Anxiety and panic attacks are no joke. No matter how many times they happen, they are terrifying every time, and it’s easy to feel like you might die if you’re not able to talk yourself through it. I have them every week if I’m in a sustained hypo-manic state, and about once a month if I’m in a bad depressive episode. Still, even without the emotional extremes, they can happen seemingly out of nowhere, triggered by things I often don’t understand until after they’re over. A big thing in therapy is learning to recognize triggers, which is helpful for perspective, and sometimes helps in the moment. But still it’s only part of the anxiety picture.
I had an anxiety attack as recently as the other night when I was grocery shopping with my family. I had gone off on my own to look at a few different items and soon realized that I no longer had my phone on me. I rushed back to the cart and asked the family if the phone was in the cart. They glanced in the cart and said no, so I rushed back to each place I had been to look for it, not finding it anywhere. My pulse and breathing quickened, I couldn’t think about anything but my phone, focusing, oddly, on the panic of losing my shopping list. Then I lost my family and started crying. My vision blurred and I’m sure I caused other shoppers some concern. I made eye contact with a few of them (a mistake).
Finally I found the family and breathlessly started throwing things out of the cart until I finally saw my phone at the bottom. I grabbed it and left them gaping to try to walk off the physical symptoms. When my mind started clearing I found that I was in the freezer section staring at Eggo waffles with the freezer door open. I felt better eventually, I still had my shopping list, and my access to my supportive texting friends and family, and more importantly, my shopping list. I can’t go into a grocery store without a list or I become too anxious. Ah, yes, there was the trigger.
There’s no way I could have prepared for that, though I did try to talk myself through it as best I could. Mostly it sounded like, “Breathe slower you’re not going to die. Breathe slower. Breathe slower.” It didn’t work though because my panic brain replied, “MY LIST MY LIST MY LIST!” Afterward I was able to talk myself down better. “It’s going to be okay. I am okay. Everything will be okay. Let’s go get some waffles,” apparently.
The most severe panic attack I ever had lasted three days. I know therapists and doctors say that a panic attack can really only last 25 minutes because after that your body chemistry is depleted of panic chemicals. So sure, I had breaks from the actual panicking, usually when the Xanax allowed me to calm down. But as soon as it started wearing off I panicked again. Sobbing, blurred vision, hyperventilating, shaking uncontrollably.
It reminded me of when I was working in the veterinary field and we’d see severe epilepsy cases where we put them on the strongest medications to get them to stop seizing and as soon as it wore off the poor animal was in another seizure again.
I was in a situation where there were about 20 unexpected triggers hitting me all at once. None of which I saw coming. I almost missed the wedding of one of my favorite people in the whole world because I was trapped in a prison of my own panicking head. Anxiety does not care where you are, what you were planning on doing other than panicking, or who you are with. It’s coming in anyway.
I feel like I learn my triggers just in time to find out that I have a whole new set waiting for me. The work is never done with mental illness. Nothing is ever fixed, it just morphs into new challenges. That’s what makes people living with mental illness such badasses. They are constantly fighting invisible battles that threaten to take over their whole lives, but they still manage to wake up every single day to fight again. How much more badass can you get? And sometimes they get dressed, have jobs and relationships and friends, all while doing battle.
Fight on, you motherfucking badasses. I’m fighting right next to you. Let’s have a waffle together sometime.