The first time I experienced acute anxiety I was 20 years old and sitting on the couch watching television. The storm of anxiety snuck up on me, and I was suddenly in its eyeball, my body lifted up from the cushions and whirled frantically around like a rag doll in a cyclone. There were people just next door in the kitchen, but I was all alone. I was helpless (or so I was convinced) before a force of such intense physical power I felt like the only way to escape would be to run with all my might.
Except, as I said, I was sitting, on the couch, watching TV.
My friend rang to talk and I asked her if we could go out. Maybe, I thought over the frantic beating of my own heart, a change of scenery would help. She took me to the beach. The drive only made things worse. The windy roads took on a surrealist, nightmare quality. My seatbelt felt like a chain tying me down. Maybe a walk would help, I hoped on arrival at the tourist-beloved waterside. So we walked, of all places, to the icecream parlour on the boulevard. And as those around us laughed and took in the summer night breeze with ease all I could think was: I need to go to the hospital, I need to go now. I was sure I was either going “crazy,” or having a heart attack.
That’s the first time the Big A convinced me I was breaking, not in two, but in a million little pieces, dispersed to the beach wind, flying unbound like grains of sand over the great depths of the ocean. And, what was worst of all, I thought that I was the only one in the world to feel like this.
What I didn’t have yet was information. I’ve since learned much more about what was happening to me. And understanding has been one of the major keys to learning to live in the wake, and sometimes still the presence, of the Big A.
I’ve learned that rather than a unique experience, my feelings were sadly common.
I still remember the pamphlet my general practitioner gave me when I took my walking-fear into him. It was one of those medical cartoon type depictions made to educate the everyman about biological processes. It had this figure of a man, and all these arrows coming out from different parts of his body. At the tip of each arrow was a bodily description, and as I read through the labels I ticked them off in my mind: racing heart, nausea, sweating, inability to concentrate, stomach pains, feelings of loss of control, weak legs. And then, at the top of the man, like a banner over his head, were the words that were to speak the title of a major category of my life from then on: Symptoms of a Panic Attack.
I’ve heard anxiety attacks described in a variety of ways. One of the best is that of the great imposter. If anxiety was an actor — it could win Grammys. A con-arist, it could make millions. Its power lies in its ability to convince that what is happening, all those bodily sensations, and the accompanying mind-images that follow, are actually real threats.
This is not to say the feelings themselves aren’t real. They are. Anyone who just says get over it, or think positive, has never been caught in the white of Big A’s iris. Feelings are powerful. Powerful enough to cause the body to react. But not powerful enough to do what they threaten. The feelings are just feelings, but they are nonetheless feelings keenly felt. Acute anxiety is not worry.
Acute anxiety has been my thorn in the flesh for more than 15 years now. Thanks to faithful friends, an amazingly empathetic and loving husband, and wise counsel, not to mention prayer, I have come a long way. Most days these days, my anxiety does not come knocking at all. But when it does, it is never polite.
I know I am not the only one who has had this most insatiable caller arrive at their door. Statistics, and years of conversations with others, tell me many many people have met this foe. Women, perfectionists, 20-somethings, artists, grievers, sufferers, high achievers, even athletes, anxiety is not overly-particular.
The Big A is both all-inclusive and intrusive, but it is not all-defeating. Despite everything it may have told me, anxiety has not stopped me living, loving, having children or completing goals. And the more I share my story the more I see how talking about it helps. The more it is exposed the less sneaky anxiety becomes, the more able to be dealt with, lived with and the less likely to catch by surprise.
This story originally appeared on Spilled Milk and Sunsets.