I had my first panic attack when I was eleven.
I’m pretty sure it was because the girls I was friends with had told me they didn’t want me sitting with them at lunch anymore, but to be honest I’m not 100% on the details leading up to it anymore.
What I remember clearly however was that I was sitting on the living room floor playing with a wooden jewelry box, and my dad was nearby with a family friend, when I started to get upset.
I started crying, and the crying quickly took on a quality I had never experienced before — as if it was a power unto itself, taking over my body. The more I cried the more out of control I felt; it was very scary.
I remember my body getting more and more rigid, my muscles locking up, and the feeling that my limbs had turned completely to stone. Immovable. Trapped. Stuck. Panic bouncing around faster and faster in my chest, speeding up like a game of pong. Me, curled up in a little ball on the floor shaking, hyperventilating, and terrified. My arms wrapped around my knees as tightly as possible. Gasping for air.
My dad had come over, and I told him I thought I was having an asthma attack. That I thought I was going to die.
I should mention here that both my dad and his friend were therapists, so they luckily identified what was happening pretty quickly. My dad explained in a very calm voice that I was having a panic attack, and that panic attacks are scary but ultimately they’re perfectly safe and can’t hurt me. Then he asked me to try to slow my breathing down, and breathed with me for a minute.
At this point I was still wrapped in a little ball, and my whole body had begun shaking so violently that even my teeth were chattering. He took in the whole picture for a moment and then demanded, in a rather jarring and authoritative dad voice, that I stand up and start running laps up and down the stairs.
I told him I couldn’t do it, that my body had frozen solid, but at some point I must have gotten up because next thing I knew, I was slowly and awkwardly jogging up and down the staircase.
It was on the stairs when I started to “come back” to myself and my surroundings, when I things came back into focus, and when I suddenly became aware of how embarrassing this whole thing was. My dad’s friend just saw me completely lose my shit on the floor, and now I’m running mandatory laps around my house like an idiot. What the hell.
Looking back I am unbelievably grateful my dad was there that day, to explain what was going on, and recognize that I needed to move my body to move the energy up and out. It was the best possible introduction to a mental health issue that would show up on and off for the rest of my life.
I don’t know how long went by before my next panic attack (I think it was many years), but in my early twenties, they came back and became a somewhat regular thing. I felt totally out of control, and even the thought that a panic attack might hit could send me into one.
At that point I got my ass into therapy, learned skills to self-regulate and calm down, and dove into healing a lot of the trauma that was apparently just hanging out, living in my body rent-free. The panic attacks decreased over time until I considered them pretty much a non-issue. I knew how to keep one from happening when the feeling rose up, and the feeling rose up less and less often.
The last panic attack I had during this era was when I was about twenty five, on the day I went skydiving. Everything had gone smoothly, I jumped successfully and had an amazing day. But that evening I had a little disagreement with my boyfriend at the time, and a massive wave of panic suddenly hit me out of nowhere.
Since “move your body” had become something of a panic attack “rule” for me, I ended up fleeing our tiny NYC apartment, and running out the door and down the block completely barefoot and without my keys.
In reflecting on that night later, I realized it had been uniquely physiologically, rather than emotionally, driven. I panicked not because the world felt so overwhelming or scary, but because of some kind of adrenaline-soaked after-effect from skydiving. I took this as a sign that I had essentially “cured” my panic attacks! Nothing but a surge of unusually intense chemicals could spiral me anymore, because I had done the work to rid myself of the patterns of thoughts and feelings that used to lead to them! Huzzah!
This was an incredibly naive thing to think of course, but eight years would go by before I felt another panic attack knocking on my neurological door, so in practice I wasn’t too wrong.
This brings me to more recent history.
In 2019, I got the news about my mom’s gene for early onset dementia. It was just a few months before my thirty-third birthday, and we planned a trip together for my birthday — just the two of us — in Hawaii. The trip was amazing. I was certainly aware of a potentially scary flood of sadness lurking behind some kind of psychic dam, but mostly I was focused on being present, remembering every moment, and being grateful for our time together.
Right before she left however, during an otherwise unremarkable moment, I felt the familiar old game of pong starting again in my chest.
I narrowly curtailed that one at the last minute, but took note.
Oh, so… this is back, huh?
The panic surge rose up more and more frequently after that. As the pandemic hit, and we were all bunkered down at home, I kept it under wraps. As I was forced to go all in on a brand new relationship and move across the country to do pandemic life together, I kept it under wraps. As my business exploded and I spent time with family, I kept it under wraps. As my depression got worse and worse, I kept it under wraps.
I kept it under wraps until suddenly, I didn’t.
One day, during a fight with my partner, while living in his parents’ house, in a city where I don’t know anyone and wasn’t allowed to go anywhere, it tipped over into a full blown panic attack.
I remember seeing my partner’s body language go from frustrated (about whatever we were fighting about), to concerned about me as I started to hyperventilate, to being so soft and gentle as he sat with me murmuring that things were safe, and I was ok, and we were ok, and there’s nothing embarrassing about this so I didn’t need to worry, and to just breeaathe.
The dam had burst, and from then on, it started happening more and more regularly.
I once found myself on all fours, in the dark, on the stairs (where I happened to be when it took over), shaking uncontrollably and scream-crying like I was giving birth, while my partner held me. Not long after that I had one on the floor in my office with the door closed, while he sat outside, letting me know he was there if I wanted him to come in. There were nights right before my period (when depression and PMDD collided) when the pain of it was so intense, and I couldn’t imagine ever feeling safe again.
The last few years have been unbelievably difficult for so many people — I’ve read that depression and anxiety are three times higher than they were two years ago, and it seems like everyone I know has been struggling with mental health issues they once thought they had under wraps.
If that’s you, I want you to know how normal it is to be struggling right now, and that there is no shame in it.
And this is why I want to write about it, I suppose.
Because a few weeks ago my new meds regimen started working, and I now find myself in a position to reflect and process the very long stretch of depression and panic I’d been surviving for so long. I haven’t had an attack since, and life day to day just feels safer and more grounded again.
I find myself in a position to breathe again; to look around, survey the damage, and process what it all means with a clear head and steady heart.
It feels sooo good to be back in my body and in my life, and I almost didn’t want to send this email today because it felt too heavy and dark at a time when I’ve just been finally tapping back into the light. But that’s kind of the point.
I didn’t have time or space to write this story when I was battling the panic, because that’s how these things work. You don’t have the bandwidth or the energy to consider anything more than putting one foot in front of the other when you’re just trying to survive.
Which is what I want to leave you with today.
It gets better, and you can make sense of it all later. But if you’re just focused on surviving right now, that’s perfect; that’s all you need to do.
You’ve got this.
We’ve got this.
Sending you a huge hug,