Panic Attacks Don't Lessen My Worth as a Person
“Have you ever had a panic attack?”
The question hung between us like angry, rain-saturated clouds positioned overhead.
For me, the answer was obvious. Panic attacks can be a common, unfortunate part of battling Lyme disease and coinfections. But my relationship with panic attacks pre-dates my relationship with Lyme disease.
I have been married twice. Twice I picked out a gown, attended showers in my honor, pranced down an aisle and committed my life to the groom found waiting for me at the end. But once, the groom and I dismantled the life we’d built. We hurt each other deeply. And as I saw the end of our union barreling towards me, as I attempted to adjust to living alone for the first time in my life, as I worked to process the shame and loss of a failed marriage, I was introduced to panic in its rawest form.
These episodes were intense and unlike anything I had ever experienced before. They often reduced me to rocking back and forth on all fours or curling up into the fetal position, heart pounding seemingly outside of my chest. They seemed to be birthed by a thought, a “truth” too painful to bear – the weight of which induced sheer panic I could not control. These “truths” varied by the day or moment but they might have been “I will always be alone” or “I always make the wrong decision.” One day after the separation, while driving around and around SeaWorld, unable to find the entrance, it was: “I am unable to provide proper care for my son. I don’t deserve to be a parent.”
Over time, I learned to “talk myself down” from these episodes, to soothe myself away from these “truths,” to breathe, to disentangle fears from truths. I also spent years in the plush corner chair of a kind and capable counselor’s office doing the good, hard work of healing. In time, the panic faded to black and became a memory.
And then, Lyme disease seemed to bring on a different sort of panic attack. I can only describe these attacks as feeling somehow “chemical” in nature. They were unattached to any sort of thought or feeling. There seemed to be no specific triggers. They just were. As such, they were free to attach themselves to the most benign of events and were difficult to “talk yourself down” from. If a panic attack showed up because of some chemical trigger and not an emotional one, the panic itself was free to attach itself to whatever it wanted, like the last email I received, or the fact I’d just noticed we were out of milk. But all the self-talk in the world didn’t change anything, because these situations weren’t the actual trigger.
These “chemical” panic attacks became endurance-focused. And then elimination-focused – were there certain foods or meds setting them off or making them worse? How in the world do we get rid of them? (The “we” here being me and my doctor.)
And I confess to you that although the last few years have been riddled with many symptoms and diagnoses, this one sent me over an invisible edge. It somehow seemed more unacceptable than others. It felt like something I couldn’t and shouldn’t talk about.
Because according to some, only “weak” people have panic attacks. Don’t believe me? Just ask her, the woman sitting at my table, telling me she believes panic attacks are an excuse.
Just ask the people you know who have never had one. Unfortunately, their answers might sound like:
“You just need to pray more.”
“Are you sure that it’s not just all in your head?”
“Well, I’ve been through a lot and I’ve never had one, so I’m pretty sure that says something.”
“You control your own body so you must not be trying hard enough.”
But anyone who has had a panic attack knows none of these things are true. People who have panic attacks are not “lesser than” people who don’t.
They do not define a person any more so than any other physical symptom. And while there are many different ways to deal with panic attacks – which are as unique as their triggers – please know this: answering “yes” to the question, “Have you ever had a panic attack?” doesn’t make you worth any less as a person.
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