Diary of a Panic Attack

Photo Credit: Chuwy

In January 2016, I started having regular panic attacks. For most of that year, I lived in a state of persistent anxiety. I started therapy and was diagnosed with panic disorder and PTSD. Entering motherhood was the darkest time of my life, but this period was the most frightening. Every so often, I managed to write what I was going through. It is painful to reread this now. I feel my fear, confusion, and desperation. I was trying so hard to be honest with myself, to make sense of the madness, and to recover. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I would ever feel okay again.

In an earlier post, I talked about how depression is deeply misunderstood. I also find that panic attacks are misunderstood. Similar to the misuse of “depression,” the term “panic attack” is misused in colloquial conversation to indicate a moment of mild worry: “I nearly had a panic attack — I thought I left my phone at home!”

An actual panic attack, at least in my personal experience, is nothing like the feeling of having forgotten something at home. It is not nervousness; it is not even anxiety.

An actual panic attack feels like you are going to die.

The following is a direct excerpt from my journal when I was at the height of suffering with panic disorder. I have only made slight edits for the sake of clarity. Otherwise it is a pure and raw snapshot of my spinning mind at the time.

23 March 2016

There is so much running through my head right now. I can barely keep up with my own thoughts. I had another rough night last night. Woke up at 320a and didn’t really relax again til 6a. Kept having to pee — not sure if it’s a nervous pee, or actually needing to pee that is waking me up, and then the anxiety wheel starts spinning itself of its own accord. What I think is perhaps important to note is that it is more manageable now. That I can stand back from it and respond to it, that I have a choice in this response.

I was already super tired from not sleeping well the previous night. I was afraid to fall asleep and wake up from a nightmare feeling anxious, like what happened on Sat night / Sun morning. So I napped when R napped. Got up and went to my friend Sarah’s yoga class and a few minutes before class was about to start, I felt it. It feels like an ocean wave about to come crashing down. It makes me want to escape out of my own skin. A thought spiral starts — what if I start to hyperventilate or have a nervous breakdown? I’ll leave the room, and then what, sit in the lobby? Will some strangers help me? It will be so embarrassing. Will I end up screaming like a mad person? Will I be carted away to an asylum?

And then I remembered that time in the hospital, I guess it was when my milk came in, I’m not sure — but G was away, I can’t remember if R was in his plastic box-bed next to me, but I started shaking and shivering — it reminded me of shaking on the operating table — and my fever spiked up — and I started pressing the emergency help button, and I was sobbing, and saying how scared I was.

When G came back, he told me I needed to be careful not to overreact — the doctors had taken him aside and mentioned my mom’s mental illness — because they were just going to keep us there longer. I wanted to get the hell out, so that worked in keeping me calm. But I wonder — did I suppress some true fear, some shit that I needed to deal with? I’m already good at that — burying my head in the sand, slapping on a happy face, not wanting to make other people uncomfortable with my unbalanced self.

Ultimately in yoga class yesterday I kept breathing deeply, and told myself that if it got bad, I could leave and walk outside. I reminded myself that I had a good friend in the room. And I managed to stay through the end of class. Got home and felt a bit weebly, but not as bad as it has gotten. Got into bed and started feeling freaked out again. Claustrophobic. Afraid of waking up with anxiety in the middle of the night. G asked if I wanted my vitamins and I said no, I felt uneasy. The thought of swallowing vitamins felt frighteningly oppressive. Of course it makes zero sense to him. He thinks I’m being melodramatic. I’m actually trying really hard to keep it together, to just ride it out. To breathe. To focus my mind on something else. I mean, yes, it is weird that the thought of taking vitamins would feel suffocating, but, it just did. Just like sometimes drinking a bunch of water makes me feel suffocated.

I think there are a lot of things going on here. There is undoubtedly a mom connection. I don’t think it is that I’m going to become like her. I am stronger. And — I had her to show me the way, what not to do. There are these tipping points of madness. I even felt one coming up last night, when G was very frustrated with me. Deep down I understand him. I know it doesn’t make sense to him. It doesn’t make sense to me either. So I was letting him speak, listening for the truth in what he was saying. But another part of me was really pissed off. Like, seriously? I’m feeling weak and freaked out, and we’re arguing? And there was this blip of a moment, where I visualized myself completely losing my shit, screaming at him, not caring about waking R, just succumbing to the madness. But I made the choice to not go there. And, that’s powerful.

My brother said something along these lines, about how maybe Mom could have controlled it better if she worked on her temper. Yes. I think there is truth there. Maybe she didn’t know, couldn’t fathom, how bad it could become. In that hot moment of anger, she probably just thought, I will roar louder than you and win this! She didn’t realize the knock on effects of that decision.

So the mom thing. Partly it’s about, yes, I carry her in me. But perhaps more important is, me trying to understand her and what affected her. When she would tell me she felt bad, I tried to tell her to cheer up, look on the bright side, she was so lucky, go for a walk, do yoga, eat CASHEWS — that really stands out because how ridiculous was I to think cashews would just SOLVE decades of mental imbalance.

Then there’s also the traumatic birth thing. Damn, that sucked so bad and while on the one hand, I do feel incredibly strong for having made it through, I’m still so deeply wounded over it all. I think mentally I accept it. It’s what needed to happen and it didn’t kill me. But, some other part of me — is it my soul? Feels so hurt. Like why? Why are you hurting me? Why are you putting me through such violence? This part of me feels beaten.

I am categorically different today than ever before. Like, that is a totally obviously statement — of course everyone is changing every day. But I think we all have big spikes or divots of change in Self. And it’s almost like part of me is now trying to catch up with this change. It happened somehow without my awareness or acceptance of it, and now I’m like, wait, what? Who am I? What am I doing?

I also need to stop comparing myself to other people, women, yogis, mothers, people who had emergency surgeries… I keep asking the question — why does it seem so much easier for every other single person? What is wrong with me?

I have been tired of the hustle and bustle, as scary as it has been to step out of that. I never realized how much courage it takes to step into the quiet, like, to truly do this, not just for an hour on your mat. Where it’s just you, your thoughts, your truth, and if there are imbalances or repressed emotions — which inevitably we all must have to some degree, these all start to bubble up. Not bubble up — rise up like a massive tidal wave and smack you right down. It is so much easier to hide behind and buried under BUSY.

These “weird” feelings. It feels like something from deep within poking its head up saying — hey, something is not quite right here and it looks like you finally have the headspace to look at it. My critical doubting voice peeps up here and says no, you’re just crazy. Like your mom, you’re going to lose your mind. But fuck that. The mind is powerful and we have FREE WILL. We have CHOICE. You always have a choice. The mom stuff is definitely ONE layer of all of this. The lack of security I felt through most of my childhood, through most of my life — this needs to be seen, validated.

My therapist asked me how I was feeling in my body, right now. I couldn’t feel it. I said I didn’t know. He said, you don’t have to know, just feel. I reported butterflies in my stomach, a feeling of clenching, of hardness. He asked if I was breathing and I realized — No. Omg, no. And I keep checking in and keep finding myself NOT BREATHING.

Who AM I, if I am not breathing?

He told me breathe, and then asked if I still felt those butterflies. Not as much. The breath is everything; don’t I know this already? I guess it’s just like yoga students who come in and don’t breathe, and have to be taught to / reminded to breathe. Like duh — everyone knows you need to breathe, but, do most people give their breath any thought at all? Even yogis outside of a class / practice, are we constantly connected?

It feels kind of like I am bracing myself for something bad to happen. That gasp of worry when R gets too close to a table corner. It’s like I am perpetually holding that gasp. At first I thought this must have started when he was born. Part of normal parenting but also bc G and I were metaphorically holding our breath the entire first week of his life, waiting for test results. But then I realized I’ve actually felt this way for a lot of my life. Bracing for bad news about Mom. The dread when I saw a call coming in from Home. Was it going to be something scary about Mom? Most of the time it wasn’t, but some of the time it was unconscionably bad.

So I guess I have been carrying on like this, and then hit moments where my body can’t take it neutrally anymore. Almost like it overflows its limits and breaks into a full on panic attack. It kind of makes sense. It had been receiving this stream of worry for so long. Maybe a very slow drip of a stream, but it’s received these signals — “something bad is going to happen” — constantly, if only in the background. And then it’s like it overflows and transforms into a CRASH felt like anxiety, fear, not being safe, claustrophobia, suffocation.

I do wonder — why now? And I suppose, I had more distractions before. Less awareness. More time doing / teaching yoga. And this kept the madness at bay. But it’s always been lingering, hasn’t it? Like that weird slow motion-ness that both my brother and I experience from time to time. And really, how could it not? Considering how unsafe I felt from childhood. Your mother is your very essence of security and safety. If she is not well, and you’re left to guess why, I mean, how would you NOT be negatively affected by this? [End of entry.]

I share this now for a few reasons. Some friends have asked me what a panic attack feels like. Is it butterflies in your stomach? Is it like anxiety? Is it feeling worried? What is it, really?

A couple months ago, when I was trying to explain panic attacks to someone, I was actually hit with one, right as the words were coming out of my mouth. I hadn’t had one in two years. I couldn’t believe it was happening. “No. I know this feeling, it can’t be, can it?”

It was.

It lasted about half an hour. I felt the aftershocks of it for a couple weeks. I was so scared.

But here’s what I think is most important. It passed. It didn’t kill me. I took a step back into the quiet of myself and thought about what my body might have been trying to tell me. I knew that I was not the panic. I breathed deeply when I remembered to. I allowed myself distractions to ease my mind. I didn’t spiral into thinking I was going to feel like this forever.

If anything, it was validation that I need to be a part of this conversation. To tell fellow sufferers, no, fighters, that I feel you. To be a voice where I can be. To help others understand a bit better so we can all support each other. No more silent suffering.

I am a mama, writer, yoga teacher, and mental health advocate.
More posts by Leah Kim.

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