Six Steps to Light: Overcoming Acute Panic Disorder
Once upon a time I suffered from acute panic disorder and associated agoraphobia. I could not leave the house for one nightmarish three-month period.
My dog, KOKO, is very well-behaved and lovable but also anti-social. When she sees another dog on a leash, her light brown hair from neck to tail stands on end, giving the appearance of turning dark. She becomes highly-agitated and begins to bark.
The initial response is physiological and out of her control. The barking is her fear-based reaction which continues the vicious cycle. The more she barks, the darker her hair appears.
Sometimes, one need look no further than one’s pets for answers to difficult questions.
Anxiety and Panic
I first noticed something was wrong with me during a heightened state of stress. I had broken up with my college girlfriend of nearly three years and was not in a good way.
The following day, in the midst of an unexpected snowfall, I was driving to Staten Island on Brooklyn’s Belt Parkway. I was teaching autistic children and adults, and had just reached the Verrazano-Narrows bridge when my car died.
There was traffic in front of me, and now a pile-up of traffic behind me with horns honking en masse.
The year was 1985, considerably before cellphones. I could not leave my vehicle for help as the road was quickly becoming iced. I was stuck in the car for what seemed an eternity before, thankfully, a driver began pushing my vehicle with his. I must have spaced, as I don’t recall either granting permission or exchanging words with him.
What I do remember is a sense of welling panic. I was pushed to the side of the toll booth. The driver then shot me his middle finger and paid his toll, while a toll collector ran outside to help me get a tow truck. As the minutes passed, I could not breathe. I hyperventilated to the point of no air coming in. I became dizzy but I did not pass out.
The tow truck arrived. I slowly calmed down, hiding my episode well. It was a dead battery. He would drive me to work. As long as someone started me before I left for the day, the driver said, I’d be fine.
I got home safely, ten hours later, to no further incident. That night I could not sleep, however. Logically, I knew my response was wholly out of proportion to the event. My car has been stuck before. No big deal.
But this time was different. Something had happened to me physically, something I could not explain. I did not want to worry my family, and I no longer had my girlfriend to whom I could confide.
I kept my episode quiet … until I could no longer.
Growing up, I was severely asthmatic to the point that at seven years old I was wheeled in a baby stroller to the airport to prevent a collapse. I had a history of collapsing when I lost my breath. I thought about dying constantly, despite the word being something I had heard in reference to my illness but did not yet fully understand.
On my doctor’s advice, my family and I were moving to Aurora, Colorado, from Brooklyn, New York, in an effort to lessen the impact of my illness. To then, I had spent more time at the local hospital, or the doctor’s office, than I had at home. I received allergy and adrenalin injections twice-weekly, and breathing treatments on a regular basis.
In Colorado, I did not have a single asthma attack for the four years we lived there. Ultimately, we returned to New York. My grandfather was ill, and my dad wanted us to spend some time with him in case his illness caused a permanent decline. It did not, thankfully; he recovered, and thrived for another two decades.
For my part, I was just happy to be healthy and “home” again near all my relatives.
I was fine for many years … until just after my college graduation and the aforementioned incident. That night, as I tried to sleep, I was brought back to those old fears of collapsing, and dying.
Your mind does funny things to you when in a vulnerable state.
The Day After the Incident
School was canceled due to the snow. I managed to sleep for maybe an hour, and was quietly thrilled about the unexpected day off. However, as the day went on, my mind once again veered to the incident from the day before.
And, once again, without any warning … it was as if my throat was closing. As if on repeat, I could not catch my breath, and dizziness struck. I was living with my parents at the time, having planned to move to California to try to begin my career as a writer. But those plans were now off. Neither of my parents were home. I fell to the floor, and tried overcompensating to draw a breath. I managed to call 911. The paramedics arrived, and my oxygen intake was indeed below normal.
Everything from there is a haze, though I do recall being hooked up to oxygen and an IV. My parents arrived at the hospital. I was 21 years old and horrified as to my future.
My doctor, a family friend, arrived. My blood pressure had skyrocketed. After a brief workup, I was diagnosed with “acute panic disorder.”
The Power of Panic Attacks
As they were explained to me, panic attacks occur when the body is susceptible to periods of increased stress. The attack can take different forms; the doctor advised that my past history of asthma may well have been “stress-induced,” which I did not understand at the time as I had no reason at that age to be so pressured, and the emotional resonance my illness held had been dormant. Years later, the fact that I was stressed over a) my relationship ending, b) college ending, c) relocation plans to California, and d) my car dying, somehow triggered in my mind the response.
Losing my breath and collapsing on the street after all these years was what I had feared the most. In fact, those days were never far from my mind. The difference was in childhood, I wheezed as an asthmatic symptom. But I hadn’t wheezed since. Upon college graduation and my subsequent breakup, it was as if my throat had closed and air was blocked from entering. If anything, the latter scenario was even more terrifying.
Regardless, when a person is diagnosed with any disorder said to initiate from a psychosomatic source, the symptoms are still horrifyingly real to the sufferer.
“It’s not a perfect science,” the doctor said. “You may want to seek some therapy.”
On the way home from the hospital, I promised my parents I would take care of the issue myself.
That was my first mistake. I became so careful to preserve my breathing I was afraid to leave our family apartment.
My fear in turn represented the beginning of my spiral. My extreme caution led to isolation and ultimately to a self-fulfilling prophecy: The breathing difficulties worsened over the weeks, leading to multiple hospitalizations and breathing treatments. In my efforts to draw in air, I regularly hyperventilated, overcompensating for my inability by trying that much harder. It was not unusual for a family member to find me breathing heavily into a brown paper bag in an effort to balance my CO2 and oxygen levels.
Everything in my life, it appeared, subsequently led to a panic attack. As with KOKO today, my response became physiological, and I possessed no semblance of control.
I couldn’t leave the apartment.
My doctor said I was beginning to exhibit symptoms of agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder characterized by the perception of one’s environment being unsafe. I was afraid to leave the apartment for fear of being unable to breathe and passing out on the street.
I quit my job and stayed inside for the better part of three months. My parents would take me for doctors’ appointments, which became cumbersome. When they were not home, I took baby steps outside but frequently had to turn back when my symptoms quickly returned.
I never started therapy. I was resistant. Damn if I didn’t need it.
I reminded myself that as a recent college graduate my life was now supposed begin in earnest. Instead, I was crippled.
I was stuck.
I read up on my anxiety disorders. I took a course of Xanax as one of the doctors prescribed, but I wasn’t yet ready to begin a life of drugs.
I knew something had to give.
I knew that I really did have to train my mind.
“Hope and Help for Your Nerves” and “Peace from Nervous Suffering”
I phoned a friend who a few months earlier was diagnosed similarly. She said she was turned on to the works of an Australian doctor by the name of Claire Weekes.
Dr. Weekes (1903–1990) wrote the two books referenced in the above subtitle, “Hope and Help for Your Nerves” (1962) and “Peace from Nervous Suffering” (1972). My friend loaned them to me. Again, that was nearly 35 years ago. I have yet to return them.
Those books became my saviors. No hyperbole intended. Dr. Weekes had been through similar anxiety issues, and she well understood the struggle. Her philosophy was simple: face, accept, float, and let time pass. She appreciated how difficult doing so would be, especially in the midst of an attack.
The idea was to dilute the power of the attack.
Once the sufferer was able to follow her four tenants, the impact of a panic attack would be substantially decreased.
Her major point was that the worst that can happen is you pass out. Whereas most sufferers fear exactly that, often believing they will not regain consciousness, Dr. Weekes argued that one’s involuntary reflex will pick up from there, whether one cannot breathe, or feels they have a tight band around their chest, or any other symptom.
Passing out, she implied, would not be the terrible nightmare we feared.
And damn if she wasn’t right. About all of it. Two weeks after completing the books, I walked around my neighborhood for the first time in months, newly optimistic. Yes, I understand fully how crazy — okay, insane — that may sound. After all, most people take walking and breathing for granted. For those who suffer from an anxiety-based illness, they take nothing for granted.
For me, my breathing became conscious — I had to literally think of every breath.
Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in …
Sleep was my only peace, until I read her books. One month following my neighborhood walk, I took the major risk of booking a flight to California.
I was fine and loved the trip. The following year, I made plans to move there permanently to finally pursue my writing career.
I’ve been here over 30 years at the time of this writing.
As stated, I am fully aware of how strange the preceding words may sound to one who has not experienced an anxiety disorder. However, to reiterate, when one suffers from a nervous illness every day is a threat.
My childhood asthma returned and briefly took hold in my adult years at a very vulnerable time in my life.
Today, over 40 million people in the U.S. are said to suffer from an anxiety disorder. Globally, according to 2019 estimates by the World Health Organizaton (WHO), that figure exceeds 300 million.
Anxiety disorders, which include panic attacks under their umbrella, are no jokes. If you know a sufferer, please do not discount them as, on repeat, their symptoms are very real. Saying to someone, “It’s all in your mind” or “snap out of it” reflects on you. They are ignorant and potentially injurious statements.
Help them or help yourself if you suffer. The human body works in strange ways, and there is nothing to be ashamed about if something isn’t quite working the way it used to.
Thank you for reading.
P.S. For those readers concerned with symptoms mirroring panic attacks, please refer to the following article from the Mayo Clinic:
Panic attacks and panic disorder - Symptoms and causes
A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger…
Be sure to also contact your doctor at the first sign of related discomfort, as left undiagnosed or untreated, panic disorder can drastically impact your quality of life.
If you have found this article of value, feel free to recommend, share and follow me here on Vocal, where I publish stories daily on a variety of topics.
If you would like links to new stories sent directly to your inbox, please email me at [email protected]