Monday, 10 September 2007

Gasping

The first time it happened I thought I was going to crash the car. I can remember it all so vividly – the feeling that something terrible was going to happen. I was being threatened by an unknown force, and my stomach clenched like a fist. A pain wrenched through my chest and I couldn’t breathe, knew I would choke soon. My hands began to tremble as they clutched the steering wheel. I could feel my heart pounding, and I became hot, cold, flushed then pale. I felt dizzy, sick and wanted to run far away. I was terrified, for I knew I was in terrible danger. I steered the car into a layby and jumped out shaking and gasping for breath.

Afterwards, I sobbed in despair. I was a frightened failure. Was I mentally ill, or physically – terminally – ill? Had I had a heart attack? But I didn’t tell anyone else, for I knew no one would understand. How can anyone who hasn’t experienced a panic attack even guess what it’s like? Thrillers and horror films get the adrenaline going, so you can experience fear from the safety of your own home, but no one really wants to experience panic. There is nothing glorious about it – panic is the black sheep of the fear family.

Driving is something that many of us take for granted. Living in rural South Devon, as I did then, I couldn’t get to work by public transport. Overnight, my car turned from an everyday necessity into a torture chamber, making life very difficult. This panic attack shook my confidence. Everyday trips like driving to work or to the supermarket became a major ordeal, but I was too ashamed to tell anyone about my problem. I went over and over what had happened, reliving the experience in horrifying detail. The fear that it might happen again was paralysing.

For years I struggled with what I soon realised were panic attacks. I learned to live with them, after a fashion, but I felt bound to some strange god who had control over my emotions – in particular, my fear. And yet I had always been a fearless person. I’d travelled alone around America, slept on trains and buses and stayed with strangers, without the slightest thought to my safety. Now, fear had crept into every corner of my life. I was a pathetic, watered down version of myself. A wimp.
The normal stress response to an emergency situation is fight or flight, caused by our involuntary nervous system. When a panic attack occurs, this same response is activated when in fact no threat exists. Knowing this doesn’t make it any less frightening, for it soon becomes the fear of an attack that is so paralysing. Sufferers are usually reluctant to tell people. I was ashamed, embarrassed and frightened by my loss of control. I made excuses and avoided situations that involved driving. Daily I battled with my invisible tormentor, cowering in my car on bad days, muddling along on good days, but always fearful of another attack. Every now and then, another monster pounced, and because you can’t run when driving, I panicked.

Then I met a new man who lived in Cornwall. For our first weekend together, I decided I would defeat my fears and drive down to visit him. I armed myself with supplies – several packets of fags, a bottle of wine for when I arrived and my selection of tapes. I discovered, by chance, that it is impossible to panic while singing or laughing. During a panic attack, the sufferer breathes shallowly, as in an asthma attack, and feels they can’t breathe. When singing or laughing the mind is concentrated on other things, but so is the diaphragm, ensuring that we breathe deeply. As I had no reason to laugh while in the car, I drove the two hours to Cornwall singing, constantly, to my musical collection. I was exhausted by the time I arrived, and had to repeat my repertoire on the return trip. However, I didn’t panic.

The new man was a great success, but the drive was so shattering that I was disinclined to repeat it. From then on I went by train, ashamed that I couldn’t face the drive again, but relieved at not having to.

After about six years, I finally summoned up the courage and determination to see my GP who referred me to the National Health counsellor. The man reminded me of June Whitfield in drag, but was friendly and welcoming, and much more interested in my attempts (at the time) to write my first novel. Our sessions were therefore devoted to what was going on in the publishing world. I enjoyed our literary discussions, but they didn’t further my confidence behind the wheel, and I was no closer to determining why my crises occurred.

I arrived for my appointment one day and noticed the counsellor furtively glancing at his desk. I realised he was reading out advice for me from a photocopied list in front of him, and was torn between dismay at his lack of experience, and a desire to show him up. The incident did not inspire my confidence in his counselling abilities. I didn’t go back after that, but I did practice driving and even managed to drive up to Devon and back – with my husband beside me.

I had been panic free for several years when, completely out of the blue, I had an attack driving home from the supermarket. This temporary blip took a sledgehammer to my fragile confidence. I was back at square one, and for months I agonised over what had gone wrong, and what I should do. I drove short distances, but fearfully, convinced that at any time the panic would overwhelm me. I was little Red Riding Hood and the panics became my wolf.

Again I sought help, this time from a well-known counselling service. The charge was well beyond my means, and when I explained why I had come, the counsellor replied that he had “no experience in Phobias”. He saw people with sexual or marital problems, he said, people who’d been abused, but not with my sort of problem. I should have got up and walked out then, but I clung on for the prescribed hour. I was desperate for a word of help or advice, but walked out feeling depressed, even more alone and helpless.

To my husband, my closest friends and myself, these attacks remained a mystery. Why did they happen? The initial attack was brought on by a very unpleasant situation I was in at the time, where I felt both my personal and work life were being attacked. But having changed jobs three times, moved away from the area and being happily married to a wonderful man, my life had changed. I shouldn’t be having these terror trips – should I?

What I hadn’t realised was that I must relearn the way I thought when driving, so that I no longer felt I was being threatened. Once the sufferer gets used to panicking as a response to a certain situation, it takes time for the body mechanisms to change – to react “normally”.

After talking to my husband and friends, I finally decided to tackle this problem myself. I found several self-help books from the library that made sense. They explained the causes of attacks, and helped me to feel able to tackle my panics, using diversionary techniques, such as breathing exercises.

I feel safer with someone beside me in the car, so my poor husband has clocked up hours of extra mileage while I “do a trial run” somewhere. Last weekend I drove back from Devon, astonishing my husband and myself. The first half hour was hell, but I knew that past Plymouth it would get better, and I decided to carry on. We stopped once, so quickly that it interrupted my husband’s illicit purchase of a packet of fudge.

We arrived home two hours later by which time I was reeling with exhaustion and suppressed nerves. My contact lenses felt sticky, my head was spinning and I felt like crying and laughing at once. But gradually a sense of triumph emerged. I’d beaten the bastards.

I have now realised that there is no quick fix to getting over panic attacks. While some people have bad hair days, I am subject to bad car days. Every good day brings my self esteem up a notch, while every bad day is still another step in the right direction. I am no longer constrained, frightened and ashamed and I look forward to the day when I can drive anywhere without worrying. For that day will come. There is life after panic attacks, and there is plenty of help for those who suffer. We are not alone.


Useful contacts: NO PANIC, Helpline Freephone 0808 808 0545
www.no-panic.co.uk
email: ceo@no-panic.co.uk
“Overcoming Panic” by Derrick Silove and Vijaya Manicavasagar
Published by Robinson Publishing

OpenMind magazine September 2007

21 comments:

JJ said...

That's such a brave post and I was completely riveted by it.

I had post natal depression after my second (and final) baby and had a panic attack out of the blue one morning because the baby was waking up before I'd got my first cup of tea. I was lucky only to have had the one, but it makes me realise that the cause CAN be something totally trivial, but the impact is ENORMOUS.

Well done for bringing it out in the open.
JJx

Flowerpot said...

jj - good to meet you though I'm sorry you've suffered panic attacks and post natal depression - you poor thing. Are you feeling any better now?

BreadBox said...

I agree with jj: it shows tremendous courage within oneself to publish something that raw, that tearing, to make it available for the world to see and know.
I hope that that action in and of itself will help dissipate the panic attacks too: that confronting them will make them at least rarer or more possible to get through.

Wow.
N.

Graham, Prince & Tilly said...

I'm fortunate to not suffer from panic attacks - but your post was informative nonetheless and will perhaps enable me to understand them better should I meet anyone who does suffer from them.

I do hope you remain panic-free....

JJ said...

Flowerpot
I only ever had the one episode of panic while I had postnatal depression (over both now) but it was horrible, so I do sympathise.
JJx

Flowerpot said...

breadbox - thank you for that though I really can't claim any courage for describing it. The writing itself helped me get it into perspective - as well as earn me some money of course! I find it can sometimes be therapeutic to write things down particularly if I don't understand them.

Flowerpot said...

graham - it's amazing how many people I've found since I wrote this that suffer from panic attacks - and lots of them were men.

jj - glad the panic attacks haven't revisited. Very frightening.

laurie said...

wow, my dear. you make that so vivid i almost started hyperventilating when i read it. i have a dear friend who suffers from panic attacks, though his are more random than yours--they're not associated with any one thing, like driving. he gets them just walking along the stret. he always thinks he's dying.

i'm going to tell him about what you have discovered--and how brilliant for you to figure that out, that you can't have an attack while singing or laughing! that's almost metaphorical, it's so perfect.

this is such a useful piece you wrote. i think you will help a lot of people.

Flowerpot said...

laurie - thank you so much for your kind words, but please take a deep, calming breath now! My sympathies to your poor friend - has he had any help for his? Talking about them can help. If he'd like to email me my address is flower.pot@btinternet.com and I'd be delighted to help if I can.

The Rotten Correspondent said...

Wow. It took a lot of guts to write that. I'm also a panic attack survivor and know just how devastating they can be. I had to transfer colleges one year in because I couldn't do the one hour drive. In Los Angeles, if you can't drive you're in a lot of trouble. Mine eventually spread to more than just driving, but therapy helped a lot. And I'm happy to say I haven't had a panic attack in many years, but it's still in my head that it could happen.
I'm going to look up your article and read it. Thanks, flowerpot.

liz fenwick said...

That was so brave. Thank you. My husband told me he used to have them and I can now truly appreciate what he went through. Well done for facing it all so bravely.

Flowerpot said...

correspondent - sorry that you've had to go through them as well - and living where you do I can imagine the added complications. Good news that you're over them now though. I think once you've had one, it's always in your head.

Thanks Liz. I don't think I was brave though - I just wrote down what happened. There's a difference!

Akelamalu said...

Well done for tackling the problem Flowerpot and for writing about it. x

Lane said...

This is such an excellent piece flowerpot. I take it, it was published.
It's beautifully written and so informative. Thank you.
x

Crystal Jigsaw said...

Just like everyone else, you felt you were in a situation which no one would understand. However, have discovered it is so much more common than you think. I enjoy reading your posts, Flowerpot. This one deserves respect.

Crystal xx

Flowerpot said...

Ak - thank you for that.

Lane - thank you also. Yes it has just been published in Openmind, the magazine for MIND the mental health charity.

crystal - what a lovely comment. Thank you for that. Yes it goes to show that no matter what is wrong with us, there's usually someone else going through the same thing.

Mid-lifer said...

Great post flowerpot. i had my first panic attack ever last year and wouldn't want to repeat it. I agree that writing it down really helped me get an idea of what was going on (though I didn't earn any money from it -BAH!)

Even now though when stress levels rise I get a tightening of my chest which I never got before.

My sister suffers from panic attacks on motorways and now on planes. It's so debilitating.

Keep it up flowerpot!

Flowerpot said...

Mid lifer - I'm so sorry you have suffered too but hope you don't have any more. Thanks for the support!

lady thinker said...

Oh flower they are horrible aren't they - your post has reawakened a memory and given me food for thought and a blog idea.

I've named you for a meme - hope you can do...

http://sidmouth-town.blogspot.com/2007/09/name-game-meme.html

Flowerpot said...

lady thinker - will go and take a look at the meme!

Miss Understood said...

Amazing, informative, heartfelt post.

I had another attack today. I know I still have a long way to go. It's strange....this was my first one in over 6 months. I thought I'd conquered it, but I was wrong.

I admire your strength, your wisdom, your persistance. Big hugs, and well done. I know how hard it is. x