My mate Panic Attack
I used to suffer from panic attacks. Big, juicy end of the friggin world type panic attacks that had me pacing the room, flailing my arms and at times vomiting over my quivering legs.
Having always been a confident, happy-go-lucky kid and teen, developing a sudden morbid fear of existence didn’t suit me very well. But for whatever reason it was mine and I had to wear it.
Until my mid twenties I would have random periods when BOOM HOLD ON TO YOUR HATS FOLKS THE APOCALYPSE OF DOOM IS COMING heart palpitating, knee-knocking dread would fill every crevice of my being. Yes, even that crevice.
I went from the kinda girl that liked to have a go at everything without even wincing to someone mortified by the possibility that she would start freaking out in a random existential crisis in front of people she wanted to have respect her.
The most frustrating thing was that I didn’t even know what I was so freaking afraid of! Spiders? cool. Snakes? Love em. Germs? Cover me in e-coli and slap me silly, this is hilarious. Crowds? Confined spaces? Heights? Nope nope nope.
Yet still, I could be lying in bed in my safe middle-class neighbourhood then get whacked with a dose of pure, raw, unadulterated fear, as if someone had run into the room held a gun to my head and told me I was going to die after watching everything I know and love suffer before my eyes. Or worse, tell me I was pregnant.
It’s hard to explain to a ‘non-anxious’ norm the thought process of a panic-stricken mind. I am a pretty switched on individual, and I use logic to deduce most decisions. I applied logic to this and it just bounced off. It was like I had taken the blue pill, or the red pill, or whichever pill made you see life as fucked up as it really was in the Matrix and everyone was still oblivious to Hugo Weaving and his creepy pseudo-American accent. When ‘norms’ asked me what was wrong with me I felt like a total dick when trying to explain it. ‘Well, nothing is wrong right now, but I am aware of the sheer terror of existence at this point in time. While wearing my I heart NY pyjamas. And drinking a milo in my cosy bed.’
Soon enough I went to the effort of accumulating a few fears I could label. I was scared of failing to be a normal human being like so many people around me, and not succeeding as a world-class journalist and all-round bringer of universal joy. An oxymoron, I note.
I fought tooth and nail to follow a path of normalcy. I claimed relative fame through my round as a local newspaper journalist and worked my way up quickly from intern to editor. What seemed like a seamless transition to most, I actually slept very little over that half decade and spent almost every morning dry retching with anxiety until my stomach convulsions stopped long enough for me to brush my teeth and perfect my smile of confidence.
At the end of each week I would drink myself silly in a blur of pressure release with some good friends, then collapse in a heap of exhaustion for up to 60 hours at a time over the weekend.
I don’t think I had a single sick day in six or seven years, even though I felt deathly most of the time. I feared that if I let myself surrender even just one day, the thread could unravel and my helpless being would be laid bare.
I tried everything, even strong antidepressants at one point. They didn’t make me less anxious but they did make me pretty fat, so at least I had something to genuinely feel crap about.
I tried Chinese medicine. It tasted like a regurgitated smoothie of vodka and lawn grass and made me stink just as it tasted.
I tried acupuncture for “emotional release”. It made me puke.
I gave cognitive behavioural therapy – “CBT” – a long-term go. It taught me that everything I was scared of was probably not going to happen and tried to teach me that it was fun to hyperventilate. The therapist tried to numb me to the sensation of suffocation by making me breathe through a straw.
I developed a strong phobia of being away from the familiar. I think while my head was smiling above water my little feet were pedaling themselves into exhaustion. When the day was over I needed somewhere I could sink, or more accurately splash about like a confused cat that fell out of the bag as it was dropped off a bridge.
I pushed my growing fear of the unfamiliar so far down it probably ruptured something. I took solo trips through Thailand, work trips to Rocky Mountains, road trips to abseil off mini mountains. I was a fucking superhero when you watched me; look away and I turned into The Simpson’s crazy cat lady.
Eventually I collapsed.
My brain became aware that I would not let my mind give in to mental illness, so it started to increasingly take away my physical capacity until one day I could simply no longer get out of bed.
Once I had a few basic functions restored I went about winding up my long-term relationship, quit my job and moved back home. I surrendered.
A fairly miserable length of time went by and when I finally stepped outside into the world again I was greeted with a life in metaphorical meltdown. I won’t go into all the turmoil that came about during that time but I will mention it in passing as these were all things that contributed to me stopping my concern for those around me. What a shit hot mess, I remember thinking. Imagine Indiana Jones had gone through all these nail-biting back-breaking, skull head-butting terrors and then discovered that his Holy Grail was a knock-off cup from Crazy John’s that was filled with a big pile of turd. My life felt like that.
And then a beautiful thing happened: I just.stopped.giving.a.shit.
I stopped caring about if anyone loved me, or respected me, or thought two shits about me. So what if I was the world’s greatest journalist? Or even a functional human being? So what if I have a massive panic attack in the middle of a room filled with the world’s most important people? I lost me ego.
I wasn’t suicidal but I didn’t really care if I died. I bought a one-way ticket to the first place I saw on sale, bought a backpack and left a few days later. I left the weight of my whole world in my bedroom with no plans to come back for it, and it was best God damn decision I ever made.
I’ve since come back for the people I love, of course. Not physically (I’m still on the run), but I have emotionally. I’ve forgiven those who trespassed, I’ve forgiven myself for leaving some people who probably needed me. I’ve rediscovered that many of those people I’d thought had given up on me had never stopped being by my side. But for some reason it was important that I didn’t know that then. I needed to stop caring so much about the people that I loved – and to that end I needed to stop caring about myself and all I had hoped to represent.
I’ve re-established goals and ego, but I’m no longer afraid to lose them.
I’ve had a few bumps in the road since that time when I left my anxiety at home, a few tragic metaphorical car crashes too. I am imperfect but I am well.
Now in my thirties, anxiety is just a friend who pops by every once and a while and I oblige their company because they’re family.
Am I still a tad pessimistic, jaded and at times raw with the feeling that life leans a little too heavily toward suffering? Yeah.
But am I afraid? Not a bit.