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Panic Attack on the Side of the Expressway

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It’s all a blur.

Cars speed past me on a late night dash to get to Saturday night plans. They drive one after the other after the other, sometimes two or three or five at a time. They merge into an orb of red and yellow light in motion and drive into the blackness, a darkness made darker by a lack of lampposts and a jungle of trees that extends for miles along the Westbound Service Road of the Expressway. The drivers see me, maneuver around me and keep moving without looking or stopping, just as I’ve done many times before, probably earlier today. They continue their lives and assume I’m just another person with another car malfunction or someone who is lost, resetting her GPS and searching for her correct destination. My white sedan’s double blinkers indicate that my car has a right to be pulled to the side of the road, occupying part of the right lane — that for whatever reason, there’s a problem, and whatever it is, the driver inside is handling it. 

But this driver is not handling it.

Numbness takes over my body, followed by a feeling of pins and needles in my hands and feet that swiftly crawls up my legs and arms, eventually reaching my face, my eyelids, my earlobes.

My heart struggles to keep steady beats, skipping some and adding extras too quickly to make up for the ones it misses.

I am having hot flashes, but my limbs and nose are igloos.

I can’t breathe.

Why can’t I breathe?

My damp sweater sleeve is stained with smeared eyeliner, bronzer and tears.

I don’t have tissues.

I never need tissues because I don’t cry, but I’m crying, and I can’t stop. I’m certain that I never will.

I don’t know how to describe a panic attack other than to say that it’s this: it’s sitting in your car, sobbing uncontrollably to the point that your body literally loses control of itself. Your muscles tense into locked position. Your ears ring like broken fire alarms. Your insides are unable to properly regulate temperature, so different parts of you are different degrees.

Everything moves quickly yet in slow motion, as if your mind and body are simultaneously on fast forward and rewind. There’s no pause button. There’s just motion—




I’m going to die.

I can’t control it.

I can’t control anything, motion.

You feel the familiar pangs of motion sickness — the nausea, the dizziness — but nothing comes of them; your mind and stomach just spin with no release, over and over, like a broken dryer. And you cry because you can’t do anything else; your tears are the only part of your body that seem to function normally, the only things that still do their job when the rest of your body all but shuts down.

That scares you.

So your tears turn to sobs, and your sobs turn into weeps, which turns into you bawling and mentally screaming at yourself to calm the fuck down.

Breathe. Just fucking breathe.

But you can’t because your body forgets how to breathe.

So, you panic more. Sometimes, you feel like you’re about to faint.

If you stay conscious, you try to breathe and panic, until the bawling becomes so heavy and strenuous that you feel every organ of your body squeezing, and you gag and heave, wanting to throw up but you’re unable to, so you try to force the breath, which comes out as a loud, frightened gasp. And then another, and another until your gasps become normal breaths. And then you stare out a window and mentally talk your arms into working just long enough to allow you to twist open the cap of your water bottle and tilt it into your mouth before you pass out from the pins and needles and dizziness. And then you sob some more because an hour ago, opening a bottle of water came naturally. An hour ago, you were fine.

For those who have never experienced anxiety or a panic attack, this is what it feels like. It’s a blur. It’s terrifying. In the moment, it feels like it will never end, and it isn’t something someone can “just snap out of,” no matter how many times they’re advised to.

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Originally published: December 3, 2016
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