Posted on November 11, 2018
Anxiety is a fickle thing, and it lies dormant within your brain, your soul, until you least expect it. It often rears its head at the most inopportune and vulnerable moments and leaves you scared it will happen again. I have wrestled a lot with anxiety in my life, and it stems from multiple events – and the symptoms are triggered when my body is attacked by lots of different stress all at once or over a long period of time.
The first time I had a “real” panic attack, I was sitting on the couch at home by myself. My wife at the time had just gone to work, and I was eating re-heated stuffed shells that her mother had made for us a night or two previously. I was watching Cannibal: The Musical on Netflix, laughing and enjoying both the food and the movie. Then, without warning – a cold, dark wave of discomfort wriggled its way through my chest. I stopped moving, my mouth still full of half-eaten food, wondering what had just happened. I evaluated my breathing, and I listened to my heart to make sure it was still beating. Then, there was the wave again – accompanied by a slight twinge of pain moving down my left arm, originating from my chest.
My brain jumped into action. “Heart attack,” it told me, matter of factly. I stood up, growing more and more panicked as the feeling escalated. I paced back and forth through the house, and I started to put on my clothes and shoes, prepared to drive to the hospital if need be – or at least to my work – so that way if I was dying, I’d be dying among people and not alone in my cold, unheated house.
My vision began to darken around the edges. My arms and hands were weak and cold to the touch. I sat on the floor in a daze, and decided to call an ambulance in my panic. The dispatcher was calm on the other end, and desperately tried to calm me down. I cried openly, realizing I was about to die and that there was nobody who could help me, not even the dispatcher on the phone.
“I’m sorry,” I said to the dispatcher, still in tears. “I have to let you go.”
“Please, sir – stay on the line. Please do not hang up,” replied the dispatcher.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I need to call my wife to tell her goodbye and that I love her.”
In the end, he convinced me to stay on the line, and I sobbed harder as I finally could no longer see, my vision now completely blurred by tears and by my unknown affliction. Soon, I heard the wailing of the ambulance in the distance, and within minutes the paramedics were entering my kitchen through the front door, hoisting me from the floor. They managed to drag me to the ambulance, and once there they ran tests for diabetes, poison, anything they could think of. I answered questions to the best of my ability, though I had already doomed myself in my thoughts.
Once we arrived at the hospital, the paramedics wheeled me into a bright room full of a team of several doctors, nurses, and record-keepers, all prepped for surgery, wearing scrubs and masks. A woman in glasses held out a “living will” for me to sign, and I did so – understanding that this meant my death.
“It’s just protocol,” the woman said.
My brain didn’t believe her.
After about five minutes of pure panic, questions, debate, and an IV – every single person in the room up and left. “It’s just a panic attack,” one of them had said in exasperation moments before.
Before they all completely left, one of the nurses told me to try and just calm down and watch some television. In hopes that I would focus less on my thoughts and more on the screen in front of me, I attempted to do as she’d asked, and I began trying to find something on TV to keep my brain busy. However, channel after channel featured gruesome hospital operations, vicious crimes, and tragic news. I nervously laughed, finally shutting off the TV, and just a few minutes went by before I began to feel very unwell. I pressed the button on an intercom device to speak with the front desk.
“Hello?” Came a nurse’s voice over the speaker.
“Yeah, hi,” I said. “Are you absolutely sure this is just a panic attack? Because I don’t feel so well…”
“Yes we’re sure,” the nurse sighed. “But we’ll send someone down to check on you.”
Before the nurse could get there, my toes began to tingle – and then to completely lock up. My arches flexed, my big toes stretched out and pointed, shaking, toward the ceiling. Next, my calves tightened up. Then, my thighs. Then, my fingers locked into claws that wouldn’t move back to normal. Then, my arms went completely rigid. Then, so did my shoulders and neck. My teeth clenched, and my face muscles tightened around my eyes so that the only thing I could move on my own on my entire body were my eyes in their sockets. I began crying in desperation and fear, thinking I was the rare case in which the doctors and nurses had been horribly, horribly wrong.
“Oh my god,” said the nurse, worry in her voice, when she finally arrived and saw me in the throes of what amounted to a small seizure. “Please, calm down!”
This is anxiety – the brain declaring war on the body. Anxiety hits you when you least expect it, and it affects everyone at different levels, at different times. The nurses I encountered that day and their reactions to my affliction were typical of society as a whole. “Calm down” – as if it’s that easy. To them, I was overreacting and wasting resources and time – though, to be fair, I’m sure they see a ton of cases like my own. To my own brain, I was dying on the spot. I was facing real, physical death, off and on, and I was going to lose my wife, my family, my friends, and there was nothing I could do about it.
For the next few years, I aggressively battled my anxiety. I was in and out of hospitals, racking up thousands of dollars of bills which eventually found their way to collections. I even spent one afternoon in the psych ward, pajamas and all. Though most of that insanity was centered around the separation and divorce from my ex-wife, I still get panic attacks from time to time. Most of the time, you’d never know just by looking at me. Yet, I still get that strange twinge in my chest, and the cold, dark wave rolling through my soul. Even if we’re smiling, even if we’re laughing together – anxiety and panic are there, a part of me, my shadow. I don’t think it will ever completely go away. I just have to try to breathe, focus, and hope.