It started when I was a little girl, maybe eight or nine-years-old. I was walking down Westgate Mall in Macon, with my great-grandmother. I remember we were looking at china dolls, rows and rows of beautiful dolls for sale. I assume this was a doll show. At one point, as we were walking, my face began to feel numb. It started around my throat and traveled up my face. This startled me, which made my heart beat faster. Even though I was holding my Granny’s hand, I became very frightened. I looked around and suddenly the room seemed “off.” I got dizzy and short of breath and I asked my Granny could we sit down because I didn’t “feel good.”
I don’t remember much after that. Just the sights and sounds and out-of-body experience in Westgate mall. To the last day that mall was opened, I could never walk that path without my pulse racing and my breath shortening.
For the next month, this same scenario would suddenly play out in class. Ms. Childer’s 4th grade class at Union Elementary to be exact. The numbess, the dizziness, and the inability to catch my breath. I would ask to go to the bathroom. As soon as I left the classroom, I felt so much better. I would return and tell my teacher I didn’t feel good. She would tell me to sit down and be quiet.
Which made me feel helpless.
I told my mom & dad about what was happening, and my mother took me to my pediatrician. This was the early 80s. My doctor could find nothing wrong with me physically and suggested I see a psychiatrist. I don’t remember much after that, except that my mom said that I did not need to see a shrink and that I was just trying to get attention.
Which made me feel helpless.
This continued for years. The symptoms would shift and I got to the point that I would sit in the car when my family went out to eat. I would cower down in the movie theater, because an attack would happen there. I would even have them at church. I remember telling my mom, on numerous occasions, that I couldn’t catch my breath. I remember her pinching me and telling me to knock it off – as I sat there, trying to piece together why I was feeling like I was going to die. With a child’s mind.
Fast forward to high school, I ended up stumbling upon a book at B.Dalton (in the Macon Mall,) called Panic Attacks. I have no idea how I ended up on the self-help aisle, perhaps because it was near the astrology texts, but I picked up the book and read the back. It sounded super familiar. I think flipped through it and read the symptoms:
- Tunnel vision
- Chest pain/pressure
- Hot & cold flashes
- Fight or flight response
At some point all or some of those symptoms were present when I had one of my episodes. I’m not sure if I had money of my own or I talked my parents into buying the book for me, but I did end up with the book. And I read it cover to cover.
I was experiencing something called panic attacks, and man was it debilitating.
I won’t go into great detail of where or when these were happening, but let’s just say – If there were large crowds, or I had to sit with people behind me, or I was far from a door, or I was in a situation where you couldn’t just get up and go, I would have an attack.
Once I found the book, I didn’t feel quite so alone. In the 80s, people did not talk about mental illness openly, and I had definitely never heard anything about panic attacks.
I finally had a name for what was happening to me.
The continued throughout my college career, mainly in classes and when walking to classes, but never at home or when hanging out with friends. I could go to restaurants and function a lot better, because I was attempting to try all of the things the book suggested.
I took deep breaths. I tried pressing pressure points in my hand. I’d ask friends to massage my shoulders. I would squeeze a stress ball.
None of it worked.
By the age of 21, I was dating a young man that happened to be a psychology major. He thought maybe I had ADHD and it was left untreated. He thought maybe the fact that I couldn’t focus was the reason I was “freaking out.” He suggested I see the therapist the campus offered. He thought it was free, why not?
So I went.
After a couple of sessions, she sent me to a behavioral health place for analysis and testing.
- A developmental Arithmetic Disorder. (Dyscalculia) (Which explains the bad math grades and my panic attacks in a math class.)
- Dysthymia (persistent, mild depression.)
- PANIC DISORDER
And there it was. The definition of Panic Disorder is:
a psychiatric disorder in which debilitating anxiety and fear arise frequently and without reasonable cause.
I began a journey of anti-tricylic drugs and cognitive behavioral therapy. It helped and the pill cut the attacks out. 1996 was the year. I gained 30 pounds and slept all of the time.
That was no way to live. My gynecologist took me off the pills and told me I did not need that. The attacks slowly came back, not nearly as bad as they were.
Fast forward to 2007. I get divorced and end up in therapy. I thought I would need some guidance to deal with the transition and the therapist got hung on the fact I was STILL having attacks. We started deep diving.
I left therapy before the work was completed.
Fast forward to 2017 – I started having frequent attacks. I went back to therapy and started setting boundaries, they dissipated.
Fast forward to 2020 – and they were back with a vengeance. I ended up with a “as needed” pill – Hydroxyzine and a daily – Cymbalta (which handles my body aches and pains and reduces anxiety.)
Are they gone completely? No.
Do I feel more relaxed? For sure.
But there is so much more to this story. So, so, much more.
I think what I will do is share that in 2 more parts. Today was my journey. Tomorrow will be the coping mechanisms I have incorporated that have helped me tremendously. And finally, the last one will be the why – the root of why I have panic attacks, or at the very least, what I have uncovered through therapy and meditation.
If you or someone you know suffering from Anxiety or Panic Attacks, the best thing you can do is:
- Accept that this is a part of them now. Know that it will get better as they adapt to what is going on inside of them and when they start to manage the symptoms.
- When we go somewhere, please give us an option to stay or leave. We will stay longer when we feel more in control and not trapped or helpless.
- Do not pressure us with your silence or repressed anger or annoyance because we might have to leave. That only makes it more difficult for us the next time.
- Understand that we do not want to experience this, and that there is no specific time for us to learn how to manage it, there are many types of treatments and one does not work for everyone.
- Most importantly, give us your support, love and acceptance. It makes a huge impact in someone’s recovery and we all want to recover.
Tomorrow we will tackle coping mechanisms.