Most days, I can’t leave my house. I want to, and sometimes I need to, but my body has a tendency to shut down if I step beyond our driveway.
I was diagnosed with agoraphobia about ten years ago. My first panic attack hit like a heart attack when I was at college. I didn’t know what it was and so naturally assumed I was dying. It was honestly one of the most brutal things my body has ever been through. Still is. I usually have a very small window of time in which to rationalize the thought my mind has latched onto and made morbid. Then everything after that becomes chemical and is akin to fighting the effects of too much alcohol.
Adrenaline is a thing that makes your average man capable of lifting a car.
I wanted to show you how hard it is to overpower something that needs all of sixty seconds to take control of 99% of your body. I thought the easiest way to do that was talk you through my first attack. So here goes.
Stage one is pretty common. You might recognize it if you’ve ever passed out, drank a cup of tea too quick, spent a little too long in a hot shower, or had to sit an exam beside a glass window while the sun was blazing.
It was a freezing cold January morning, I was outside, walking to my next class, when suddenly, my whole body started heating up, internally, like my blood was being boiled. This heat crept up and up and up my body, closing in around my neck and smothering my cheeks. I pulled off my coat, my sweater, and undid the top buttons of my shirt, right there, in the middle of the parking lot because the need to get rid of this heat was all I could think about. But it didn’t matter how many layers I shed, my temperature didn’t change. I got so desperate to feel cool, I even pulled the shirt down off my shoulders.
A range of stuff happens after that. First, my hearing warps. A friend I was walking with stopped to take care of me. She kept asking if I was okay. I could see her mouth moving, but the sound came later, and it was all wrong; too slow, too lazy, too messed up to understand. She got frustrated with me because I wouldn’t answer her.
Which is a nice, neat segway into stage 3, and the strange saga of the vanishing voice. My tongue kept trying to turn over, like a busted up car engine, it felt huge in my mouth. Swollen. I couldn’t make words. I pushed my teeth against it, tried to force words out, but nothing.
I could feel my heart beating against the back of my eyeballs. My breathing sped up, charging out of my mouth so fast it kept choking me. It’s the kind of breathing that happens when you neck a pint of juice without stopping for air. Except, you can’t figure out why this is happening right now and it seems like no matter how hard I try to space it out, slow it down, I can’t. So I stop. I hold my breath until my lips go white. I don’t usually realize I’m doing this until I’m told.
::people have stopped and are staring::
This is when I go dizzy. Now I am fighting fear and embarrassment. The first time I went dizzy, the whole world started spinning. That looks exactly as you see in the movies, or, if you’ve never seen a character experience spinning in a movie, imagine being on a runaway merry-go-round. Everything turns into a mess of smeared colour and I can’t blink it away long enough to make out any shapes. Sometimes though, if I’m lucky, it’s just the edges of my vision that shake, and the only thing that moves is the ground under my feet.
By this point, my body has burned through the sudden injection of adrenaline. Muscles that have been tensed throughout go loose and I lose the feeling in my legs, butt, face and sometimes in my arms. It’s like that numbness you get before pins and needles kick in. I tremble uncontrollably –which I thought was the most visual part of a panic attack, until a few weeks later when another attack introduced me to shoulder jerks and vocal tics –but that’s a story for another time.
I weigh as much as an elephant and can’t hold myself up anymore. I’m tired. Exhausted. I feel as if I’ve spent eight hours treading water. Finally, to my absolute delight (not sarcasm), my body belongs to me again. I cave inward and collapse. If I’m lucky, I’m sat down, safe, or there is someone there to catch me. Which I nearly always am, safe, because I’ve learnt to preempt an attack. (This isn’t healthy, but we’ll talk about why another time too.) There has been a couple of times when I’ve hit the floor. I once head butted a table and bust my lip. I’ve kissed the concrete and bruised my cheek. This one time, I passed out in the car and almost strangled myself with a seatbelt. Mum managed to unbuckle me and I bloodied my nose on the dashboard.
I’m done for the rest of the day now. My body feels blended. Muscles I didn’t know I had ache. I can’t eat because my stomach stays tight. I am beyond embarrassed. Have already decided I’m never going back there. Months later I learn how painful feeling disappointed with yourself can be. And I become a pro at cancelling plans with friends because my thought process is poisoning me.
So there it is. I’m not saying it’s the same for everyone, everywhere. I just wanted to share because I’m hoping to shed some light on how incapacitating a panic attack can be.
Hopefully, I won’t be too embarrassed after this to talk some more about my experience with mental health. Honestly, I’ve gotten so fed up with the stigma that surrounds mental health, I’m ready to invite the naysayers to come live with me for a couple of weeks and experience it first hand.
Anyways, if you want to share anything, your experience, tips on how you combat the panic, anything at all… PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE drop a comment below.