It began as a pretty typical Saturday morning in Boulder, over 3 years ago. I woke up in my big comfy bed in my sun-drenched condo, feeling like a pile of garbage. Despite leading what I thought was a “healthy” lifestyle, I had a tendency to go to happy hour after work on Fridays and keep the happy hour going all night while forgetting to pause for a proper dinner. By my late twenties you’d think I’d know better.
I did know better. I just didn’t act better.
So I had my normal routine: gulp some water, take a shower, plant on the couch to watch Ellen and try to get down some oatmeal. I made it to that last step and was feeling mostly better when a new bout of nausea kicked in. And then Ellen started spinning; I couldn’t look at the TV anymore, but I couldn’t move to turn it off. I was sure I was going to puke, so I ran to the bathroom and practically fell over the side of the tub. I didn’t get sick, but the nausea wasn’t subsiding, and now my hands were numb.
As in, totally and completely numb.
I knelt on my bathroom floor, tangled up in my robe, barely breathing.
Completely freaked out by my current state - and especially the numbness in my hands - I stumbled back to my bedroom, trying to figure out what might be happening in my body. Maybe I was drugged? Maybe I’m having some weird reaction to something? Maybe it’s a heart attack? What if my entire system is about to shut down, and I’m stuck up here in my condo by myself? Can I get myself to the hospital right now? How would I even do that?
As I ran through scary scenarios in my mind, I felt worse and worse. I climbed back into bed and lay there frozen. I couldn’t lie on my stomach, because, nausea. My side wasn’t much better. My back was the only viable option, but the patterned wall opposite my bed – which I had otherwise been so proud to have painted myself – was making me dizzy. I didn’t want to close my eyes for fear of falling asleep and possibly not waking up. So I lay there, held hostage by that damn wall, trying to look at the ceiling.
Meanwhile, it was a gorgeous day outside and a good friend texted to see if I could join her for a hike. I fumbled with the phone to send a reply. My motor skills weren’t quite right and my vision blurred, but I managed to tell her I wasn’t feeling well, and maybe she could swing by and check on me at some point?
The thought of walking to my stairs let alone climbing down them to unlock the door for her brought visions of tumbling into a heap at the bottom, so I managed to get another text out. This one to my neighbor, who had a spare key - he’d leave it under the mat. Phew.
My friend was stuck in a seminar and would head over when she could; it would be almost two hours. I didn’t want to alarm her by saying it was urgent, nor could I stand to type any more, so I lay there just waiting, frozen again.
By the time she arrived I felt kinda silly for making her come. I still didn’t feel great, but mostly because it was mid-afternoon and I hadn’t eaten anything. The dizziness and nausea and fears of dying had all subsided. She brought me oyster crackers and ginger ale and hopped in my bed to keep me company. I tried to explain to her what happened, and we went on chatting like normal.
By early evening I felt human enough to head to my friend’s for a small BBQ. When offered a beer I scoffed and said, “let me tell you about the weirdest hangover I’ve ever had….”
I’d accept it as such until a few days later, when another good friend heard my story and said to me: I think you had a panic attack.
Me? That’s ridiculous. Why would I have a panic attack? I feel fine.
And then, a few weeks later, it happened again. And the morning after that, one more time.
Finally, I googled “panic attack” and found the Wikipedia page, which listed every potential symptom one might have during an attack. There were 12 in total and the article said you might have any amount of them. I had all 12, and then some.
I instantly felt better having identified the problem. And, now I’d been through enough to know each time that it does end. That my brain does go back to normal. But I lived in constant fear of it happening again. I’d sit in meetings and plan my escape should I feel one coming on. I’d consider which coworker I could send a discrete text to, explaining why I needed to abruptly get up and walk out. I’d worry about driving, or going anywhere it was loud, or hot, or ever getting too hungry.
And then, as I boarded the bus to go to work a few weeks later, it started again. I returned to my couch, where I’d basically stay the entire weekend. I’d wake up in bed and immediately think: do I feel better today? And for a few days in a row, the answer was no, and I’d spend my day just trying to keep my heart from beating out of my chest. People would come to visit, and I’d try to eat. I ventured out for pizza at my favorite restaurant just down the street, and had to leave before we could order drinks.
That’s when I decided to get help.
This bout of panic attacks was extreme, but what I learned in doing more research is that I’d actually experienced smaller panic attacks, or just symptoms of anxiety, on a regular basis. That this whole time what I thought was “normal,” was actually treatable. That I didn't have to accept any of it, and I didn’t even have to return to “how things were,” but could aim to get even better than that.
I learned that simply knowing my friend was on her way was probably what pulled me out of it that day.
I learned that sometimes it takes a really big wake up call to finally make the changes you need to make.
Also, I learned that hangovers tend to bring on panic attacks.
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