“A sense of impending doom” is how my doctor described it. That said it all. I started having panic attacks last fall. My heart would race out of control while a whole lot of fear washed over me. These attacks seemed to occur for no apparent reason, which may explain why the first really bad one I had was in a movie theater. My parents called 911.
The counselor at the hospital said that these attacks were probably a physical side effect of depression. I think she was right. I have always been shy. I have a really hard time relating to people, and I am hard on myself, too. If panic attacks are an emotional scar, then my own shyness and self-abuse are what hurt me.
The panic attack at the theater was not my first. The others had also given me a pretty good scare, despite being shorter and less traumatizing. Ironically, most were caused by just thinking about the ones I’d had in the past. I didn’t know how to fight back.
When I came home from the hospital, I was more scared about having another panic attack than ever, and so I had one after another after another. I would try to stop them by thinking of a happy place and pretending I was there, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I wished I could just grab my heart and make it stop. I was afraid of everything. That first night, I was so fidgety I couldn’t stay still. I was exhausted but couldn’t sleep. I had my mom stay in my room because I didn’t want my heart to start pounding when I was alone. I left the light on, which I had never done, but I had a newfound fear of the dark. I turned on music in an attempt to listen to something other than my beating heart. It was horrible.
I only missed school for a week, but going back was hard. Even the drive to school scared me the first few days. I had no control over the car just like I had no control over my heart. I hated the sound of the road and the hum of the air conditioning and those little, unidentifiable noises from everywhere. At school, with people all around me, I was just plain afraid. The thought of talking to anyone was horrifying.
I just couldn’t sit still in class. I tried to make it to first hour or second hour, but it made no difference - in every class there was a teacher who could ask me a question at any time, and kids next to me who could turn around and say hello, or ask where I had been. When I was at school, I obsessively checked my pulse and did breathing exercises. I glanced at my watch every few minutes; the second hand always seemed to take an eternity to make that full circle.
I think my most prominent memories of that time were the nights. I remember how my lamp would give the room a golden glow and how the pull-out bed my mom slept on would take up all the floor space. I remember how my bed always felt too comfy and too warm for someone who wasn’t really sleeping. I had two CDs I played over and over; those songs, as good as lullabies now, did absolutely nothing for me then.
I used to play songs on my keyboard when I got tired of not being able to sleep. I was composing one called “Epilogue” from some anime I’d never seen. It was beautiful, but I couldn’t play it right, so I’d just repeat one part over and over and then go back to bed. Those nights were beautiful in their quiet music and dim light, but I’m so glad they’re over.
You know what? I don’t really know how I overcame sleeping with the light on and walking through the halls at school with two fingers glued to my neck. I guess it just happened gradually. I learned how to stay calm when an attack started, how to distract myself, how to relax. The other day I was watching home movies of me with some friends from late last year, when I was having panic attacks, and looking closely, I could see my nervousness - my hurried movements and my distrust in myself to say the right things in front of the camera.
And there were movies from last month. In these, I had relaxed movements, something I know I’d never seen before. I still spoke with a type of unease, but there was something different. I know that deep down I’ve changed. I’m still nervous and shy, but I move differently now; I stand differently; I deal with my problems in a new way. I might not be a better person, but I think I’m adapting. I am not completely over the panic attacks - it hurts to talk about them, and I still find myself pushing them down every now and then, but I have gained control.
Those few months had to be the worst of my life. While I can’t let myself believe that I’ll never go through hard times again, I feel content knowing that I went through this and came out fine. I survived; I will keep surviving. That’s all there is to it.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.