I don’t know much about what triggers other people – but this post is about my experience during a period of my life (around 2009) living with panic attacks and anxiety, so if it might trigger you – best not read it.
Fear. Am I a fearful person? Sometimes. Does it matter? Sometimes. There are many things I do which make me really nervous. A large percentage of these things turn out to be the most incredible, unique experiences, and the thought that this is probably how they will be is what pushes me to do them in the first place. I’m not talking huge feats of endurance or strength – these are often one off little activities; kayaking, hikes, trying new things/classes, even my solo weekends away.
Sometimes the anxiety stems not from being concerned about if I am able to even do the activity, but to be slower; letting a group down – what if I can’t do it well and impact their experience? And a fear of falling. A really irritating feel of falling… because it contradicts my love of the sensation you get from falling… the stomach drop, I love rides and rollercoasters… As well as my love of being high up and overlooking vast landscapes. Total pain in the ass. I first realised I had this fear of falling half way up a climbing wall on a Outward Bound camp at Primary school. I just froze, and told our Camp Counselor (Paul, how I fancied him! ha) that I’d just stay there. He told me not to worry, just come down, but I replied that it was cool, I was just gonna stay there, forever. Eventually he managed to help me abseil down, and I loved that part. With that in mind, a couple of years later, on a school trip to Macau I was determined to abseil down the side of the hotel we were staying at. (Along with the rest of the class!) I froze at the top, eventually admitted defeat, and then cried, spending the next day hating myself for being so pathetic (as I thought at the time.)
Sometimes I can push through it, like walking up the sand-dunes in Namibia. The steep sides just freaked me out, even though I would happily (and have) sandboarded down dunes before and since. Yeh, I know, confusing eh? Seems to be a big difference in the FEAR of falling, and actually falling. It took a lot of mental blocking and chatting aimlessly (thanks Annabel!), but I got to the top and shed a little tear when I got there, taking in the AWESOME view, and feeling pretty damn happy with myself. When I just let myself go, and ride with the sensations (such as strong currents, or huge waves) I seem to love it. But the suspense, the static ‘what if’ – I find hard to overcome.
But the real fear; when it takes hold; the rising panic and then some, that’s a little rarer thankfully. I had my first full on panic attack (which is not just feeling a little anxious or breathless) around age 9, whilst watching Robocop with my brother. To this day I have no idea what triggered it but I suddenly was overwhelmed with the true knowledge that one day I will die, and everyone I know will die. And I couldn’t breathe, gasping for air, my heart felt like it stopped and I wanted to run and scream but it seemed so futile because at that moment I knew ‘the truth.’ Eventually the feelings became less intense, and I ran out of the living room sobbing hysterically. I think my brother came to ask if I was okay and that was it. I had no idea what had happened, and I didn’t talk to anyone about it.
It wasn’t until age 16, at school, I saw another girl have a panic attack, and heard it being described as one, that I realised that’s what had happened to me.
Age 18, Potosi, Bolivia (yeh, yeh, on my gap yaaaah). Deep inside a silver mine, we had to walk across a rickety wooden ladder, over what looked like a bottomless black hole. I managed it, but started to feel very uneasy. Then we had to walk down a vertical wooden ladder into what looked like a dark bottomless hole. And I had a full on panic attack. Somehow one of the group managed to eventually calm me, and I made it down the ladder and somehow actually enjoyed the rest of the tour inside the mine.
Fast forward seven years and I had a panic attack whilst Scuba Diving, and I couldn’t dive for another 8 years. Before this incident I’d never once felt uncomfortable under the water… You can read more about that here, and how I managed to get back to blowing bubbles. At the time of writing this, in just 9 days I’m off to Komodo, Indonesia on my first Liveaboard ❤
But I haven’t even touched on the proper hard part. The time during my life, where, I never wanted out, but I didn’t know how I could go on. I wasn’t living. I was just existing, in a state of constant fear and anxiety.
A few months after the panic attack scuba diving in Sharm El Sheik, I had another pretty bad experience (perhaps that’s an understatement) I call ‘the drowning incident.’ It wasn’t me that was drowning per se, but saving someone else from drowning that led to me having a life flashing before my eyes moment, as I thought that I could have been taking my last breaths, and it really shook me up. Boarding the plane home two days later, from Banjul, The Gambia, I suddenly felt panicky as I was walking up the stairs . As someone that has always loved long flights, and actually enjoys turbulence, I didn’t understand what I was feeling. And, just tried to ignore it. Probably just had a few wines on the plane.
Over the next few months that panicky feeling kept re-appearing, with less and less time in-between. I worked on the 14th floor, and the lifts were constantly breaking down. Before my Gambia trip one of the lifts I was in dropped suddenly. Just a few metres (!?), hard and fast enough that I lost my footing and fell over in the lift. So, with that, and being stuck in the lifts a couple of times, I just decided to avoid them all together. I managed to style it out by passing off my multiple daily climbs up to the 14th floor as trying to get healthy and fit, but the truth was, I was petrified of being in the lifts. As an Executive Assistant I of course always had lots of little errands to run, and I will be forever indebted to Mark, the one person at work I told who would stop what he was doing and escort me in the lift if I really had to use it. It’s strange, writing this feels like I am writing about someone else, but it was my life.
The panic, and the fear of panic started getting more frequent and intense. The places in which I felt confined started getting bigger (for example, originally ‘I’ll be fine if I don’t use the small meeting rooms…’ turned into being uncomfortable in most rooms) leaving less ‘safe’ spaces. I pretty much stopped using the tube (the (non)circle line was occasionally tolerable being a much bigger and more open air line) and I’d walk or bike where possible, using buses if I really had to. I could only sit or stand in a place (cinema, restaurant, gigs, pub, theatre) if I was at the edge or in an aisle seat and could directly see an exit. This is actually something that has partially still stuck with me. I stopped locking public bathroom doors for fear of being locked in, and always took my phone, in a time before this was the norm. When I wasn’t at home I always thought ‘if only I was at home I’d feel fine,’ but even that wasn’t true. In my own room I was often in fear, but there was comfort in knowing I was alone and if I had a panic attack, then no one would be there to watch, or judge. I couldn’t escape my mind and it was utterly terrifying.
I distinctly remember a Friday at work, sat in a meeting room on the 9th floor; it felt like the walls were closing in, and I just wanted to run out and scream. I managed to hold it down until the end, but then went into the Boardroom, with huge windows, overlooking Edgware Road, and just crying. Wondering how the hell I could live my life. How would I get through this. At this point I’m not sure I’d even told anyone yet. If I started to talk about how I felt the panic would rise. I have very distinct memories with friends when I’d start rambling in order to try and not get stuck in my head and dissolve the panic. Not knowing, or caring what I was saying, I just needed to talk. This response to anxiety was discussed in my Rescue Diver Course. It made me smile for some reason, ‘ahh I remember it well..’
That afternoon I decided to look online for self help books, but reading about claustrophobia and agoraphobia made me again, go into one of the meeting rooms, to look out over London, into the space, and started to cry. How the fuck did I get here? Even some of the ‘calming’ techniques I read about made things worse. Concentrating too much on breathing was one of the quickest ways for me to start feeling panicky.
Later I went to a comedy club with my best mate, and drank – a lot. I mistakenly thought drinking would help. Sometimes it numbed the fear early on, other times, it would make no difference, but always making the anxiety worse in the morning. I cycled home drunk (yeh, I know, so stupid and dangerous and not just to myself) and wrote a song. I’ll record it one day. But here’s a bit:
Trapped in my mind, A windowless life. Panic rising – I just can’t breathe. My lungs are collapsing, and inside I’m asking , when did I turn on me?
Holding on but I’m falling apart – Barely alive, just the beat of my heart . Scrambling for air but it’s closing in, why won’t it stop and when did it begin?
I ended up on the Westway overpass, confused and disorientated, and putting myself in a very dangerous position. An incredibly kind Black Cabbie driver stopped seeing my distress, and told me to follow him… for which I’ll be forever grateful. When I got home I broke down to my Mum. She had no idea. I’d been trying so hard to lead a normal life, but I was cracking up. She quickly said I should go to the Doctors and so that Monday morning I did. They referred me to the in-house counselor, who I saw a few weeks later. I asked about him the last time I was at the Surgery, but he’s gone – NHS budget cuts I was told 😦
I walked in, scared, not knowing how he could help, but feeling determined. I could not go on like this. I told him what was going on, and all the reasons why, as I saw them. He did not agree (or disagree) with me, but nodded along, and then, pretty much disregarded my reasonings. I thought this was weird, I was so sure I knew why I felt like this, but in hindsight I didn’t, and he didn’t, but his purpose was there to help guide me through. And that, he did.
There wasn’t one eureka moment, or a time I suddenly felt better, but slowly over the next few weeks and months life got a little easier, I wasn’t so scared of myself, or on edge all the time. I started being able to use the tube again, even lifts (but it took a long time before I got in a lift without thinking about it. Even as a child I would run up to my friends 5th floor apartment, rather than taking the lift. For some reason I never wanted to admit to it).
Slowly, once it started to get easier and more manageable, I began telling people about the anxiety and how it took over my life. I distinctly remember the shocked look on one of my friends faces, who I’d backpacked with for months, ‘You? But you’re fearless!?!’ Her response shocked me, but made me smile, that that’s how I came across. So far from the truth. I guess I’ve always been, and always will be a fighter. But fighting my own mind so hard, that was not something I expected to have to do. One of my GCSE English essays was to write about a safe place. Everyone else wrote about a physical place they loved, I wrote about my mind, I thought even with all it’s crazy, emotional thoughts, it was mine, and no one could touch it, I controlled it. (I got an A.) During the worst of the anxiety I felt so sad and confused thinking how my mind had turned on me.
I started writing this piece after my trip to Miyajima, where my solo cable car trip into the snowy abyss (or so it seemed) had me suppressing a panic attack, by singing! It opened up a whole box of forgotten memories relating to fear and panic, which I found interesting to revisit, though I honestly find it hard to comprehend that that mental hell, was one that I was living in. Even looking back my first thoughts lean towards it not being ‘that bad’ because it just became normal, part of my life.
Why am I sharing this? I don’t quite know. At one point it was my biggest secret. And for long after that I felt shame, but now, I am not ashamed and I don’t feel it should be a secret. Most people I know suffer from anxiety, and most people feel alone with it, so I feel I should be honest; you are far from alone.
Sometimes I used to want to give myself a huge fucking high five and pat on the back for fighting and getting through this. And knowing that for some people it’s too much, too crippling, I’m so grateful this wasn’t the case for me. With the support of Lee, and the small group of family and friends I confided in I took such baby steps, but here I am, miles away from where I started, generally feeling free and content in my thoughts & my mind. Back to loving it again, and all it’s eccentricities. I don’t want to be anyone else.
I can’t see myself getting ‘that bad’ again, but every day I still have to keep myself in check. Most of my natural habits now are from years of culminating them and forcing myself to be kind, be an annoying big sister to myself. Taking deep breaths. Getting out of the flat when I feel nervy, even for a 10 minute walk. It’s amazing what some sky and movement will do. It’s no secret I love almost all forms of exercise, but for years it was more a necessity and I would have to kick myself out of bed to swim, go to a spin class, the gym, purely to level off the morning anxiety. What you eat, drink, how much you sleep. It all matters, hugely. It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it. ❤
It’s cramped in my head, the thoughts I’ll fight, but just one little trigger sends those thoughts alight
I can’t run and I can’t hide cause it’s my fucking mind I’m stuck inside
Inside I’m screaming and outside I’m dancing
Inside I’m screaming and outside I’m dancing.
I just wanna let go of me. I just wanna be fucking free
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