Ok, warning, this is kind of a long one (but an important one). I’m not a doctor, nor am I a licensed therapist or anyway, shape, or form. I do, however, have first hand experience in living with panic attacks and crippling anxiety, which in my humble opinion makes me qualified to speak on the topic. Now I’m not here for attention or a pity party. I’m here to share my experience and hopefully help others who are going through what I went through. If I had heard about other people’s experiences during my own journey, I would have felt much less alone and embarrassed. In the end, it wasn’t therapists, doctors, or pharmaceuticals that helped me recover, it was someone I had found on YouTube who had been through what I was going through. He explained panic attacks and anxiety in a way that no one else had done before, and it just all of a sudden made sense to me. For the first time I felt like I could get passed what felt like an endless vicious cycle. Just to be very clear, I’m not trying to discredit the professionals, i.e. doctors, therapists, counselors, or anyone in the field. They are all experts in what they do and their work is indispensable. My point here is we’re all different. We react to pain and trauma in different ways, and we react to recovery in different ways. That’s why I feel like I need to share my story.
So in order to fully understand how I recovered, I think it is important for everyone to understand what I went through initially. I had my first panic attack when I was a junior in high school as I was driving home from school one day. Now no one had ever told me what panic attacks were, and I’d somehow gone sixteen blissful years without every hearing about anyone else experiencing one. I was clueless. So when my heart started beating a million miles a minute out of no where and I couldn’t breathe, naturally, I thought I was having a heart attack and dying. I was driving down a little street in my hometown completely petrified thinking my life was about to end. I don’t remember if I didn’t have a cell phone at this point in my life or if I was just too out of it to use it myself, but I remember thinking I needed to pull over and ask someone to call 911 for me. I was passing a little grocery store and I thought this was my best chance to get out and ask an employee to call an ambulance. I attempted to parallel park, which keep in mind, I can’t do when I’m in my right mind, and eventually realized that I wasn’t going to successfully get into that spot. Instead of looking for another spot, I just kept driving home, in a complete panic. My parents lived outside of city limits, and it was the longest, and most scary drive of my entire life. I eventually made it home safely (and still alive, much to my surprise), and I ran into the house completely bawling. I explained to my mom (who happens to be a nurse) that I was having a heart attack and this was it for me. She was eventually able to calm me down and explain to me that I had only just had a panic attack. After talking it out with my mom for a while I went straight to Google and started looking up panic attacks and anxiety disorder. I know generally they say you’re not supposed to Google any of your symptoms, but I felt a comfort in reading about my symptoms and confirming everything my mom had told me. I also felt a great comfort in the fact that I was not alone.
Fast forward two years and I hadn’t had a panic attack since that incident, and I’d completely forgotten about it to be honest with you. At this point in my life I was out of high school, still living with my parents, and not attending college because I had no idea what I wanted to do and it seemed silly to spend a bunch of money getting a degree when I had no idea what I wanted. I was lost and I felt like a failure. I began to feel pressure to get my life all figured out, but I didn’t know where to begin. This feeling of pressure changed into anxiety, and the more anxiety I felt the more panic I felt. Until one day, it happened again. I don’t remember where I was when the second one happened, I just remember I very rapidly fell into a deep, deep cycle of panic attacks. I canceled plans with friends because I felt like I couldn’t be in big spaces, like restaurants, open fields, stores – anything like that. I could barely drive anywhere anymore because every time I got into my car my heart started racing and I’d go into panic attack mode. I don’t know why. I wasn’t scared of getting into an accident; I just always seemed to get panic attacks when I was driving, and so every time I got into my car I started thinking about the last time I had a panic attack and that would start the cycle over again. Most drives I’d have to pull over and let myself have a panic attack just to get out the shakes, tears and heart palpitations so I was in good enough shape to safely operate a vehicle. A few times it was so bad that I had to call someone to come pick me up because I couldn’t get it together. I was so ashamed of myself. It’s something you won’t fully understand unless you’ve been there yourself, but being in this spot where you KNOW that your fears and the way you’re acting is irrational, but you can’t get yourself out – well, there’s nothing worse than that. This was my daily life. I was living in my own personal hell and I saw no hope. My parents were the only ones who knew what was going on, and I was too embarrassed to tell anyone else in fear they would judge me or tell me to “just snap out of it.” I tried telling one of my friends about my driving issues and he didn’t understand it either. He couldn’t fathom the fact that I wasn’t scared of getting in an accident, but I was still so scared to drive. So I just gave up and shut everyone out.
Eventually I got sick of living this way and I was determined to break the cycle, no matter how hard it would be. I went to a doctor for my issues, and she diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder, prescribed me some anti-anxiety medicine, and sent me on my way. Something I hadn’t mentioned before was that I really didn’t want to be on any antidepressants or anti-anxiety medicines because for me it was just covering up the problem instead of fixing it. I wanted the problem gone and I didn’t want to rely on drugs to feel better, however in that moment I was so desperate to feel better I decided I’d try anything. The medicine made me feel worse than I already did. I felt groggy and dizzy, which funny enough was another panic attack trigger for me, so I ditched the medicine and contacted a therapist. I know the therapist meant well and he really was trying to help me, but here is my brutally honest opinion. My whole session all I could think about is that he was telling me some bullshit he read from a textbook. He kept giving me textbook definitions of what I was feeling, but he didn’t actually know what I was feeling, and that really bothered me. Maybe I should have given him more of a chance, but I’m stubborn and I was in a delicate space and I just knew that someone who had no personal experience of what I was going through couldn’t help me. Like I said earlier, unless you’ve felt those lows, and that fear, you just don’t know what it’s like no matter how well someone explains it to you.
So I’m back to square one with no medicine and no therapist. I started perusing the internet and found this YouTube channel called, “I Love Panic Attacks.” The channel is run by a man named Geert from Belgium. He is not a medical professional, but he went through almost exactly what I did and had firsthand experience. The way he spoke I could just tell he knew what I was feeling, and that alone was comforting. The first video I clicked on he broke down what panic attacks were essentially, and that your body is just putting the fight or flight response into affect as it sees some sort of “threat,” even though we all know there really is no threat. He goes on to explain that you’re panic attacks worsen because you try to fight this response from your body , when really you just need to acknowledge them, let it happen, and then move on. There is more to the videos and he has a whole serious, but just from watching one of his videos I instantly felt a spark of hope. He broke panic attacks down in a way no one had before. Instead of trying to mask my symptoms, he just broke down the basic science of it, and to me that made the most sense. I finally felt like there was a way I could move on and recover, and I did.
Recovery was not easy and I had to make the conscious choice that I was going to do it. You will not wake up better one day; you have to put in the work. But please know, it is possible. I went from not being able to drive a car two miles to working as a 911 dispatcher, one of the most stressful jobs out there. If that doesn’t give you some sort of hope, I don’t know what will. There will be hiccups in the road, and there will be good days as well as bad days. I can not stress this enough, you have to fight for what you want. But it is SO worth it. If you find yourself mentally unwell, please reach out. To family, friends, a professional. To anyone. Please ask for help. I spent years being embarrassed, but I promise you, that only prolonged my journey and had I reached out sooner I could have recovered sooner. Don’t be afraid to try different routes and listen to other people. Like I said earlier, we are all different. What worked for me might not work for you, so don’t be afraid to go down different roads. Just because I didn’t want to be on medicine doesn’t mean you should feel the same way. I am in full support of whatever helps you recover and whatever makes better. And just remember, we might all be on different journeys, but you are never alone through this. Someone out there knows how you feel, and someone out there is supporting you.