Panic Attack in Berlin

The worst panic attack I’ve ever had was several years ago while I was spending six summer weeks in Berlin. This was a few short weeks after the first major depressive episode I had ever had (which began with a weeklong stint during which I barely left the house) and even fewer, shorter weeks after I had started, in response, taking antidepressants. In light of this new problem of debilitating depression, I had been very nervous to take the trip.

The host family I was staying with had a gorgeous apartment in the neighborhood of Mitte (“Middle”) — a relatively more affluent, residential part of the city. I had my own bedroom, which had its own entrance from the hallway (as the apartment had presumably once been two apartments that were now combined).

The bed, I remember, was a shape and size I wasn’t used to, and the covers were somewhat scratchy, and somewhere frustratingly in between being sheets and blankets. The pillows were much taller, fatter rectangles than the American version — practically perfect squares, which to my out-of-place American sensibilities made them seem more like throw pillows than actual pillows-for-sleeping.

To be clear, the apartment was beautiful and I had anything I needed. But I was in a new place with new, weird things that coiled my senses like string around their odd foreign fingers. The strain of that was enough to inspire in me my most intense panic attack to date.

On this particular night (which was fairly early on in the trip), I was especially worried about getting to sleep because I had signed up, via the study abroad program through which I was in Berlin to begin with, to take a weekend bus trip to Dresden. I lived quite a ways from the campus of the Freie Universität, where the bus was to leave from; therefore I really needed to sleep, as I would have to get up well before the dew had dried in order to make it in time. This pressing need to sleep, in anticipation of an equally pressing need to wake up early, coupled with my already-poor ability to fall asleep, and all strung together with a taut thread of jet lag, made for a filthy fucking stew of grime and anxiety.

I don’t actually remember how it began. I remember lying in the strangely-shaped bed, resting my head on the strangely-shaped pillows, feeling a stifling disconnect between my body and the bedding, as if I were trying unsuccessfully to convince it I belonged there sleeping on top of it.

Eventually, lying supine in the dark on my reluctant blanket-sheets (having given up on my body’s discourse with the furniture), I started to notice that something wasn’t right with my breathing. I sat bolt upright in frigid panic because, I realized, I was taking air in easily enough, but when I went to exhale, nothing was coming out. I was pushing, trying to release the carbon dioxide inside my lungs, but it was like breathing through a straw with an ornery valve that only allowed the air to flow one way.

As I sat and tried to breathe like normal, I felt my panic building in proportion to the CO2 building in my body, precariously inflating me like a tired-out balloon.

At this point, I have to take a step back and confess that I still harbor an amount of heartfelt pity for the piece of me still living that moment right now. And that is because in situations like this, there is almost nothing you can do but Wait It Out. I was really and truly convinced that my respiratory system was failing to perform one of its most basic functions; exactly as convinced of that as you are of the fact that you are reading this right now. What can one do to help a brain so misguided? Take a deep breath?

In this case, I took a pill. I ended up missing the bus, but at least I got some sleep.