Yesterday was Victor’s birthday and since covid numbers are finally starting to drop we decided to go to a Japanese place that we’d never been to. It was nice but much more crowded than I was used to and the many shower curtains hanging from the ceilings (for real) to stop germs from spreading made it feel even more claustrophobic and suddenly the panic attack I’d managed to fight off at the doctor’s office that morning when the nurse couldn’t find my veins in either arms started crawling out of my throat.
I have anxiety attacks pretty regularly. Heart pounding, feelings of dread, some nausea. They don’t last very long. Panic attacks are different. I only have one or two a year but they are so severe it literally feels like dying…like an actual heart attack. I’ve spent enough nights in ERs sure I was dying to know that this was a panic attack but I didn’t want to ruin Victor’s birthday so I explained that it was too loud and went outside to get some air. I walked to the back of the restaurant and paced, trying in vain to walk away from what was inside me and doing all the meditation practices while cursing the fact that I’d stopped carrying xanax with me. I suddenly felt incredibly nauseous and light-headed but I knew that if I started to throw up I wouldn’t be able to stop so I sat down on the curb at the edge of the parking lot and put my head in between my knees and prayed Victor and Hailey wouldn’t come out because I didn’t want them to see this.
And then I heard footsteps and I knew it was them but it wasn’t. It was a couple getting in their car nearby. The girl asked if I was okay and I nodded yes but she said I didn’t look okay, which was fair, and I considered just saying I’d had too much to drink or that it was the flu but instead I said, “Panic attack” and she said, “Oh, yeah. He has them too” and the guy was like, “The worst. Do you want us to sit with you or call someone or do you need to be alone?” And I said, “Alone” because being with people makes it worse somehow and they nodded and when they drove off he said from their car window, “You got this! You’re doing great!”
Reader, I was not doing great. I was on the side of the road trying not to vomit. But somehow that small encouragement from a stranger helped. I mean, it didn’t stop me from eventually getting violently sick but it helped to know that I was not alone. Or more accurately that I *was* alone because they understood what I needed but that we’ve come so far in talking about our issues that I could say “Panic attack” and have people easily understand and not treat me like a freak and instead just act like it’s okay to have a breakdown on a curb…to cheer me on rather than pity me.
I went back inside after the worst had passed and Hailey and Victor were kind and worried and I felt bad, but also so grateful to have a family that understood when I explained that I wasn’t doing well and needed to go hang out in the car. Dinner ended early. The trip to get cake was cancelled. I barely made it home before my body decided to get rid of everything inside it, making taking anti-anxiety meds impossible. Hours later I lay in bed and felt badly for Victor but he was fine, and understanding. A birthday present he ended up giving to me. Hailey snuck in and checked on me later, our normal roles reversed.
Today I am a limp rag of exhaustion and my brain is mushy…the usual after-effects of a truly bad panic attack. In spite of the fact that I know this isn’t my fault I still feel some guilt and shame. But whenever I do I remind myself of that kid in the parking lot cheering at me like I was a football player making a goal (is that what they do? I don’t know sports) while the girl he was with smiled encouragingly like all of this was perfectly normal.
Panic attacks are not normal. And I hate them. But I love that we’ve come so far that empathy for a person’s struggle is normal…and that we’ve come to a place where it’s not a shameful secret but something that brings us together. It makes me hopeful.
If my mind was less mushy I would make this all wrap up in a lovely way and add something funny but I’m still not entirely myself (but getting there) so instead I’ll just say that I wanted to write this down in case that couple from the parking lot happens to read this. So that they understand how they helped. And so that you understand that you are not alone. That none of us are, really, if you know where to look.