I had my first panic attack while visiting New York City,
but I didn’t let it stop me from moving there.
In the crowded, sticky subway station waiting for the next train to take us to our brunch destination, my boyfriend and I wait restlessly. We stand, facing each other and holding hands, trying to ignore the less than romantic atmosphere. It’s a hot summer day, and I’m relaxed but excited to reunite with my sister for brunch. A meeting that has been long overdue. I’m smiling with anticipation.
I see a train whiz past on my right, and suddenly I’m falling.
I’m falling but somehow I’m still standing upright. I’m falling and I break out in a piercing sweat and my heart feels like it has burst. I need an ambulance. I think I’m dying. I plead my boyfriend to get me out of the station for fresh air, but I can’t move. I curl into myself on a bench. Everything around me turns white and I’m transported somewhere else.
This describes my first and luckily most severe panic attack. The experience that catapult me on a long road of accepting that I suffer from anxiety and panic disorders, and trying desperately to understand them.
For me, understanding them has meant exploring them at the psychological, physiological, and neurological level. What exactly goes on in my brain that causes me to feel this way? And how can these emotions, of which I’m usually unaware, create such a strong physical reaction?
I’m a naturally curious person, and have always been inquisitive about my personal human condition, so exploring questions like these became an obsession of mine. I thought if I could find the answers I’d be better suited to prevent the anxious feelings and cope with them when they recur.
My second attack creeped on me in a dark crowded movie theater. I felt a band slowly wrap around my head and my vision tunnel. I hastily left my mother and grandmom in the theater while I sat on a bench outside and medicated myself with an overpriced slurpee and space and air. I was a step closer to knowing the feeling that overcame when I was about to panic.
After taking the time to digest my anxiety disorder diagnoses, I realized the best way for me to cope with them was to embrace them. I experimented embracing the feelings of fear and panic when they would come to me, because after surviving my first panic attack I knew that survival would always be the end result.
It still troubles me the connection between the mind and body. I don’t understand what physically causes this panic inside of me. Before my first two panic attacks I wasn’t nervous or worried about anything. Yet my body decided to panic and nearly crap out on me. The recovery left me tired and drained for days.
I eventually reasoned these panic attacks would not kill me, and so now when I feel the grip of anxiety, I try to let it squeeze rather than struggling with its clutch.
In March of this year I discovered this talk by Eleanor Longden:
I didn’t realize that this was an established form of therapy and recovery, so I felt touched after watching this talk by Eleanor Longden about her experience with hearing voices and being diagnosed with schizophrenia. A few of the things she said really resonated with me.
Her emphasis that the question around mental disorders being, “What happened to you?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?” really struck a chord with me. She’s supporting an ideological paradigm shift away from the medicalization of disorders, and that this medicalization might somehow contribute to the worsening of conditions. I personally think it does little to help, other than providing a hypothetical ‘roadmap’ for conventional treatment. But Longden’s way of thinking is similar to what has helped me with my anxiety disorders.
–“She was referred to a consultant psychiatrist, Dr Pat Bracken, who encouraged her to listen to her voices and try to understand what they meant. He helped her to reduce her medication so that she could think more clearly. Slowly she worked out the connection between previous traumatic experiences and the messages the voices communicate. She also discovered her voices were worse when she was stressed. “This was the first time anyone in the psychiatric system had talked about recovery. Before that I’d been labelled, medicated and left; my past didn’t matter and I had no future.” —
There is never a one-size-fits all treatment, and especially not for mental disorders. But I do think that, at least with my experience with anxiety and from what I’m learning about people who hear voices, the classification of these conditions as a problem might do more harm than good to the people dealing (mostly suffering) with them. For me, seeing my anxiety as something to be combatted with medication gave it power. It gave it control over me, and my life. Classifying it as such made me grow further averse to it, and even more scared of it. It helped it grow into a larger monster in my life.
But embracing my anxiety has helped me to shrink that monster into a condition that is at least manageable, and I’m interested if it’s helped other people to do the same.