Firsts are typically remembered as happy occasions; first kiss, first day of school, even your first period (as a girl). But the first I am writing about is anything but a joyous occasion. In fact, I found writing this myTake rather difficult, as it brought up memories that are uncomfortable for me.
This is the story of my first panic attack, the day I thought was going to be the last day of my life.
I remember it like it was yesterday, although parts of my experience are a bit of a blur. It was summertime. I was 14 years old and just nearing the end of my freshman year of high school. I was working on an art project as part of a contest; the winner to have their artwork featured as the cover page for the school's year book. Art was (and still is) something that I enjoyed as a hobby, so naturally, I was excited to be given such an opportunity.
It was around 6pm in the evening. I was just finishing submitting my project on the schools webpage after several hours fiddling with the scanner (after all, technology was still quite cumbersome in the early 2000's). But somewhere within the excitement of the whole experience, I began to sense uneasiness and a sort of irritability that I had never experienced before; something felt off.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, it hit, like a ton of bricks.
A blanket of sheer dread and terror swept over me...
My thoughts began to race...
I couldn't breathe and began hyperventilating; I felt like I was being suffocated...
My body was trembling....
My chest muscles tightened and my heart began beat uncontrollably...
Not only did I think I was having a heart attack, I was convinced I was going to die...
Although I did not know it at the time, I was experiencing my first panic attack.
Being concerned, and undoubtedly scared and confused as I was, my parents drove me to the emergency room. After checking in and a brief wait (which felt like an eternity!) I was seen by a triage nurse. I was convinced, "surely she knows something is wrong and she is going to admit me right away". But I was wrong. Seemingly dismissing the state of crisis I was in, she told me to go sit back down in the waiting room. I distinctly remember feeling angry and crying to my parents:
I am dying! Why is no one helping me?
It must have been another 20 minutes before I was called in to the examination room. By this time, I was exhausted from crying, but still scared out of my wits.
Once in the examination room, a nurse handed me a gown and instructed me to get undressed. As she left the room, I remember hearing a young child screaming across the hall. My senses where heightened; I flinched at every loud noise and the smell of disinfectant made me feel sick to my stomach.
Lying on the gurney, a technician entered the room and began placing electrodes on my chest, which were then connected to an EKG (electrocardiogram) machine. I recall listening to the rapid beeping sounds of the machine that filled the room, which ultimately me more uptight and anxious. Aware of my distressed state and rapid heartbeat, the technician chimed up:
You need to relax
Relax? How could I relax? I had no idea what was happening and I could not understand why everyone was being so calm.
Another 30 minutes must have passed before the doctor came in. At this point, I knew there must be something going on from all of the bustling and whispers in the hallway. She was a large, burly woman, with a serious look on her face a serious look on her face. I knew from her appearance that she must have bad news. Was there something that they weren’t telling me?
She turned to my parents:
We think she is having a panic attack
Panic attack? This is the first time I ever heard those words.
After a brief examination by the doctor and a battery of tests, a nurse came into the room wheeling an IV cart. She explained that she was going to give me something to help calm my anxiety; Diazepam. As she placed the IV into my arm and started the drip, I can remember the cool, clear liquid running down the tubes. It felt cold rushing through my veins, which made my body shiver. But I soon felt a calming effect wash over me. I finally felt relaxed, as all the physical tension in my body started to dissipate.
My first panic attack was over.
Fast-forward a week later. >>>
It was my first appointment with a Psychiatrist, having received a referral from the hospital. As nervous as I was, I was eager to find out more about the panic attack I had experienced. I had a million questions I wanted answered: What was it? What caused it? Would I have another one?
Over the course of several daily appointments, and after asking and being asked many questions, that is when I received my official diagnosis: Panic Disorder - frequent and debilitating fear and anxiety that arises without a reasonable cause.
The cause? It turns out that my brain was not producing enough Serotonin; a key brain neurotransmitter associated with mood regulation.
Over 15 years later, I still have struggles with my anxiety, although a combination of medication and therapy has helped me manage it (I also have Generalized Anxiety Disorder). I still get panic attacks from time to time, but they are manageable and nowhere as scary as the first panic attack that I ever had.
I have written this myTake as a way of raising awareness of panic attacks and anxiety disorders, and at the very least, reducing the associated stigma. It is quite difficult to explain what having a panic attack is like to someone who has never experienced one themselves. I hope that I have given readers a better understanding of both panic attacks and anxiety disorder through relaying my story.