I had my first Panic Attack at 17. It roused me suddenly from a deep sleep with an acute pain in my chest that made me sit bolt upright and clutch at my breast. The pain was so intense I started to cry hysterically. This was it. This was where it was going to end. In the double bed of a caravan in some backwoods hick town an hour out of Melbourne. My mind raced, and the urge to bolt outside was immense. I threw the doona off, and fled outside into the garden in just my knickers and a tee shirt. I dropped to my knees, and begged the Universe to save me from what I believed was certain impending death. My mind raced with panicked thoughts of confusion. I couldn’t understand what was happening. Was this a heart attack? Surely I was too young for that? If not, then what? I couldn’t articulate to my worried boyfriend what was going on in the scene that confronted him. I couldn’t describe why I’d hot footed it from the bed and raced into the garden, instead. I just felt the overwhelming urge to escape. To flee. There I was in the dark, poised in the down dog position, bawling furiously between shrieks of pain that radiated from my sternum. As I closed my eyes, I could actually see the insane spectacle I’d created as if I were floating above myself. I was conscious but similarly completely detached from what was going on. I began to beg for help with screams that made me relieved we didn’t have neighbours for miles. I must have sounded as though I were dying, but that’s exactly what it felt like was happening. I don’t remember the drive to the hospital, but I do recall arriving there and attempting to explain to the Triage nurse what I was doing there at three in the morning, barefoot wearing only a Oasis tee shirt and cotton undies. I could have been naked for all I cared, the pain was still that overwhelming. They gave me some IV benzodiazepine and some Tramadol for the pain and left me there alone to wonder what in god’s name had just happened. The doctor couldn’t tell me definitively. A broken sternum perhaps, they suggested eventually. When the pain finally subsided and I had calmed down suitably, I called my mum to tell her about the nights terrifying events. Her response prompted the first time I would ever hear the phrase “Panic Attack”. She suggested I leave my live in boyfriend, and return home to see a Psychiatrist who could help me, which I did without any further convincing.
I’ve had Panic Attacks in a plethora of different circumstances. At home, at the Pub, in the middle of Chadstone’s 24 hour Christmas shop-a-thon, at workplaces, in the cinema, at the supermarket. I’d have them as often as five times a week. Each time, the symptoms are just the same. Panic, confusion, fear, sweating, nausea, chest pain, the fear of a loss of control and the urge to run from the situation. Eventually, just the very idea of a potential Panic Attack left me debilitated. In unfamiliar circumstances, I’d find myself assessing the venue for public toilets to hide in, and ready escape routes to bolt through should I need to flee the scene. Then I found myself unable to return to situations and locations where I’d experienced a Panic Attack, worried merely being there would provoke another freakout. Eventually, it morphed into a fear of being anywhere outside of the safe confines of my house. The things I couldn’t avoid doing, I combated with the liberal use of Xanax. It wasn’t unusual for me to have to take so much, that when I finally reached my destination I was completely useless because I was so sedated. The only way I could be convinced to leave the house was if the person I was with promised to turn around and come straight home if I felt the beginnings of a Panic Attack. I was blessed at the time to have a best friend who was kind enough to have her plans potentially ruined each time, just so I could attempt attending certain situations and events. And I did ruin plenty of plans. Quite often, we’d only get halfway to a destination before I freaked out and needed to come home. Like a trooper, she never complained or made me feel badly for ending her outings prematurely. I’d feel terribly guilty but she’d always tell me it was fine and that we’d try again another day. For years, she was the best ally one could ask for.
And that’s our cue to discuss how you can be a good ally to a friend or loved one who suffers from Anxiety or Panic Attacks. I know a lot of people feel quite uncertain how to interact with someone who lives with these illnesses. Understandably, it can feel like an overwhelmingly impossible task if you, yourself, don’t have any lived experience of what it’s like to deal with these issues. In theory, all the things I’ll tell you will seem relatively simple, but putting them into action can be require a great deal of patience and consideration.
Loving someone with Anxiety or Panic Disorder can, at times, be incredibly frustrating. You’ll probably be no stranger to cancelled or altered plans. Trust me when I tell you that it’s not because the person you love doesn’t care, that they aren’t keen to spend time with your or they don’t value the effort you put in. When we agree to do something or go somewhere, we really truly want to be able to follow it through, but sometimes Anxiety can turn those plans on their ass. It’s okay to be disappointed with us. I will guarantee you the loved one who’s cancelled on you will feel disappointed too, and in addition copious amounts of guilt and frustration. A ‘see how we go’ approach is something you can adopt that can help us feel more comfortable with plans that might make us anxious. Set a plan that you’ll both go as far as you can. If that means you make your destination and have a great time, awesome. But if it means you get there, and after 5 minutes your anxious friend freaks, let them know you’ll have no issue leaving. Reassure them it won’t be a big deal. Even if you’re miffed, try not to show it. Suggest you both take a timeout in the car, just the two of you and listen to some tunes. You might find your friend is able to try again and return to your plans after a brief break.
Another thing that can be helpful if you have something planned is the dry run. A few days before your scheduled plans, try taking a drive to the destination. Scope it out with your friend. Help them find the exits and the bathrooms if possible, or anywhere they could escape to for a 10 minute breather. This will provide your friend with some feelings of security when the actual event comes to fruition. Something else I always found helpful was a friend who was kind enough to keep a sick bag in their glove box, just in case I felt I needed to puke. When Anxiety strikes, it can upset your stomach really badly and there’s nothing worse than feeling anxiety about perhaps making a fool of yourself and vomiting inappropriately on top of regular anxiety about your outing.
A good way of keeping track of your friends anxiety, is with a number rating. So, a quick check in about where they’re at on a scale of 0 to 10 can give you an indication how the situation is progressing. Obviously, at a 0-3, you’re pretty good to go and you can proceed as normal. A 4-6 response might require you to ask if there’s anything you can do to help ease their anxiety. If you’re in the car, it might be to put the windows down for a bit of fresh air, or putting on some music to act as a distraction, or it might be time to begin to let your friend know that you won’t be upset if the plans are cancelled or changed. It doesn’t mean they will be, but sometimes knowing there’s a bit of freedom to pike without you becoming annoyed is enough to keep us going. A 7-10 rating let’s you know things are getting out of control and you’re friend could be looking at an impending Panic Attack. Gently guiding them through some breathing techniques is a great way to help your friend remain grounded. If you’re at an event or venue, ask them if they’d like to step out for some fresh air. If a Panic Attack ensues, short reassurances that the panic will pass, that they will be safe and that you’ll remain with them as long as they need can be a great comfort.
It can be distressing to watch someone you care for in such a state, so don’t feel badly if you’re overwhelmed. Being a good friend, and at times, caretaker to an individual with Anxiety or Panic Disorder can be exhausting. Remember to take time out for yourself and to treat yourself with the same patience and kindness you show others. It’s not just beneficial for you, but it will help prevent you feeling resentful of the sometimes extra requirements your friend may need from the relationship.
I’ll never forget the incredible understanding some of the people in my life have showed me during my illness. The friends who reassured me they still loved me in spite of my lack of ability to show up, those who put their own interests on hold to help me manage my own, and the folks who who have waited patiently for me to be well enough to follow through with certain plans. Such kind hearted individuals have made my journey with mental illness easier than it could have been and they are appreciated beyond measure. I’ve no doubt your understanding will be too.