For those that don’t know, in addition to being a mental health nurse whose job is to support people in crisis, I also have my own mental health issues to deal with – namely anxiety and panic disorder, which I’ve managed pretty well since my first panic attack more than three decades ago. For the most part, it’s on the back burner and not a problem, but every now and then it unexpectedly spills over, makes a massive mess, ruins dinner and leaves a sticky burnt mess that takes ages to clean up.
Panic attacks are an overwhelming feeling of terror or imminent harm/death that set off all your reptilian physical responses. For me, the best description I can suggest is if you were sat on the very edge of a very high bridge with no support or rope or parachute, and the bridge is about to collapse. There is nothing you can do, the end is coming and nobody will save you.
I can remember that first tsunami of impending doom suddenly happening when I was only eight, sat on a widebody jet ready for take off when I suddenly figured out what the emergency oxygen masks were for and the possibility of catastrophic failure of the aircraft. The thought of not being able to breathe was so terrifying it inhibited my ability to breathe, and not knowing how to deal with that feeling or communicate it was deeply distressing. I couldn’t express why I was sobbing, terrified and wanting to go home – nor say why forty minutes later I was asking to see the cockpit after enjoying a nice lunch…
I’ve had anxiety issues since then, most often easily dismissed but at other times with a high degree of disability. Every waking moment, there are intrusive little thoughts popping into my head of things that might go wrong. They’re usually not connected to what I’m doing, they are distracting and upsetting, they last milliseconds and happen at the speed of light, and they can’t be stopped.
Here’s the thing that makes it difficult – the thoughts are completely illogical. I flatter myself I’m a pretty smart guy, and when anxious or intrusive thoughts come in I know they’re pretty nonsensical, but each of those thoughts that comes in uses up a bit of energy. That energy then isn’t there to deal with other stuff, like running out of milk or bad driving or children being children, so that brings on irritability, then guilt, then a bit of social withdrawal. After a while, there’s just no reserve left, no capacity to deal with stuff that last week wasn’t a problem, and all reason disappears leaving turbulent, roiling panic.
I would love to be able to just “man up” or “get over it” or “suck it up” or any of the dumb, simplistic solutions I’ve had thrown at me, but it just doesn’t work like that – if it did then this wouldn’t have been a problem for a bit over thirty-four years.
Anyway, I’m not after sympathy or pity in writing this, just hope to share a bit of what it’s like to experience this illness. I know for a fact I’m neither unique nor alone in this experience. I don’t see it changing any time soon, so maybe this makes it easier to understand why, even though I’m ambitious and have goals and dreams to chase after, sometimes I just have to disappear and sit with a friend who’s going to let me know the sky isn’t falling.