My panic attacks have a tell; a dull ache like a slowly intensifying baseline creeps from my stomach to my back a few minutes before the worst symptoms really get started. So while I have suffered from panic and anxiety attacks since I was 19, very few people know or have been witness to one of my attacks. If I am paying enough attention to my body, noticing that first thread unspooling inside me can usually buy me the time I need to ride it out in private. Usually, but not always. In the last six months, my panic attacks have become a daily ordeal. It's an entirely different thing, hiding 180 panic attacks in half a year, than it is discreetly having just a few a month.
A low point came early this summer. I was taking Edward and Elsa to the park on my day off. The three of us had been having a nice, easy afternoon. Elsa needed to use the restroom before we hit the playground. We walked into the restroom together, and without warning, I was doubled over in pain, unable to take full breaths, heart pounding, adrenaline flooding my system, vision pixelating in the periphery. This had never happened before, so suddenly and alone with them in public. There was absolutely no one else at this park. I was alone with my two children and I felt like I was dying, and it was obvious; they could tell something was wrong and they were scared. I had my phone, but figuring out how to make a phone call was beyond my capabilities. My thoughts raced: I don't know how to make a phone call and I'm dying and my kids are scared and I can't breathe and sweat is already dripping from the ends of my hair. I wandered from the bathroom and sat down on the sidewalk and yelled into my phone, "OK, Google, call Tim Greco," then handed my phone to my son. Tim's parents rescued us that day. I still did not tell anyone that these attacks were an ongoing, daily occurrence.
So what does a panic attack feel like? The Anxiety and depression Association lists the following as symptoms of an anxiety attack:
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath or smothering
- Feelings of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
- Chills or heat sensations
- Paresthesia (numbness or tingling sensations)
- Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
- Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
- Fear of dying
During a more moderate attack, I will have most of the physical symptoms listed above, but not necessarily the derealization or fear of going crazy. During my worst attacks, the derealization and depersonalization are the scariest features. It feels very much like I'm being erased or obliterated during these attacks. Sometimes the pain is so intense and seemingly without cause, I really think it can't be real, so I must be going crazy. I think, I'm perfectly healthy, I'm not actually dying, maybe this really is all in my head. Except that I am drenched in sweat, pale, and shaking after these worst attacks. Undeniable evidence that something has just happened.
Exactly one week before my hospitalization, I had a panic attack at the pool with my children. It was one of the scariest ten minutes of my life.It was insanely hot. My head was killing me and the bright sun made me feel awful. Tim and I had been screaming at each other all morning. I was terribly stressed and anxious, but the children were being charming and getting along with each other. Elsa recognized a friend from the previous week's day camp, and they immediately took to each other. I was starting to relax. I played with my kids. My head hurt, but I was easing into my play with the children and enjoying them. We were laughing together and being loving and easy -- and neither of them was whining. I really should have known
Just a few minutes after taking these photos and posting them to social media, I was crouched down at the edge of the pool, half in and half out of a chair, six feet from my daughter, having an absolutely crushing experience. Everything around me felt so bright and hyper-real, yet I felt like I didn't exist at all. I could barely breathe, my stomach was seized with knots, I could hear the blood slamming through my ears. So much was happening to me, yet no one seemed to notice in the general chaos of a summer pool. I was exhausted after, and terrified. The entire episode made me feel like a bad mother. I felt as though I had somehow put their lives in imminent danger. My reasoning was that if no one noticed me, doubled over in pain, nearly slumping into the pool, half in a chair, half not.... who is going to notice one of my children drowning? I thought that my inability to maintain composure, therefore not supervising them for ten minutes, was the real problem that day. My inability to maintain my composure. Can you imagine being so unkind to yourself? Obviously, I was not worried about my health. I did not mention the panic attack to anyone that day. Rather, I started to think about killing myself. One week later, I was admitting that I wanted to kill myself to a triage nurse. So please, if you are reading this and you suffer from any kind of event or episode or weird scary thing you can't explain that reminds you of what I've described above, don't keep it a secret. Tell someone you trust, ask for help finding a doctor. You deserve to have help managing your anxiety. I know that physicians can often minimize these kinds of symptoms, or think someone may just be a drug-seeker. If you've told your doctor that you felt like this and your concerns were dismissed or not taken seriously, please find another doctor. I wish I had been a better advocate for myself in this arena.