I had my first panic attack my sophomore year of college. I was sitting in my then boyfriend’s apartment, on his roommate’s ugly hand-me-down couch. We were watching something on Netflix, getting ready to go to a party.
To echo the common description of panic attack symptoms, I felt like I was having a heart attack. Some invisible being was choking me and I couldn’t stop it. I wasn’t breathing enough to supply enough oxygen to my brain and the rest of my body. Parts of me, my feet, my hands, tingled and then went numb.
When your body doesn’t have enough oxygen, it hoards blood in the important parts, the heart and the brain. My heart was moving faster than I could understand why. When I held my hand to it, I could feel it pulsing.
I tried to move from the main room to the bed down the hall, but instead blacked-out and fell into a wall, afterward wondering how to cover up a broken nose so my parents wouldn’t ask about it the next day.
I begged the boyfriend to take me to the hospital because I swore I was dying. There was something wrong with my heart, there had to be. I had no idea what panic attacks were. I thought they were only for super stressed people. I thought it was a fluke. A one-time thing. Nothing more.
For most people, they have one panic attack, or a few isolated ones, and they move on with their lives. It usually happens during a stressful time, maybe finals or losing a job. But for me, something in my brain changed that day and fear became my natural response to everything, like when I let my brain convince me a scary movie is something to worry about. (I used to love scary movies. I’m just now starting to get back to that.)
Sometimes barely anything sets it off, a terrifying chain reaction. Other times it happens during potentially life changing moments, like when I learned my deceased grandmother was schizophrenic. And although that panic attack somehow seemed justified, it didn’t make it any easier to experience.
After the first panic attack, the attacks continued and became far worse. My panic attacks rarely have a trigger, a characteristic that makes them absolutely terrifying.
My throat closes. There is something stuck in my chest and I am gagging, trying to get rid of it. Sometimes I actually throw up, and I feel better for a moment. I wonder, maybe I really am sick, physically. I wish it were true. But I know better. It’s 4 in the morning. I pace back and forth in the hall in my pajamas. For a second, I feel better. Maybe I can sleep.
I return to my bed. My bed feels like a coffin. Once, the familiar softness of my sheets was enough to bring me back. Not this time. I get up again, resume my pacing. The deep breathing stops the frenzy temporarily. But the terror comes back in waves and stays with me, courses through my body for an entire night. The attacks usually happen at night, when everyone is asleep and I am alone with my thoughts.
The next day, I wonder how it is at all possible I am still alive. My heart physically aches. (People with panic disorder are more likely to have a heart attack or develop heart disease. I think of this when I am panicking). My brain is so exhausted I can barely convince myself to get out of bed, even though I need to get out of that bed. It is covered in sweat.
I need to resume living. I am weak. Sometimes my stomach is empty from vomiting, but I cannot even think about filling it because my throat is still closed and my mouth has the texture of cotton. I move to the couch because the bed feels and smells stale.
The lowest points begin the day after a big panic attack. I look at everyone around me—the trash collector, the girl walking down the street—and can’t even fathom how they can deal with life. The easiest things—eating, laughing, seem impossible. In fact, I can’t get myself to do either. My throat is still closed. Even the most familiar things become new and I am back at the starting line—a squirming, fearful baby confused by everything around me.
There are instances where my experience begins to parallel a broken reality and the fear sets in. In these moments, I think of my grandmother and her paranoia. Sometimes the attacks were so bad I sat up all night tremorring, the muscles of my legs spasming as though there was creature moving inside me.
On the outside, I looked normal. My roommates would never know unless I told them. But inside, my brain was functioning on overdrive, afraid of nothing and somehow the entire universe at the same time. As though some invisible person held a gun to my head.
I want to think my deceased grandmother could understand me more than most people. That if I told her what was wrong with me she would nod with recognition. Craziness—a concept developed in contrast to the sane. A concept to isolate those not congruent with the rest of society.
The break from reality is the ultimate characteristic of schizophrenia, into another world perhaps. I remember looking up at the pictures on the wall next to my bed during a panic attack and not recognizing my friends. I felt no affection for them in that moment. Was that a break? The thought sparked another wave of panic. I rolled over onto my side, away from the wall.