It began in first grade when the discovery of a substitute teacher greeting the class in the morning distressed me so much that I begged my mother, through snot and salinized skin, to take me home from school. My threshold for the substitute teacher’s performance being less than perfect in mirroring my own teacher’s routine absolutely shattered me. I was sort of a high-strung child, you might declare. Thankfully, years later, there is nothing that warrants this exact reaction from me, except, perhaps, intense moments of hunger. Childhood anxiety is no pleasantry, and now as a (supposed) adult, I just have ordinary anxiety.
Of course, as humans we experience anxiety as a natural emotion. Without the flight or fight response to flee from predators we would have become extinct as a species long ago. I experience anxiety in my relationships with others, which generally are not life or death matters, but do overtake my mind with obsessive weeds of “what-ifs” that debilitate a content every-day existence. It is something that will continue to evolve throughout my life and that I will always need to manage. Most recently, a full-fledged panic attack left me cowering in a dark room and flashing my panties, business attire dress disregarded, to my boss in my corporate place of employment. It was was one of the most terrifying trials that I have ever experienced. The panic attack, not the panties flashing, that is.
Anxiety feels like quite the sunny walk in the park in comparison to a panic attack, in which your flight or flight signal is triggered and the physical symptoms are interpreted with alarm. They can come out of nowhere, making any identifiable trigger difficult to discern. When this happened to me I was on the phone with a potential student at the University I worked at. I began to feel extraordinarily hot and my hands turned numb, from my palms to my finger-tips. I shook them vigorously in an attempt to return life, or blood or guts or whatever it is that gives our body parts feeling, back to them. Nothing. They felt asleep. My heart was thumping turbulently. I noticed the familiar envelopment of dark edges that accompany fainting and knew that I was going to pass out. Something was very wrong with me, I realized as I left my office staggering. My first instinct was to tell an authority figure: a mother, a nurse or a police man, that I was going to fall over and die all over the University hallway and that would not be favorable for potential students on tour to witness.
In this circumstance the point of authority at my place of employment was my blonde, twenty-five year old manager. I couldn’t breathe. I was dying. I knew I was dying as my heart continued to pound and my breaths became shorter and my hands still couldn’t feel anything. I am a healthy twenty-six year old lady who couldn’t remember the last time she had a runny nose and had no real reason to die on a Tuesday morning. This irrational cocktail of panic, physical manifestation of panic, and terror created an out of body experience that caused me to see myself from above. I was experiencing it all, but in a foggy dream-like way that perpetuated the panic. It was real life and I haven’t taken any substances to alter my perception of the present moment and yet it was happening. It was horrifying. What if it lasted forever?
When the feelings of impeding death lessened after crouching in a dark room for twenty minutes, the acknowledgement of the panic attack was evident, I felt so shaken up and fearful that I would experience another one with no warning. I called my family to make sure everything was all right and well at home. I spoke to my brother, who had cancer at the time, but was almost done with treatment.
“Are you okay? Is everything alright at home?” I asked him, still cowering in a corner at work and flashing my granny panties to any unfortunate soul who may have accidentally wandered in. Yes, he assured me, it was. He also told me it was the one-year anniversary of his brain surgery, and asked if I knew that. That was the day my parents and siblings and I sat in a waiting room for hours to see how this brain surgery would affect him, his balance, his life, his ability to function as his old self, if the tumor would be cancerous, if they would get it all out, if he would die? I had to recollection of that date in my mind, but my subconscious knew.
After experiencing a genuine panic attack, I feel sickened that I, or anyone else ever belittles such a hell in instances where they drunk-texted the guy they are kind of dating a heart emoji and had a “panic attack” when they didn’t offer emoji heart-reciprocation. After this instance I had quite a few more panic attacks that would spring me from bed in the middle of the night in pure panic. I would call my mother at 2:00am and have her assure me that I was okay and I wasn’t going to die, for the better half of an hour until the symptoms diminished.
It sounds absolutely absurd and it was. The experience was traumatizing and I developed a fear of riding the bus for the possibility that I would be struck with a panic attack on my commute to work. Can you imagine hanging out in someone’s arm pit with your head phones in, listening to Beyonce, and then suddenly and aggressively be plowed with the idea and physical symptoms that cause you to think you’re dying? An otherwise very social personal I was scared to leave my bed.
Of course there are treatments for anxiety and panic attacks: therapy, meditation, mindfulness, exercise and prescription medication; I’m not stranger to any of them. Xanax to me feels a bit like throwing a sheet over a birdcage. The bird may no longer be chirping, but it is certainly there. Alcohol also numbs my anxiety. Sometimes when I’m intoxicated enough my default, this anxiety atrocity, is reduced to a mere muffle and I remark in wonder that this must be what it’s like to exist as an individual void of such a tangled web of spiraling thoughts.
Thankfully, months later, my panic attacks have subsided. I don’t know that a panic attack can be fully understood or emphasized unless one has experienced it themselves. I would never wish a panic attack upon my worst enemy. My goal is not to whimper about anxiety; I realize that everyone experiences it to a certain extent and I am grateful for the life I live and what it contains. Anxiety can be damn painful and exhausting, and affect those in my life, but it is something I have to love about myself because it makes me who I am. It allows me to notice everything, to be a writer and obsess over the most minute details, like that eye lash in the foam on the rim of my coffee shop neighbor’s mug.
You can’t do that with a sheet thrown over your cage.