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I Couldn’t ‘Turn Off’ My Panic Disorder for My Grandpa’s Funeral

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My panic attacks only popped up about two years ago, but it’s difficult to imagine life without them. Activities I used to enjoy now generate a sense of doom and fear. I can’t get my nails done because there isn’t an easy escape. I barely made it through my hair appointment a few weeks ago, which I’d been avoiding for over a year.

Then came the unexpected news my grandpa had died. I felt overwhelming grief, but I also couldn’t help but worry about the funeral. How was I going to get through it without having a panic attack? I’d be in the front row. There’d be a room full of people listening to the reverend. If I suddenly had a panic attack, all eyes would be on me. I’d ruin the whole thing.

I didn’t want to be consumed by my fear of panic attacks. I wanted to focus on my family, of course. But panic attacks don’t care about convenience.

The morning of the funeral, I gathered things for my emergency purse: multiple fidget toys, a howlite stone, a water bottle, and essential oils. Even with my rescue items, my anxiety was all-encompassing. I hyperventilated for a few minutes, then lay on my hotel bed in a dream-like state. I couldn’t believe this was my main worry right after my grandpa passed.

When I arrived at the funeral home, I darted for the seat nearest to the door. My escape route. As people trickled in, my heart began to race. “Deep breaths,” I thought to myself. “In four. Hold four. Out four. I am OK.”

I snapped myself out of tunnel vision by shifting my focus to my hands. I observed how smooth the stone felt between my fingers. I counted the amount of times I popped my bubble fidget.

Every few minutes, I’d become aware of my painfully dry throat. I’d take a sip of water and swallow slowly, being mindful of the cooling sensation.

The three hours I sat in the pew felt like 13. My body and mind were exhausted from being in a fight-or-flight state for so long. But I did it. I didn’t have a panic attack. If I could get through that without one, I thought, then I could get through anything.

I also reminded myself having a panic attack doesn’t mean I’ve failed. It doesn’t mean all of my progress is erased or that I’ll have panic attacks more frequently. Sometimes I won’t be able to take control of my panic. But the worst thing I could do is resist it. The panic will come, and I’ll get through it just like I always have.

Although I didn’t have a panic attack at the funeral, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if I did, and it wouldn’t make me a horrible granddaughter. My mental illnesses don’t disappear when tragedy strikes. It isn’t selfish to worry about panic attacks. I don’t choose to have them, but I am choosing how I treat myself now that I live with them — with compassion.

If you have panic attacks, know they do not make you a burden. You are not at fault for disrupting any events. Panic attacks can’t be flipped off like a switch. Even in times of mourning, they persist. That is nothing to be ashamed about.

Getty image by LightFieldStudios

Originally published: February 5, 2022
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