“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says ‘I’ll try again tomorrow’.” ~Mary Anne Radmacher
I used to think panic attacks were just extreme bouts of anxiety. I thought they would come and go and you’d be fine after a minute or two. I figured a panic attack meant you were overwhelmed, but it wasn’t really a big deal. Honestly, I thought having a panic attack meant weakness. Mental instability. Lack of emotional awareness. In general, I associated panic attacks with an inability to stuff emotions back down where they belong; then go on grinning and bearing life like the rest of us non-panic-attack-havers. …And now we all know that it is not surprising I found myself experiencing a real panic attack. I guess those emotions can only be stuffed down so far before you have to deal with them.
My journey to panic attack enlightenment happened about a month ago. One moment I was starting the morning zoophonics routine, the next I was tossing the phonics cards into the hands of my co-teacher and mumbling incoherent words about needing to leave the room. I have cliff dived in Haiti, zip lined in India, walked the entire width and hiked the highest peak of England, and biked through the Baltics. None of those experiences betrayed my body as much as having a panic attack.
I like to be in control. I know this about myself. I’ve made my peace with this particular character flaw. It can make me stubborn at times, determined, perhaps a bit set in my ways, but I’d like to think that I am willing to bend when it comes to the big stuff. I’m willing to admit defeat or change a plan or opinion if I’m presented with compelling details or evidence. However, in this case, I was absolutely certain I was dying. I was convinced I was having a heart attack at the ripe old age of 27. Or that I had a brain tumor. Maybe heat stroke. Perhaps malaria? A virus? I needed answers, facts. This was the closest I have ever felt to death. I told the Peace Corps Medical Office (PCMO) as much. They disagreed.
A standard, run-of-the-mill, panic attack was my diagnosis. I only half believed it. They asked me to come in as soon as possible for tests. Blood pressure, temperature, basic exam. All healthy.
“Celete, you are not dying”.
Still not entirely convinced, I asked for a referral to the hospital for more tests, which they did. All clear.
So, then. A panic attack.
I wish I could say this diagnosis brought relief. But the reality is that it only gave me more uncertainty. In my quest for control I seek order. Structure. Linear direction. I craved a diagnosis clearer than “try to relax more”. So naturally, like a good millennial, I took to the internet. Searching for answers about what triggers panic attacks, how to avoid them, and how to handle the lingering fear of having another episode.
I keep flashing back to that moment, standing in front of my class. There is no feeling quite like being in the middle of a room full of 8 year olds and realizing the world is folding in around you. And then realizing that you have no idea how to explain in Thai what you’re feeling. And then realizing you’re alone. Utterly alone. Because in that moment when you feel your heart constricting and your pulse racing and your stomach is in knots; the last thing that is helpful is a very basic Thai vocabulary for diarrhea, headache, and stomach ache.
Now, several weeks out from that panic attack, I’m more aware than I’ve ever been about my anxiety. About tracing it’s origins. I’m an introvert, so every interaction I have with new people or situations comes with knots in my stomach and an endless diatribe in my head. For as long as I can remember I guess I’ve had anxiety. I suppose it’s just that before, I didn’t have a name for it. Or more accurately, I was embarrassed by the word anxiety and didn’t want to apply it to myself. I never wanted to admit to myself, and especially not to others, that interacting with the outside world makes my heart race and my palms sweat. Plus, I got so good at pretending I figured the emotion stuffing was working. Honestly, we should give my body props for lasting 27 years before drawing attention to my ignorance.
It’s a little bit funny when I think about it. That me, an introverted order and structure craving woman, is here living day to day with no idea what is going on. Confused 80% of the time and pretending not to be the other 20%. Each day is a mystery. Each day has it’s own gamut of emotions. And that’s okay. It has to be.
So, I had a panic attack. I thought about ignoring it. Scrapping this post and pretending like it never happened. I’m still only 90% convinced it was a panic attack and not something else. But whatever. The point is. I didn’t die. I’m a complicated human with lots of feelings. And I’m going to try my best to give those feelings a place to exist in my life. Anxiety and all.
Shoutout to all of the teachers at my school who (it felt like) saved my life that day and let me cry on their shoulders and mumble to them in Tinglish. And to my people, my tribe, the ones who let me ramble and babble. I know I’ve got a long way to go on this whole processing emotions thing, I appreciate you listening.
This journey is really hard, but I wouldn’t trade it for all the anxiety-free days in the world.