Tight chest. Pounding heart. Racing pulse. Mind spinning.
I can’t sleep. I can’t think clearly. Is this a heart attack? Is something wrong with me? I look at my hands. They’re trembling. I look at my skin. I swear it looks purple. Am I losing oxygen? What’s wrong with me? I’m happy. I’m not depressed. So this can’t be mental. This must be physical. I must be dying. I’m too young to die. But crazy things happen to young people every day. They get embolisms. They get aneurysms. They have underlying cardiac issues that they never knew about until it was too late. What if I’m one of them?
This is what it’s like to have a panic attack.
I was 18 when I was first diagnosed, but the diagnosis came months after I had started struggling to drive over 50 miles an hour on the freeway- terrified that something would happen. Months after my college roommate would sit across from me at lunch and say, “Sarah, why are you shaking?” Months after I would avoid places like movie theaters because when it got dark and quiet, I could feel my heartbeat and would think it was abnormal.
First off, I’m not a doctor. I’m not a psychologist. And this is not medical advice. But it is a personal account that I’m ready to share in hopes of helping even just one person who felt like me. Alone, afraid, and confused.
It was 2004. I was a freshman in college. In the past year, my parents had went through a messy divorce (because, well, most divorces are messy). I was starting a new chapter. I was three hours from the town I grew up in. The house I grew up in was sold. I was meeting new people. I was learning how to manage time and money. I was coming into my own after a very emotionally draining year. But don’t get me wrong, I loved this chapter. I was excited and ready for it. I was doing well. My grades were solid. I was lucky enough to go to college with three of my best friends. So I still had a support system three hours from home. My college roommate was this incredible, upbeat, happy-go-lucky soul. We laughed every day. So it didn’t make sense to me that my happy mind would be behind these negative things that started happening to my body.
The symptoms came on slowly at first. Trouble sleeping. So I took Tylenol PM. But as I used that, I thought it was making my heart race. (Maybe it was, I don’t know for sure.) But I remember becoming very cognizant of my heartbeat.
It sounds so silly. How could feeling your heartbeat terrify you? It should be comforting, right? Instead, my heartbeat became my enemy. I would question if it was normal. I’d lie in bed thinking it seemed out of rhythm.
Sleepless nights turned into anxious days. I was trying to balance all of these new changes and tougher course work with a brain that was tired and frazzled. I’d feel a tightness in my chest that made it tough to breathe deeply. I struggled for air. My leg would tap uncontrollably in class. There was just so much anxious energy in me and I wasn’t understanding the cause of it. Again, I thought, “Something must be wrong with me.”
It would’ve made sense, right, if I had these symptoms while being in the middle of that nasty divorce? If I was sad, and angry, and anxious at a time of obvious turmoil.
But that’s where Panic Disorder gets you. It waits until all that has calmed down. It waits until your body has been worn down. Then it sneaks in, right as you think everything is okay. It tries to break the bond between your mind and your body. It wants your mind to question your physical well-being. It wants you to think you’re either dying or crazy.
Everything came to a head when I was back home for Christmas break. I came “home” and stayed at my dad’s new house. Night after night, I’d lie awake down on the couch until 4 or 5 a.m. Until the sun was peeking out from behind the clouds, and my body was promised that I’d made it through another dark, terrifying night.
But one night, I became so convinced there was something wrong, I woke up my dad and we went to the emergency room.
Now here’s the thing, any health care professional who is willing to take the time to ask the right questions should have realized that this 18-year-old female is having a panic attack. Instead, after an EKG and few questions, I left with a big bill and a diagnosis of “chest wall pain.”
Our emergency rooms need to be better prepared and better equipped to recognize and handle mental health issues.
Instead, it wasn’t until several more panic attacks that I went to a general practitioner who diagnosed me. All of a sudden, it all made sense. I could now read accounts of people who felt the same, experienced the same, and suddenly I wasn’t alone.
I was on a new path. One to wellness, acceptance, and the hope that I’d “be my old self again.”
For me, what helped was learning everything I could so I could start to understand what would bring on the panic attacks and what I could do to combat them. At that time, I started on Prozac. Just 10mg a day. The lowest dose. Here’s the wild thing: All those days and weeks when I was in the midst of the panic attacks? I remember them all being dark and dreary. (I’m sure they weren’t. There were probably plenty of beautiful fall days on my beautiful college campus.) But once I turned the page on Panic Disorder, I recall all of those days being bright and sunny.
Within a year, I was able to get a handle on my new diagnosis. I was able to get off the meds. I was able to drive 75mph on the freeway again, not terrified something was wrong with my car. I was able to sit in a movie theater again and enjoy the show. I was able to sleep. Do I still struggle? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes I go through weeks and months of anxiety spells where I have to change my lifestyle to get back on track. In fact, I recently wrote about the 5 ways I battle my panic attacks. But knowing what I’m dealing with, knowing my enemy, has empowered me. It’s allowed me to develop an arsenal of tools to take back control.
If you’re struggling with mental health, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Heck, you can DM me on Instagram if you need someone to talk to. Don’t deal with it alone. Mental health problems can be isolating, and staying in the dark doesn’t help.
You can also reach out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Their national hotline is: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)