Today, I want to talk about panic attacks.
When I was 17-years-old, I was sitting in my A-Level English class. I was towards the back, but not in the very back row. The very back row was where the cooler people sat – or so went the delineation of teenage society. It was cool to not really want to be in the class, despite the fact that A-Levels are all elective – so if you were there, you’d chosen to be.
The teacher asked a question and I, being me, answered it. Profusely, verbosely, and probably completely accurately. Then the comments from the back row started. The comments from the back row were normal, everyday occurrences. I was pretty used – after a decade of it happening – to being called a teacher’s pet and much worse.
But for some reason, that day, it made something inside me snap. I got up and walked out of the room. To be honest, I don’t remember what they said, probably because it wasn’t about what they said this time, more that it had happened over and over for years. I ignored the teacher asking if I was okay, and went and sank down against the wall in the corridor.
And started to have a panic attack.
I didn’t know what it was. I thought I was just crying. Crying so badly that I could barely breathe, sure, but I knew what crying was – so it made sense to think of it as that. My chest hurt too, but then I was crying a lot. I was shaking, but again, I was crying. This all made sense to me. But it didn’t stop, and eventually the teacher came outside.
You know the worst thing about this story? I had multiple English teachers at sixth form. I don’t remember whose class I was in. Sure, I can describe the classroom to you, square with the whiteboard the same wall as the door, the door directly opposite my seat. But I don’t remember which teacher took the class.
Whoever it was, they had my things brought out to me and told me, gently, to go down to the nurse’s wing. It was a five minute walk away, the furthest side of campus, and the walk served to calm me down enough that by the time I reached the nurse, I felt incredibly silly. I’d just been crying. Why were people making such a fuss?
I wonder now if this first experience is why I struggled with my panic attacks later.
They got worse. That year was the one where I had my mental breakdown, which began with me having to leave exam after exam because I was hyperventilating. Soon I reached the point where even thinking about going outside the house would set one off. And when they happened, I didn’t want anyone around me at all, because I was so ashamed of how silly I (thought I) looked.
This changed in the years that followed. I continued to have panic attacks at university, where they combined with alcohol to become even worse – I once had a panic attack so bad that I lashed out at the people around me, thinking they were trying to hurt me. But over time that desire to be alone came a need to have someone with me.
This is still the case, though now I only feel comfortable with certain people being with me through them. I talk about this as a safety list – people who my mind, even in the middle of panic attacks, can process as members of my ‘pack’ rather than predators. Having those people round me, plus the training I’ve had in soothing my own panic attacks, means that they’re no longer as terrible as they were.
I’m even now able to predict when panic attacks are coming.
I’ve had enough of them now – since there were points where I had them daily, if not more – to recognise the signs. First, my hearing gets sharper. Then I’ll be shaking, and the point at which I start crying is when the attack has properly taken hold. The fact that I know this means that I can avoid them.
Because if I spot those initial signs, I’ve generally got enough time to a) remove myself from whatever situation is causing it, b) find someone who makes me feel safe and c) start working to calm myself down with breathing exercises. Not all of these are always applicable or possible, but if I can try at least some of them then often I’m able to stop the attack.
Not always, of course. Sometimes they come too hard or too fast for me to prevent. Sometimes I can’t remove myself from the situation and that’s enough to make it too much. The fact that I can even try is huge, and represents a lot of effort to do so. But I’m still terrified of panic attacks, and I still hate having them, and I still feel absolutely awful about them.
Because when I’m having a panic attack, I don’t believe it’s real.
I want to preface this by saying that logically, I am very well aware that the fact that I think this way is a symptom of my mental ill health. I know that my panic attacks are real, that they are something many many people experience, that they’re different for everyone and that doesn’t make them any the less valid or real.
But every time I have a panic attack, I feel like I am deliberately putting it on so that people will flock to pay attention to me.
Now, one of the reasons this is hard to deal with is that I do want attention during panic attacks, but that comes from a perfectly reasonable and understandable reason. I want to feel safe. People make me feel safe. People can help talk me out of the thought spirals I can’t get myself out of.
Even still, I feel like I’m doing it for attention. Or like I’m doing it to ‘prove’ that I’m sick. As if people wouldn’t believe my mental illness was real unless I demonstrated a symptom they could see.
Here’s the thing I want to tell you about that more than anything.
It’s shitty and awful and horrible and it has sat upon me for the past fourteen years, and even though I know it’s bullshit it continues to be stuck in my belief system. Is it because there’s a stigma against mental health? Maybe. But I think it’s much more likely to be because I don’t trust myself. Because deep down, I don’t see value in myself, or my experiences.
And even though I’m getting so, so much better at that, these jarring and traumatic beliefs still remain.
Getting better isn’t a binary thing. It’s not even a straight, smooth, upward curve. I don’t think it’s even a jagged line. It’s a mess, a three-dimensional mess, because you can be so much better and still have these things in your life which are so unquestionably terrible, like the idea that your experience is not real and you have to prove it through visible trauma.
I want you to know this, whether you’ve never had a panic attack or whether you have them every day. It’s not just about getting to a point where you don’t have attacks on a daily basis. It’s getting your unwell mind to accept them as a symptom. Not a deliberate, malicious illusion.
I’d like to believe that’s possible, eventually. I’m just not there yet.
If you’re experiencing panic attacks, think you might be, or are struggling with similar thoughts to me – please talk to someone. Your doctor is a great start, or you can find a list of resources and explanations here.