Mid-morning I began to experience the beginning of a panic attack at my computer. A second cup of coffee may have been the cause, or the aftermath of a week with three kids at an amusement park. Or nothing at all. The symptoms crept up and stayed. My heart began to pound, my throat started to close so that it was impossible to swallow even water. I moved my hands around, turned the light off and on, proving I was living and still in this room, willing myself to stay. I tried to work, but intrusive and obsessive thoughts circled viciously; I worried I would pass out if I took a shower.
Panic attacks are not new to me, yet I still worried I was dying. As I write this, I am still worried. Eventually, reluctantly I had to leave my apartment to get supplies for my daughter’s homework assignment. The steady rain added to my growing sense of doom. I breathed my way to the store. In through the nose, out through the mouth.
Wandering the aisles of Walgreens, I felt lost; I could find nothing I needed, felt like I’d never been there before, felt alien and ineffective, unable to locate the hairspray I had bought only recently. I worried again I would pass out. I paid without making eye contact. Reach for wallet, get card, swipe card. Don’t look at me. I neglected most of what I had gone there for, but I managed to leave with poster board, the most important item. Walking out, I didn’t bother to open my umbrella; it felt too scary and too much. Panic attacks render one irrational while they last. Simple, almost involuntary tasks are impossible.
In the rain, I managed back to wait for my son’s bus. My pocketbook lately stocks my anti-anxiety medication. I slipped one under my tongue for the second time today, not caring passersby would witness this.
The medication helps with symptoms. But the relief is slow and often brings open weeping with it. I don’t know why that is; perhaps it is the anticipation of relief, perhaps the mysterious experience and departure of such terror can only leave us humbled.
To describe acute panic is also impossible. But as I tried to do so this afternoon, I thought–too late–that is is not unlike an asthma attack. It is a crisis, and not a time to talk things through. Asthma attacks require medication and can be deadly; panic attacks, however, feel deadly but will often subside on their own, after a time, even without medication.
Having had both, I can say that with both, the experience of losing control over the body and mind suddenly and drastically brings one outside of normal thoughts, outside of whatever tethers us to the everyday going and getting and shuffling around the apartment looking for a book or keys. At lunch with a friend once, a panic attack came on; I had the sensation I was going to fall over the side of my chair, so I fiddled with the silverware in front of me to hold on.
As much as panic attacks only give the illusion of being disconnected from this world–I have said “I don’t feel like I’m here” during more than one–they leave one with the exhaustion and disorientation of having taken a long uncomfortable journey. They leave you feeling hungover with dread, grateful to have returned, and planted in the knowledge you will be leaving again, and you won’t know when.