt that is symptom of a heart attack, or some kind of blood clot that is going to cause my imminent death.” If I don’t catch it in time with some rational self-talk or mindfulness or distraction or Valium (or all of the above), the next part of the routine is getting dressed in preparation to drive myself to the emergency room. Eventually, I calm down enough so I can start distracting myself until all the symptoms are completely gone.
I don’t know what the point of this post is. I’m tired. I woke up with a cramp in my leg at 2am, which, of course, triggered a panic attack, so most of my night was shot. Sleep has been hard enough these days without adding in the odd panic attack or two. I’ve done the cognitive behavioral therapy thing – I recognize what it is, and that is probably what has kept me from multiple trips to the ER. I’ve done years of therapy, including for PTSD. I think this is just part of the genetic heritage left to me by my mother who, for my entire lifetime with her, rarely ever left the house because of her panic disorder. I know it could be a lot worse, so I guess I’ll just deal with the occasional attack and be grateful it doesn’t control my life.