Way back in the 90s (trust me writing way back in front of that is strange) I was in jr high and high school. I was also not very popular and ridiculously (and probably annoyingly) shy. As a result of my social anxiety and self esteem issues (due to my weight among other things) I was not a very happy teen (picture me parked in front of a radio, crying my eyes out and warbling along and you have 7th grade in a nutshell). I was also very afraid of men. For whatever reason I didn't trust them and so whenever I had to be in close proximity to anyone male for any length of time and worse, if they were actually talking to me, I'd start having a panic attack.
Now a lot of people picture maybe a person breathing into a paper bag when they hear panic attack and that's pretty much it. Maybe they remember an episode of a show where somebody hid in a closet for a month after some awful event that gives them a bit more detail but most people really don't know a panic attack attack when it's happening right in front of them. So let me tell you what it was for me.
When I had a panic attack it started out with my mind going into overdrive and feeding me all of these what if scenarios like "OMG I have to sit next to a guy and they'll probably resent that and and..." . Next my face would start to go lobster red and those panicked thoughts would increase "OMG now they can see my face and they probably think I'm a fat ugly freak and and..." and the last bit and probably the worst element of all was that I couldn't breathe. Now a panic attack involving this part isn't too much different from that guy with the paper bag except that instead of a person watching it thinking "Geez dude calm down!" it's a lot more like "OMFG is she stalker panting at me?!"
Aha now you see the trouble. By freaking out I was giving the wrong impression of who I was and what I wanted from the situation. Now that I've explained that it sounds like all I should have done is calmed down and stopped doing that right? Here's the problem with that. Now that I know I'm flaking and someone's going to notice I can't breathe, not even when I tell myself to actively focus on my breathing and try to make it start going right again. I can't even tell myself to get out of there and hopefully stop the attack, especially if I was somewhere where that wasn't possible like a class or on the bus. Instead while my lungs and my brain are screaming for air I'm trying to yawn or cough to make it seem like that's all it was. This of course makes it worse because logically speaking I know that it's not a solution and assume anyone with a clue will see right through it. My brain feeds me all the ways this is failing, throws in a dollop of past attacks and failures and worst of all I can see that person starting to be confused or feeling weirded out. Worse yet, maybe they're laughing or whispering in a way that my brain screams is them talking about me even if it's not.
This became my pattern no matter if it was school or a job. Men meant that I had a panic attack and when I had a panic attack around someone it meant that it would be worse next time and I would avoid that person as much as I could. I formed the response to run in an attempt to solve my problem but it only made things worse. I certainly couldn't run from an assigned seat and if I couldn't focus during class I wasn't getting all the info I was supposed to be learning. To make matters worse it meant that I spent any days when I didn't have a friend to hang out with at lunch hiding in the bathroom.
All of this running hiding and freaking out that I was a monster didn' t help me at all. I made myself out to be much more awkward and strange than I was to people, I couldn't face whatever fears there were involving men, and I probably lost out on a lot of experiences because I avoided anything that could be too social. I did get a bit better about socializing junior year (I had met the man I would eventually have a committed relationship and two children with that summer in a job training program for teens. I was in love and he was clueless enough to miss my interest completely, a match made in heaven...har har) but the panic attacks were still there and so were my social patterns to avoid them. I finished school tried my hand at working and college (being a cashier is a crap job for someone who has panic attacks ditto fast food. I couldn't afford it so I didn't get to try it out.) and spent most of my free time with my siblings and a guy friend I had miraculously collected the last year of school. Things were getting better but I was still having those attacks and altering my interactions based on them.
I'd like to tell you that meeting Todd again and eventually having him move in with me cured them (to some degree yes he helped and they subsided) but the reality is that I still held those patterns of flight and I learned to have him do things for me that intimidated me like using the phone. Instead of going away they morphed into other forms of attack. They weren't so bad for a long time, I could talk to Todd and my guy friend JD without any trouble and if I dealt with a strange man it didn't always turn into panic attacks. I thought they were gone bu they came back full force after my son was born and post partum was eating me alive.
Birth for me is a risky business and each time I was at risk of dying or having major medical consequences. Knowing this after Nikki was born I started having visions of my child being killed by random accidents and eventually fears about my own death led to terrible thoughts of all that would be lost by my dying. I thought about death so much in fact that when I considered it I stopped breathing. My lungs didn't even try to pull in air they stopped and I stopped for nearly a minute at a time. Over time I pushed through it all, my fear of dying would kick back up near my birthday and I started to be a bit phobic about turning 30 ( I really do know how stupid that sounds and I got how stupid it was at the time too) but I was living a lot more.
30 came and nothing scary happened so I calmed in most places (I still had issues about Nikki's birth exacerbated by the loss of our second child Aurora and the subsequent fear I would never get to have another child.) I only feared men who were intimidating or aggressive and after facing all the loss we had (Aurora and a few years before that Todd's mom to mention the bigger things) I got tired of not living my life based on what I wanted from it. I started to face things head on and for a long time I thought the attacks were gone. Then I started having chest pressure at random usually 2-3 hours or even a full day after a major argument or some other type of stress. I started to worry it was my heart but the reality was that stress was causing a whole new form of attack and I couldn't run from it. I had been taking too much on my shoulders and now body and mind were letting me know they'd had enough.
Overall my message is this: I lost out on a lot of my life because I didn't face this head on or get some help to make the attacks stop. I even let it keep me from writing, from trusting the man I will one day marry and from taking part in as of my son's life I should have been there for, worse I kept him home from things like birthday parties so I could avoid dealing with anxiety. If you have anything like this, if it's controlling your life, guiding the decisions you make and limiting you please get some help!
Amanda M Lyons
Ms. Lyons is an author of fantasy, horror, and an avid reader of all genres.