Trigger Warning: Panic Attacks
It begins with a tightening at the midpoint between my stomach and my heart. The lower half of my lungs feel cut off; I cannot draw a full breath.
My heart begins to pound. It feels as though my heart has quadrupled in size. That my entire chest is filled with this hyper beating mass of my heart. I imagine this is why I can't breathe, my heart is suffocating me. There is not enough room inside of me for it and air.
My palms go cold. My fingers numb. As my hands and legs begin to shake I can hear the pounding of my blood in my ears.
I feel sick. I clench my jaw to keep myself from vomiting.
Everything is tight. My neck, my spine, my belly. Softness disappears from my body.
I know just what is happening and I know that at this point there is nothing I can do to stop the panic attack that has overtaken my body. What started with a word has become an unstoppable, physical thing.
It could not have happened at a more inopportune time (these things never happen in an appropriate manner). In twenty minutes I am supposed to play music and dance before a crowd of 150 people. I feel as though I can barely stand and yet somehow I'm supposed to be entertaining.
I make an excuse to go to the ladies room. I put a cool wet towel to my neck. I pace. I count. I speak mantras to my mind. I do all of the things I know to do to calm myself but the shaking does not stop.
A friend approaches. Tries to comfort me; to tell me things will be okay. Still it does not stop. I ask to be left alone. There is nothing to be done.
I go back to waiting. My fists are clenched around my zils (finger cymbals), the edges dig into my palms. I feel cold sweat down my back.
I am telling myself that once I take the stage I will be okay. Once I am there this will fall away.
I hear the announcer call our name and I step out. My zils begin to ring. I'm playing too fast and I know it but I can't stop. I'm waiting for the entertainer to come to life but nothing happens. Inside I am frozen.
I'm depending entirely upon well drilled and memorized movements to get me through this. I feel as though I am letting everyone down. I cannot meet the eyes of the audience or my fellow performers. Later, when I see photos of the performance my eyes are downcast in every one, looking only at the floor.
One act down. I sit to play the drum. I am trying to keep the rhythm but all I can hear is the pounding in my ears. My racing heart and the music are out of sync. Please, I think to myself, can't I at least panic in time?
One more to go. We finish, the crowd cheers, we bow and I leave the stage as quickly as I can without running. I need to get out, to get air.
(Note: Despite the location of this occurrence, this was not a case of stage fright.)
It was many years ago when I had my first panic attack. They came upon me in the middle of the night. I'd wake up in a cold sweat, my heart pounding, fists clenched, feeling full of dread and convinced I was dying. I'd get out of bed and sit in the living room with blankets piled upon me, sipping tea and watching the Home Shopping Network until it passed. During the day I'd make excuses for finding a quiet space alone to sit until it passed. For a long time they were sporadic, sometimes with years between them. But about a decade ago, I began to have them so frequently I was afraid to go to sleep and leaving the house was cause for extreme anxiety. It was then that I sought help.
I tried medication for a time but it made me feel numb. I began to work with a therapist and over time I learned what things triggered the attacks. I learned to sense, sometimes days ahead of time, when the circumstances of my life and mental state made me more vulnerable to them. I would up my level of self care, get extra rest, seek out peaceful places, move my body more - whatever it took to put myself at ease. After a year they stopped all together. Until a few weeks ago I'd not had a full blown panic attack in nearly nine years. Now I've had two in the past three weeks. The attack described above only happened a few days ago.
I'm already seeing a therapist and you can pretty well guess what our topic of conversation will be at this next appointment. I know that with her help, a lot mindfulness and self care I can again reach a state of relative equilibrium. I say relative because I've also lived with anxiety for most of my life. Over the years I have learned to keep it from controlling me and my life. But it is always there. It is my white noise, humming along through every hour of my days. I live my life despite it. My struggles with it have been a more than occasional topic of this blog.
I will get through this. While I don't expect it to be easy, and I worry that there may be more of this in my future, I have at least learned that as frightening as it can be a panic attack will not kill me, and though it is at a higher level than it has been in some time, neither will anxiety.