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What Happened When I Saw a Psychiatrist for My Panic Attacks

Panic attacks.

A demon in their own right.

A painful knot in my stomach. Nausea. Heart racing. My chest. I cannot take a deep breath in. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. It is so tight. I can’t breathe.

Overwhelmed.

I don’t know what to do.

My kids ask a question:

“What?” I snap.

Everything feels too much. Everything is too loud. I can’t breathe.

The tears well up in the corner of my eyes. I excuse myself.

I lock myself in the bathroom. Doubled over with abdominal pain. Head in the toilet, sure as hell my guts will be coming out my mouth.

My skin is crawling. I need to rip it off. God, I wish I could. And then I cry.

And cry.

And cry.

Stop.

It’s OK. 

You can breathe.

Slow down.

Smell the roses, blow out the candles.

You can do this.

I get my bearings. Enough to open the door and try again.

Except one time. I couldn’t. I called my husband.

“I think I need to go to the hospital.”

“I’m coming home.”

My nine-year-old son knelt down next to me and rubbed my back.

“It will be okay, Mom.”

Shit.

“Yes, it will. Thanks, bud.”

My first born trying to talk me out of a panic attack.

I need help.

I called a physician referral line the next day. It took three phone calls to three different practices to find one doctor accepting new patients. And then it took two months for the first available appointment. I just need to make it to October.

I walk in.

“Have a seat.”

Who would have thought choosing a seat in a therapist’s office would unleash such anxiety-ridden inner dialogue.

Does it matter which one I pick? Does it mean something if I sit in the chair further from him? Or the one closest to the door?

Oh, just sit down, Sara.

“How are you doing?”

“Um, I’m fine.”

I try to sound positive, but then I figure if I can’t be honest in a psychiatrist’s office, I am truly screwed.

“What brings you here?”

“Anxiety and depression.”

He asks a slew of questions. Takes down a history. A list of the antidepressants I have tried and failed, along with my current medications.

I am acutely aware of my movements. A flurry of thoughts.

Stop moving your hands. 

Stop bouncing your leg.

Am I making enough eye contact?

Am I making too much eye contact?

Does he think these movements are all made up?

Wait … are they?

“How are you tolerating your anti-anxiety medication?”

“I think it’s helping. Definitely better than others I’ve tried.” I sound like a mess.

“OK. Any nightmares?”

“Um, yeah. Like graphic ones. For weeks on end. And then they will go away for a time, and then come back. They really bother me.”

“Any panic attacks?”

“Uh, all the time. My nine-year-old was there for my last one.”

He makes a scrunched up face.

“Ooph.”

He pauses, seemingly to think.

“Well, sometimes this medication can make anxiety worse, but since you seem to be tolerating it, I would like to increase your dose. And I would like to give you a low dose beta blocker that will help alleviate some of these physical symptoms of your anxiety. But, it can make you lightheaded. And something for sleep. To help with the nightmares. You are very symptomatic.”

I am feeling oddly validated and surprisingly hopeful.

He hands me a prescription and says, “Come back in two months and let’s see how you are doing.”

“How are you doing?”

“I think better.”

“Good. Any nightmares?”

“I really don’t think so.”

“Good. Any panic attacks?”

“I think I have had like two or three this month. But, I just don’t feel like dealing with them; I pretty much can feel one coming on, so I take a benzodiazepine. Is that wrong?”

“No, not wrong. So. Still having panic attacks.”

“Yeah, but a lot less. I mean, before the anti-anxiety med, I was having them regularly.”

I feel slightly defensive.

I am better.

I know I am.

Great. This is where he is going to tell me he has done all he can and it is time to go back to the counselor. Which would be great except I have zero time to go to a counselor. That would mean more time off work which is less on the paycheck and more bills. Not to mention all the gas it takes to get to her office. Or if I make an appointment for when I am off work, I have to find a babysitter which means I’m paying for both a sitter and an appointment. But if I just have someone come over for a couple hours, it won’t be that expensive.

Spiraling, exhausting thoughts interrupted.

“I think we should go up on the anti-anxiety medication.”

Taken aback.

“Really?”

“Yes, we are almost there, but you are still having symptoms, so I would like to increase the medication.”

What does that mean?

“Wait. Are you telling me it is possible for me to stop having panic attacks?”

“I think that is possible.”

I am rendered speechless as I let that sink in.

“I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what was a realistic goal with medication, like what it was capable of and what I would have to keep dealing with.”

“We are almost there.”

Oddly validated and surprisingly hopeful.

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