Tea Talks: Panic Attacks

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I’m naming this tea talks as I don’t regularly drink coffee and there is a really dark self portrait to go along with it. Today, I want to talk about something very close to my heart: Panic attacks. I would consider Panic Disorder to be my greatest burden in life. It’s not something I really open up or talk about but it occurred to me that I am not alone in this awful, pain in the ass condition.

When I was a little girl, I would randomly “get sick.” I would get really upset, my body would tremble, feel extremely strange, and work myself up until I threw up. As a kid, I had no idea what anxiety was so the only way I knew how to explain this feeling was physically. My parents just thought I had chronic stomach problems. Let me start by saying that while I didn’t have the worst childhood it wasn’t exactly picture perfect. My parents had a divorce that would make World War III (if there ever was one) look like friendly fire. It took 15 years for them to be able to be civil when in the same room and 20 in order to be within 3 feet when in that room. Every other weekend, I would go to my Dad’s which had a completely different set of rules from my Mom’s. My mom dated a lot which was completely normal but hard to adjust to as a child. My sisters were 14 & 15 years older. They were around as much as they could be but mostly, my strongest source of stability was my brother who was 3 years older than me. So basically, I had a lot to feel unsure, nervous, and mostly scared about.

Eventually, my mom married my step -dad who she is still with today. When I was 13 years old, my brother and I had gotten the stomach virus. He was better in a few days and I was sick for three weeks. Except I wasn’t actually sick after the first week. I was laying on my bed, unable to go to school, suffering through a spell of stomach sickness when my step-dad came into my room with my mom. He said, “We were talking and I think you’re having panic attacks.” BOOM. Blew my mind. I didn’t know what this was or what was happening to me but finally an answer.

I immediately started Behavioral Modification Therapy because I had to get back to school. It felt like the most pointless thing in the world. She would tell me things like “When you start to have a moment, snap a rubber band on your wrist while counting back to 100.” To which, even my 13 year old self responded, “Are you fucking kidding me?” I can barely stay in my seat let alone concentrate on a rubber band. I really felt like an outsider at school because of it. I missed morning classes pretty regular because it was hard to get out of the house. I had a hard time being in the grocery store. My step-dad used to talk me into doing immersion therapy where we would start to grocery shop and I stayed and fought through it as long as I could until I had to tap out then we would leave. We did this until I was able to make it through. I would get them in class and have to leave. I always had a free pass to leave any class without explanation. I would be able to just go straight to the nurses office. If I couldn’t work through it, I could call anyone to come pick me up or after I got my license, just leave school.

This was great in many ways but awful in others. It was nice to be able to leave if I was having a really tough go at it but it was also crippling. It made me feel like I was unable to do things so I had to have special circumstances just so I could get through a normal day. It made me feel weak. I felt scared because all of those special circumstances made me feel incapable so it made me afraid to push myself past my comfort zone. It made me believe I was unable to do things because people enabled me to leave difficult situations. My panic attacks won. The other negative thing was that none of my friends understood. They tried but they didn’t really get it. When a panic attack would strike they would say, “Well, what are you nervous about? If we talk about it then you’ll feel better.” I would always tell them that it was nothing that it just happens. They thought it was something like worrying about the SATs or not getting the right hairstyle for my dress for the dance. It just was.

There were times when I thought, “I can’t live like this.” I fell into deep depressions and just wanted to die. It felt like a battle that I couldn’t win. I felt so alone. I felt like a freak. I felt embarrassed. But, I stayed strong and I sought help. I pushed myself through the darkness and started to manage how to deal with the fear. I started to learn about how fear only generates more fear. The fear of having a panic attack kept me back from so many things in life. I just kept pushing through it hoping and praying there was another side to it. In some ways there were but they never went away.

I know all the facts of panic attacks like how they actually, physically, only last less than 10 minutes but our minds keep it going for much longer. It effects over 6 million American adults and is twice as common in women then in men (woo hoo for us ladies). No everyone who has experienced panic attacks have panic disorder and it can easily lead to agoraphobia. The way I describe it is basically the adrenaline in my body is telling me to fight a bear but my brain and body are like “but there isn’t a bear anywhere so instead I’ll just freak out!” Knowing the facts don’t necessarily make my life any easier though.

It’s still something I battle with almost everyday currently (though before last January, I hadn’t had one in 8 months). While I’ve come to be much stronger and accepting of it, it still sucks. Medicine has helped through the years and it isn’t all the time. I’ve gone a year without having one and then all of a sudden I have them all the time for a straight year. It’s hard to really to get past them or to grow and push myself when I constantly hit this wall. It’s such a sucky feeling. I guess what I mean to say is that yes, there is help out there and if you are struggling you’re not alone or weird. When I moved to NYC, I found out that many of my friends had them too. It made me feel less alone because I knew they understood when I randomly woke up and had a panic attack. Just keep going and pushing through them. Keep on living your life and don’t let the panic stop you from it. It may never go away. It may never feel completely all right but know that you are all right. What’s the worst that can happen? In my case, I feel awful for a bit then I throw up. I won’t die. I won’t be stuck like that forever. Maybe I’ll lose a morning, afternoon, or a few hours of sleep. On a really terrible day, I’ll feel so tired and shaken even after I recover that I don’t want to do anything for the rest of the day. Most of the time, I force myself, other times I curl up into a ball and watch a movie. I do everything from yoga to meditation to try to get up and jump the extra adrenaline out of my body. I spray lavender on my pillows and focus on keeping my body as healthy as possible.

It’s not easy. In fact, it really really sucks but I know I’m not alone. I know that there is hope that one day this won’t be so much of an issue for me. I hope that if I have any readers who are struggling they can feel free to comment and tell me about your life and problems. I’m happy to give tips on how to live with it and how to go from panic to power.

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