This weekend, I suffered the worst kind of hangover. Not the one that comes after an afternoon patio wine party-turned evening dance off. Not the one that comes with laughs over a greasy brunch with friends the following morning. Not the one that comes with gaps in your memories. I’m talking about the hangover you get after a massive panic attack.
The excruciatingly painful adrenaline headache. The fuzzy brain and inability to concentrate. The lightheadedness. The sore chest from having your heart beat so hard and so fast it nearly breaks through your rib cage. The desire to sleep for days.
And for me, the worst part is that I felt the same level of regret and embarrassment that I would feel if I had drank too much sangria the night before and did something stupid. But this wasn’t self-inflicted. I didn’t choose anxiety or panic attacks. They chose me.
I’ve been suffering from panic attacks for nearly a decade. Like many people, the first time I had one, I didn’t know what it was. I was checking out a customer at the grocery store where I worked when I suddenly felt hot. I felt myself get flushed, like I always do when I’m about to speak in front of a large group of people. I noticed my heart rate was increasing so I closed my lane and went for a walk. It was a beautiful sunny day, which made the changes in my vision all the more terrifying. I felt completely out of control.
Maybe I just needed to go back inside.
I walked as fast as I could to the back room to my supervisor. She must have seen the panic on my face – she told me to sit down and take some deep breaths. By this point, it felt like an elephant was on my chest and someone had their hands wrapped around my throat. My vision was blurry and I felt like I couldn’t focus on anything. I tried to stand up and fell. For a moment in time, I thought I might actually be dying. I was terrified.
She called an ambulance and by the time they arrived, the mysterious episode seemed to back off. They took me to a local hospital where I waited six hours to be seen.
Somewhere between the arrival at the hospital and the time I left, my symptoms had all but subsided, except for the slight knots in my stomache and thought that perhaps there was something seriously wrong. Or was it that I was just going crazy? Maybe it was all in my head.
After a clean examination, normal blood work results and some convincing from the nurse that I wasn’t completely out of my mind, I went sent home with the recommendation to see my family doctor.
That particularly panic attack spiraled into months of reoccurring episodes and depression and I was finally put on a daily medication and given a benzodiazepine to help alleviate the immediate symptoms of a panic attack. It took time but I eventually went to speak with someone, learned what my triggers were and how to manage them, came off the medication and for the most part, carried on my merry way.
When people spoke about their anxiety stories, I empathized and shared small portions of my own. The further away that episodic summer became, the less I talked about it. I stopped referring to what I had as anxiety and panic attacks and instead replaced it with high-strung or over-thinker. “I’m just a worrier” became my favourite line. Most people can relate to worrying about something at one point or another. I found that if I told people I had anxiety, they either became uncomfortable or thought I was exaggerating. So I just didn’t.
Admittedly, I thought maybe these attacks had disappeared and were just a phase. Had I outgrown them? Every once in a while I’d notice the odd time where I’d feel my heart racing or throat being squeezed but attributed it to an upcoming public speaking event, uncomfortable situation or just being overtired.
Last night, there was no denying anything. My friends and I had planned a festive Canada Day – walking in a parade to support a local business followed by drinks, board games and fireworks. But my anxiety didn’t give a shit about my plans.
During the parade, I started to sweat and feel uncomfortably warm. My cheeks felt like they were on fire and I was sure they were the colour of tomatoes – a stark contrast to my pale skin. Walking in front of thousands of people would make most folks uncomfortable, right? I tried desperately to ignore it while continually checking the status of the parade route. Only two more roads to go. Now one corner. At the end of this street we’ll be done.
When it was finished, I could’t get away from Granville Island fast enough. I was suffocating – the loud music and throes of people weren’t helping. I just needed out.
We stopped at the grocery store on the walk home and as we were checking out, I could feel my heartbeat in my neck – it was pounding so hard it could have been seen across the store. When I glanced at the cashier, a dark line appeared in my vision. I got outside as fast as I could.
“I can’t see” I exclaimed to my friend and husband. I realized how ridiculous I must have sounded.
“Maybe there’s make up in it”, I said, trying to downplay. I knew exactly what it was. And I wished it was just eyeliner. I sat down on a park bench and rubbed my eye. I had them both check it to see if anything was in it. Of course there wasn’t.
We continued walking and they decided I was just dehydrated and needed something to eat. I played along.
At my friend’s apartment, the feeling of being strangled intensified. I downed a few glasses of water and closed my eyes. I could still see the line that was causing my vision to skew even with my eyes closed. Was I having a stroke?
My thoughts were racing but I reverted back to the self-talk I used to do when I panicked. Take a deep breath. Everything will be OK. It’s just a panic attack. You’ll be fine. This will pass.
I started to feel a bit better and joined in a conversation with my friends, talking about my new place, summer plans and work all the while running this cyclical thought through the back of my mind that maybe something was really, seriously wrong with me. (For me, the cyclical thoughts are the worst part – they nag and nag and nag at me and cause my stomache to be in upheaval for days.)
When my arm and tongue went tingly and my stomache turned, I knew I was in trouble. (The mind is an incredibly powerful enemy in these situations.) This was bigger than I’d ever experienced. And the worst part was, I didn’t even know what triggered it.
The walls of the apartment were closing in on me and ran for the balcony. Even with the fresh air around me, I couldn’t find the strength to take a deep breath. I was being strangled from the inside out by my panic and thoughts.
My friend continued to ask if I needed anything – maybe a glass of wine would help? In her mind, she thought it might help me relax and I did appreciate her gesture – she was only trying to make me feel better. Under normal circumstances, yes, I love a little Pinot to help me chill out. A glass of wine in the middle of a full-body, full-blown panic attack would have sent me over the edge that I already felt I was teetering on.
I insisted I was fine before bolting to her bedroom. The group continued to laugh and carry on and I felt incredible envy – how come I couldn’t just be like they were in that moment, free and happy instead of trapped inside their own mind? I started crying and couldn’t stop. I was embarrassed; I was terrified; I was completely out of control.
My husband came in after a moment and tried to console me but I knew only one thing would make me feel better. He gathered our things and quietly said we were heading home. I wiped the tears from my flushed cheeks and came out to say goodbye.
The eyes on me were sympathetic but I still felt the need to apologize. I was incredibly embarrassed that as a 30-year-old woman, I couldn’t pull myself together – or at the very least articulate why I was so upset. I said I was sorry a half dozen times, that I was just a little crazy and I’d be fine – I just needed to get home and eat something.
I missed an opportunity to share what was really going on – something had triggered my anxiety and caused me to have a panic attack that was bigger than I could control in that moment. Instead, I hid behind the same lines that I had been using for so long; the same ones that continue to feed into the negative stereotype associated with anxiety that I so desperately wanted to help break.
By the time we arrived home and I got into my pyjamas, the panic had all but passed and the only thing that remained was the hangover. I put myself to bed early and tried not to dwell on what my friends could have possibly thought about my unusual behaviour. I finally managed to fall asleep.
I apologized profusely this morning again to my husband as soon as I woke up and thought about calling the friend whose party we had to leave early, even though I had told her how sorry I was, through tears, the night before. Thankfully I came to my senses.
Anxiety and panic attacks are not things that we need to apologize for – they’re just a couple of many mental illnesses and disorders that require treatment and support. Someone with diabetes wouldn’t apologize for being diagnosed, so for me to think I need to say sorry for having uncontrollable panic attacks and experiencing anxiety is equally ludicrous.
I won’t apologize for what happened because I couldn’t control it. What I will do is continue to seek support when I need it, and perhaps most importantly, change how I talk about it: I’m not crazy. I’ve not lost my mind. I have anxiety and experience panic attacks. It doesn’t make me any less of anything – it makes me me. If I change the way I talk about it to people, I’m hoping people will echo those words instead of feeding into the negative stereotype and in turn, better understand and support those who experience them. I didn’t choose panic and anxiety – they picked me. And they don’t define me – they’re just a small part of who I am.
I’d also like to respectfully ask for your help – if you suffer from anxiety, or know someone who does, tell them you’re there to talk, whenever they’re comfortable enough. Tell them it’s OK and that you’re there for them. Remind them to take a deep breath. Offer them a hug – or space. Tell them they’re not crazy, even if they insist – because they’re not. Let them know it will get better. Let them talk – or let them be silent. Ask if they want to go for a walk. Offer them a glass of water. Ask them what they need – just please don’t pretend it isn’t happening. Your support will go a long way.
For more information in Canada, visit the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health or BC Mental Health & Substance Use Services.
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Photo credit: PublicSafetyFacts.com.