I started having panic attacks in high school. I didn’t know that’s what they were at the time. I thought maybe something was wrong with my brain. I blamed them on lack of sleep or not eating enough for breakfast.
Like clockwork they’d arrive, first period, about 20 minutes into the school day. I’d be sitting at my desk when suddenly I’d feel as though my soul was being ripped out of my body. I could almost see myself, at my desk, like an out of body experience. I couldn’t hear. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I felt like nothing. I felt like I didn’t even exist. I felt like I’d glimpsed behind the curtain and found that none of it was real.
It lasted a couple of minutes at most. Then I’d have to recover from it. Suddenly my soul was thrust back into my body and I’d spend a few moments regaining my thoughts, remembering where I was and what I was doing. Carefully looking around to see if anyone had noticed. (Fortunately no one had, or if they did, they never cared enough to mention it.)
After I graduated high school and moved out of my abusive home environment they stopped. Completely. As miserable as I was during those first few years, working two or three jobs, barely eating, existing at poverty level, I still felt free. And I was free. I’d escaped abuse. I was going to be okay. Something in my brain had clicked over and pumped my body full of survival instinct. And I felt hope.
A few years later however they returned. These panic attacks, as I would come to understand they were, thanks to therapy, were less intense, but none the less frustrating and debilitating. Sometimes they had specific triggers I could predict, but sometimes they would just crop up, leaving me stammering and staggering for an explanation. Without fail they would unearth some forgotten trauma from childhood. Something that had affected me profoundly that I’d never realized.
I asked my therapist why these attacks were happening, when the worst had passed and my life was safer and better than it had ever been. She told me that sometimes the brain protects itself by burying our panic and anxiety because we just need to survive. And she thought perhaps that’s what happened to me: my brain just shut down those other parts for a while. And when I was finally safe enough to feel them and remember them…they were released.
When I began seeing a therapist, five years ago, these attacks weren’t overly frequent. I was averaging perhaps five to six a year. They were still scary in that amount, but nothing too severe. I could handle them. But, when my mother was diagnosed with cancer in March 2015, they returned just as they had in high school: powerful, overwhelming, terrifying, and constant.
Over the past two and a half years they’ve maintained their presence. Some are worse than others. Some have avoidable triggers. Some do not. Before leaving for my mother’s funeral I vomited violently because the attack was so strong. That was a first. And after the Vegas shooting I experienced three Depersonalization attacks in one day (a friend lived in Vegas and I hadn’t yet heard if they were okay). I just couldn’t deal with the possibility that someone else I loved could be dead. So my brain fell apart within my skull.
My normal is panic. Fear. Terror. Sorrow. My normal is waiting for the bottom to drop out. My normal is waking up from nightmares and then crying myself back to sleep. My normal is never knowing when I’ll feel my chest get heavy, my heart racing, my head getting fuzzy, and then my brain losing track of its own identity. Because yes, sometimes that happens: I forget who I am.
That’s my normal.
But, it shouldn’t be normal. So, I’ve decided to try something a friend has been urging me to do for ages: meditation. For real. I’ve tried almost everything else, so why not? If it’s my brain that’s struggling to move past the abuse of my childhood and the despair of my adulthood, maybe it’s time for me to take it back to school. Maybe it’s time to relearn how to exist. Maybe it’s time to remember who I am and who I want to be.
So, I’m ready for the deep quiet. I’m ready for the noise in my brain to finally cease. I’m ready for freedom, real freedom, from the fear that’s haunted my steps my entire life.