“Shit” I say quietly, sitting on a gurney, husband in scrubs “I can’t do this Pops*!” Another wave of panic takes over and the desperate need to run simply and unequivocally takes over. I can’t breathe, my vision is pinpoint sharp and everything fizzes and tingles with the surety that I can’t stay there. It’s such a familiar sensation that the thousands of previous panic attacks endured is all part of the tsunami that engulfs.
This particular instance was manifold in complexity and my poor husband knelt in front of me, looked into my eyes and simply said “you have to”.
And if I hadn’t had 15lbs of babies that were so overcooked they were nearly talking to each other inside of me, I would have run as fast as my stumpy, swollen legs would have carried me. Or I would have begged for a tranquilliser injection right there and then, but those babies needed to come out first and in order for that to happen, someone needed to temporarily make me numb enough to open me up to get the little buggers out. Numb enough to temporarily paralyse me, numb enough to make me powerless. I can’t do powerless. I have to be in control. If I can’t control, I panic.
Knowing for sure that I wasn’t going to be able to leave that hospital without separating myself from identical twins was a mindfuck! I wasn’t in pain screaming for help, I wasn’t about to die when I'll willingly throw control over to whoever looks competent enough to stop that from happening. I was simply in an awkward state of pregnancy that wasn’t ending naturally any time soon.
It’s at this point that I need to make myself a little clearer about what was making me panic. You see, I can handle pain (I’m very experienced); the idea of a knife cutting me (not great, but needs must); the idea of having identical twins (I’d spent a few months getting used to the idea and already had a 12 month old waiting at home, how much more difficult can it be?); being in hospital (no problem, done it lots); possible surgical complications or death (unlikely, will deal as and when they occur, no problem). Having someone spray cold water onto my body to see what parts of me are numb (yeah, that’s not going to work for me, what do you mean I can’t feel my tummy if I press down on it? AND I can’t move? Fuck off!!)I counted 12 people in the theatre including two very smiley visiting Italian students who just stood there, smiling. Everyone else looked quite busy except for a woman in my eyeline who, I was informed, was the head anaesthesiologist popping in just to ‘keep an eye’ on things. I asked her to talk to me, to distract me, to try and stop me from panicking. Maybe she could tell me how she got into medicine. She started with
"well, I went to uni…". I interrupted
"No no no, you need to go way back, you’re not old enough to get me through this starting your history at uni, what GCSEs did you go for?"
Within an hour I had two healthy huge baby boys, the life history of a woman I’ve not met since and another panic attack to add to the anxiety river that always threatens to burst its levee.
I have lived with anxiety and panic attacks since I was 16 and they have moulded my life, for better or worse, entirely.
I turned down my dream job as a researcher for a news corporation because the job was on the 15th floor and I couldn’t open any windows. I have never travelled more than a 3 hour plane journey away from London. I’ve spent extended periods of time unable to be alone - months on end when friends have taken turns on the rota to be in attendance. I look at people who can travel alone longingly - I like my own company but I can’t travel any distance more than 10 minutes unaccompanied. I can’t go on the tube at all, which means, for me to go anywhere in London I have to take someone with me or take drugs that will almost certainly blur the sides of remembering the time I spent there. I have fillings and root canal work without any anaesthetic (told you pain didn’t bother me), I can’t lock any door of a room that doesn’t have a window within… and often can’t even fully close a door, which is a bundle of laughs when I go for a wax or to my gynae.
I won’t drink anything when I’m out and about as I can’t guarantee a toilet will be available to me that will pass the ridiculous list of demands I set upon it. I wouldn’t particularly care if it had rats as long as the door didn’t need to ‘click’ shut and the lock was so simple that a monkey could undo it… with just their eyes. Friends and family will stand sentry outside an unlocked door in an emergency and I’m expertly able to contort my body to pee and keep a door closed so my heart sinks when I’m confronted with a large unisex bathroom that opens directly to the public.
I think nothing of standing up in front of a room of 100 to talk a load of bollocks - yeah, I get a bit nervy and I might pop a beta blocker to lower my heart rate but I quite like talking and people don’t scare me*. But I will know exactly where every exit is in that room, will see what objects might be in my way (including the 100 people) should I need to escape, will calculate the likelihood of whether the windows will open, where they’re located and how many floors up we are and I’ll do that before my back foot is inside the room.
My phobia, when you get down to brass tacks, is simply phobophobia. I am asked “What is the worst that can happen?” To which I’ll respond “I’ll have a panic attack, is that not bad enough?” Background anxiety comes and goes, sometimes without any warning or reason. So that one day I take a valium to walk the high street, other days I'll wake with the desire to expand my comfort zone and go adventuring! The push and pull of life is not predictable. I guess it would be boring if it were.
If you met me, you’d unlikely guess any of this and even people who know me well find it difficult to reconcile the noisy, outgoing, opinionated seemingly capable if not a little weird individual that I am. I have ‘safe’ people and they are very few in number - people who I can trust to know what to do or say if I’m about to tip into terror*. I can’t burden others with it and sadly no amount of ‘I’ll look after you, we’ll be fine’ well meant statements will stop me from reaching for the tranquillisers if you’re not classified ‘safe’ no matter how much I love you!
I’m not telling you my age, but I know I should be over this by now.
I’ve had every therapy available and although I’ve slid back a bit recently, I’ve been in excellent shape in the last few years. Mainly down to a particular type of hypnosis and the judicious use of very strong tranquillisers when really pushing the boundaries.
My intention is to, at some point, fuck off for a month - to feel the freedom of being alone somewhere new and invite people to come visit but to not need the comfort of them being there. I’m going to need to do a lot more work before that can happen - on comfort zone expansion and saving up my pennies. But I’ll get there…
And for the record - in a real emergency, I’m calm personified. I’m the one you need if there’s shit going down; if you’re bleeding; or you’re sick; or you’re simply having a panic attack. I’ll put out the fire, I’ll stitch you up, I’ll get you to hospital and I’ll stay with you and I’ll distract you from your fears. I become the consummate grown-up in the room if I’m there for you, even if the room doesn’t have a window.
I didn’t write this in time for mental health awareness month this year. And strangely enough, their theme for 2023 was anxiety. If you’d like more information and resources, their website would be an excellent place to start.
If you’d like our newest pin, click here: Expanding Comfort Zone Pin
My top 5 tips for panic attack sufferers:
- In an ideal world, you can train yourself to allow the panic to wash over you and to accept that it won’t harm you and that it will stop. If you can't then my suggestion is simple - distract distract distract. I know every tip going from tapping to snapping an elastic band to breathing exercises to leaning in and, for me, the one thing that I’ve found makes the most difference is doing a crossword or playing a really simple card game (that doesn’t need a table). I used to carry a crossword book and a pack of cards everywhere but nowadays it's possible to have lots of apps on your phone that don’t require too much attention but should be just enough to distract you from the situation that’s making you anxious. Make sure there are some fully downloaded so that you don't need to be online to play.
- If you can’t do it now, it doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to do it. Keep giving it (whatever it is) a go when you’re able. And if you panic and retreat, then panic and retreat. Just don’t forget to try again at some point.
- Go and see your doctor. In my experience, mental health services are stretched to breaking right now and it may take some time to get significent help, but your doctor has to be (and should be) your first port of call. If you feel you haven't been understood, ask to see another. There are many drugs* that can be prescribed by a GP - go and ask.
- Try doing a ‘project comfort zone expansion’. It IS possible! One excruciatingly difficult step at a time (obviously we have the perfect pin for this!). I spent a few years going on day trips and driving on my own to the dump and walking an hour and a half away from home on my own. I downloaded Touchnote on my phone and I always made sure I took 6 photos of what I was doing and would send myself a postcard. I have a whole album full and it’s wonderful to look back on my triumphs. And yeah, I took a photo of the dump 😁.
- This came from my amazing hypnotherapy and is very unlike me as it’s a bit happy clappy. If I’m doing something that most people would find amazing but I’m anxious AF about it, I imagine little me; the cute blonde toddler that I was, sitting in the crook of my arm feeling frightened. I'm now so used to visualising her, I can almost feel her weight sitting on my arm, legs dangling on my tummy. And I'm the fucking awesome mother that little me needs, so as I'm holding her close and I'm showing her how exciting it all is, being on adventure but safe… and I’ve actually made myself sob with relief doing this. Mad as a fish. But if you’re good at visualisation give it a go.
* Referred to as "Pops" pre-children. Immortalised in a single moment when our friend quietly seethed "you nearly killed us PaulyPops" in our early 20s… long story for another time.
*Except on psychiatric wards where, if I’m honest, I get very scared - I think it stems from the time, in my early 20s when I was hassled by a young man with facial cobweb tattoos who told me that I reminded him of his mother whom he hated. I am a paranoid schizophrenic magnet, those poor souls will find me and will scream and shout at me whenever I'm spotted. Never more so than in psychiatric hospitals... then again, if ever I was treading on their turf.
Obviously, I also have an issue with the fact that these wards usually have very loud doors that clunk shut. I didn’t make my last psychiatric appointment because, to gain access to the ward I had to be ‘air-locked’ and I watched in horror as the nurse on reception kept on getting distracted thereby leaving people in the tiny middle section for minutes at a time. The irony of why I was there and how I couldn’t actually get to see anyone did not escape me. So I just escaped.
*One day I’ll tell you about the drug trial I went on at the age of 21… now that was a pharmaceutical to end all woes!
* Unsurprisingly, Sam here is a 'safe' person. Which is fortunate as he and I have travelled the length and breadth of the country at trade shows and country fairs. It's a ridiculous pairing when you consider that the man has a 'thing' about locks. He will check that a lock has done its only job over and over and over. And so it was that we were once staying on the 3rd floor of a tower block in Birmingham in a small apartment that had only one route out... the front door. At the end of a long day at the NEC, we'd be there, in this tiny hall in this apartment screaming at each other with me:
"Stop fucking with the lock, you're gonna break it." And him
"Obviously I'm not going to break it, it's fine... see.." at which point he'd turn it again and again until I'd be screaming for him to stop.
We now agree that he trusts me to be the first and last to check all locks on entry and exit anywhere and I have to stand and pretend I know what it is I need to be checking. I'm guessing if the door isn't opening, it's closed, can't think what else needs to be done.
Aren't people weird.