I Thought I Had Coronavirus, But it Was Really a Panic Attack

When difficulty breathing is anxiety, not COVID-19

A flat respiratory face mask with the words DON’T PANIC with a pink background
A flat respiratory face mask with the words DON’T PANIC with a pink background

“So many people are freaking out right now,” my husband said to me, back when all of us were still touching. “They live these lives where they think they’re in control, and then something like this comes along and shows them control is bullshit.”

We were talking about people even more privileged than us: rich, suburban people fighting over toilet paper, posting on Facebook about whether their dogs might get the coronavirus.

We patted ourselves on the backs about how punk rock we were, how flexible, how ready to weather the dissolution of modern society. He’d lived in a park. We’d spent years eating out of Dumpsters. We’d been preparing our whole adult lives for society to radically change.

If anyone was ready to live in a post-apocalyptic novel, it was us.

Then my daughter and I got sick. At first, we just had runny noses and low fevers, so I told myself I wasn’t worried. I kept her home from school, of course. We even avoided touching my husband, so he wouldn’t catch whatever we had. Inside our home, two hours from Seattle, we enforced isolation within isolation.

My friends shared articles about self-care and how to talk to kids about social distancing. I know I’m a good parent, but with each link, I became more convinced my friends all had their shit together in a way I didn’t.

The only article that helped me feel seen was this short one from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “In times like these, our mental health can suffer. We don’t always know it’s happening.”

My anxiety caught me by surprise. I didn’t see it for what it was. Sure, I had a voracious appetite for any and all news about the coronavirus, was checking for updates a bit obsessively, but I wasn’t worried. Sure, I bawled for an hour every night after my kid went to bed, but I was fine, really.

My daughter and I were at the clinic first thing in the morning, getting tested for COVID-19. I felt much better than the night before, when I was afraid I was going to die, when I couldn’t speak without gasping for breath.

“I know it’s hard, but you need to find ways to stay calm.” The doctor looked me straight in the eyes. “Anxiety just makes breathing difficulties worse.”

I liked the doctor, was thankful she was testing us, but I also felt offended. Sure I was a little anxious right now, but who wouldn’t be? The sickness came first, then the anxiety, not the other way around. How dare she suggest my wheezing, my gasping, was just anxiety.

Just anxiety. Just. The doctor didn’t say that. That was my own mind, my own shame, belittling my experience, needing a test result to tell me this was the coronavirus. Because if my difficulty breathing was not COVID-19, if it was a mental health issue, it felt shameful, embarrassing, pathetic. It felt like my fault.

I’ve been medicated, gone through lots of fantastic therapy, for my depression and anxiety in the past, and yet part of me still carries the societal stigma. I worry I’m supposed to be able to heal my mental health issues through the power of positive thinking, that if I do enough yoga I’ll be fixed. That when I lapse into obsessive, negative thinking, when panic takes me over until I can’t breathe, that means I’m a failure. And that feeling of failure just piles on another layer of anxiety. Layers upon layers, smothering me.

It’d been, what, maybe 4 days, since my husband and I smugly talked about the people freaking out? As if we weren’t them, as if we were somehow above the drama, the panic.

The doctor took my blood pressure. 147/83, shockingly different than my usual uber-low 100/60. Anxiety can raise our blood pressure. Anxiety can make it hard to breathe.

“I need you to try to stay calm,” the doctor said again.

I kept telling myself I wasn’t worried, but the truth is I was terrified. I was afraid we had the coronavirus. And I was also afraid we didn’t.

It took 6 days for my results, and 7 days for my daughter’s. Finally, we found out our tests were negative for COVID-19. We don’t have it. (Not yet anyway.)

The results shocked me. We were negative for flu too, so what caused our fevers? All the charts said fever wasn’t a cold symptom. If this wasn’t the flu, and it wasn’t a cold, then it had to be the coronavirus, right?

And if my difficulty breathing wasn’t due to the coronavirus, then…?

I don’t know why it took me so long to realize I’d had a panic attack, because this wasn’t the first time my body betrayed me this way. But when we’re having a panic attack or other mental health crisis, we don’t always know it’s happening.

I kept reading that what made COVID-19 special was difficulty breathing. I was sick with something, and I’d just found out my daughter wouldn’t be returning to school for at least 6 weeks. The walls were closing in. I felt I had no control over anything — over who would die, over how long isolation would last.

On top of everything, because I was sick, my husband wouldn’t even touch me. My daughter was the only person in the world I could touch, and I was the only person she could touch. What kind of dystopian life is that? And for how long?

I couldn’t breathe. And when you can’t breathe, reaching out for help is the right thing to do. I’m glad I called my local COVID-19 nurse hotline. But I’m also embarrassed about my negative test result. I was sure I’d test positive for the coronavirus, because I needed what’s wrong with me to be verifiable, valid, and worthy of care.

Mental health issues are real, but they’re not testable like viruses, so we suffer them in layers of self-hatred and shame.

Turns out I’m not actually ready to live in a post-apocalyptic novel, especially when I have no control over which story it will be. Sure, if the dead rise, I’m down to fight some zombies in “World War Z.” But I refuse to live in “The Road,” where the mom is absent, because she killed herself once things got too bad.

In these days of (physical) social distancing, it feels like my family is living in “Room,” where this home is all we have, and the rest of the world only exists on television. But this isn’t a book. There’s so much we can’t control, but there’s also so much we can. More than ever right now, for our mental health, we need to write our own new stories.

Written by

Empathy for the win! Published in Gen, Human Parts, Heated, Tenderly —Feminism, Sexuality, Veganism, Anti-Racism, Parenting. She/They darcyreeder.substack.com

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