As is so often the case with me, I harbor no illusion that I am the first person who has ever said what I’m about to say, but I’m certainly the first person to say it to me. And I’m so bolstered and encouraged by this shift in perspective that I can’t stop crowing about it.
I remember my first serious panic attack very well. It was just under ten years ago, and it was terrifying. Brought about by nearly nothing identifiable, I had racing thoughts of sadness and fear that felt overwhelming but still somewhat familiar.
What I wasn’t used to, or ready for, were the strong physical reactions that accompanied these feelings. I had been dizzy and anxious many times before in my life before that point, but not at the same time and with such strenuous force that I blacked out. It was sort of a blip of mental darkness punctuated by the light of “coming to,” expect that I hadn’t actually lost consciousness or fallen down from where I was standing.
I remember my panic compounding; the initial fears that were already sizzling my brain had the flame under them increased by a sudden panic that people would notice me panicking. I was in a crowded public place, and a bizarre self-consciousness that I rarely experience or exhibit in that context was stirring the panic pot, convincing me that the only thing worse than the terrifying storm happening within me would be anyone else noticing.
It was crowded enough, and I was dedicated enough to hiding what was going on, that I stumbled to the door and exited surreptitiously. I tried to speak to a few people on the way out, and found that words were not exiting my mouth, no matter how loud I was yelling them in my head. Sadly, it was a club environment where many people were stumbling around at different levels of inebriation, which is probably why no one noticed me doing so, or perhaps they noticed and figured I was drunk, not sober and in an inextricably extreme state of panic.
I got outside and took deep, heaving, mostly counterproductive breaths in the mild night air until the sky stopped spinning and the horizon leveled out again. I walked home that night, alone and in 6-inch platforms, a half-hour-ish walk that would have been questionable in NYC but was downright preposterous where I was at the time, in LA, where walking as a means of transportation is considered downright absurd.
But then again, everything was absurd about that night. I couldn’t understand this bizarre thing that had happened to me, in a comfortable place where I had been many times before, that so aggressively took over my entire being. In the months that followed, another attack happened, and there were smaller instances along the way. Another feeling brewed within me; resentment.
Changes in environment, who I have in my life, how I spend my time, etc., as well as some great therapy, have helped me see what triggered those initial, jarring panic attacks, and how my ability to fully process what was going on in that first year or so of dealing with them was hindered by my resentment. I had become well-acquainted with the depression that has been with me since childhood, but this?! How dare a whole new mess have the ability to invade my brain and lie to me about everything: my personal safety, my happiness, even my ability to breathe.
Or had it been in me all the time? Had this bitch Anxiety been lying dormant and letting Depression hog the spotlight for decades, only to make her grand entrance in an alarming and self-serving plot twist?
I embarked upon a “last hired, first fired” mission to at least understand my new symptoms of anxiousness, and I’m happy to say that I haven’t had a serious panic attack in ages. I do still experience anxiety, though, and I will say that I’m somehow perversely grateful that Anxiety at least announces itself with some pretty dependably consistent physical symptoms, as opposed to Depression, which can manifest itself in me in seemingly innumerable ways, sometimes steering the SS Pia for miles before I can retrace and identify where, exactly, she took the wheel.
There is no limit to the varying treatment methods and coping mechanisms that we may individually employ, and the language that we use to describe ourselves and our conditions is a personal choice as well. Words matter, and I’m staunchly on record as not wanting to use language around mental health issues that intensify stigmas, so I understand that some people reject the idea and verbiage of, for example, a “struggle” with anxiety, or “battling” depression. As I’ve previously written here, I do sometimes use those words to describe my personal situation.
Does that mean my entire life is a “struggle” or a “battle?” Of course not. Nor am I defined by my depression or anxiety or any other aspects of me, although they are parts of me. As such, radical acceptance would dictate that I accept them, but I will not embrace them. I can conclusively say that they negatively impact my life, and so I fight.
My newest tactic in that fight feels so simple, and yet also mind-blowingly revelatory. It came to me one day when I felt the familiar heart pounding and chest tightening of anxiousness about whether I had locked the door before I left the house. The feeling of dread that can take over feels so big and real in those moments. I had been out for a few hours and was headed back, and the fear/near-certainty that something horrific would be awaiting my return because maybe I hadn’t locked the door (???) was steadily increasing.
I’ve had quite a few journeys like this; my heart pounding with each step as I get closer to the front door. I try to tell myself that there’s really no way I skipped out the door and left it swinging open, inviting theft and vandalism and murder to come on in, nor is it even likely that I left it unlocked, especially considering how important security is to me and how much I stress about it. Still, until I am physically at the door confirming that it’s locked, I panic.
I wish I could say that I’m bathed in a heavenly stream of relief upon finding things safe and sound, but I’m not. My anxiety doesn’t really work that way. The palpitations do subside, but not immediately. I feel relief, but not wholly. As I said earlier, I’m managing my anxiety better than ever, but that feeling that something bad is going to happen lingers.
And then it hit me: What if my anxious dread is the “bad thing?” Rushing home with my heart in my chest, turning the corner expecting to see a fire truck putting out the fire I surely caused by leaving a burner going on the stove (or something) is a bad thing. “Good” and “bad” can be childish labels at times, but I’m comfortable saying that my panic is a bad thing. (Not talking about reasonable fear or caution, but irrational yet frequent panic.)
So, if I’m so worrying about a “bad thing” happening, that in itself is a bad thing. And since it has already happened, I can release some of the worry that it will happen. It’s almost as if, when anxiety is acting up, I have a to-do list for the day that includes a line item like “Something Bad Happens at Some Point,” and the moment I feel that dread, I can check it off the list because it’s happened! It’s done. Over. Moving on.
That might sound like oversimplifying things, but my heart hasn’t pounded up through my throat on my walk home in a while. It’s amazing what a comfort this idea has been to me. As soon as I recognize the dread feeling, I say to myself, “Well that’s handled!” and do my best to go on about my business.
Something bad could still happen; something far worse and unexpected. And something good could also happen, couldn’t it? All kinds of things happen all the time in this dancerie that is life, and identifying the fear of something bad as the bad something itself has stopped me from hypothesizing what shape and form that badness will take today.
It’s already here. And it wasn’t so bad after all.