Panic Attack

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No Point Crying Over Spilt Milk

~ Trigger Alert ~

How do you explain how a panic attack feels?  If you’ve always had panic attacks, you kind of take it for granted whilst I guess on the other hand if you’ve never had a panic attack, you kind of think that we’re crazy people just making a fuss or something.  Panic attacks are hard to describe, it’s not really something that anyone choses to dwell on after all, and everyone who has one will react differently, behave differently, be triggered by something different.  I can only talk about my panic attacks.

You probably know someone who has a phobia, you probably have at least one yourself.  Phobias are an irrational fear, we all know that but we can’t help ourselves, we can’t help the way we feel about it or the way we react.  Panic attacks are like that.  It’s about not feeling safe even if for everyone else that may be a perfectly normal, safe place, we’re not talking about the worst neighbourhood of an inner city ghetto after 10 at night.  It’s a shop, the cinema, some meeting or community place.  A panic attack feels like the metaphorical carpet has been ripped from under your feet.  Have you ever had that horrible experience when you see someone approaching and you know it’s bad news,  in fact you probably even know what bad news it’s going to be?  That horrible, sickening dread.  That’s how a panic attack feels.  It’s like all the walls crashing in on you and you’re breathless and clammy.  You try to control your breathing.  You’ve got to get out, you need to breathe and you need to feel safe.  You have to go right now.  You may feel like screaming and running but you pick up the things you need and walk out, still fighting to breathe.

That sounds bad right?  Well a panic attack is more than that.  Remember that you decided to walk out?  Well you know the way out, the quickest, smoothest route out, because you’ve been planning your exit since you got here, in fact probably since before.  You’re sitting in that seat you’ve chosen for a reason, for many reasons.  How close you are to the exit, whether you get totally freaked out by having people behind you or looking at you, whether you need an aisle seat to make it easier to leave quickly.  You’ve had to plan that carefully, taking all of that into account.  Remember too that you needed to pick up your things?  Well that’s because you already knew that you might have to leave, you chose sensible, flat shoes for walking (or worst case scenario, running) in, you decided whether you would need an extra jumper or coat in case you were hanging about outside after you have to leave, you have to think about what you’re carrying and whether it would just fit into one bag, you’ve decided in advance what could be left behind and what you need to take with you.

Panic attacks aren’t just a five minute emotional experience.  I have panic attacks and it’s not about that five minutes.  I wake up the day before with that niggly feeling, the kind of feeling that you wake up with the day of an exam or your driving test.  I try to ignore it but it surfaces every now and again over the next two days.  The breathlessness, the slightly panicked worry, the dread.  I’m paranoid about what time I get somewhere, it has to be early, it has to before it gets too crowded.  It’s not really about the numbers for me, it’s a lot to do with crowds, if a place feels crowded.  (A football stadium with ten people in is not the problem.  A tiny room with ten people in is a problem.  Personally I don’t do change either, it makes me very unsettled and anxious).  I worry about where I’m going to sit, am I going to get a seat somewhere where I can feel safe?  I try not to focus on the worries too early, I have to get on with day-to-day life but the anxiety is building.  By the time I’m ready to go, I’m wound tight, anxious, het up, on edge, worse than a performer with industrial butterflies.  The panic hasn’t even kicked in at this stage.  If all goes well, this is all that I’ll feel but that’s unlikely.  I’ll probably get to the next stage, the actual panic attack.  The point where things get blurry-looking and dizzy-feeling and very breathless.  I feel trapped, constricted, suffocated.  There’s usually no choice but to leave to find somewhere to try and breathe.  I have to focus on the breathing, focus on feeling better, focus on good things, focus on finding somewhere safe feeling again.  That’s the panic attack.  It sounds bad but it actually gets worse.  You’ve probably had some fright at one time or another and afterwards you’re left all shaky and weak feeling.  Remember how that felt?  Well, panic attacks do that to you too.  On a big scale.  Remember how I said that it feels like the carpet being ripped from under your feet?  You’re breathless and shaky, almost something like an upside down adrenaline buzz or a blood sugar hypo.  And it can last for absolutely hours.  You get all cold and shivery, you’re  even more emotional now (if that’s at all possible) and probably will end up crying your eyes out like a very tired toddler, you’re clammy, it’s even gets hard to see and hear and you’re absolutely exhausted.  I call that the coming down stage.  It’s nasty.

But it’s not over just yet.  You wake up the next day and you’re absolutely exhausted, drained mentally, physically and emotionally.  So if, for example,  I have just two panic attack triggering situations a week then that’s six days a week taken up with a ‘panic attack’.

But those aren’t the only problems either.  You know that saying once bitten, twice shy?  Well, if you have a panic attack somewhere your body, your mind starts to associate that place as bad and unsafe, then instead of being triggered by a trigger, your panic attack starts to be triggered by just visiting that place, even by thinking of the place.  The usual, and natural, response is then to avoid going to that particular place, just like you automatically cut that bad patch out of an apple but you can’t always do that, there are certain places that youhaveto go, things which are important and I’m tough on myself too, I don’t let myself ‘wuss’ out, I tell myself it only makes it harder to go back another time.  You know that and that’s what you keep telling yourself.  But it just gets harder and harder to walk through the door, to think even about attending and you’re more and more likely to have a panic attack every single time.  It becomes a long, painful and exhausting vicious circle.

Panic attacks aren’t just a five-minute bad experience. It’s an entire lifestyle, you’re permanently and consciously trying to manage, to minimise, to control both your exposure to triggers and your reactions.  A very demanding, involuntary and exhausting lifestyle.

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The Mask I Wear

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~ Trigger Alert! ~

It’s funny because I actually hate wearing masks, claustrophobic with scratchy edges, eyeholes positioned carefully to be in the wrong place for me blearily staring out without the safety of my glasses underneath.  It was cool to use masks in our drama work at school, I’d wriggle out, try and find some other role for myself.  The cheap, white plastic faces that the others delighted in, high art at its very best, just meant fear and induced panic to me.  I was never cool.

You see part of the problem is that I already was wearing a mask.  Some paint their faces, an inch of slap, to hide behind and to pretend that they’re something that they fear that they might not be.  Others create intricate masks, masks that allow them to play a role whilst hiding the reality beneath.

I don’t know what role I was hoping to create.  I think it was generic ‘normal’.  I don’t remember consciously creating the part nor do I remember the moment when I first donned the mask.  But now it accompanies me everywhere, I don’t go out without it.  I even forget that I am wearing it.

This mask allows me to be, relatively, cool and collected.  This mask gives me a veneer of confidence, a quiet assurance that I try to pass off.  It permits me to function in a demanding world without a barrage of questions, without exposing myself to the pain, threats and dangers that everyday life poses.

I got so nervous about going out; I felt somehow that I had no right to be out and about, I was embarrassed by being out and about, that I used to force myself to greet strangers in the street.  Don’t worry this was perfectly normal behaviour for everyone else; I grew up in a small, friendly town.  Eventually I built up the confidence to ask questions in shops, I would force myself to walk in and find something to ask about.  Asserting my right to be present in their shop.

I was talking to a friend the other day.  She hadn’t realised that I was shy.  I am, painfully shy.  I hate talking to people; will do anything to avoid it.  I only do it for the sake of politeness; I have mastered the art of small talk.  I have even mastered the art of small talk without looking like I am being tortured.  I do it to fit in, I do it to be ‘normal’, I do it because it is expected.  When I have to go out to something social, my stomach churns with nerves, never mind butterflies it is an entire fleet of Wellington bombers.  And not in rubber boots either, hobnailed ones.

My nerves got so bad that I once developed a stutter.  I’ve suffered with panic attacks for over a decade.

But life has to go on.

I got through the stutter by pretending that I was performing a role.  I could speak in public by pretending to be someone else.

I guess that that is where the mask partly comes from.  But there were other expectations too.  Expectations that family, culture, society all impress upon you.  You try not to let anyone down and to do that, you have to become someone or something else.

Otherwise most days I wouldn’t be able to function.

Now I am so used to wearing it that I forget that I am wearing it.  The role I have unwittingly created is also a burden to me.  It is a responsibility to keep it up, to maintain it daily.  A responsibility and a struggle.  I can’t just crack now because everyone knows the other me.  I can’t burst into tears for the slightest reason.  I can’t ask for help.  Because with this mask on, I am in control, everything is under control.

But it isn’t.

So what do I do?  I have no choice but to keep on wearing the mask, to continue with my daily performance.  An artiste pandering to some expectant audience.  I have become the mask.  I don’t know if there’s anything underneath anymore.  Or if, maybe, that fragile shell is all that is holding me together and then I don’t really want to risk taking it off either.