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Why My Boss’ Reaction to My Panic Attack Ended in Laughter

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A panic attack can feel like the end of the world. However, what most of us never consider is that panic attacks can be funny. They can put you in absurd situations as you fight to prevent them and creatively try to keep other people from knowing you are having one. I have discovered that a little humor can go a long way in taking power away from the galloping thoughts my mind throws at me.

I spent almost a decade working as a senior policy director for a city commissioner. The job was challenging and mostly fun. It was the career change my recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and panic disorder allowed me to pursue.

I hadn’t been in the job long before I began to have heart palpitations. With a family history of heart disease, I now had something new to worry about. I went to a cardiologist and he said I needed to stop taking the low-dose, early-generation antidepressant I had successfully used for over a decade. He said it may be contributing to my palpitations. If you have tried or are currently on antidepressants, you know they all come with side effects. I spent the best part of a year trying new medications, searching for the combination that had the best results with the fewest side effects.

My commissioner’s office managed the fire bureau. One day, suffering mightily from the effects of yet another drug change, I was sitting alone with the commissioner in his office. Suddenly, I felt faint, my heart raced, and I had a panic attack. I tried to hide it but I must have looked awful because he asked if something was wrong. I said I wasn’t feeling well and was having heart palpitations. Big mistake. I should have gotten up and gone to my office for my prescribed, on-demand medication. Before I could move, the commissioner was on his cell phone to the fire chief. My boss cared about his team and was just trying to help in his big way, but I knew I was now just a passenger on a hurtling rocket to absurdity.

“Chief, one of my people isn’t feeling well. Maybe something with his heart. What would you recommend? Oh … good … thanks.”

“Commissioner, what are you doing?” I asked.

“Don’t worry, Jim, the chief said he would send someone over to check you out.”

In minutes, I heard sirens, then four firemen and two EMTs came through the door. There was no escape. I was hooked up to monitors and, of course, my blood pressure and pulse skyrocketed. I knew what was going on, and I expect the EMTs did, too, but they were now in the office of their big boss, the commissioner-in-charge. The chief sent them at the commissioner’s request so I was getting the full treatment.

“What should we do?” the commissioner asked.

“Oh, probably a good idea to go to the ER and get checked out,” the EMT said, as I watched four firemen, bored, looking at posters and pictures on the office walls.

As they loaded their gear to leave, the commissioner called in our community liaison, a gentle former preacher, and had him take me to the ER. That was the second time the palpitations had me at the emergency room. After a couple of hours of monitoring, they handed me diazepam and sent me home.

When I think of this story now, it all seems bizarre and funny to me. Moments after the first buzz of panic symptoms, I knew what was happening. But things just got out of hand in a big hurry. I was actually shaking my head and laughing about the whole adventure by the time my wife got home that night.

There are many choices I could have made about that incident. I could have let it create new fears to avoid. I could have bathed in embarrassment with my co-workers the next day. But I didn’t do any of those things. My co-workers were just glad I was OK. I was able to laugh with them about the unbelievable sight of all those firefighters standing around staring at me on a couch. I was able to thank my boss for how much he cared.

It isn’t so much about having a panic attack as what we do with them after they inevitably fade away. Sometimes, a panic attack is just funny.

This is adapted from Jim Blackwood’s memoir, “Am I Cured Yet? My Wonderful Life with Panic Disorder and PTSD” — Available on Amazon. Follow this journey at Jim’s personal website.

After continuing his public service during his two-year battle with cancer, Commissioner Nick Fish passed away on January 2, 2020.

Photo by Logan Weaver on Unsplash

Originally published: January 9, 2019
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