Last week I had my first major panic attack in over a year.
When I first began struggling with anxiety, panic attacks were a part of my everyday life. As an elementary schooler, I was diagnosed with hypochondria- a form of anxiety that manifests itself as an extreme preoccupation with the idea of having an undiagnosed medical problem. This likely was spurred by a time in fourth grade where I had pneumonia, but couldn’t get anyone in my family to believe my symptoms for weeks before being taken to the doctor. I had an extreme distrust of those around me and their ability to take care of my health, and I existed with a chronic, lurking dread that something was very, very wrong with me all of the time.
My panic attacks stayed with me throughout adolescence, at times worsening and at times being more mild. When I was suffering more from hypochondria than general anxiety, they often looked like hyperventilation and desperate pleas to take me to a doctor or hospital. When I began struggling more with depression and my eating disorder, they were louder, more explosive, more angry tears and yelling that could only be calmed with time and isolation. These were only magnified by the symptoms of malnourishment I experienced right before my hospitalization in the spring of 2013, meaning I was so mentally and physically exhausted that anything could trigger a massive explosion of emotion that terrified my parents and brother.
When I panic, it isn’t me that is present.
It feels as though my train of thought has had someone else step behind the steering wheel. As hard as I try to stay true to a course of rationality, I feel myself being pulled in opposite directions of distrust, uncertainty, and fear. The true reality of a panic attack is that they are wholly irrational, and yet feel completely authentic. Consider a time when you’ve legitimately been in danger: maybe moments before a car accident, or when you’ve received a phone call that someone you love is hurt, or when you’ve broken a bone or received some other serious injury. That deep-set feeling of dread, and the panic that arises, is the same chemical mixture that floods an anxious person’s brain during a panic attack. The threat may not be so serious, but the reaction is.
My panic attacks became a factor of isolation in my life. I feared any kind of social get-togethers or parties, and avoided them at all costs. I was terrified of breaking down in public or in front of friends who didn’t suffer from anxiety themselves. It was embarrassing, and more than that, I was afraid of being the person who would “ruin” an event or gathering with my attention-drawing behavior. The last major panic attack I had before my most recent one was at my junior prom. After sitting on the floor of a hallway, away from the music and dancing, with a friend for over an hour, I ended up going home early, abandoning my date on the dance floor and feeling guilty for stealing time away from my friend’s prom. The event left such a foul taste in my mouth that when my now-boyfriend asked me to his senior ball a month later, I tried to find every excuse in the book not to go, before finally agreeing on the condition that I’d plan to leave early, on my own, in order to avoid any late-night panic attacks.
I saw a therapist for about four years before I began seeing any progress with my anxiety. I had nervous ticks that consumed my life: obsessive pacing, fidgety hands, insomnia. There was a period of time where I’d start my day at three AM, pacing back and forth in my room because lying still invited in too many anxious thoughts. Over time, however, I found that I was able to use proper nutrition, yoga, and writing to find a new sense of calm in my life, something I hadn’t had since before elementary school. I no longer felt constantly nervous and preoccupied, and, perhaps most importantly, like I was one wrong move away from an earth-shattering panic attack that would scare myself and those around me.
The past year has, without a doubt, been one of the happiest of my life. While I struggled over choosing a college and wrapping up my senior year of high school, I was able to be more present and more enthusiastic than ever before. While I definitely had days where I cried, or was sad, or felt somewhat anxious, I had an amazingly relaxing reprieve from the panic attacks that had been plaguing me my entire life. At first I was tentative, fearful that they would come back at any moment, but over time I began to accept this as a new normal for myself. I was enjoying happy. I was enjoying staying out past six PM, I was enjoying driving more than 30 minutes away, I was enjoying eating in restaurants and sleeping past three AM and going out with friends.
I was enjoying feeling normal.
That’s why last Friday’s panic attack was such a surprise. There were times in the past year where I thought a panic attack was coming on, but I was able to breathe through it and move past the initial warning signs without a hitch. This time, though, I was walking downtown with my boyfriend when I grabbed his arm and told him I thought I was going to pass out. For the past few days I’d been complaining of tiredness and spells of dizziness, but hadn’t paid it much thought. As we’d been walking around earlier that day I complained of the same symptoms, and we thought all I needed was a snack. After getting one, however, things didn’t get better. In fact, as we walked in the 100 degree heat under the summer sun, my vision got blurry and my head felt like it was spinning, and I hurried to sit down on the nearest bench I could find.
Immediately, my mind began to race to a million different possibilities. I was going to have a seizure. I was suffering a stroke. I was suffering from heart failure. I was certain I had the disease that one girl had in that autobiographical book I’d picked up in the discount section of Target last summer. No matter what mystery disease or condition my brain thought up, I was able to convince myself that it was a real possibility. My chest started to tighten with fear, my breathing came fast and short, and then it would stop as I would hold it, and then it would speed up again. I told my boyfriend to call my mom, who didn’t answer, only increasing my panic.
I was aware, to some degree, that I was panicking, but the irrationality overtook me. I repeated over and over that I was scared, and worried that if I stood up I would pass out, and refused to walk across the street to a coffee shop to get some water. I started to beg for help from my boyfriend, who seemed worried but calm, who cooly denied my requests for an ambulance or trip to the ER.
“I think you think I’m joking, but I’m not joking.” I spat at him with a combination of bitterness and fear, “Something is wrong.”
We sat on the side of the street for close to an hour, going back and forth. I’d shoot out a new condition or disease, he’d calmly dismiss them without dismissing my fear itself (which, if you aren’t aware, is one of the biggest keys to dismantling someone’s panic attack). Eventually, though, my panic wasn’t going away. I remember thinking in the back of my mind, “This has to end soon. They always end. It isn’t usually this long. Something must be really wrong.”
Eventually he convinced me to walk back to the car, which, luckily, was parked nearby. We picked my brother and his friend up from the movies, and, at my demand, headed over to Urgent Care. As my brother and his friend sat in the back, visibly nervous and confused, my panic increased in the front seat.
“My left arm is numb.” I cried, “I’m having a heart attack. I’m NOT joking.”
I grabbed one of my boyfriend’s hands off the steering wheel and thrust it against my neck. “Take my pulse.” I demanded, and even as I heard myself say the words, I knew I was being irrational. It all just felt too real to ignore.
I held his hand there until we made it to Urgent Care, where I scurried into the lobby with wide eyes and a hand clutched to my neck, as though to ensure my heart kept beating.
“I think I’m having a panic attack.” I barked at the woman behind the counter, “I can’t breathe. My chest hurts. I feel like I’m going to pass out.”
They sat me in a wheelchair while my boyfriend handed them my insurance card and ID. As they wheeled me into an examination room, I looked up at one of the nurses and told her I was scared. They took my vitals, asked me a few questions, and got me a glass of water while I waited for the doctor. Objectively, things were fine, disregarding the slightly elevated heart rate from how worked up I had gotten.
The doctor came in and asked me some more questions. Did I put myself under a lot of stress (“YES.” my boyfriend said from his chair in the corner of the room)? Did I spend a lot of time outside? Was I active? How much water had I had to drink? He pinched the skin my hand and pressed onto my fingernails to check my hydration, typed some things into his computer, and calmly delivered his diagnosis: moderate dehydration.
Not a heart attack. Not a seizure. Not a stroke. Not a prion in my brain eating away at my ability to communicate. Dehydration.
I was told to drink some water, keep an eye on my electrolytes, and stay out of the sun. I was also told to, if possible, see a therapist about the panic attack that had come on so suddenly. And so I went home, embarrassed, exhausted, and steel reeling from the aftereffects of the flood of emotions that had hit me not even two hours before. In the waiting room, I heard my dad, who had met us there, turn to my boyfriend and ask when the last time I’d had a panic attack was.
“A long time ago.”
My ears went bright red. I felt ridiculous for a few reasons: I’d let myself get dehydrated, I hadn’t recognized it as dehydration, and I ruined my clean streak from panic attacks. In that moment, the year of ease and mental relief seemed pointless. I had ruined an entire year in just a few hours. I had ruined a nice summer afternoon out with people I care about. I had probably embarrassed my brother and terrified his friend. I felt like the nurses and doctor would laugh about me and my ridiculousness after I left. I felt completely dejected.
As I began to zoom out over the next few days, however, I began to see things differently. While in the moment I felt completely consumed by my anxiety, in reality it was less than 1/365th affected of my entire year. It wasn’t a sign that I was headed backwards, or a sign that I hadn’t really made progress with my health, or an erasure of the past year’s successes. It was simply a moment in time: something I had experienced, something that had culminated from dehydration and heightened emotions.
The thing with mental illness is that there is no definite cure. You can make progress, and things will get better, but they will never be perfect. There will be long stretches where everything seems like sunshine and happiness, and then out of seemingly nowhere darkness creeps back in. The progression towards mental health and balance is not a linear progression upwards: it goes up and down, has stalls and stops, sometimes treads a bit backwards before pushing on. It is a lifelong journey, one that never has a true destination other than learning to accept the path you are on and tackle obstacles with grace and gentleness towards yourself.
I will always be someone with anxiety. I will always be someone with an eating disorder. I will always be someone who has struggled and will continue to see different struggles in my lifetime. That doesn’t mean I will not be always improving, always working towards more ease and grace. I am not failure for having obstacles in front of me, because I can do hard things. Life isn’t easy for anyone, and these are the challenges I have been given to work with during my lifetime. Just because they are not easy for me doesn’t mean they will defeat me. I will be a better person for the resiliency, dedication, and tenacity I have learned through my lifetime of battling against them.
The biggest mistake you can make in your journey with mental health (or happiness, or physical health, or self confidence…) is to believe that perfection exists. It does not. There will always be days where you feel insecure, or days where you don’t eat particularly healthfully, or days where you’re sad. If you allow them to weigh you down to the point where you cannot move forward, you will be defeated. If you acknowledge them and allow them to pass a single moment in your time, you will move ever upwards.
Things will get better, I promise you this, but they will never be perfect.
This should come as a comfort to you. You don’t have to be perfect, because there isn’t a perfect. There is no one on this planet who never feels sad, or always feels confident, or never worries. But happiness exists outside of perfection, and you are worthy of happiness no matter where you are on your journey.
You have your entire life to explore this path.