‘Panic’: derived from the name of the Greek god Pan, who supposedly sometimes caused humans to flee in unreasoning fear.
I was 14 years old when I experienced my first panic attack. I remember it clear as day. I was at my local cinema with a friend watching the animated version of the Prince of Egypt. Suddenly the large darkened theatre became small and I found myself struggling to take in a full breath. I felt like someone was squeezing my heart with their hands or standing right on top of my chest. I broke out in a cold sweat. I frantically searched for the exists in my mind and thought about how I could get out of this theatre without causing a scene or embarrassing myself in front of my friend for walking out half way through the movie. Everything collapsed inside me after that, this foreign feeling to me felt like Death. I was going to die. I was convinced of it in my mind. I ran out of there quicker then I could remember and run to my sisters work (she happened to be working a shift part-time at a clothing store in the shopping mall at the time). By the time I reached her the feeling had passed, I was a ball of tears and the only way I could describe to her what I was feeling was, I felt like a couldn’t breathe and I was going to die.
You see in 1999 no one ever spoke about panic attacks or any sort of mental health related condition especially not in a pre-adolescent. Nope not at all. Physician after physician and not one said, these are classic panic attack symptoms. Many just sent me home with a clean bill of health ensuring me that I was not dying, that there was no physical problem causing my symptoms, some would even look to my mum and imply, ‘perhaps this is a cry for help or attention seeking behaviour’. WHAT A JOKE! If there was one thing I didn’t want at the time was more attention!
Soon these episodes would start happening in car rides, trips to anyway and everywhere. All of a sudden, bang out of no where this impending sense of doom would overcome me and I would need to escape, find help or I would DIE. My heart would beat its last beat, my chest would cave in on itself and everything would turn to black. I began to lose count the number of times I had to insist my parents pull over and let me out of the car as I stumbled onto the curb gasping for breath.
Claustrophobia? Surely not, and since when? And why now? These were all the possible scenarios I rattled with in my mind. Long before Google, I took to my Encyclopaedia Britannica and searched endlessly for answers. From doctors to witch doctors, there came a point I was convinced that I was cursed, possessed and needed some form of an exorcism.
I went to church and lit countless candles asking God to rid me of this torture. After a few months the panic attacks stopped but the emotional damage had just began. This fear of death imbedded so deep within me – I had died so many times in my mind. I became sad, angry, confused, difficult, my 15-year old self was the hardest Tanja I ever had to deal with.
My panic attacks resurfaced in my 1styear of University (18/19) and stuck around for quite some time after that. It was then that I started medication. The wonder drug, an antidepressant was the answer to all my woes. The panic attacks stopped, I didn’t feel so sad about my existence any more, I could start living my life again, get into my car, drive to uni, hang out with friends, be a “normal” young adult. Until I wasn’t. Until they crept up again, and again and then again.
Many times I felt defined by my panic attacks, sometimes to this day I still do. Now at almost 33, I’ve forgotten who I was before them. I’ve lived more then half my life experiencing them. In all places, at all times, with so many people as witness. I don’t recommend living more then half your life in that kind of disabling fear, its crippling. But somehow, I’m still here. Still kicking, still breathing. Still surviving. Now a mother of 2, I cant help but look at my kids and wonder, which one of you will inherit this genetic curse? Oh God please help me help them through it if they ever do. I talk about my mental health openly because that in itself is a medication for me. It’s the healthiest and most natural way I know how to deal with them. Hopefully by doing so I can help someone else feel less alone and more normal, something I wish I had when this journey began.
Image from: Living with IT. – A survivors guide to Panic Attacks, 1996.
One of the first self-help books recommended to me.