Warning: This is kind of long (and mostly unedited)…
On December 3rd last year, I had the second-worst panic attack of my life. I had just been for a swim, and was driving back home.
Although I’d been experiencing some occasional anxiety since a frittata-induced heartburn in October (eggs are no bueno for Kevin), as well as a bit of sleep apnea, I was feeling okay in general. My swim went well, and it was a crisp, sunny afternoon.
The symptoms snuck up on me. I had that mild sensation in my chest that I will probably never be able to adequately describe, so I began the usual routine when this sort of thing starts to happen. I reminded myself that it was just anxiety, that I was in no real danger, and that I could always take the next exit and/or call somebody if I needed to.
Then the heavy feeling in my abdomen started, making me feel as though no breath I could take would be deep enough. Still, I kept going, making sure to breathe neither too quickly nor too deeply (hyperventilation is not fun).
Except then my arms started to tingle. I had only experienced tingling once before when having a panic attack: in June 1992, when I had the worst panic attack I’ve ever experienced.
I got angry. And I yelled. In the past, I have found that anger works very well at countering an oncoming panic attack.
But not this time.
As I approached the next exit, I made the decision to keep going; I could always take the next one, if necessary.
Then the tingling spread to my face.
That’s when I got really scared. I did not want to risk passing out while driving a car at 65 mph on the freeway, so I pulled over. I fumbled with my phone for what felt like forever (but was probably 20 seconds), and managed to dial 9-1-1.
To make a long story short, I spent the afternoon in the emergency room of the closest hospital. The usual tests yielded the usual results—i.e., slightly elevated blood pressure because of the anxiety, but no heart attack, and everything else okay.
I called one of my friends to get a ride from the hospital back to my car. I hated to ask, but this was one of those times when I knew I couldn’t do it alone. Of course, by the time they gave me the okay to go home, it was rush hour, so it took a while, but she eventually arrived.
I felt the panic coming on again before we even got to my car. Still, I figured I needed to at least give it a shot. If necessary, there were one or two opportunities for me to exit the freeway before we got to the bridge that would take us across the lake.
The thought of getting stuck waiting in traffic hit me right away, so I took the very next exit, and made my way to the parking lot of the nearest grocery store. I wasn’t sure if my friend noticed I’d taken the exit, so I called to let her know. She had exited as well, and parked nearby.
At this point, I had no idea what to do. I knew that I wasn’t going to get very far in my present state of mind, but I had to do something. It would be one thing to have my friend drive me home—but I couldn’t just leave my car there. Either I would need help the next day to retrieve it, or it would get towed. Either way, I could not afford another trip to the emergency room.
Eventually, I called another friend of mine, who was able to come with somebody else. That way, I could have one person drive me home, and that person would still have a way to get home—which is what we did.
It has now been 369 days since the events of that day. I have spent much of that time coping with its aftermath. I have done craniosacral therapy, hypnotherapy, acupuncture, yoga, The Artist’s Way (for the second time), and talk therapy. I have consulted with my doctor, and gone to a sleep clinic. I have been to support groups and meetups.
Progress has been sporadic. During the first couple of months of 2014, I was doing so many of these things at the same time that it was difficult to figure out what was helping and what wasn’t.
One of the casualties was my friendship with the first person I had called for help the day of the panic attack. I tend to pull back when times are rough, because I don’t want to be a burden to other people; she seemed to take it as though I were avoiding her. Eventually, I was. I found myself just as worried about how she would react if I called her as I was about how she would react if I didn’t call her. (There was other stuff, too, but nothing particularly relevant here.)
It got to the point where neither of us was feeling very good about the friendship. I felt it would be best if we just went our separate ways. She suggested that we should at least talk about things first. I was hesitant, as my experience has been that any meeting that comes about as a result of ‘we need to talk’ is not going to go well—and I didn’t want to get yelled at. But, she appealed to my sense of fairness, and we met for lunch.
Well, it went about as well as I imagined it would. It ended with the feeling that really nothing had been resolved. Four weeks later, that was it. Finito.
I actually felt relieved. At that point, I realized just how much of my energy my worries about the relationship were consuming.
This is where things began to get better. I had already been thinking about compiling some of my poetry into a book; with this particular emotional burden now off my shoulders, I was finally able to proceed: within three or four weeks, I had a book finished and ready to go.
In the meantime, my doctor had sent me to a sleep clinic, where I was diagnosed with a mild case of sleep apnea. Subsequently, I bought one of those CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) devices. I don’t like wearing the mask (the device tends to wake me up after about five hours), but I have noticed a difference.
I had to stop seeing the hypnotherapist. I liked her and her approach, but she raised her rates from $185 to $255 per session. For not much more than that, I can book three craniosacral sessions, which have been a lot more effective. (I also stopped acupuncture, as I am just too fidgety to sit there for an hour with all those needles in my arms and legs.)
Unfortunately, in July, I began having more problems with anxiety. So, in August, I began taking prescription drugs for the first time in a couple of years. The first week was kind of weird, since my baseline level of anxiety actually went up. Fortunately, when I was out and about, it didn’t go beyond that level; after that first week, things settled down.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the new exercise regimen I had started (since I was no longer travelling across the lake to go swimming) had been acting as a trigger. In other words, I was trying to do too much without giving my muscles enough time to rest in between workouts. (I finally figured this out towards the end of October.)
As I waited for my book to be printed, and then to nail down the particulars for some kind of book launch, I went ahead and produced a second collection of poetry. By the time I got the launch event scheduled, I had two books ready to go—plus I had also finally put together my first proper web site since 1998.
The launch itself, in early October, wasn’t particularly remarkable. It turned out to be a low-key affair, with just a handful of people showing up. For me, it was mostly notable because I got the chance to see a friend of mine whom I had not seen in twenty years.
A few weeks later, I got to do another reading. This one was more successful in that I read for about thirty people, but less successful in that I sold only one book. (I was slightly excited that someone apparently walked off with a copy—my book is theft-worthy!)
So, here I am, 369 days later. In many respects, my life is not all that different than it was a year ago. For better or for worse, my day-to-day life is pretty much the same: safe, but not terribly exciting or fulfilling.
On the other hand, I have managed to accomplish quite a bit this year: I have remastered and reissued much of my music catalog (Tinty Music) in digital download form, and I have published two collections of poetry in both print and e-book forms (plus I have another two books in the works). I have not sold very many copies of anything (sales and marketing are definitely things I need to work on), but the work is out there and available for anyone interested in checking it out. I also had a couple of graphics included in a comic book recently published in time for the Short Run festival last month.
I have also been building audiences for my photography and my blog. In September 2013, my photos on Flickr passed 150,000 views; as of this writing, they are approaching 450,000 views. My blog, meanwhile, seems to be picking up an additional follower every day or two.
My anxiety is more under control now. I’m not happy about the extra pounds that have come about as a result of the prescription medication, but I could have it a lot worse. Also, I no longer mistake the occasional episode of sleep apnea for an oncoming panic attack; I just move to the sofa, and go back to sleep.
At any rate, despite the three-steps-forward-two-steps-back nature of the struggle (at least, that’s what it often feels like), I feel I’m reaching a point where I’m ready to move forward again. Plus I have a couple of friends that I didn’t a year ago, so that’s worth celebrating.
It’s definitely true what they say about surrounding yourself with people who will support you. Although they are not numerous, I know I would be in a very different place without the people in my life who have been encouraging me along the way.
(7 December 2014)