Feeling like your heart is in your throat and also in your stomach. Feeling hot and prickly and sweaty all over. Hearing your heart in your ears so intensely it sounds like waves crashing against a stone wall on a stormy day. Your heart can’t stop racing; you think it has never beat so fast, and you wonder what’s wrong with you, what’s happening, are you sick? Is this a heart attack? No, you’re young, you can’t have a heart attack. But could you? Are you going to die?! Do you have to go to the hospital. What if you need to go, but it’s really nothing and everything thinks youre a drama queen. But why is the room blurry and why is every sound making you irritable and angry, and why is your breathing sharp and shallow, why does your chest feel like there is a bag of rocks sitting on it, why do you feel like crying, there’s nothing physically wrong, so why can’t you calm down? Your mind is racing through all of these what if’s, and you wish there was a pillow nearby for you to stick your head into and scream.
That is a panic attack.
Or at least, that is what a panic attack is like for me.
My struggle with depression and anxiety is a relatively new one. Actually, what I should really say is that I’ve struggled with a form of anxiety all of my life, but didn’t realize it until a few years ago. Years of an undiagnosed mental illness, a genetic disposition to mental illness (90% of my family battle mental illness), a strong and stubborn desire to prove to the world/me/my family/society that I was not weak, to maintain an outward “perfect” appearance (i.e. good grades, keeping a job, being social, going out, being “happy”, achieving and “proving” my value to society), and in my final month of graduating university with a degree in creative writing. All of these things are a terrible cocktail for what I’ll refer to as my breakdown.
My sister, noticed one afternoon that I wasn’t acting myself. And I wasn’t. I felt funny. To provide some context here, I had finished school. I was graduating. I was walking across the stage in my cap and gown a week from that day, and I felt so lost and sad and unaccomplished, even though it should have been the best summer of my young, undergraduate life.
I was having people over for some drinks in the backyard. Something had happened earlier that day that must have triggered something in me, and I was feeling short of breathe. The more I thought about it, the more worked up I got. My heart began to race. I felt dizzy. Everything felt hot but I was getting chills and shivering. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong, so I went to my room to lay down before everyone came over. My sister came in a couple minutes later, came around my bed and asked what was wrong.
I should say here that my sister is a beautifully perceptive person, who also suffers from depression and anxiety. She said she had been watching me and could tell that something was wrong. The second she asked what was the matter, I started hyperventilating. Everything felt wrong, but nothing was actually wrong! What’s the matter with me? I sobbed, tears rushing down my eyes, bleeding into the pillow case bellow my head. I feel like I’m going to pass out.
Is it hard to breathe? Is your heart going really really fast? Does it feel heavy on your chest? I nodded yes to all of her questions, still wheezing for breath, my vision going spotty and blurred. I couldn’t calm down. She took my hand and said quietly and kindly: I think you’re having a panic attack. This happens to me a lot. Just listen to my voice, and hold my hand, okay? Now, I know it’s hard but take a deep breath. Breathe, Kirsten.
My sister sat on my bed beside me and walked my through my first (known) panic attack. It lasted for 3 or 5 minutes, and there was a lot of crying. My sister explained that sometimes she will get them for no reason, and that other times, something will trigger her. In retrospect, I see that something had triggered me that day (driving a friend to the hospital…hospitals have bad memories for me and my family).
That certainly wasn’t my last panic attack, but it is my most memorable. I will never forget the feeling of my chest, like an invisible person was sitting on it. Everything felt…off. My heart racing in my chest. How dark my vision got because I wasn’t getting in enough oxygen. I drenched my sheets in sweat. And the adrenaline. Oh man. Afterwards, I was exhausted, and in no mood to have any people over. But (oh, the paradox of social anxiety), I was too afraid to tell people to leave. So I sat there, trying to make small talk, hoping I blended in, feeling wrong and gross and tired, and wishing I could just curl up in a ball and fall asleep.
That was two years ago.
Today is huge for me. I went and asked for help.
If you have anxiety, and you’re like me, the thought of talking about my anxiety with anyone not close to me was anxiety inducing. But it had to be done. This past week has been overwhelming, stressful, and dark, and I realized that I needed to stop hiding behind my fears and start living the life I want.
So I went to the Mental Health and Addictions Centre, where they have walk in counsellors. I cried, I shook, I drenched the armpits of my t shirt, but I did it, and I am really proud of myself for doing it.
I’m not sure where this journey will take me. But I know I am feeling at least 10% better than yesterday for being active in my recovery. The past 6 months have been all about taking care of myself, with regular workouts, eating healthier, daily walks with the dogs, and being more accepting of myself. It has led to a more confident me, a more trusting and loving relationship with my fiance, and more energy. But I know that physical fitness is only one part of the equation. I have to be active in my mental fitness.
So this is it! I’m nervous and excited, I want to pee my pants and cry and also laugh for joy, but it’s here, it’s finally here, I finally did it, and I am ready. Man, I’m so fucking ready.