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I was dying. I could think of no other possible explanation. My heart was racing, I could barely breathe, and everything around me was spinning. Just moments before I had been a normal, healthy eight-year-old sitting on my bed as my mom read me a book. But, in an instant, everything changed.
"Mom, I think I'm gonna die," I said through tears and short, forced breaths. I remember putting my hand over my racing heart, feeling my chest move rapidly up and down as I struggled to get oxygen.
"I can't breathe. I don't know what's wrong," I cried. I felt as if I were in another world watching everything without actually being there. My body felt extremely light, like I could float away and disappear. I did not feel in control, which terrified me. I sobbed and stood up shakily. "Mom, take me to the hospital," I said. This was alarming to her, I'm sure. I had shown no signs of illness, and nothing like this had ever happened.
She didn't question me, though. She rushed me downstairs and out the door; I went to the hospital in my pajamas. There was no wait - the emergency room doctors looked at me right away.
But there was nothing they could do.
There appeared to be nothing wrong with me. I definitely wasn't going to die. At the time, they weren't sure what the problem was. They helped me calm down, reassuring me I would be okay. I remember being absolutely terrified when they took my mother out of the room to talk to her. They kept me for a while before sending me home with no explanation. I was still very upset. I remember imagining how bad the doctors would feel if I died in my sleep.
I was so afraid of having another bout of whatever had happened that I made myself have more attacks. I began having them in school, and it got to the point where I had to stay home because that was the only place I felt safe. Sometimes I would attend school for an hour or two, but I always ended up coming home. I was devastated. I used to love school, but after that night, I couldn't go anywhere near the classroom. Just the fear of having another attack seemed to bring one on.
My parents took me to a psychiatrist, and we learned that I suffered from panic disorder, a disease that causes sufferers to experience bouts of intense fear in addition to physical symptoms including chest and stomach pain, shortness of breath, heart palpitations and dizziness.
This confused me. Why would something like this happen to me? I wasn't crazy! Having this disorder seemed out of the question. Only crazy people could have that sort of a problem.
I was wrong about that, and definitely not alone. Approximately 1.7 percent of the U. S - 2.4 million people - have panic disorders. Even more surprisingly, ten percent will experience a panic attack at least once in their lifetime even though they may not have the disorder.
Luckily, it is treatable. There are medications available and after being treated with the right one (it may take a while to find the right medicine), up to 30 percent of sufferers are completely free of attacks. Of those who aren't, 60 percent live with some symptoms but their lifestyles are no longer impaired.
As for me, I'm doing fine now. I am on a very small dose of medicine that has suppressed my symptoms. Once in a great while I get a minor attack. Luckily it has been easy to lessen the severity and prevent them now that I've discovered what triggers them. Usually simply breathing slowly can prevent one. Hyperventilating causes or worsens the symptoms, so breathing normally almost always helps.
Fortunately, in this scientific age, treatment of panic disorders and other anxiety problems is improving. At one point, most children with an anxiety disorder would go untreated, and they would grow up with more problems than they started with. Today, along with the spread of knowledge, successful treatment has increased. These improvements bring the hope that one day no one with a disease like this will have to live uncured.