I've Been Treating My Panic Disorder For 20 Years and — Surprise — It Hasn't Gone Away

Even my thousandth panic attack is just as shitty as my first.
Publish date:
November 9, 2016
anxiety, writing a book, Panic Disorder

Anxiety is weird. Unlike other maladies, like the flu or a torn meniscus in the knee, there’s no cure. There’s no beating it. I would’ve signed up for multiple surgeries if a doctor could put me under anesthesia, trim out the torn part of my brain that is responsible for sounding the alarm unnecessarily, and shave it smooth again. But there’s no cure. There’s just more therapy.

I’m on my eighth. My eighth therapist. The hardest thing about having been to eight therapists isn’t having to start over from the beginning and explain to each one that I have always been a bad sleeper, I’ve always feared nighttime and aloneness, and I’ve always been terribly afraid of death. It’s the fact that, after eight therapists and 34 years of life, the things that bring me to therapy are the same. Not only have I not beaten anxiety, I haven’t even beaten my triggers. How is that possible?

While disappointing, it also feels good on some level that I understand my anxiety. I'm an expert when it comes to studying my own mind, having spent the last 20 years memorizing the formulas and factors that stir me. Like a detective haunted by a cold case, I have a secret wall of research inside my mind. It's strewn with sticky notes scribbled with clues, hung up with thumbtacks, and connected with a messy web of string. Every time I learn a new nugget, a Post-it goes on the wall: When I realize that I panic when I sleep in a bed alone, or when I rudely steal someone's seat without warning on a narrow Embraer ERJ-145 because I’m incredibly claustrophobic and can't bear to sit in my assigned seat any longer, these are all clues.

And when I take a step back and look at the mess I’ve made, the story is clear. All scribbles and strings point to the same common cause: my fear of being dead.

As a child growing up in the '90s, I couldn’t sleep at night without hysterically crying. I’d wail so hard and for so long that my body would literally give out and I’d collapse in bed like a noodle. Mental health wasn’t on anyone’s radar, so when my parents brought me to see someone for my routine crying, a doctor said I had night terrors. With some pre-sleep guidance and a shiny rock to place at my bedside — my shrink was a macramé-loving hippie from Topanga Canyon — I eventually relearned how to sleep. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college when the dizzying angst returned.

It was midnight during the week. I got into my twin bed at UCSB and, after a few minutes of trying to get comfortable, began shaking. It was a slow tremor, but it grabbed me. I channeled all of my energy toward the shaking in hopes that I could make it go away, but it only intensified. Then I began convulsing.

I was healthy. I was 18. And I was convulsing. Something awful was happening to me.

This behavior continued on and off for months. The longer I remained awake in bed at night, quivering uncontrollably and rapidly soaking my pillow with tears, the more I fixated on myself. My mind whipped and whirled to existential places. I stopped caring about what I was feeling in that moment and only cared about what would happen to me when the moments ended. What would happen to me when I became dead? To my parents?

Sleep became unbearable, and, of course, impossible.

I eventually saw a doctor on campus. We discussed my intense fear of being dead and my surging heartbeat. He wrote some notes. I pathetically cried into a tissue. Then I got the diagnosis: panic disorder.

Since being diagnosed, I’ve treated it with a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and talk therapy. CBT exposed me to specific thoughts surrounding death and aloneness in an effort to desensitize the fear, and talk therapy helped me understand anxiety and my brain. CBT was brutal — I was forcing myself to panic in an attempt to detach from the fear — but it eventually worked. I resumed a functioning sleep cycle at some point after that.

Since college, my panic has ebbed and flowed, which means that I never get to forget I have it. Everything will be going great until an overcrowded train breaks down in a tunnel and I’m stuck on it, sandwiched in between towering sweaty bodies with no window in sight. Claustrophobia is cruel.

So I work on my mental tenacity regularly. I never want to get to the point where I avoid trains for fear of them breaking down, or planes because they’re too small. Like an athlete in training, I am devoted to challenging my mind. Here are some other ways I’ve learned to calm myself, or help myself through a panic attack:

• Breathing in a paper bag

When panic shows up, I have a tendency to take short breaths, which makes me feel light-headed. I spent years carrying around a small brown paper bag so that I could practice deep breathing. When people asked me what it was, I answered, “Barf bag.” Seemed easier.

• Journaling while having a panic attack

I’ve found writing through a panic attack is helpful in speeding it along. Allowing myself to fully feel an attack as it’s happening makes it pass faster.

• Mindfulness

• Transcendental meditation

I never made it past the intro course.

• Hypnosis

• Rescuing a dog

I did this more because I wanted her, but she definitely helps calm me.

Until just a few months ago, I was very private about my mental health. Not because I was ashamed, but because it felt too hard to explain to people. Too nuanced. When someone asked me how my weekend was, and I knew I’d spent it curled up on the bathroom floor hyperventilating and soaked in my own tears, I never told them that part of my Saturday. “I Netflixed it” was my usual answer.

I put my panic disorder in a box and decided I wouldn’t just sling the phrase around. I’d wait until the right moment when I could talk about it in a way that was either focused or helpful. So I kept it all in and wrote a brutally honest coming-of-age memoir about my anxiety. Eight years later, I published it.

In a good year, maybe I have two panic attacks. In those early bad years, I may have hit well near 100. I’d like to say that with that many under my belt, I’m unfazed by panic, but it doesn’t work that way. Not for me, anyway. I can arm myself with all the knowledge, techniques, and Ativan I want, but when my heart starts racing and my hands shake uncontrollably, nothing can stop it.

The reality is that even my thousandth panic attack is just as shitty as my first.

My panic is never going to pack up its bags and go park it in front of someone else’s house. I can only accept that it’s part of me. Every time I have an attack, it’s the absolute worst thing in the world. But they expire, and I’m excited to get back to life — and my writing — when they do.