A History of Panic

The last week has been really tough.  I’m back at work after 7 weeks off for the summer holidays.  My brain has gone from being ‘stretched’ to calculating my finishing time during long runs (and calculating how many scoops of ice-cream I can afford with the change jingling from between my two sports bras), to having to teach teenagers and try to stay on top of witty comebacks to smart asses.  Last Friday I felt like I had been hit by a bag of bricks.  I guess running a 17.5 mile race on the Saturday, and then helping my friend Grant move into his new (bangin’) apartment didn’t really provide me with a restful weekend, either.  This is probably why I have not run as much as I should have since school started back.  This is also why I collapsed into a heap on my sofa yesterday after work and pretty much dozed on and off until this morning, waking only to microwave a baked potato and load it with cheese.  I was wiped out!

Today was just a kick in the balls, though.  I got home, changed for spin, and actually walked the mile and a half to the gym.  I felt dizzy and whacked out, and by the time I got there I was mildly freaked out by my state, and decided to call it a day.  I cancelled my space, bought some new sheets at the superstore next door (comfort shopping bargain bin bedding is comforting sometimes), and headed home, getting progressively more annoyed with my recent lack of discipline, but also mildly concerned that it felt like I was on a ship navigating rough seas.

As soon as I got home I started getting the warning signs of a panic attack.  Wide pupils (I check religiously, and even check reactions to varying levels of light), dizziness, metallic taste in my mouth, numbness and tingling all over, rapid heart beat.  Essentially, a great big ball of ‘fuck you, Rachel!’  On the verge of a complete freak out (envision pacing the flat like a maniac and having emergency services on speed dial – yes, it gets  that bad), I found myself lacing my running shoes, grabbing my music, and power walking down the stairs.

I listened to nothing but Lana Del Ray, who somehow lulled me into a sense of calm (her music makes me think dying would be kind of alright.  Not ideal running music, but it had a decent effect tonight). I ignored my heart rate and pace.  I wore my ‘Running Sucks’ t-shirt, and chugged uphill past a dude wearing a ‘Keep Running’ t-shirt who had given up (ha!). I ran into a friend and her new boyfriend and stopped for a quick hello.  I pushed 8 miles out of legs I thought would scream for mercy before I started (I guess this is what ‘rest’ days are good for!).

But the best bit?  I managed to prevent a panic attack from kicking in, big style.  I haven’t managed to do that very often.  You can stop reading here (probably wise), or you can continue and read my about how panic attacks briefly (if you count nearly a year as ‘brief’) took over my life.

***

I had my first panic attack on New Year’s Eve, 2010.  I was in Houston visiting family, and we had all gone to the gym for a bit of a workout.  I had already been for a run around Rice University a couple of times in the morning, so I kept it light and did 20 minutes on the elliptical machine, and some weights with my mom.  I wasn’t pushing the boat out by any means, I was just putting in a token effort so that Body Pump would hurt slightly less when I flew home.

After I had finished, I read a couple of magazines while the rest of the family got in a bit more.  I remember feeling a bit funny – kind of dizzy and nauseous – but put it down to jet lag and had some water.  By the time we left, I still felt funny, and there was a dull ache in my arms and my fingertips were tingling.

I should take a moment to fill you in on my overactive imagination.  I am a full-blown hypochondriac.  I am totally aware of that.  But when I work myself into a state of panic, rational thought loses the battle for space in my mind.  If there’s a strange outbreak of some fatal disease within flying distance (i.e. Earth), then I start experiencing the symptoms as soon as they’re listed.  And although I convince myself I have somehow found myself as a host for the latest strain of the Black Death, after about 10 minutes I have managed to slap some sense into myself.

New Year’s Eve, 2010 was different.  It was the first time I had physical symptoms at the same time as my mental freak-out. The dizziness, dull ache, and tingling fingers I have already mentioned.  In the car, on the way home, I started getting palpitations, sweating, and my vision blurred.  I had pretty much convinced myself I was having a heart attack, and I started losing my marbles, big style, in the car.  I was

hyperventilating and demanding to be taken to the hospital.  My parents seemed pretty unfazed, which made it worse, and my brother was in hysterics.  The fact that I was too scared to punch him was testament to my fear.

I am ashamed now, but at the time we passed a traffic accident with an ambulance at the scene, and I screamed to, “Stop the f**king car!  That crash looks bad, there’s maybe nothing the ambulance can do! I need help more!”  I was so convinced I was dying that my basic instinct to survive quashed any sympathy for the people in the car accident.  My parents pulled into a parking lot and let me sit outside on the ground, telling me I was having a panic attack and to calm down.   After a few minutes, and not clutching my chest during painful final gasps for air, the rational part of my brain had come back into the office, and I had calmed down a bit.

That night, my parents were going to a party held by an old family friend, but my brother didn’t want to go.  I really didn’t want to risk public humiliation by having another meltdown in front of people I see rarely, but I also definitely did not want to be left alone, so I was glad that my brother was not feeling the party spirit.

We ended up staying at home.  I made pumpkin and cinnamon pancakes and we washed them down with root beer.  We watched back-to-back episodes of Toddlers and Tiaras, but when the 30-minute Brazilian Butt-Lift infomercial came on, it got a bit weird.  Essentially, we were pretty rock and roll that night, and, more importantly, I did not die.  My parents got back some time after one, and then we all went to bed.

When I flew home a few days later, I had put the panic attack to the back of my mind, and kind of assumed it was just a weird, isolated incident brought on by jet-lag/exhaustion.  I really, really wish that had been the case.

Pretty much the next year of my life was wrecked by constant fear.  I felt dizzy all the time – whenever I walked anywhere, it felt like the ground was shifting permanently.  Or like I was on a boat.  It got to the point where I avoided nights out, and often the gym, because when you’re on a stationary spin bike that feels more like a jet ski, things are bad.  I harassed my GP surgery, begging to be checked over several times, by several doctors because I was still convinced something was very wrong.  I had blood tests, urine tests, an ECG, motor skills tests…  They all came to the conclusion that I was suffering from anxiety, and the culprit was stress.  Fabulous.

The only flaw in my ability to accept that as an answer was the fact that I didn’t feel stressed.  I felt fine (all things considered), and didn’t really feel like there was any pressure on me to do anything.  I’m pretty laid back about deadlines and stuff – always have been – so I told myself there was no way I could be stressed.

But then, there had been a lot happening with my family, including my grandmother passing away.  I had struggled to claw my way into a job that was by no means secure.  I had moved into my first apartment.  I was also going to be having an operation.  It seems that even if you don’t I feel stressed out, stress finds a way of infecting your life sometimes.

It has been nearly 2 years since my first panic attack, and I have had ups and downs.  While I am no longer afraid to be left alone for more than a few minutes (especially at night), I still get dizzy and taste a weird metallic taste sometimes.  I try to think more positively when I start to get worked into a panic, and I have only had one rocking-on-my-floor-in-tears panic attack this year that has nearly made me phone home for reassurance.  Hopefully this is just a really crappy phase in my life that is coming to an end.  If not, well, I always tell myself, “It didn’t kill me last time,” and feel marginally more optimistic.

I used to think people who said they suffered from panic attacks were just big sissies, but I can tell you it is no small thing.  I still sometimes fret before a race that I’m not fit enough to compete, especially after reading about seemingly healthy people getting into trouble before the finish line.  But what all of this has taught me is that if something bad is going to happen, it’s going to happen.  Wasting time worrying that something might happen is throwing away chunks of your life that could be spent enjoying it.

And yes, I’m totally aware I sound preachy and possibly under the influence of some hippy spell with that closing statement, but I guess we’ll both just have to live with that.

3 thoughts on “A History of Panic

  1. wow, thanks for sharing that, I can appreciate how difficult that must have been. I too know panic attacks, and yes, stress is a sneaky bastard.

    Running is a major way for me to keep mine under control.

    Thank you again for sharing!

  2. Anxiety attacks are real and terrifying. You’ve done a huge favor to others by writing about it. I have 2 family members and a good friend that have awful anxiety attacks and the way people roll their eyes about it makes me angry.
    Sending you a hug xxxx

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