The first time I remember having a panic attack I was 17 years old. I’m almost positive, looking back, that I’d had them before that, but I just didn’t know what to call it. Once, when I was about nine, I was so nervous waiting for my mom to come pick me up from a sleepover, that I had to go sit in my friend’s bathroom, away from all the noise and laughter. I was trembling, and my hands and feet were clammy, and my chest felt very tight. I sat in the bathtub, pulled the curtain closed, and waited for my friend’s mom to open the basement door and call down to tell me that my mom was there. In hindsight, that was probably one of my first panic attacks, but I didn’t know it at the time. I did know, however, that I was different than the other girls.
At seventeen I woke up in the middle of the night. I’ve always struggled with sleep, so I didn’t think much of it. This was back before you kept your cell phone charging next to your head, so I would just lie awake and stare at the ceiling listening for unfamiliar noises and worrying, mainly, about all the things that could go wrong in my life. What if I didn’t pass my next chemistry test? What if my mom found out that I had pot stashed in my dresser drawer? Those sorts of things. This particular night I remember with clarity, because it was the first time I thought about death. I wasn’t suicidal, never have been. Save for that time I was put on a medicine to help with anxiety and it didn’t react well with me. But we will save that for another time. What I mean is, I became hyper-aware for the first time, that one day I would die. That’s the funny thing about this life. It ends the same for everyone. And when you’re a kid or a reckless teenager, you don’t think too much about that. Until the day you do.
Existential dread or angst, I jokingly call it now. Jokingly because it happens to me all the time, I sort of live in this space, and it happens to a lot of us, most of use, from time to time. But when I was seventeen, I didn’t know what the hell it was. I just realized I would die, then wondered how I would die, then ventured into this whole new world of anxiety and worry that was never there before. It struck me so violently that I found myself awake for days, unable to sleep, consumed first and foremost by the idea that I was going to die, I had convinced myself, at any moment.
Of course I did the worst possible thing, I told no one. I went about life as normal as I could, all the while plagued with these constant, OCD thoughts about death. In AP English I’d think about death. In Chemistry, I’d think about death. At lunch, death. Hanging out at my friends’ houses after school, talking about crushes and pretending to care about my make-up and hair, death.
Then one day, months after the first thought, I had a total and complete meltdown. I was still a kid, as much as I thought otherwise, so I had my meltdown in a totally kid way. First, I flipped out at school. I got into a fight with my best friend, on purpose, because I wasn’t happy and she was and that pissed me off. Then I hitched a ride home halfway through the day with another friend (read: we skipped school and got high, then went to Taco Bell). Afterward, she dropped me off at home. I forgot that I don’t normally beat my mom home from work (don’t smoke weed kids, mkay), so she was confused when she got there and I was home. This led to a fight when she accused me of skipping school. I was appalled that she would “accuse” me of such a thing, then I went into my room, and slammed my door. (Ugh, moms are the worst!)
That night my mom went out and she told me not to leave the house, I was “grounded” in as much as she could ground me. So at about 8:00 pm, a friend picked me up and we left to go smoke more weed down at the river. Here’s the thing. The “river” was the cool place to hang, way down by the railroad tracks, because we were totes sad, sordid, teenagers with the weight of the world on our shoulders, oh poor, pitiful us… We were living every single scene from #MySoCalledLife.
The cops came, as they often do, and everyone took off running. Well, I don’t run, ya dig? Even when I think my life is in danger. Like if a bear came at me in the woods I would be the last one there, trying to reason with the bear, all, Listen bear, I’m mostly fat and who likes the fatty parts of the meat? So I just sort of walked away, down the railroad tracks to an old railcar. (Insert the Daria soundtrack). Turns out the cops weren’t too hellbent on arresting a few teens passing a dime bag, so they took off, but there I was alone, at night, a little high, on the train tracks. When, you guessed it, a train came.
Now, I’m not suicidal (see above), so meandering around the live tracks at night, weren’t exactly what I was going for. In fact, I was scared shitless, and I started back to the riverfront park to find my friends, but they had left my ass. That’s about the time the intrusive thoughts started up again. I know it, I told myself, I’m going to die and this is probably the night. I could smell the fire burning from the hobo village (I don’t think that is politically accurate now, but that’s what we called it) under the bridge, the train was approaching, my friends had left me, and there may or may not be cops lurking in the woods waiting to arrest me for being out after curfew. Plus, I was going to die. Maybe not that night, but certainly some day.
I made it down to the park, where there was a large mound of grass, and a well-lit walking trail. I sat down as the train approached, and all the things hit me at once. My chest tightened and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My hands became clammy, my feet went numb. The train hit the city limits. The thoughts raced through my mind. Things are changing, it won’t always be this way. The lights on the track flashed their warning, the bars lowered. Breathe, Missy, breathe. The bells chimed. The engine gave a loud hiss. I can’t stop time, one day I will be here on this earth, and the next I will not be and the whole wide world will still spin around without me. The sound of the wheels on the wood, louder and faster. I’m going to die. The train wooshed by. All the people I love, we will all be gone. And then, just like that, it was all over.
Jesus, this all sounds dramatic. But it really felt like the end of the world. Of my world, anyway. And sometimes, some days, it still does. I wish to all the universes that this was something that I grew out of, or something that never happened again. Something that goes away every day when I take my pills. But no, it’s always here. And I’ve had about ten or so of the actual, painful, Am-I-having-a-heart-attack panic attacks in my life. I can remember each one of them with a clarity I wish I could have given to my chemistry homework. The time Jerimiah had to hold me in the living room because I couldn’t sit still. The time I had to excuse myself from class because I thought the walls were caving in on me. That time I was driving through Tennessee, my son snuggled up in the backseat, and I had to call my friend just to talk. Thankfully, I have people, and thankfully I know when to reach out.
I wanted to share this today for two reasons: 1. It is coming. I’m headed down a dark, bleak hole, and I know it and I feel it, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. The stress is inching up in my neck and in the next few days I will be down for the count. It’s not anything different than it was yesterday, or last year, or 10 years ago. I just know how to read the signs now. How to better equip myself for the fall. Which leads me to number 2. I’m still here. I’m still alive, and this is only temporary. One of my favorite writers likes to remind us that #DepressionLies, and shit yeah it does. But man, it doesn’t feel like it in the moment. It doesn’t feel like it when it’s 2:00 am or 2:00 pm and you are in your bed, covered to your neck in blankets because that is the only way you can get through the day. It doesn’t feel like it when you stop texting friends back, or when you just want to eat chocolate and not make eye contact with your partner or your kid. It feels like you are trapped in this dark place. It feels like you did it all to yourself. It feels like it will never be right again and that you will never be right again. But you will.
Take care of yourselves, y’all.
And I’ll take care of me.