“He’s falling!” Audrey yelped, distressingly.
This is it, I thought, misinterpreting her concern for me sliding off my chair as ‘slipping away’. I thought I was dying right there and then, and I’d very quickly come to accept it — even want it.
Not wishing to become the focus of attention in front of the busy crowd of Sunday lunchers in the main area of the pub, I’d convinced Audrey to chaperone me to the door area, where the February air leaking in was more than enough to escalate my shivering. Her then-fiancé Jamie was on the phone to the emergency services, and a bar worker brought a blanket to my aid.
About ten minutes before, I was nursing a mild hangover with a pint of Coke and some pub fare. Audrey and Jamie were talking to another couple, who I’d been introduced to a little earlier. I can’t pinpoint exactly what triggered the thick wave of anxiety that smothered me, but as had happened countless times before, my surroundings became overly real all of a sudden, and I was very aware of my breathing. Failing to take any deep breaths or initiate a yawn, I quickly realised I didn’t want to be in the company of strangers at that moment. And, right on cue, an overwhelming paranoia struck as I was convinced I could smell burnt toast. That was new.
I can’t quite remember how quickly I assessed my situation as critical, but I must have surveyed the room for any sign of burning food before convincing myself I was about to have a heart attack. My hands rapidly numbing, all I had racing through my mind were those symptoms of an imminent heart failure, and so my only choice of action was to ask Audrey to call an ambulance.
From that point, I briefly felt calmer. Knowing someone was helping, and leaving the congested room made things a little easier to manage. But, the whole situation being completely unexpected and out of character ended up alarming my friends beyond my control, and so I was subjected to a barrage of understandable concern, to which I had no answers.
The numbing got worse, and my fingers began to curl inward. Being unable to move them accelerated my worry. Every situation I’ve ever been in where I didn’t have complete control of my body has caused me to freak out for a brief moment. Whether it was drug-induced or the time I experienced sleep paralysis a few years prior, that shock of being helpless is momentarily sickening. But this time was different. Nothing was easing up. Instead, more muscles tensed, and my breathing was out of control.
Instead of long, deep breaths, my only intention was to take quick, shallow ones. With every intake, another muscle tightened and I was on the brink of falling from the chair I was uncomfortably perched on. My glasses began to slip down the bridge of my nose, and with no functional fingers to push them back, I had more discomfort to deal with.
My decision to move to the door area of the pub was flawed, not only because of the chill whistling in, but, in actuality, it became an area of more footfall and consequently we were perpetually asked if I was ok. At one point, I heard Jamie explain that he’d arranged an ambulance, but had called back to check on it, since we’d been waiting for a while. I have no recollection of how long the episode lasted, but that comment caused me to believe I would be waiting even longer for the paramedics.
That triggered the scariest part. My throat muscles locked up and my struggle to breathe intensified. My entire face became tight, and even my tongue stiffened. While trying to draw as much air in as I could through my pursed lips, I attempted to alert anyone that I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t talk. My eyes became heavy, and that’s when I accepted that I might die.
My Dad had died just over two months before. He passed away on my birthday – Christmas Day – right in front of my eyes. Clearly, the shock of the most traumatic part of my life had not quite taken full effect up until now. I’m lucky in that previously I’d not had to deal with a great amount of bereavement — I have a small family, having lost all my grandparents years before. However, having never had to deal with grief that immediate kind of meant I wasn’t prepared for anything of that scale. Nothing can prepare you for it.
In the weeks between Christmas and my attack, I tried to keep busy. My extremely compassionate bosses were more than understanding of the situation, giving me as much time as I needed. Family and friends were above and beyond supportive. I made an eccentric decision to fly to San Francisco for work the day after Dad’s funeral, thinking it could clear my mind a little. And it worked, as far as I could tell.
But, as I was wheeled into an ambulance, the paramedic doing her best to regulate my heart rate with slow, deep breathing guidance, it all dawned on me. For at least a couple of years, every moment of anxiousness; every shortness of breath and feeling of numbness; all the misery I’d made myself suffer over a shitty non-relationship, and ultimately, losing my Dad—it had all been snowballing towards this day, and I still have no idea what provoked it at that exact point.
Since the attack, there have been a few more minor occurrences, but, having been through the worst, I know exactly how to deal with them, and can usually extinguish any early signs. I took antidepressants every day for around a year, eventually weening myself off them after I met Amy. I’ll never forget the day I had them prescribed — my doctor, questioning me about the episode, asked me if I thought I was dying.
I’ve wanted to write this for a couple of years now. It’s important for anyone suffering from anxiety or depression to know how a panic attack can start; what the early symptoms are, and how to calm your mind and body in an emergency. My problem was that I had absolutely no idea what was happening, and my fear fueled the fire. It’s also imperative to talk about any doubts you have, or symptoms that sound familiar, regardless of duration or intensity. When other people know, it genuinely puts your mind at rest, knowing there are understanding folks out there—many of which probably suffer from similar issues.
Lastly, I want to express incomprehensible gratitude to everyone who has lended me support over the years—you know who you are.
Edit: Here’s a great Medium post describing more symptoms and great ways to deal with panic attacks