I didn’t start this month thinking I would be writing about mental illness, but I have been so encouraged by the bravery of other writers sharing their experiences, I feel the need to share my own, with the hope that it may help someone, somehow. My experiences are not unique, but that is the point; there are so many of us out there who suffer from depression and anxiety, and we should not feel ashamed.
This morning I read another post from Wil Wheaton, this one about panic attacks. I took it as a sign that it was time for me to write about my own experience with panic attacks.
The first time I had a panic attack that I actually allowed myself to define as a panic attack, was just in the past few years. I was in the park with my dogs, a park that I go to several times a week that is only half a block from my apartment. It was the middle of the day, the park wasn’t particularly crowded and the dogs were having a blast sniffing every morsel of ground they could cover. We got to what I consider the middle of the park; an area with some small lawns, several picnic tables and a basketball court. There were the customary groups of older Russian men huddled at the tables, playing cards or chess. A few other people with dogs were meandering around, there were 2 or 3 children playing quietly, and the basketball court was being utilized for a small exercise class.
The dogs and I made our way toward a small path leading to a brick walkway that would take us to the back of the park, and all of a sudden I was overwhelmed with feelings of terror. My heart sped up, the skin on my face felt prickly and my hands were sweating. I was having trouble breathing. The park was quiet, but everywhere I looked there seemed to be people and dogs and noise, so much noise. I felt trapped. I started crying and thinking to myself, ” how the hell am I going to get out of here?” I surveyed the area, looking for escape routes on which I wouldn’t have to walk by any people, but I couldn’t’ find a way out. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t stand the thought of having any contact with another person, even having to walk within 10 feet of someone felt terrifying. I felt claustrophobic. I felt like I had no right to be there, to be alive. I was terrified of being seen, discovered. The world was closing in on me.
I sat down on a low brick wall just a few feet behind me. I sat there for about 20 minutes, filled with fear, crying, barely breathing, trying to find a way out and the courage to move. My dogs were restless and I knew I had to get them home, so I finally stood up and started walking toward the exit of the park, holding my breath as if that would somehow make me less noticeable.
When I was finally out of the park and on the sidewalk heading home, my shoulders relaxed and my breathing evened out, but I knew that what had just happened was a panic attack and that I had been having them for years.
I realized that all of the hours on the bus, feeling anxious and looking for ways out, afraid the bus would get crowded, heart racing and beating with fear, terrified I would miss my stop and not get home, terrified to be so close to other people, feeling as if the presence of my body and my breath were taking up too much space, all of these experiences had been panic attacks. I had always blamed the feelings on my introversion, claustrophobia, and later on RP, but they were panic attacks and I had been having them since childhood.
My particular brand of panic attack usually manifests with feelings of being trapped and those feelings escalate to irrational states of utter terror. I have always hated crowds, but it doesn’t have to be crowded for the panic attacks to arise and they can happen anywhere; that day in the park was a perfect example. It may sound strange, but finally being willing or able to put a name to this thing that had been happening to me for so long, was actually a relief. I felt less culpable. It wasn’t my fault, it was just my fucked up brain doing it’s best to mess with my life, yet again.