I remember the first time I had a panic attack.
Of course, at the time, I wouldn’t have called it that.
I was four years old—maybe even three, who knows—and my parents, still married, drove me to my grandparents’ house in San Clemente to stay the night. I don’t think I had ever slept somewhere without my parents before then. Or if I had, I lacked the capacity to note the difference.
We came in through the garage, passing my grandfather’s workbench, and entered the house. We placed my duffel bag and stuffed animals in the spare bedroom. My parents made their farewells, probably looking forward to some time to do whatever it is parents do without children.
I walked into the living room, finding my grandparents sitting on the sofa. My grandfather looked at me and with a pinching hand motion said, “Bug, bug, bug.” It was something he always said to me (and my sister, later on) as kids, but I have no idea why. Just then, I started crying, screaming perhaps. It’s difficult to retroactively judge one’s level of volume.
I don’t think it was my grandfather’s bugs that provoked me, but to all observers that seemed to be the case. I knew that wasn’t it. It wasn’t that my parents were gone. It wasn’t being in San Clemente. I just panicked.
“Do you miss your mom and dad?” my grandma asked. I sobbed out a “no.” An interrogation followed. Was I hungry? Bored? Did grandpa bother me? No, no, no. None of those things. I couldn’t explain it, I was just upset.
I wish I could remember what eventually calmed me down. I suppose it was just time and possibly a popsicle. I think my parents came back to get me. It was not to be my first sleepover.
I was 26 when I was actually diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. Why it took that long, I have no idea. I had seen at least two therapists as an adult before I met the one who gave me a proper diagnosis. After my parents’ divorce, there was talk of therapy, but I insisted that I didn’t need it. Why anyone would listen to the opinion of a distraught seven year old, I can’t explain.
Anyone can have panic attacks, not just people with disorders. The human brain is equal opportunity that way. A true panic attack—not just stress or general anxiety—includes a series of biochemical reactions. The nervous system, trying to be helpful, I’m sure, leaps into action when someone feels stressed. In a normal, non-panicked brain, the parasympathetic system would then step in, take the nervous system’s keys and call a cab, but sometimes, the parasympathetic system is not a very responsible friend. In the case of a panic attack, no one is around to tell the nervous system, “Go home, you’re drunk,” and the brain is unable to calm down.
I think everyone experiences panic a little bit differently. For me, my brain feels loud. Not that my thoughts are loud, but whatever is happening in my head is drowning out other noise, other stimuli. My music will be on, but I’ll only halfway hear it. My boyfriend hugs me but I only halfway feel it. I get hot, like I’m on fire from the inside out and my skin will be the last thing to ignite. I feel at once like I want to sleep, or cry, or just start running and never turn back around.
These feelings are highly problematic for me. When I’m not absolutely losing my shit for no reason at all, I consider myself an intellectual person. I make a living based on my ability to use my head, to think critically. Since watching Star Trek: The Original Series, I like to pretend I’m a Vulcan (or maybe just half-Vulcan. Spock is only half and he does alright). When a panic attack hits, I lose all control. I feel like a goddamned idiot for freaking out. I usually have no idea what precipitated it, which makes it even harder to understand.
This happened to me again today. I woke up feeling okay, I guess. But within an hour, I felt myself feeling moody. I attributed it to general stress. I moved in with my boyfriend just a week ago and the intervening seven days had been quite full. My things weren’t totally organized, and I assumed that was stressing me out. Admittedly, this is a dumb reason to be stressed, but it’s better than no reason at all.
We started cleaning up. I was vacuuming and my boyfriend was moving things out of the way to make it easier for me. For some reason, this irritated me. I felt myself getting frustrated and then I chided myself for it. What a dumb reason to be upset. He was helping. We finished vacuuming. I headed to the closet where the last of the boxes were hiding. I started rearranging things, pulling out boxes and piling up blankets, but I was not okay. I was freaking out. I could feel it.
I sat down. I was burning up. I knew I was having a panic attack, but I wasn’t sure why. “I’m so stressed out right now,” I told my boyfriend. “How can I help?” was his response. I love him for it and I hate myself for being mad and telling him there was nothing he could do and that I just had to deal with it. I angrily went back to my piles.
I pulled some things out of a a box. I stopped. Why was I upset? I sat down, too hot. I leaned my head against some of my fingers and Kirk (the aforementioned boyfriend) kissed me, once again asking what he could do. “I feel like fire,” was all I could say. “Take one of your pills,” was his suggestion.
I have anxiety medication, but I hate it. One time I took a pill and I slept for five hours and felt like shit after. I reminded him of this. “Take a quarter,” he said. “I don’t have time to sleep all day!” I angrily returned to my box and my piles.
I can’t deal. I feel like crying, or maybe screaming. Anything. I go to the bedroom, strip and throw myself onto the bed. I hold a large pillow against my face, trying to smoother the rest of the world. In this state, I feel like I can’t deal with existence. I said this out loud once and people thought I meant to kill myself.
I don’t explain it that way anymore.
Kirk comes in and pretends to be one of the kitties, meowing and pushing his head against me. Normally, I think, this might make me laugh. Instead, I swat at him with the hand that isn’t securing the pillow against my face.
I cry a little.
I breathe and try to stop berating myself.
I start to cool down.
Eventually, I reposition myself so my head is only half under the pillow. I take deeper breaths.
I start to tune back in to the rest of the world. I hear the fan whirring quietly as it steadily sends cool air in my direction. I feel it collide with my skin. My bra feels uncomfortable because it’s so hot and because I’m lying on my side. I realize that I left music playing in the other room as my brain remembers how to decode sounds. Suddenly, the pillow feels heavy against my face. I don’t need it anymore.
My cat jumps onto the bed as I am coming back into myself. She meows and meows. She’s always meowing her little meows. She rubs against me and licks me. Cat things. I pet this entity of fluff a few minutes, taking deeper breaths and feeling generally like a human again.
I walked back into the other room, finding Kirk at his computer.
“I’m sorry.” I kissed him.
“You don’t need to apologize.” Whether or not I need to, I still feel like I should. Loosing control like this makes me feel embarrassed. When I come back around, I feel like an alcoholic sobering up for the first time, realizing what’s happened. Making amends is a critical step.
I wish I could say I know it won’t happen again so I could wrap things up with a “We’ll look back at this and laugh!” and be done with it. But I never know when I am going to have a panic attack. Even when I am managing my life reasonably well, these things just happen.
Earlier today, when I was coming to terms with being a member of humanity again, I thought about this. About how to explain it and about my history of freaking out. I’ve never really written about it before. I decided I should. I’m sure other people have written about this issue, and probably even more people have experienced it but lack the capacity or willingness to write. So here is mine.