Shallow breathing. Sweaty palms. Heartbeat crashing in my ears. I wake up experiencing some or all of these symptoms of panic almost every day. I open my eyes and my body is in fight or flight mode before I’ve even gotten out of bed. Now, I struggle to remember how it felt when my life wasn’t consumed in this way, when I didn’t feel like I was trapped in my own mind, itching to be free.
I’ve suffered with anxiety since I was 21 years old. After a lot of partying and messing around, the stresses of a degree finally got on top of me in my final year of university, resulting in regular panic attacks. I will never forget the first time it happened to me and how it felt like I was dying in the middle of a silent library in Manchester.
The dizziness came first. Dizziness that I attributed to maybe a lack of water that day, or a result of stress from staring at a screen for hours trying to put words on a page. But then I could feel my heart beating so fast I thought it might burst straight through my rib cage and land in front of me on the library floor.
“I dropped into conversation with my friend about what had happened to me earlier in the library. “It sounds like you had a panic attack, babe”, she told me.”
Then it was my breathing, or rather, the lack of it. Even when I tried to suck as much air into my lungs as possible, it still didn’t feel like enough to get my body to stop what was already happening. The most terrifying part, however, is when my body started going numb and I could no longer feel my hands or face. ‘Panic attack’ is the perfect name for what I’d experienced – my body was attacking me.
I only learned that later. At that moment, I still hadn’t registered that what was happening to me was a panic attack. Not until I’d quickly grabbed all my things and sat in the library toilets trying to feel some sense of normality again. That’s the trouble with panic. You start to panic about the very fact you’re panicking and you spiral.
I eventually began to feel okay again and I went home and continued my day as normal. Cooked myself some dinner. Caught up with my housemates. Watched a bit of TV. And I don’t know what made me mention it, but I dropped into conversation with my friend about what had happened to me earlier in the library. “It sounds like you had a panic attack, babe”, she told me. I filed the term away in my head, thought nothing of it, and went to bed.
“The panic would cripple me to the point of shut down, and a fog would take hold of my mind. It still does.”
For the rest of that year, I had at least two panic attacks a week. And each one frightened me as if it was that first time all over again. Someone once said to me that you never get used to it, and I agree. It’s out of the ordinary to have your mind and body constantly on high alert, attempting to shield yourself from anything that could potentially set off the panic bubbling away just beneath the surface.
So, I had to plan my days around the panic attacks that would inevitably pull me down. I couldn’t get on busy buses or trains, and I couldn’t be in large crowds at gigs or festivals without a clear exit. I couldn’t answer the phone to strangers. The panic would cripple me to the point of shut down, and a fog would take hold of my mind. It still does.
I was and still am annoyed with myself, which is probably a silly thing to admit. How can I be annoyed at my own anxiety, a health condition? But I am. Living every day in a heightened state of panic is frustrating. My reaction to an email pinging into my inbox or my phone ringing shouldn’t mean I’m awash with a cool breeze of fear.
I don’t want to redo lists countless times because I’m terrified I’ve forgotten something, and yet I feel the need to do it every day. It isn’t just the panic surrounding current goings-on but also imagined fears. I can read the slightest change of tone in an email and take that as that person not liking me which will then spiral in my mind until the fog descends and it’s all I can think about for the rest of the day.
“Putting these words down on the page feels like the first big step I’ve taken in a long time to just sit with it all. A step that will hopefully lead to another step.”
This translates into real life situations too. A friend may be quieter than usual or more withdrawn – for any number of reasons because, you know, life – but my mind will see that as being related to something I may have said or done. Panic ensues. A play by play of our entire friendship takes hold in my mind to dig out exactly when or where this upset could have happened. And of course the fog descends.
I’m fortunate in the sense that I work a job that is quite flexible and so if the panic has really taken hold one day, then I can take that day off to try and reset. But the panic never fully goes away. It’s always there. Trapping my mind in its grip.
Even now writing this essay, I can feel the panic settling in. What will people think? Did I share too much? Will anyone even care? But putting these words down on the page feels like the first big step I’ve taken in a long time to just sit with it all. A step that will hopefully lead to another step. And then another. Until I can finally reach a point where I can pick up the phone and call my therapist back, taking steps towards a version of my life where I can feel free.
Shahed Ezaydi is the Deputy Editor of Aurelia. @shahedezaydi
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