A couple of months ago I confided in a friend and told him I had anxiety. It was a Saturday and he asked me what I had been up to the night before. I said I went to a bowling bar. This was not untrue. But he knows me and knows I don’t like bowling bars. So I told him I had had a panic attack. I had felt I could not possibly gone up another elevator to the movies, and went to what seemed like a safe place, which happened to be the bowling bar, where I stayed for three hours.
‘I have an anxiety disorder,’ I mumbled, as thought it were an afterthought. There, I’d said it.
He raised an eyebrow and then said, ‘What are you anxious about?’
How many times have I been asked that? What answer could I possibly give?
‘Nothing in particular… I just have anxiety,’ I said, wishing I hadn’t told him.
He tried a different tack. ‘What is anxiety to you?’ he asked.
All my life, no one has ever asked me that. I froze. Not a word came out.
‘Everything is normal,’ he said, with an urging gesture, ‘and then what happens?’
Is anything ever normal for me? It’s not only when I have the attacks, the process is going on all the time. I stumbled over explaining some of the symptoms, but felt that I would never be able to explain it. Soon I had lost him; perhaps he saw that I looked uncomfortable, and changed the subject.
The truth was, my husband and I had gone to see a movie upstairs at Melbourne Central, and I had had a panic attack. It was worse than I’d had in a while. We were on the third floor; the movies is up yet another elevator. I was acutely aware of being on the third floor, and even though the railing was three metres away, it seemed far too close and I felt as though I was being sucked towards it where I would fall over. I felt completely out of control. I held onto the walls, anything I could hold on to, with my back to the railing, and felt as though I could not move. It was so unbearable I felt I couldn’t be where I was any longer. The closest place was a bowling bar. It was so tacky and awful but I felt I had no choice.
I drank three glasses of wine and waited for the feelings to pass, and felt comforted by the fact I could see the lift and the lift went straight down to the ground floor. There would be no more elevators. I would not look at the railing.
Anxiety. It’s a word that’s often used to describe something perfectly normal: being nervous before going to the dentist. Not something that can take over your whole life. No wonder it’s hard for me to describe a panic attack to someone who hasn’t had one, and the psychological processes that are always ticking along. Do I go? Do I do it anyway? What will my plan B be? What are my strategies? Do I know where the exits are? And, the absolute killer, ‘Will it happen?’ or, ‘What if it happens?’
Unfortunately I have learnt that this internal question is the very thing that brings on this intense experience. This question is almost always followed with, ‘Oh my God, it is going to happen!’
It begins with an enormous buildup of pressure behind my eyes. I feel dizzy and weak and disorientated, unsteady on my feet. I don’t know what to focus my eyes on and I want to close them. I find it very difficult to take in any sensory information.
Often if I can just be with these early symptoms, the feelings pass. But if I allow my mind to ask the ultimate question again and again, to which there is no right answer, then my anxiety reaches a new stage and becomes panic.
At this stage I find it even more difficult to take in sensory information. I am completely and utterly overwhelmed. A crowded shopping mall is torture. Any artificial light feels as though it’s burning into my brain and I shield my face. I feel my whole body shutting down, as though I could be carried anywhere and I no longer have any control over my physical being. A range of terrifying things seem possible. At this stage it is still possible for me to engage the strategy I have learnt of trying to allow the sensations to pass, knowing nothing bad will actually happen, it is an illusion, and it’s the inner struggle that causes the attacks to build. This is more difficult than at the early stages.
But if I allow my terror to build, the attack reaches a final stage, and this is the most terrifying you could ever experience. I know it is happening when my whole body feels suddenly very, very hot, a stab of electricity which is adrenaline releasing. The dizziness mounts, everything mounts, there is no turning back now. Often at this stage I will shake, sometimes violently, and often I will feel no connection to my physical body; it will be like I am watching myself shaking, in disbelief at what I am seeing. Everything around me has a terrifying feeling of unreality. I often cry or want to.
The only way for that friend to see and understand what that meant would be to be inside my head. Sometimes during an attack I take out a pad and pen and write whatever comes to mind. Perhaps I should have answered with presenting him my scribblings. I’m going to give you an example.
Three days ago I caught a train at Melbourne Central Station, which often triggers at least the beginning of a panic attack; the extent to which it builds varies. That day I didn’t manage as well. But I got angry and decided to write this, which I have copied exactly as it is, the missing words and all:
As I write this I am on the bottom platform of Melbourne Central Station and I am having a panic attack. I will not let the monster win. I feel like crying but I will not. This is me uncensored. I am a very literate person however as I write these words I become almost dyslexic, writing words before others, getting letters the wrong way round.
It’s not the platform itself, I know this, it’s something it triggers in me. A wave of sickening fear. There is always a moment that goes, ‘So you thought you cope did you? Well you were wrong’ and it starts to rise. It’s the worst feeling in the world for me. But even as it almost takes me over completely, a voice inside me says, ‘No you f*cking don’t.’
You see I am angry at this thing called panic, for how it has taken over my life in many ways. I refuse to be weak any longer.
I wonder if anyone is looking at me. I don’t really care, they’ll probably look at me like my family look at me - “Drama queen” – as I hold – I have this involuntary gesture. I hold my temples between thumb and forefinger.
My handwriting here is wonky and huge, almost illegible, whereas most of the time it is very neat. That day I had been very busy getting things done and had not taken any time out. I have learnt to look after myself better, but sometimes I still resist staying still for a while. ‘Nervous energy’ is exactly what it is. I want to take on the world and am impatient as hell. And the pressure of my thoughts and my frantic activity build and sometimes I don’t even realise until later.
I am now twenty-seven years old. At nineteen I was diagnosed with depression, but I had been depressed through my teens. I don’t think there was any beginning for me; it was always there in some form.
My first full blown panic attack happened when I was 20. I was in the New Zealand National Youth Choir and we were about to go on stage. What I knew as normal performance anxiety suddenly became so much more. The problem with being a performer was everyone just thought it was performance anxiety and told me to persevere. But it wasn’t. My intense fear (which I know as phobia) of being watched on stage transferred itself to other situations in which I may have always felt a little uncomfortable, such as wide open spaces or flying. It had begun to take over my life gradually. I did persevere with performing, though I wasn’t at all happy, and my condition got more pronounced, until I finally quit three years later. I tried to explain that I had panic disorder, but no one seemed to understand, and they were disappointed.
For a long time I had trouble with thinking I was weak for quitting. I’ve always prided myself on taking on challenges. Now I know it was what I had to do at the time, and further, that I wasn’t happy with the situation I was in anyway. Since then I’ve been learning more and more about who I am. My (now) husband saw that I was creative but I never realised. I started writing and singing – for myself, not an institution – and never looked back. Institutions had ruined my relationship with art and I am finally starting to reclaim it for myself, which is great. And through my art I have been able to face some of the pain I was avoiding, which I believe are related to my anxiety.
I have always been extremely sensitive, open to suggestion and with a very vivid imagination. I have always had thoughts that to other people seem very dramatic, intense and extreme. To some extent these are things associated with children. But I did not outgrow these qualities. They are in part related to my being a writer, musician and a deep thinker, and here they have a place. Nothing wrong with those things. But as a result of these same qualities, among other factors, I can see that fear had played far more of a role in my life than it ever deserved. I can see threads, or seeds, in my childhood of what manifested itself as depression and then panic disorder.
I was the eldest of four children, with the stigma of the ‘the difficult child.’ This frustrated me as I didn’t know how I earned it. I was often unhappy. Nothing I did seemed to go right, especially in interacting. I was both furious with, and terrified of, my father, who was quite physical and rough with me. I often preferred to live in a fantasy world. But this fantasy was also just as often invaded by my fears. I had nightmares I never forgot, even to this day. I’d learn about something like tidal waves and have the most terrifying dreams of watching a tidal wave come! But a recurring theme was being sucked away by a force beyond my control (this is the exact same feeling I get today when I panic).
In essence, I haven’t changed. I have changed a lot in how I deal with these tendencies. Some days I do better than others. I still don’t give up. Fortunately I can be really pigheaded as well.
Panic attacks have been the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to deal with and manage in my entire life, more so than depression for me. My whole life changed after my first panic attack. Everything became about my panic attacks, how to avoid them, how to deal with them. I think about it less now, but a lot of my decisions are undoubtedly affected by this fear.
I’ve been told that at a party alcoholics always know where the alcohol is, how much there is, and when they’re going to get their next drink and what it’s going to be. Well, in a phobic situation I always know how much medication I have with me, where the exits are, exactly how far and how to get away. Which on a plane you can’t do, or in a performance. This is very tricky. Planes are possibly the strongest of my phobias, alongside performing. I have three, sometimes four, Xanax, which I’m not really supposed to do. And then a couple of glasses of wine which you’re also not meant to do! It’s something I haven’t quite tackled yet. It’s like an ongoing journey;
I’m pretty encouraged by the fact I’m so much better than I used to be four and five years ago. I was barely leaving the house, and I had a panic attack at least every day, and the rest of the time it was like I was right on the edge of one. It was before I went on medication. That helped a lot, but my goal is still to one day not need them. I figure I’m only going to get better so long as I work out my issues. I try to do things that keep me well. I have a list of them. It’s like a maintenance thing. I meditate, do yoga, improvise on the piano and with my voice, I keep myself interacting and busy. Maybe one day I’ll go on a plane without even thinking about taking my pills, who knows? And look out the window at the thick powdery clouds. And smile.