Heavy breathing, heart racing, palms sweating, crying and even screaming – I was having another panic attack. It was the middle of the summer of 2012 and I had just graduated high school, an accomplishment I was proud of. I was also having massive panic attacks at least three times daily, which were by the end of July, literally killing me.
By this time, I had been having relentless panic attacks since that February, each one seemingly taking a little bit more of myself with it. I often say that I wouldn’t wish panic attacks on my worst enemies, and that is very much true, they’re awful. Sorry to be so simplistic, but there’s just no other way to describe them. Although, I don’t wish them on anyone, I do wish those around me would understand more about them and maybe not say and do some of the things they say and do.
“You’re just faking it”
Imagine, if you would, an event or a person you were impacted by deeply. Imagine what you feel when you think about this person or event. It can be any feeling you want, positive or negative. What person or event came to mind? What did you feel when you thought of them? Now, imagine me telling you those feelings you had were all manufactured, you made them all up. You’re a fraud.
Not a good feeling, is it?
Now, imagine telling that to someone who already feels like he’s losing it. Imagine his reaction when the crisis counselor in the emergency room he took himself to to find help in a sea of confusion looks at him like he’s just wasting her time, that she agrees with the others in his life: He’s faking it and he just needs to put up or shut up. Imagine the feelings that stirs up. Imagine feeling even more like a lost cause when even the crisis counselor thinks you’re making the entire thing up. “Funny, you were panicking until you got to the hospital, why not anymore?” She said. Imagine the last bit of light going out of his eyes as he thinks will anyone ever understand? What do you do when even the trained professionals don’t offer you a way out?
Hard stuff, right? The thing is, for those of us who suffer from panic attacks, the feelings of panic and fear are as real as anything. Imagine a traumatic event in your life and how fearful you must have been during it. Now, imagine that feeling coming on with no rhyme or reason when you’re just watching TV with your family. The most intense fear and anxiety you could possibly imagine, and all you were doing was watching the Food Network.
Why would anyone fake that?
“You are kind of trapped”
In late May of 2012, I was wrapping up my senior year on a trip with my class to Cincinnati. I had been holding up well for much of the trip, no panic and very little anxiety. One evening, the entire class was on the bus heading to a dinner on a river cruise. One of the chaperones got up to make an announcement. Before I knew it, I could feel myself fading. I suddenly felt trapped. There was no way to get out of the bus. No way to escape the situation I found myself in.
The chaperone sat down, everyone seemingly going on with their conversations, blissfuly unaware that my world had just stopped dead in its tracks. I started hyperventilating and the tears began to flow. I was having a full-blown panic attack. On a bus. In an unfamiliar city. With my entire class watching. One of the chaperones looked over to me, then to another chaperone and asked her “Is he okay?”
One of my teachers came over to me to try and console me by rubbing my back and trying to talk me down. It took what seemed like hours, but I ended up calming down. My friends came over to sit with me to make sure I was okay, the entire class not really sure what had just happened. I told one of my classmates I was feeling trapped. His response? “Well, you are kind of trapped.” This is not something you want to say to someone experiencing any kind of mental anguish. It makes us feel worse and could jeopardize our rebound.
When I did eventually bounce back, I made it look like nothing happened, it was almost like I was back to “normal” immediately. I went from intense fear, crying, and hyperventilating to the same fun-loving dork of a kid who photobombed every one of his classmates’ pictures on the dinner cruise that night. It was seemingly a major contradiction. Yes, I had fun on the cruise and got some great pictures but the fact remained that I had just had yet another panic attack and a very public one at that.
That’s the nature of these things: Many of us who have panic attacks and anxiety can appear put together, even most of the time, but when an attack occurs, everything falls apart in an instant. There is no before, there is no after. Time stands still and all you can think about in that moment is the panic. It envelops you. It takes you hostage and doesn’t let you go until it’s had its way with you.
“I kind of had a mini panic attack”
One thing that worries me (no pun intended) currently is a trend I’ve noticed. Maybe I’m wrong here, but there seems to be a growing number of people who seem to think their normal, run of the mill nerves are akin to a panic attack. Maybe this is just something that comes with more awareness on the issue, and maybe I’m stressing about nothing, but I don’t think so. Panic attacks are cruel and so much more than simple nerves.
There are such things as Limited Symptom Attacks (LSA) but these are still much different from your average nerves. Limited Symptom Attacks are a big deal and should be handled with the same care as a panic attack. Now, I’m not a trained professional and if you think you are actually experiencing panic attacks, you should see a doctor. This is not directed at you.
For those of us who suffer from an anxiety disorder, we know that they are so much more than just our nerves. They’re not pretty. What does a panic attack look like for me? Usually it involves major hyperventilating, uncontrollable crying, an uncontrollably and embarrassingly runny nose, bloodshot eyes, scratching my arms uncontrollably making my skin all blotchy, and finally, bad stomach aches and diarrhea. Sound like fun? Didn’t think so. Panic disorder is nothing to be trivialized, it’s a real medical condition that needs real intervention.
Now, this is not saying that I think people need to talk less about panic and anxiety, quite the opposite. We need all hands on deck to break the stigma and the misconceptions. We just need to be sure we know what we’re talking about so we don’t aid in those misconceptions. If we trivialize mental illnesses and make panic disorder out to be “just nerves” then that ends up hurting people like myself who need real help, and at times, accommodations for their medical condition.
In saying all this, I think it’s important to reiterate how far I feel we’ve come in understanding mental illnesses. I truly believe there’s more understanding nowadays than there was since my panic attack on the bus back in 2012. We still have a long way to go, but I’m encouraged by what I see and I do believe things will continue to get better. It takes an anxious village to break all the stigma and misconceptions, but I’m positive we can do it. Yes, we have anxiety. No, it’s not going away. But, neither are we.