‘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 exits 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 halfway 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 nowhere 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 battled within 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 begun. This fear of death embedded 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 sometime 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 than half my life experiencing them. In all places, at all times, with so many people as a witness. I don’t recommend living more than 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 can’t 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.