I often feel terror in the stillness of my chest. My first thought is that my heart has short-circuited again. So I try to quiet the feelings long enough to feel my heart and count its rhythm. Then I keep breathing. I keep pulling air in and letting air out. I do this as quietly as possible. Because I was taught at a very young age that if they hear you, they will hurt you.
My daughter calls them stealth panic attacks. Unless the attacks are so large that I can’t contain them within me, the only way to know if I am having one is to say something. So my lack of outer demonstration of anxiety is not a measurement of how bad they are, only that it is not a big one.
They always start with a sudden feeling in my chest. That feeling you have when something jumps out at you and your heart gives a little jump, and your adrenaline levels rise. Usually, the feeling calms a minute later when you realize that everything is fine and that you are in no danger. But when it is the signal of a panic attack, it continues.
For me, it feels like the inside of my skin begins to crawl from the unused energy in my system. All this energy is in preparation to either do battle or run. I have become even more hyper-vigilant than I was before. I know where everyone is in the room. I also am aware of what everyone within the room is doing. I am ready to defend myself or die trying.
As far as my body is concerned, there is a monster in the room, and I must defend myself. When in fact, these are only people who are going about their business. If I am out in public, I try to get to the nearest safe spot. Usually, somewhere I can quietly regroup. Bathrooms are a good place for this—especially the ones with a single stall.
If I am at home, I try to alert people that something is happening inside me. Usually, I announce that I’m experiencing a panic attack. Letting someone know will get me a hug or someone rubbing my back while just sitting with me. I often only require a hand to hold while my brain and the rest of my body try to return to calm. I will often tap my feet or drum my fingers during an attack to release some of the energy and adrenaline.
I can usually circumvent by distraction at some point. Or I take one of the pills for anxiety that I have. Sometimes they work, and sometimes the attack is too far gone, and I have to wait it out. Wait, while trying to achieve a sort of stasis within myself while I feel like every dark memory or thought is trying to fight its way out of my body and destroy me along the way. These are the small ones. Though I say they are small, it only means that I can contain them enough to appear normal. Or as normal as I can get.
The big ones are different. Those are the ones that cause me to find a safe place to hide, a place to wait it out. I can handle only handle these attacks if I have support. I have had two major attacks that I couldn’t process on my own.
I was with two of my adult children, a son, and a daughter, during one of the significant attacks. They held my hands and hummed to me, quietly talking, always having contact with me. Then, after I had started to calm down, my son had me lie down while he rubbed my feet and told me the PG version of Game of Thrones.
The other was a little different. I was alone and had no choice but to keep going and get through it. Unfortunately, it was also one of the more terrifying moments of my adult life. I walked out of a store and started to panic because someone walked too close and reminded me of one of the perpetrators. My brain shut down. I could not remember where I was or how I had gotten there. I turned around and went back into the store the way I had come. I retraced my steps in my mind, moving backward to my arrival at the store. When I got back to the beginning and found myself outside again, I had to retrace my thoughts back to the car. I couldn’t remember where I parked or what the car looked like. I retraced myself back home. Always with the fear that at any time, I would forget where I was going and not make it home. I did make it home, and when I pulled into the drive, my mind relaxed. I stayed home for a few days after that.
I know some of my triggers for panic; large stores, large crowds, new places, things like that. I usually have what my family calls a safety buddy with me when I go to these places. Someone that can help me get to a safe place if I start to panic. For a long time, I didn’t say anything about the panic attacks. I would do the best I could to get through whatever or wherever I was.
This behavior was especially true when the children were all young. I would do the best I could. Sometimes we would unexpectedly have to leave somewhere or finish something very quickly. As they got older, I could voice my panic and let them know what was happening. But, of course, that was if I went anywhere, to begin with.
I have become a person of habits. I usually only go places that I know or have been to in the past a few times with someone else. I can say all this here. I can say that I would have someone with me. But to get that to happen before I started telling people what was going on, I would invite a friend to go with me or take my husband. And if that didn’t work, I would do the best I could while in a blind panic.
The reason I didn’t tell anyone is the exact reason why I try to sugar coat my panic attacks or depression. I am afraid of how people will respond to me. I am afraid that having a mental illness and the stigma that goes with it will affect how people see me and interact with me. The biggest thing about mental illness isn’t the illness; it is the fear of being ignored or thought less of because of it. That is sometimes the biggest fear of all. It is right up there with how people will see me or relate to me when they find out that I am a trauma survivor, a torture survivor, a survivor of being sold as a child, a survivor of emotional abuse, and emotional neglect.