I closed the laptop and got ready for bed. It was close to midnight, and while I should have been exhausted, my mind was still in fast-forward. Laying in the bed, the glow of the nightlight caught my eye. We were on vacation at my parent’s house at the lake. My daughter was on the top bunk above me, and my son in a twin bed next to me. All my love, in one small room. I turned on my side and gently closed my eyes. From above, my daughter rolled into the bed rail. The sound was louder than I expected and I jolted up.
My mind quickly fabricated a situation. I came to the conclusion that she was rolling off the bed and onto the hard concrete floor below. I jumped up onto my bed to peek at her from below. She was sleeping soundly. I lay back down, my heart was pounding in my chest. I took a few slow, deep breaths. Anxiety was nothing new to me, and I could feel my body begin to tense up.
You are anxious, but you are fine.
Against my instinct, I shut my eyes again, hoping that I could fall asleep faster than my mind could get to work driving me insane. Behind my eyelids, flashes of my children falling off a mountain cliff began in rapid succession. Earlier in the day, we had been hiking Cathedral Ledge and the kids were climbing some of the larger rocks. While they were never in danger at the time, my brain had converted those images to something treacherous, tucked away as ammunition to use for my next panic attack.
You are having a panic attack. There is nothing wrong. This is in your head.
I had been through enough therapy to know the go-to strategies during times like these. Slowly, I took a breath through my nose and slowly exhaled. While I was trying my best to get a deep breath, it felt as if my lungs would not completely fill.
I can’t breathe. I’m suffocating. I’m going to die.
Suddenly, my arms began to feel numb. My heart continued to pump as if it was going to jump out of my body.
I’m having a heart attack. Or maybe it’s an aneurysm. My blood is not getting to my extremities. I need to get up. There is something definitely wrong. Get help…I need to get help.
Up, out of bed. I pace the room and try to lie back down. Less than a minute later, I can barely hold myself down to the bed. It is as if someone is inside my body, controlling me from the inside out. I get up once again and walk out of the room. I convince myself that if I was having a heart attack there would surely be pain.
I do feel a tightness in my chest. Yes, there it is, it is definitely sore. There is something going on here, this is not just a panic attack. I wouldn’t feel like this if there wasn’t something physically wrong.
Recalling my therapist’s words, I can remember that panic attacks are very physical. While they start as a simple thought, they can quickly cascade into a downward spiral of gloom in a short period of time, with physical symptoms to boot. Upstairs, I debate waking up my mother.
I am 34-years old. I will not wake up my mother. This is absolutely ridiculous. It is a panic attack and nothing else.
I will try the next technique. Relaxed breathing has failed me, progressive muscle relaxation. That’ll do it. I close my eyes and clench my toes. Tighten my muscles…release. Legs, tighten, release…fingers, tighten, release.
Fuck this! Your heart is about to explode and you are sitting here practicing PMR. You’re going to fucking die. You need a hospital. What are you doing right now?!
Back into my mother’s room again. I gently call out to her and she doesn’t immediately answer. She didn’t wake up. This must be a sign that I should go back to bed.
Put on your big girl pants and figure it out. Get your shit together.
I walk back out of the room, only to turn right around again. “Mom!” I shout out louder than I had expected. She jumps up from her bed, automatically sensing the urgency in my voice. “Come over, hop in” she calls to me.
I am 34-years old, but still I climb into bed with my mother. At this point my entire body is shivering as though I have a 105 degree fever. I have no control over my tremors, and I can feel my body shaking the bed. While my mother tries to coach me through some breathing techniques I explain that I am having a panic attack and I can’t take control. I need someone to talk me down, I cannot fight this one on my own. It has been close to two and a half years since my last attack, and I was sure that I had finally beat the beast. This episode had me just as scared as it had me disappointed. Immediately dubbing myself as a failure.
I can’t stay in the bed long. During an attack I move around often, staying in one place just exasperates the episode. Convincing myself that some water will do the trick, I walk to the kitchen and grab a cold water bottle from the refrigerator. I sit on the living room floor and have another internal conversation.
If you were going to die of an aneurysm or a heart attack it would have happened by now. Or at the very least it would have gotten progressively worse at this point. You are fine.
While my line of thought is completely logical, my brain continues on its irrational journey, unwilling to release me just yet. I try another technique…worst case scenario. Alright, let’s egg it on. What is so scary? What will happen? Why can’t you let this go?
We are in the middle of the woods. It will take an ambulance at least forty minutes to get to the house. By that point it will all be over. My children, motherless; my husband, widowed. And me…where do I go, what is out there? Will I go to heaven? Hell? A hole in the ground? A black space? A puffy white cloud to float up to another world?
The possibilities are endless, and I can tell that once again, my go-to techniques are really just taking me further down the rabbit hole. I still am not quite sure why I am so scared of death. It seems that during the game of worst case scenario, death is where the story ends. This only conjures up more panic. The unknown of the other side may be more frightening than anything my imagination can dream up.
It has been about a half hour since the beginning of the attack. I can feel my body begin to calm back down. The blood returns to my extremities. This new sensation initially adds to the panic, but with scientific reason I explain it to myself in a way that makes sense. The next stage is here, an upset digestive tract. Nausea sets in, and I cannot tell whether I want to vomit or shit in my pants. I take another sip of water, and continue to breathe through the feelings. It is so strange how familiar everything is, yet my body still reacts as if it is experiencing it all for the first time. The thoughts in my brain have slowed. My body is tired, and can hardly keep up with the energy required to keep this going.
The realization sets in that maybe I am not in as good of a mental state as I had convinced myself. Even though I have drank an entire bottle of water, my tongue is dry inside my mouth. I begin to cry. I am a failure. Working through these past four years has been an upward battle. Each day, a step forward and a few back.
Recently, I read an article about drug addicts and how each time they relapse it makes them stronger as they push ahead. In a way, this was my relapse. I will pick myself up and push ahead. While this line of thought is very optimistic, the average person does not realize that in between the moments of falling backwards and deciding to push forward, an individual gets stuck in a very dark place. This is the time when suicidal thoughts may creep in, when you may convince yourself that this will never go away, that you will never beat it, that the process is hopeless. This is the time when you need support, love, and understanding. It is also the time when you retract from society. When you hide the fact that anything is wrong, and plaster the smile on your face so that no one knows that anything is out of the ordinary. Then the world is shocked when they found out at the funeral of Cindy, or Bob, or Sue, or Jeff that they were really falling apart inside this whole time.
“If I only knew, I could have helped him/her.” Much like a drug addict, I am convinced that the help needs to come from within. This is a fight to death with yourself. All of the love, support, and understanding doesn’t necessarily fix the problem. I keep fighting, because I want to keep living. Even on the days when I feel like a failure, I think of the alternative, and I push forward. It isn’t so easy for everyone. It is an exhausting way to live, but it is worth it.
It has been four years and twenty-three days that I have been living with generalized anxiety disorder and chronic derealization. My spellcheck doesn’t even recognize the word…derealization. Fitting, considering that most people are completely unaware that the condition exists, or that so many people struggle with it on a regular basis.
This panic attack throws me off for a few days. I wait for a return to the time when I would have fifteen or more attacks in one day, unable to even leave my home. I take the time to reflect on the things I’ve done since that time. Raised two babies, received my doctorate, worked,…lived. Likely, I’ve done more with the condition than I might have done otherwise. This was done mostly to constantly prove to myself that I wasn’t a quitter, and I wouldn’t give up.
Any progress is progress, and I decide to take it day by day. I’ve come to the realization that this is my life going forward. Good with the bad; I alone have to choose my path. Today, I decide to live.