I found myself in the middle of my own death – anyway that’s what it felt like. “If I close my eyes, I will cease to exist,” I thought. “They will find me slumped over the wheel dead.” I looked down surprised not to see my heart beating through my waitress uniform. Surely it would burst soon, and this would be over. My breath came in ragged, shallow little gasps. There just wasn’t enough air. My earlobes felt hot. My throat and chest felt constricted. Fear and panic swept over me in waves. I was overwhelmed by a sense of impending doom. “You can’t die while you’re driving, you’ll kill somebody,” I told myself. I pulled the car over and opened the window, gulping air and screaming at God. “I’m not ready to die, there’s too much to do!” I sat behind the wheel waiting to die for about ten minutes while hundreds of normal people drove past. Finally, feeling drained, I drove the rest of the way home.
From then on, being “in the middle of my own death” happened more and more. It happened at home, at work, on the street. During the night, it would wake me from sleep. Sometimes it would happen several times a day.
That was October 1980. I was pushing forty when panic disorder came calling for the first time. Not knowing what it was, I figured there was something seriously wrong with me and I had better keep it quiet or people would think I was crazy. I spent a lot of time wondering when it would happen again and if the next one would be the one that killed me. It was only a matter of time, I knew.
Well, at least my kids were grown. They would grieve and miss me but they would be all right. When I was alone, I cried. There was no particular reason to cry, I just did. Surprisingly, the more I cried, the better I felt. Sometimes I could cry without stopping for forty-five minutes.
Once the attacks started, they took over my life. Not that things were great before. The kids were gone, my marriage was in shambles, and I was a waitress with a high school diploma on a very short career ladder. But now I spent most of my waking hours hiding how I felt from everyone, an actress on the stage of my own life. On the outside, I smiled at customers and took their orders, bantered with coworkers, and made plans with friends. They couldn’t tell my heart was racing, or that I felt detached from myself, or faint from lightheadedness. How would my weak, rubbery legs be able to hold me up? Instead of focusing on putting myself together, I concentrated on keeping everyone from knowing I was falling apart.
After about three years of attacks that came nearly every day, I figured out that whatever I had wasn’t going to kill me after all. Somehow, I was still breathing, walking, and talking. I found some books that described a real condition called “panic/anxiety disorder” and was relieved to learn that I shared my symptoms with millions of other people who felt the same way.
Finding out I wasn’t the only one helped me feel better. The more I learned, the less frequent the attacks were. Soon after, I found a doctor who knew about panic attacks. He prescribed medication to take “just in case.” I carried it with me everywhere but didn’t take it very often. I finished college and went on to earn a Masters degree. Instead of being a professional waitress, I was simply a professional. My children got married; I got unmarried. For the better part of twelve years, there were no attacks. I thought I was cured.
Someone said what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Panic/anxiety disorder didn’t kill me, but it certainly didn’t make me feel stronger. While I was going about the business of living my “new” life, it hid in the background, neatly disguised. Instead of turning my life upside down with dramatic “near death” experiences, it returned quietly and insidiously, planting random negative thoughts here and there. Just a few at first, then more and more. Over time, fear took over. By the mid-nineties, this condition even had a name. My acute panic attacks had morphed into something called “GAD,” or generalized anxiety disorder. Now, instead of just being afraid I was about to die, I was afraid of everything – getting old, getting sick, flying, driving, being with people, being alone, going to new places, trying new things. You name it, I feared it. Every aspect of my life had a negative “what if” attached. My journal entries documented the turmoil: · “Mostly, I am so tired of feeling this way. I don’t know what to do to make it go away. I am afraid to be afraid. It drains me of joy and makes my world dull.”
- “I am so sick of this never-ending battle. The saga continues . . . Fine for a while and then fear and anxiety return . . . for absolutely no reason. There seems to be no lasting peace. Ever since the April episode, the adrenaline rushes must have sensitized my nerves because now every time I lay down to go to sleep, the slightest noise (internal or external) sets off a fear flash – the kind you feel when someone sneaks up behind you and says “boo.” I have to remind myself to do deep abdominal breathing. My thoughts are rambling and negative. It’s so tiring to be on guard all the time, so inner focused. When I’m distracted or physically active, I’m better – much better – when I’m alone and quiet, it’s worse. Everything I read tells me to accept the symptoms and let them come and go at will. That’s easier said than done. I often feel sad. What a waste of precious time this all is!”
I realized my life was out of control again. “How did I get this way?” “When did I get so scared?” and “How can I be me again?” were questions I asked myself over and over. Although I understood my illness, I couldn’t make it go away.
Panic/anxiety disorder requires a great deal of energy. Left unchallenged, it’s like weeds in a flower garden. Pretty soon, there are all weeds and no flowers. I had forgotten how to have fun, how to hope, how to dream. There was no time to think of such things or energy to do them. I was too busy trying to appear “normal.” I was acting again, going through the motions, living on the outside of my own life.
There are all kinds of factors that contribute to panic/anxiety disorder. Chemical imbalance, wayward hormones, genetics, personality, and stress all play a part. What was rarely discussed twenty years ago seems to have become the illness of an entire generation. The condition I worked so hard at hiding has become the catch all diagnosis for stressed out people everywhere.
I am now enjoying my recovery. It took over seven months of counseling and big changes in how I think and what I think about. It was hard and it was uncomfortable. Sometimes the symptoms show up just to see what I’ll do. I have learned that when you don’t feed fear, it goes away. Still, I have a long way to go and don’t take recovery for granted. One of my last journal entries marks the distance I have traveled:
- “After 7 ½ months of seeing Dr. A, he discharged me with the reassurance that I could call him if the anxiety ever gets out of control again. When I first went to see him I was a mess. Fear thoughts, sadness, hopelessness much of the time. I felt numb and passionless. I had no goals. It was all I could do to get through the day with my normal face on and get home. Maybe struggling to put up a normal façade was a good thing – it kept me from wallowing in my negativity at least part of the time. But it was a joyless and fearful existence. Things are better now.”
It took well over twenty years to find myself in the middle of my own life. It’s a pleasure to be here.