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Why I Actually Love My Panic Attacks

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I have slept in LAX more times than I would like. One year, I spent 15 different trips in Chicago midway but have only seen Chicago once. I stayed at a motel where there was a murder the morning I arrived. I have met a world-famous cat photographer, got sex advice from a porn star, and have spotted Snoop Dogg twice; I’m hoping there will be a third time and I will be close enough to fangirl out on him. I have spent countless days in random coffee shops working, I’ve met people who instantly became my best friends and others who were not for me. For 12 hours I was stuck in an airport that did not have any heat and had to share a blanket with a stranger. I’ve never loved someone so much as I did that night. After a snowstorm that caused flights to be canceled at a small airport in Idaho, a dance party broke out and the bar gave everyone free drinks. One time, I watched a football game in a hotel bar, and even though I do not like football, I had made so many new friends that I had to cheer along because they were my family for one night.

My life sounds adventurous and I sound like I am a free-spirited person. I am not, though. For more than half of my life, I was terrified of the world. My life has been a series of panic attacks. It was not until I was 29 that I realized my whole childhood and most of my adult life had been affected by anxiety. Fear ruled my life. I did not sleep, I was afraid to be alone and was convinced everyone I loved would die. The thought of traveling by myself, let alone as a career, sounded like my version of Hell. 

I have come to love and accept my panic attacks. I have also learned to how to tell when my body is going to get one. I get symptoms two or three days before I have a panic attack. It starts with a pit in my stomach, like I’ve done something wrong, and then moves on to my eating habits. I either eat everything in sight or nothing at all. I stop sleeping. I’ll fall asleep for an hour then wake feeling like I am going to throw up. Then at some point, after a few days, I’ll have a panic attack. My most recent one hit while bringing in groceries. I have no warning, I get a lump in my throat, and my entire body goes numb. It lasts anywhere between 1-3 minutes. My heart rate gets ridiculously high, I end up on the floor gasping for air, and I have to remind myself over and over that I am not dying. It sounds dramatic, and at the moment it is, but once it is over I get up, wash my hands and face and continue doing whatever I was doing.

That is the thing about panic attacks. They come, and they go. It is the worst fear you can imagine. It feels like the whole world crashes in on you. It physically and mentally hurts so bad. I survive it, though. That is why I will always embrace them. It took 29 years to realize what I was experiencing was a panic attack. I used to try and ignore them or push through them. Now I let them happen. When I stopped fighting and just let them be, my entire world changed. The common anxiety I had been experiencing is no longer holding me back. Making friends with a stranger in a hotel bar is not scary anymore. A flight delay or spending the night in the airport is not the end of the world. Panic attacks have taught me to embrace life as an experience. Sometimes it is scary, but it always passes. Life keeps moving. When you are focusing on taking one moment at a time, focus on just taking a breath and experiencing whatever situation you happen to be in, you realize you have the ability to live a life of adventure too. I would never have started traveling or had any of the above experiences if I did not take a lesson from my panic attacks and learn to love them.

Everyone has a different way of handling panic attacks, and there is no right way to deal with it. I had spent so much of my life fighting them that the only way to deal was to accept and embrace them. Sure they are inconvenient, but for me, they are necessary to keep things in perspective. They come on fewer and fewer these days, but when they do come, it is because I have forgotten to live from a place of love and have given into fear.

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How Getting a Panic Disorder Diagnosis Changed My Life

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One year ago today, I had wires protruding from my body and trailing out of my shirt to connect to a machine on my hip. Due to my symptoms of heart palpitations, chest pain and vertigo, the cardiologist I visited recommended I wear a 24 hour EKG machine to map my heart patterns. I remember the hope that accompanied wearing the machine. Maybe, finally, they will discover what is wrong with me so I can get the help I need.

I also remember the shame, embarrassment and fear at having to wear this obvious machine to work. I put on the bravest face I could and tried to stand confidently at my cashier post. It was barely an hour into my shift when I began feeling the chest pain and racing heart that had been plaguing me for months.

Over the next several hours, the left side of my arm and face went numb. I was confused and did not know what I was doing or why I was standing with cash in my hand. Electric shocks ran up and down the left side of my spine, ending with bright bursts at the back of my head. I felt the blood drain from my face and my body felt like it was in an ice chest. My arms and the left side of my face twitched, seemingly controlled by an invisible finger that was poking the left side of my head with force.

My thoughts were on loop. I must be dying. What is happening to me? Is the monitor getting all of this? I’m dying and nobody is noticing.

One year ago today, I was still a month away from being diagnosed with a panic disorder. It took hundreds of dollars, an obscene amount of doctors and countless desperate moments to get to the diagnosis.

I never want to forget the darkness and hopelessness that occupied my day last March 29th. A year out, the difference between then and now is like night and day. I need people to know if they are in a place of desperation and fear I was in last year, there is healing for them.

The journey of therapy and medication that led me to where I am now was, not by any means, easy. The path is rough—a parabola of hills rather than a straight incline toward health. Between then and now, I had to get a leave of absence from work. There were days when I was too dizzy or too nauseas to leave my bathroom floor. There was a month when I simply could not eat. My throat constricted at the introduction of food and I lost weight that left me feeling frail and breakable.

But today, this March 29th is a day I am celebrating with depths of joy. I no longer experience panic attacks. I no longer loathe my body for its confusing and debilitating physical symptoms. If I do experience anxiety, therapy has taught me to locate my triggers and how I can healthily respond to my physical reactions.

Today I am celebrating because I have been given a new life. My chains of anxiety and fear are broken and I have the privilege of looking back on last year with a completely new perspective. I have learned to love my body and what it teaches me about my internal emotional state. There is healing for you. The path is hard and you may get discouraged, but there is a possibility of a life without panic attacks.

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Thinkstock photo via Olarty.

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When Panic Attacks Attack

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I am standing in the grocery store on an ordinary Tuesday in October, list in one hand, phone in the other. Like most people, I do not enjoy grocery shopping, especially since my son is usually with me jumping up and down, begging for every single shrink wrapped toy dangling within his reach. But, today, I am alone and for once I am Ed-McMahon-just-rang-my-doorbell-with-a-giant-check thrilled.

I knock items off my list like whacking moles at an arcade:

Cucumbers. Mostly water, good for bloating. Check.

Zucchini for “zoodles,” which my kid will probably hate. Check.

Dark chocolate Dove squares to hide from family in box of tampons. Check.

Cottage cheese — No, hell no. If shame had a flavor it would be this shit.

As I stare down at my “Eat Me” board on Pinterest trying to figure out what to make for dinner I steer my cart full of good intentions into the cereal aisle.

Standing there next to my friends Tony, Snap, Crackle, Pop and the Cap’n a strange feeling comes over me, slowly at first. It starts in my ears where I can hear my heart beating at about the tempo of a Souza march. I shove my phone and list in my pocket and grip the plastic bar of my cart.

Then, the skin on my chest and neck starts to feel warm and itchy. I unzip my jacket.

Sweat, fulsome and sticky seeps like lava from my brow, my pits, between Lucy and Ethel and, worst of all, in and around my, uh, box of Trix.

I know I need to move; I’m sure I’m in the way standing there in the middle of the aisle or I will be, but I can’t.

Am I having a heart attack?

I have no arm pain, jaw pain, chest pain.

Am I having a stroke?

What’s the acronym for that? S.M.I.L.E? F.A.C.E?

I know it has something to do with smiling or talking or smelling burnt toast — Fuck, I have no idea.  

I contemplate sitting down right there mid-aisle, but my pride won’t let me. It would be just my luck for someone to snap a viral-worthy photo of me  — “Moist Lady Needs Cleanup on Aisle Three.”

I try to accept the discomfort. Be in the moment. You know, “The Power of Now” and all that. But that only makes me more aware of fresh sensations I can’t control — the feeling I’m being strangled by some super villain bent on revenge, for example.

Nope, nope. Fuck Eckhart Tolle. He wouldn’t last a half a second standing in my sensible shoes right now.

Finally, I try to take a few deep breaths:

In for four, out for eight.

In for four, out for eight.

In for four . . .

I close my eyes for a minute or two or 10 or I don’t even know.

When I open them, something inside me has unlocked just enough to have what feels like an epiphany: I need to eat. I need to eat RIGHT NOW.

I begin pulling boxes of cereal off the shelf like a contestant on “The Price is Right.”

I skip the rest of the items on my list, go through the do-it-yourself checkout line, come home, leave the groceries in the car, except the cereal – Oatmeal Crisp, (AKA “Crack in the Box”) – and pour myself a bowl. And not one of those delicate Crate and Barrel cereal bowls designed for sensible portions.

Fuck that shit.

I got the biggest, the deepest, the most sinful vessel I could find – The Popcorn Bowl. I don’t even sit down. I stand there at my kitchen counter dumping back more sweet flakey love than I’ve had in a very long time. Years, actually.

Later that night (and well into the next day) I was reminded why I gave up cereal. Let’s just say I had a lot of time to sit in my fortress of porcelain solitude and reflect on (and Google) what happened to me in the grocery store.

I had my first panic attack. I spent an obsessive amount of time trying to figure out why it happened — Why then? Why there? Why me? — but what I’ve come to realize is they are called panic “attacks,” not panic “Hey you might wanna not schedule anything important for 9 a.m. next Tuesday,” for a reason. For me, sometimes there are known triggers, but mostly there aren’t.

Many years later as I reflect on what it’s like to live with anxiety, I’d like to say I have found a quick and easy cure like the perfect yoga practice or breathing exercise or self-help book, essential oil or a combination of medications that don’t eventually stop working, chamomile-ashwagandha-kava-kava super herb or something. But I haven’t. I mean, all of those things have worked for me at one time or another – well, the kava kava gave me the trots – but nothing took the anxiety away completely.

I’ve come to (mostly) accept my anxious nature, like that quirk you discover your partner has after the honeymoon period. The one that makes you want to scream, “Why the hell are you like that!?” at first but then you decide to love them right past it.

Right now, as I write, I am anxious about how to end this. I am anxious that my tale might seem flippant or trite or miss the mark. I feel the weight of responsible storytelling, the weight of getting it “right,” and so I contemplate leaving this one in my drafts folder, like so many tubs of cottage cheese left to rot in the back of my fridge.

Instead, I think I’ll love myself right past this feeling and put it out there, in the hopes that someone, somewhere will feel what I want to feel — less alone.

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Thinkstock photo via Weedezign

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I Won the Fight Against My Bully, Panic Disorder

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I am more intimate with panic disorder than I care to be. Its onset is rapid and its process agonizing, but what I want people to understand more than anything else, is that it need not be forever. Panic disorder has sometimes isolated me with scary distortions of the larger world. Because the fear lives inside me, I m not able to outrun it when it strikes. In trickster fashion, panic disorder has far too often fooled me into believing I am only safe within the confines of my home and it never wants me to leave. It straps an arrest monitor around my brain to ensure I remain where it wants me to be.

Before I gained the upper hand in my fight, if I so much as contemplated escape, the bracelet activated and I had visions of recent attacks. Panic attacks seem to scar the minds of its victims. I remember how my lungs constricted and how my breath was stolen. I recalled how my heart thundered through my chest and vibrated in my ears. I anticipated torrential sweat regardless of winter frost or chills despite the summer sun. I remember how my limbs burned as if something rancid had been injected into my veins. I feared nausea so strong I might vomit on the pavement for the world to witness. Then I crumbled to my dark bedroom in response to imagined fingers pointed at me in judgment because I fear being labeled “crazy.” People seem to point and laugh at what they do not understand.

When I was last confined by panic, my friends demanded I “get over it” or “try harder” as if I chose to live with this thing. I absorbed every admonishment and my pain was compiled by guilt created by perceived social neglect. It is hard for some people to grasp mental illness as real illness.

I took medication to quell symptoms, but recognized I needed therapy to get to the root of my attacks. I explored meditation apps, deep breathing, mindfulness, grounding and every strategy offered by psychologists who examine panic. I explored those modalities because I could explore them from the seclusion of my bedroom.

I fought like mad to combat my cruel imagination with a bit of rationale because I knew hope lived in my first step out my front door. I practiced with walks around my block to prove to myself that people on the street posed no threat to me. It took two weeks after my last attack for me to get in my car and drive even a mile. Every destination reached I assigned a designation of safety and every subsequent day I attempted to drive a bit further. One of those markers was the office of my therapist who had been conducting phone sessions with me until I could leave home. She helped me dig deep enough to find the wounds and heal them, but recovery is a process and not all of my wounds have been healed.

Treatment worked enough to allow for a return to functionality. I am optimistic long term recovery is possible, but my optimism is cautious because I know the possibility of recurrence exists.

I have to believe in the possibility of recovery and its effectiveness because I am a therapist who treats people anxiety disorders. I hope my revelation informs people no one is immune to mental illness, not even the helpers. Sometimes I disclose my struggles to my clients to let them know mental illness is not weakness.

I also strive to instill hope through writing, because nothing is more far reaching than written word. I want people to know panic disorder need not stop us from utilizing our talents to reach those in need. I want it known this illness is beatable, but consistency of self-care is paramount in the fight. I know this because I remain dedicated to my own regiment.

There is a need for people to understand the severity of anxiety disorders, because the lack of understanding from family members and friends adds to distress and increases feelings of loneliness and isolation. The combination of isolation and despair can be fatal for people with mental illness.

Panic disorder is a bully, but it is a bully we can defeat when we rise up. I know this because I am three years panic attack-free and I fight daily to remain this way while I help others with their own battle.

I hope anyone who reads this understands while our disorder is real, the things we fear are not. Panic disorder can be overcome with hope and healing.

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Thinkstock photo via JetFoto.

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A woman behind bars

When Panic Takes Over

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My screenwriting professor is lecturing; everyone is taking notes. It’s happening again. My stomach is burning, my chest is tightening, air seems like a foreign substance trying to slide down my closing throat. My head is numb, the room is closing in on me, I’m no longer in control. I grip my desk trying to ground myself as a full panic consumes my body.

I’m sitting in class, but I can’t seem to understand a word the professor is saying. I slowly try to release the death grip I have on my desk. I need something to calm me down — anything. My shaky hands grab my water bottle and clumsily unscrew the top. I force a sip of water down my throat, hoping it will bring some fragment of relief to my body. It doesn’t. I’m still shaking. What do I do? I need to leave. I need to escape from this room immediately. Can I even walk? What if I just stand up and fall over? I can’t sit here anymore. If I do I might faint, lose the last bit of control I have.

 

I’m sitting in class, but I cannot wait another second. I’m doing it. I’m getting up. I quickly pack up my bag, trying to be as quiet as possible. People are starting to notice me. I keep my head down, avoiding eye contact with everybody.

Leave Haley, you need to leave.

But what if the professor calls me out? I can’t even speak right now. He will think I’m disrespectful and I’ll do poorly in the class. Oh God, my heart is pounding harder than before. I take my last ounce of strength and stand up.

Holding my breath, lifting one brick leg at a time, I make my way to the door. People are turning. I hear them shuffling in their seats, wondering why that girl is leaving after only 10 minutes of class.

I’m embarrassed. I’m ashamed. I’m terrified.

I look up and my eyes fixate on the threshold between suffering and freedom. For those who didn’t already notice my desperate escape, the opening of the creaky lecture hall door brings their attention to it. I’m in the hallway where I can finally breathe. I’m starting to come down now. Exhausted, sweaty, and limp-legged, I look down at my phone. 8:10 a.m. – it’s only the first class of the day.

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Thank You to 'This Is Us' for Portraying a Character With Anxiety

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In 1669, Margaret Hughes was credited as the first actress on the English stage. In 1895, the first gay couple was portrayed in the film “The Dickson Experimental Sound Film.” In 1927, actor Lincoln Perry became Hollywood’s first black movie star. In 1948, the melodrama “Johnny Belinda” depicted a woman with a disability as the main character and was the first film to bring sign language to moviegoers.

But last year, female protagonists made up about a quarter of the heroes portrayed in the top 100 grossing film. Although reconciled this year, last year no black people were nominated by the Academy Awards. Four percent of characters on primetime television were identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual in 2015 and only 2.4 percent of speaking or named characters in film were shown to have a disability.

I understand why it’s a big deal when people don’t have fair representation in media. There is something to be said for seeing a character who understands what you’re going through.

It makes you feel less alone.

I felt this when I watched the last two episodes of NBC’s “This is Us” because it was the first time I have seen a character who experiences panic attacks.

“This is Us” has tackled a lot of significant issues that aren’t so commonly tackled. Obesity. Adoption. Bisexuality. Addiction. And now, with Randall’s character, anxiety.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), a panic attack is described as the “abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes.” I can’t even explain the feeling of seeing a character who, like me, has them.

Seeing Randall in his bedroom crying or sitting in a corner in the fetal position, I thought, that’s me. The episodes showed how truly debilitating an anxiety attack can be.

In Tuesday’s episode, Randall talked about how his adoptive father, Jack, kept his anxiety in check. “Whenever I’d get too in my head, he’d take his hands and put them on both sides of my head and he’d just say, ‘There you go, breathe with me.’ And we’d just sit there, breathing together until it passed.”

He said, “It’s always been like that. Putting the pressure on myself ever since I was a little boy.”

I, too, have had panic attacks since I was little. When I had them, my mom would sit on my bed and rub my back until it passed and pray for the “bad thoughts” to go away. The panic attacks would happen when I was about to go on stage for a dance recital. It would happen when I was studying for a big test. It would happen after I came home from school after being bullied. It would happen when I tried to fall asleep, And, now, it’ll happen after a stressful day at work, after I stretch myself too thin or for no reason at all.

I have to say there was something magical about seeing a television character who went through exactly this. No stereotypes. No calling him crazy. Just a man who, when things get to be too much, has a breakdown every once in a while. And it’s OK.

I have to say, this really did make me feel not so alone. And I want to thank Dan Fogelman for creating and actor Sterling K. Brown for portraying a character who experiences anxiety, just like I do.

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Photo via “This Is Us” Twitter.

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