Since my first panic attack in 1989, to be precise February 5th 1989, the feeling of anxiety has had major impacts on my life. Just like a person with a freakish gash on ones face – a sense of needing to hide from the world lest you be seen and revealed.
It begins with a start, a sort of shock which causes your heart to beat a bit quicker, your sweat glands to open and an overwhelming need to run – yet the need to sit still. Your breathing has stopped and you take deep breaths to compensate and end up feeling exhausted yet unable to close your eyes. You start to run but you end up on the ground after running into a maze of walls. Your heart, pounding, pounding…breathing…you feel everyone around you is watching and can see your inner explosions. As if you are standing behind an emotional x-ray machine. You are extremely aware of everything around you – yet it’s all a blur – unfocused and unable to stop. You are dying…and its happening here in front of everyone.
It ends not with a start but with a whisper of fear but relief.
I had my first major panic attack while on a flight from Acapulco to New York. I had never had a fear of going on an airplane or anything for that matter until that point. I had visited the top of the World Trade Center, Empire State Building, The Eifel Tower, I had taken flights all around the world and never had an issue. So what happened to me was unexpected and unprecedented in my life, as far as I could tell.
We had just taken off after 5 days in Acapulco when it began with a start. I truly did not understand what was happening to me. I thought I was having a heart attack until a Doctor who was on board told me that I was not, that I just needed to relax. Someone on the plane offered me a 1/2 of valium and I took it. We landed in New York and thus began my life long struggle in dealing with an anxiety disorder.
I was scheduled to fly to Israel a month later for my brother in law’s bar-mitzvah – but I was scared; anxious – I was convinced I had a physical issue.
Back in Brooklyn, I went to see a cardiologist who gave me the diagnosis that I was totally healthy and had nothing to worry about. My regular doctor told me that I had possibly had sun stroke or an Anxiety attack.
“What is an anxiety attack?” It was a question I wished I never had to ask and have answered.
I was given the name of a Psychologist who, looking back, must have taken the Freudian technique of listening and not saying much. It didn’t help much but i deluded myself into thinking that it might have.
This is back in 1988 – I truly thought I was going crazy, literally crazy. My wife at the time could not understand why I was so powerless to stop shaking even while lying in my bed. I couldn’t understand myself and I felt as if I was weak, childish and having a nervous breakdown.
In 1993 I divorced – the hardest part for me was getting over not being with my two sons, 4 and 2 at the time, on a daily basis. On my birthday that year I was driving by myself and from Southampton to Brooklyn when an extended panic attack occurred. I pulled over and then forced myself to drive back home, just to get home to my safety zone. I spoke with them on the phone and broke down crying. I told them I was joking and just trying to make them laugh.
They had moved to New Jersey with their mother and as always I would meet them on Wednesdays and have them each weekend. One time while driving on the Verzanno Bridge – I had a sinking feeling and a major attack. I pulled over once on Staten Island and I was sweating through my shirt. I went on to see them but dreaded the return ride over the bridge which caused an added ingredient to my anxiety.
There were some Wednesdays that I could not drive onto the ramp to the bridge and found myself in tears heading back home, saying that I was sick while my sons would be upset on the other side of the phone.
It was one day when I found myself feeling as if the walls were literally closing on me while my heart beat fast and my sweat glands were raging when I realized I needed help.
I was refered to my brother’s former therapist on the upper West Side. I went there feeling shaky and after our session she looked me in the eyes and told me that I was not going crazy, that I was depressed and that I would be alright. She was leaving on her summer vacation but gave me her phone number at the place she would be. I still have that card in my wallet.
Things began to progress with the therapy. The good Doctor mentioned there were medications available to help ease the anxiety, but I told her I preferred not to. Continuing to suffer the effects of an anxiety and depression while talking about what had brought me to this point.
The talking did do wonders but it alone was not doing the job. It was a cognitive therapy with the problem being my unable to recognize and improve upon the actions that were leading to the shaking, rattling and rolling.
One day, while sitting in the dentist’s chair – a full blown panic attack pulled me out of the chair and into the bedroom of my apartment – frantically talking on the phone to my therapist.
“OK I am ready to try the medication.”
A couple of days after beginning the therapy I actually felt as if I was able to see, visually clearer. Although still not feeling at ease or easier – I did sense a difference in myself. Sometime later I began to see that I was able to focus on the cognitive therapy and to improve on my responses to life situations.
Prior to starting my medications – I was drinking way too frequently and going to many self-defeating events where I was setting myself up to fail. I was frightened to be home and to find myself focusing on my actual feelings.
Once I began to take my medication and its effects were being felt – I noticed that I did not need to run any longer. Where I had once felt scared to exercise for fear my heart would beat too fast and cause me to have a heart attack – I found myself riding my bicycle.
Where I had always avoided staying home in fear that my emotions would attack and destroy me – I found myself at peace on my couch reading a book or watching tv.
Before long I stopped drinking in excess and had begun to feel alive and free for the first time in a long time – so long that the feeling felt as if a ton of bricks had been lifted from over me and I was now able to move and to move freely.
I didn’t miss any more Wednesdays due to anxiety about driving over the bridge – although I do feel it sometimes while driving over it – it’s mostly just the memory of the fear that I once had.
Now, it has been a dozen years, a marriage and three kids since I first took that little pill and thanks to my former therapist, who I am forever grateful to I am well. Although at times I do get “That old feeling” it’s not overwhelming me to the point of inaction.
Anxiety, once panicked over, never truly goes away – it’s a scar we carry forever. But just like those scars, though they are still visible to us – they no longer alienate us or force us to hide in shame.