Thursday, October 15, 2009


For three consecutive nights, I woke up choking and gasping and nearly suffocating in my sleep. My previous erratic breathing patterns had led me to take a class where I was taught how to use my diaphragm, and not my lungs, to draw in oxygen. A more relaxed rhythym, a natural rise and fall of air being absorbed and forced back out from my lungs, was the only was to keep me from becoming lightheaded and tingly-faced. That's easy to do when you're awake, when you're aware of your breaths falling out of step with the others. But you can't keep time like that when you're asleep and your brain takes over completely, leaving your conscious self outside to wait to hold the reigns during your waking hours. I was completely alone in the house for an entire week so after three nights, I moved into my parents' bed and hoped the scent of their familiarity would comfort me at least through the night.

I woke up again, this time worse than the others. It was nearly four o'clock in the morning and I hated that I was awake to experience what I thought was my death. Why couldn't I have just stayed asleep? Why couldn't I have simply slept my way through the ungodly pain and fear associated with running out of oxygen? I was drowning, it felt like, and nobody was home to save me. Convinced that I was dying, I struggled to force my lungs open and succeeded, drawing in a breath so deep that I could have made the walls bend inward. My parents' bedroom provided me with no comfort, after all. I decided to go to the emergency room.

It's embarrassing for me to admit that I was probably around eighteen or nineteen years old when I climbed into my parents' bed that night. I'd never been alone for that long before and, to be honest, I was very lonely. It was my first real taste of absolute quiet and I didn't like it. I called my friend's mom and, through tears of frustration, exhaustion, and near-panic, convinced her to drive me to the hospital herself instead of run me via ambulance. This dear woman was at my front door in less than ten minutes. She proceeded to drive me to the emergency room, park the car (not a dropoff), and sit next to me in the waiting room for four hours.

"If this were my daughter, I'd expect someone to stay with her if I couldn't be there myself."

Around 8:30 that morning, the nurses took me to an exam room and I was poked and prodded with needles and cuffs and quickly prepped for the heart monitor. I was lying on the bed's loud and crackly paper, with my top off and an enormous amount of round white stickers stuck on my chest, nipples and all. Some stickers had wires, some had none. When the technician on-call came in, she gasped loudly enough to get everyone's attention and practically diagnosed me on the spot: Anxiety.

I'll be the first to tell you that anxiety sucks. It sucks hard, too. Anxiety disorders are often coupled with depression and the whole thing has become a "What came first - the chicken or the egg?" discussion. Imagine my surprise when I was given a diagnosis and I immediately started to feel better. The hidden triggers started becoming more well-known to me and I learned how to stay one step ahead of my attacks alot of the time. Not each and every time, but enough that I can step back and breathe my little rhythmic routine just well enough to prevent hyperventilation. Hyperventilating is another thing that sucks hard, too.

It turns out that the technician who recognized me did so with a sharp eye and an even sharper memory of my frequent visits over the last few months. She had treated me when I'd found my way to the ER many times in the previous weeks, each time while complaining of breathing, swallowing, heart palpitations. face tingling, and nearly blacking out.

"I'll bet there isn't a physical thing wrong with you. It's all in your head." And she was right.

Anxiety is not a fun disorder. It's crippling, in fact, and can hijack your life with no warning whatsoever. It can hold you hostage. It messes with your personality in so many ways that you lose yourself. After so many years of struggling to stay calm in everyday situations, and surrendering parts of your character over to this anxiety, you just become exhausted. You're drained and just plain ol' tired.


Laura Lee said...

I had a somewhat smaller brush with panic attacks for many years- not emergency-room level, but disabling for sure. Bad relationship with my sweetie, regretful career moves, feeling of the downward spiral...

while you are doing what you can to bring your personal power back, follow your thoughts, your fears, try REALLY hard to see if they lead you to a source. be brave. you have already gone thru so much. maybe something is subconsciously trying to get your attention...

Geekzilla said...

Wow. I've had three panic attacks in my life. The first time was the most terrifying because I didn't know what was going on. It literally felt like my soul was wrenching itself out of my body. I was convinced I was dying of a heart attack, so I called 911 and got sent to the hospital in an ambulance. The subsequent times were less scary, but still not joyful. The hardest thing was to convince myself that they were indeed panic attacks and that I wasn't dying and to remain calm as best I could.