If you’ve never had a panic attack, it can be very difficult to empathize with someone caught in the throes of it.
It’s different for everyone, I think. But for me, it usually starts with me waking up from a dream. It doesn’t matter what the dream is, but I wake up from it Hollywood-style, with a strangled half-shout, sometimes; a full-throated scream occasionally.
Physically, my chest feels simultaneously like it’s about to burst and as though someone were straddling it. It’s a deeply oppressive sensation that spurs me to physical activity. I move my arms around, I stomp my feet, imagining that I am doing these things in an effort to bleed off excess energy. Energy that, if not released somehow, will explode through my ribs.At the same time, there is a strong urge to shout, to groan out loud, to force air out of my lungs, up my throat and out my mouth. Again, like with arms and the stomping, it feels like making these sounds relieves the pressure in my chest.
I usually come awake anywhere between 1:30 and 3:30 AM. It’s the dead of night and despite this overpowering need to move and make noise, I struggle to keep it down, not wanting to wake anyone else in the house. I need to talk to someone – anyone, but at the same time, I feel deathly afraid of the human connection that requires.
Psychologically, I am overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness and despair; fear, the absence of all hope. It’s a bleak feeling. Every possible negative nuance of everything I think of is magnified and pursued to its most horrible conclusion, all in the span of seconds.
I see a cat and the first thing I think of is that I’m allergic to cats. Then I am convinced that the cat will jump on the table and knock over the mug of water I left there; spilling water all over my open laptop and frying the circuits, rendering it useless. A useless laptop means I can’t finish what I was writing and if I don’t meet my deadline – which I am sure I will not – people are going to mad at me and hate me and want me gone.
It goes on and on like that until my mind latches on to something else. That something else usually involves relationships with the people I love. I second guess years worth of relationships, repeating scenes from the past and imagining the worst motives for everyone. That tender kiss on the forehead? She just couldn’t bring herself to kiss me on the lips anymore. That look? Anger. Hate. Disgust. And it goes on and on until I feel like I must be going insane.
And all the while, my heart is pounding, I’m short of breath and the walls are closing in.
Most of the time, I am able to weather these storms. I light a cigarette and pop open a can of soda. The cold bubbly liquid streaking down my throat calms me some, and the ritual of lighting a stick of cancer diverts my attention for awhile. Eventually, fatigue takes over and I crawl into bed, even more exhausted. If I’m lucky, the lights go out in my mind and I’m able to slip into fitful sleep again. If I’m unlucky, a new fear takes center stage. The fear of waking up again with another panic attack, convinced that I’m going to die alone.
It is an unreasonable fear. I know this on an intellectual level, but that hardly matters to my pulse. Even as I lay there, thankful at having survived another bout of acute anxiety, the blood throbs in my ears and off I go on another spiral of fear, loathing, anger.
Last night I wasn’t lucky.
I woke up at half-past one from a dream involving … I don’t remember. I do remember that it wasn’t a particularly disturbing dream. Just a run of the mill REM, cycling through my brain. And I remember waking up with a strangled sound in my throat and me muttering “not again.”
I tried all the tricks I’ve learned from surviving past attacks, but none of them worked last night. My head spinning, I tried desperately to fatigue my body into surrender. I walked, bounced on my heels, went up and down the stairs. I even tried opening up my laptop. But I shut it down again, fearful that whatever I called up on the internet would only fuel my anxiety.
Three hours of hyperventilation and frenetic activity later, I was still up. Four times, I’d lain back down trying to control the panic, and four times I gotten back up with the dread certainty that there would be no tomorrow – either physically or emotionally. I asked you to never leave me and you told me you wouldn’t. Were you just trying to get me to shut up so you could go back to sleep?
Claustrophobia. The fear of enclosed spaces. The house enclosed me like an unforgiving fist, squeezing the breath out of me. I pulled on my pants, socks, shoes, and practically exploded out of the gate onto the street. I wanted to walk. Walk. Walk.
I wanted to walk away from everything and everyone. I wanted to walk all the way to windmills in the north where you and I once went. Did you just want to go on a road trip? I wanted to walk until my feet bled again and there’d be nowhere else to walk to except back. But I couldn’t. So I walked in large circles around my house until sweat came pouring out despite the cool wind.
Thank God for that wind.
Tired from all the walking and the panting and the struggling with my demons, I pulled a red monobloc chair out onto the street and just sat there. The wind caressed my face and quieted my heart. It slowed my breathing and I could feel the panic gradually streaming down my arms into the trembling fingers holding my forgotten cigarette.
At 4:30 AM, I sat in that chair, on the street, watching the first of my neighbors striding purposefully to the corner bakery. She shot me a look that refused to commit anything. I was there, she saw me, and that was it. She minded her business, and I minded mine. Exhausted and nauseous, I felt myself slipping into sleep. But my mind fought it still. Every time I got close to the blankness, my heart would pound and warn me of the possibility of another panic attack – perhaps the one I wouldn’t survive. And my eyes would creak open.
I remember seeing the barangay tanod’s patrol jeep pass me twice. Both times, I could feel their eyes on me, probably wondering what I was doing there. But I can’t be sure, because i also remember seeing three or four cyclists in white, riding futuristic bikes like I’d never seen before. I must have just been dreaming.
I jerked awake and realized that I had fallen asleep. All around me, the sounds of a neighborhood waking up reminded me that I needed to get back inside. In a daze, I dragged the chair back into the garage and stumbled into the house. I crawled into bed and finally, finally, fell asleep.
And then I woke up again.
Be kind. Everyone is in a struggle for their life.