I had my first panic attack when I was thirteen.
I was reading in bed (some generic sci-fi story I barely remember now) when I suddenly felt the stifling, oppressive sensation of being unable to breathe. It was like all of the air in the room had been sucked out and replaced with air that felt somehow “used,” like I’d never be able to get enough oxygen into myself no matter how many breaths I took.
I tossed my book aside and scrambled out to the living room in terror. Was I suffocating? Why did it feel like I wasn’t getting enough air?
I tried to tell my mom, but the words came out in a rush.
“What? An affair? Just sit down.” She turned her attention back to what she was doing.
I sat on the couch alone until it passed. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this would set the pattern for the rest of my teenage years. (“It’s just a panic attack,” my mother said, irritated that I was discourteous enough to waste her time with another one, “Just calm down. What are you even scared of? Your liver absorbs adrenaline in under a minute, so there’s no reason for it to go on this long.”)
I saw my pediatrician weeks later when the attacks continued to happen. He listened to my heart and lungs, said it was probably anxiety, and that was that as far as my mom was concerned. Satisfied with the this answer, everything I felt from then on, no matter how terrifying, was dismissed as being “all in my head.”
I almost felt triumphant when I was old enough to handle my own medical care, got a second opinion, and was diagnosed with allergic asthma and a benign arrhythmia. Almost.
It’s hard to describe what a panic attack feels like to someone who’s never had one, and no two people with panic disorder really seem to experience the same thing. My S.O. has felt anxiety, but it doesn’t really compare to the blind, animal panic of an actual attack. It’s like being covered in blankets filled with wet sand– heavy, oppressive, and suffocating– while you feel absolutely certain that you’re about to die. When they’re bad enough, they can keep everything from feeling “real” anymore. The world around me takes on a weird, desaturated look, like an old movie projection or an image run through a third-rate Instagram filter.
The best part of it all? It isn’t the times when everything seems too large and frightening that cause me to panic, it’s the spaces between when I think I have a breather. Even then, it doesn’t really take much of anything to bring them on. Stress, hormone fluctuations, indigestion, being just a little too warm, or even just reflecting on something dangerous that I lived through have all triggered a full-blown panic attack for me.
My S.O. tries to understand, and, even if he can’t, he asks me what I need. Nothing much, I usually explain. Cold water, an open window, someone with me to rub my back and reassure me that they’ll take me to the hospital if I turn out to be wrong about it being “all in my head.” I have to hand it to him, he’s gotten pretty good at it.
There are other things that help, too– tiny ways I self-medicate and self-soothe to keep anxiety from crushing my heart and lungs in my chest– but that’s probably a subject for another post.