Part 3. Panic Attacks
I’ve explained about different forms of my anxiety stemming from events in the past. Now it’s time to bring it up to where I am now.
I am sitting indoors. I last went outside on Thursday (it’s Sunday today), and that was only to go to take some rubbish out. Even that simple task makes me feel anxious. Once I’m inside again my breathing becomes quick and shallow and I have to calm myself with a cup of tea and a cigarette and often some sort of distraction, like watching TV.
It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when I would go anywhere and do anything. I would go on holiday on my own. I’ve been on Safari in Africa, I’ve been to China and Nepal. I flew over Everest. All by myself. Thinking back, I did have moments of panic before I went. Thoughts of “what am I doing? Why am I doing this? I can’t do this” would race through my head the day before I left. But I always did it. Often I would have a day or two of depression whilst I was on my travels, usually around the middle or towards the end of the trip. But I did it. And mostly enjoyed it. I was free and doing whatever took my fancy. I was in control of me.
So what changed? I think I know what the trigger was but I still don’t understand why my anxiety has stayed so long. I have always had “breakdowns” scattered throughout my life. Periods of weeks or months where I become unable to function and living becomes excruciatingly hard. But in the past I have always got better. I have always rebuilt my life and gone back to work and functioned.
Christmas 2012. I can’t remember why, but I had a mini crisis. I was lower than I had been for a long time. But I recovered and went back to work and got on with my life. Then in January 2013 my mother had a stroke. This, I think, is the trigger. I remember feeling very scared. It was the first time I had acknowledged that my parents would die. I had a strong bond with my mother. She was the centre of my world. The concept that she would leave me was unimaginable. Her stroke came with complications because of an ongoing condition she had. DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) was talked about.
It was an incredibly emotional time. And what made it worse was that her personality changed. Sometimes she was childlike and needed looking after. But mostly she was angry and frustrated, and because of her near childlike state, some things she said weren’t censored between thinking it and speaking it.
And that wasn’t the only problem. My dad had never had to look after himself before. Mum was in hospital for 6 weeks and he had to be fed and looked after. My sister and I were run ragged between the two of them. We both worked, my sister had a family to look after, there was very little “me time” for either of us.
I was very hard on myself. “Should” became a common thought. I should be able to look after everyone, I should be able to do more…… The reality was that my mental health suffered. I had regularly been going to a support group, but the group got the worst of my anger and frustration and I stopped going. I stopped being able to go to work. Every morning my anxiety would tell me to stay at home in bed. This wasn’t a new phenomenon, I have battled with that for as long as I can remember. But this time I couldn’t get myself out of it.
So I would drag myself to see my dad and we would go to the hospital together. Then I would try to stay as calm as I could whilst my mum took out her frustrations on us. And I would excuse her behaviour because she was ill and in pain and she couldn’t do the things she used to be able to do. I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t her fault. And when I didn’t convince myself of that fact, I blamed myself. I told myself I wasn’t good enough.
March 2013. Mum is allowed home. The house is now all geared up with disability aids. We had carers organised to look after her. I thought things might get better. But they got worse. She only used the carers for mornings and night time. The rest of the day was down to me, my sister and my father. And whatever we did wasn’t good enough. This wasn’t new either, but it was more apparent this time. We all struggled. And I took it on myself to be the person holding the family together. Only I wasn’t strong enough.
I would go to my parents house and do as much as I was able to, but her words and behaviour often upset me. I would regularly go home in tears. Tears for me is a near convulsive body experience that I find exhausting. I would tell myself and anyone who cared to listen that I wouldn’t put myself through that again. But I did.
So now when I go out, I start to get anxious the night before. Then in the morning I feel a huge dread stopping me from going. Sometimes I give in to the fear. But often it is something important I need to do and not going would let people down. So I battle with myself, drink copious cups of tea, smoke endless cigarettes and change my mind dozens of times. I have found that it is slightly easier if someone comes to pick me up. I will often have a panic attack once I’m in the car, but if I remember to breathe and try to distract myself, it generally goes. Eventually. If I have to walk somewhere (I don’t drive), then I usually start to panic at the end of my road, which is a few hundred feet away (0.1 mile). As I turn the corner my breathing starts to change, my heart starts to flutter, my palms become clammy and my thoughts start racing. If I meet someone walking the other way or even in their own front garden, my symptoms become worse. I don’t know why but it terrifies me. Then I arrive at my destination hot, unable to breathe and terrified. A sit down and a cup of tea will usually calm me, but my anxiety is likely to reappear at any moment, depending on the situation. The journey back home is similar, maybe a little less extreme, but a hot drink and cigarettes are needed. Often, once home, I will curl up in bed and sleep. Anxiety is exhausting.
Different situations produce different levels of reaction, but it is rare that going out doesn’t cause some degree of panic. Even sitting inside where I am safe and in control, I panic over thoughts, things I should be doing, people, anything. I get my groceries delivered. It is the easiest option for me at the moment. But even that causes panic. I like the grocery delivery because it is one of the few times I interact with people. I am getting used to the drivers and we often chat and laugh. But once they’re gone anxiety returns, and I don’t know why.
The worst panic attack I have ever had was in June of this year. My dad wanted to go on holiday, it was the first holiday he’d had for years and after my mothers’ death in January he was ready to go away somewhere. I went with him as a companion. I had all my usual anxiety and fear, but I had tried to prepare myself for it happening. My panic started soon after he had picked me up. This is normal I thought, just breathe. Dad was talking to me but I couldn’t really hear what he was saying because I was just concentrating on me. Then I started to feel nauseous and opened the window. This had happened before, it will go, just breathe. The next thing I became aware of was tingling in my hands and fingers. So I started shaking them to get the blood flowing and I stuck my head out of the window and tried to concentrate on just breathing.
But then my hands locked into a strange, slightly painful position. I could not move my hands. They were clenched and they had stuck that way. And I felt physically ill. I can’t describe how I felt, all I know is that I was terrified. I got my dad to stop the car. I was sitting in the front and desperately needed to get in the back seat and lie down. But I couldn’t move my hands to take the seatbelt off or to open the door. So my dad had to help me. I managed to get out of the car. I struggled to open the door to get in the back seat because my hands were still not behaving properly. But I got in the back seat and lay down and closed my eyes. My body slowly started to relax and I fell asleep. I woke up about an hour later. I was fine. We stopped for lunch and I got back in the front seat. The rest of the journey wasn’t anxiety free, but it was manageable.
I haven’t worked since March 2013. My hobby (researching my family tree), this blog and the Facebook page are the nearest things to work I’ve done since then. It’s not stress free. I often find myself struggling, so I stop, watch TV or go for a nap. Then I come back to it when I am ready. With work I had deadlines, but with this I just do what I want when I feel able to. I just have to be careful that I don’t push myself too hard. But I have people around me who tell me when they think I’m doing too much. And I usually agree with them.