I knew I was dying. I couldn't breath, I was in pain, my chest felt like it was going to explode, and I was on the verge of passing out. I was crying uncontrollably, and shaking so bad I couldn't go for help. How long could I survive like this? Would someone find me in time to help me? Was I going to spend my last moments alone in pain, trying to escape from a dark room that was threatening to swallow me whole? No. I survived. Of course I did, it would be creepy to be writing this blog from "The Great Beyond". I had a panic attack. It wasn't the first, and wouldn't be the last. Every panic attack was just as terrifying as the one before. Actually, each one got more terrifying because in the midst of it all I'd convince myself that this attack was the one that would be too much to survive. It's a dark world to live in. It's a world where any single moment could be the one that sent me into a spiral of fear and anxiety. It was unpredictable and awful, and I waited far to long to do anything about it.
I have been having panic attacks since elementary school. The very first one I remember came on a day when we were having snack time recess. I was sitting on the floor with a group of girls from my class playing a game. One of my classmates said, "when you hear a train it means a tornado is coming". That thought was awful to me. So, I argued back, "no way!" Brilliant response, I know. My classmate held firm, "Yep, that's what trains are for, that's why the come around, to tell us when tornadoes are coming." I was shocked. My babysitter lived up the street from railroad tracks. I knew at some point I'd hear a train every day. I was scared to death. Of course, as kids can do sometimes, my classmate had her facts about the relationship between trains and tornadoes confused. I didn't consider that I had heard trains many many times, and had never seen a tornado. In my mind, it was now a fact that if I heard a train there was going to be a tornado.. Later that day I heard that train and froze in my tracks. I was terrified. I felt sick. I couldn't breathe, or move even. It was horrible. I was seven.
Dealing with panic attacks at that age isn't easy. I was the girl in school to missed a lot and cried a lot. If I knew we were having a fire or tornado drill, I'd miss school that day. I knew rationally that the drills didn't mean that there was a fire or tornado. If there is one thing that does not describe panic attacks, it's rational. They don't need a reason. The trigger doesn't even have to make sense. They are like snowballs rolling down a hill. They takeoff, get bigger and bigger, and overwhelm you in an instant. If I hadn't been such a good student my parents probably would have thought I just wanted a day off school. They would ask if I had a test or an assignment that I was trying to get out of. I was never trying to get out of anything. I loved school. I just couldn't face it some days. My parents were very familiar with the voice of the school secretary calling them at work. I can't even tell you how many times they had to come and get me in the middle of the day. I can tell you that out of all those times, only a handful were due to actual illness. The rest were panic attacks.
What was happening to me never made sense, until I was a freshman in high school. It was near Christmas and I was just getting over a virus. It was Sunday night and I was allowed to sleep in the living room since I had been sick. I was going back to school on Monday, but was allowed to stay up and watch Touched by an Angel. That week's episode was about a young girl who got sick, but they found out it wasn't just a virus, it was a heart condition and she died. That episode affected me so much that I began to worry that my virus was something more serious. That thought was supported by the fact that once again my chest was tight and I couldn't breathe. I went into my mom's room and laid in bed with her. I was fourteen years old and she was patting my back telling me it was ok.
It was my idea to go to the hospital that night. I thought I was going to die and I wanted the doctors to fix what was wrong so I could live. They took X-rays, did an EKG, and diagnosed the issue as a panic attack. Finally, it had a name. I knew it was right. All those times growing up when I felt just like I had that night had a name....a reason. They were real, not just the imagination of a scared kid. That diagnosis from the ER doctor was just a single, small step in a journey to get help. It was a journey that took years.