The prevalence of panic disorders in America is staggering at best; an estimated 1.7%, or one in 58 adult Americans between the ages of 18 and 54, will experience an episode of panic at some point in their lives. Being one of those aforementioned 58 adults, I can assure you that living with a panic disorder has not been a walk in the park – more so due to the fact my problem has gone on without proper treatment. In a word or two, my life to this point has been hellish and what’s worse is knowing how to take care of it, yet lacking the initiative to do so out of fear of the unknown.
A majority of my panic issues started when I was 18 years old. I’d just graduated high school and the world was now at my doorstep; needless to say, I was not prepared for the real world and what it had to offer someone like me. Like many graduates, I figured I would take a year off and just relax, allow myself to enjoy what would likely be the last full summer and winter with what few friends I made in high school, then focus on the future. That year, I was able to get out of the house with only the occasional episode of panic, though they were short-lived most of the time. I even managed to join a bowling league with my older brother Adam and later joined a Thursday night league to compete on my own.
After enjoying one full season in the Thursday night league, I joined again the following year, however it was around this time my panic started its death grip on me. For a few weeks and well into the winter months, I was able to travel from my house to the bowling alley without much of a problem. I’d suffer from the usual initial jitters that I’ve dealt with whenever going places and like before, they’d fade as I grew more comfortable in my surroundings. One particular evening, I remember walking out to my mom’s car (since she drove me to and from the alley due to my lack of a license/permit) and had an unshakable discomfort in my gut. I was shaking, nervous and nauseated but I convinced myself to make the trip anyway. When we arrived at the alley, I tried to calm myself down and eventually was able to force myself out from the car, however I hesitated. I remember my mom asking me what was wrong and I’d told her how I felt at the time and that I wanted to go home.
I wound up missing the rest of the season that year and have not bowled in a sanctioned league since. The panic attack I suffered that night was not the worst one I have experienced by any stretch of the imagination. No, the award for ‘Worst Panic Attack Ever’ goes to my 20 year old self; I recall that day more clearly in my mind than I’d like to. It was the day of my nephew Shane’s second birthday and we’d made plans to travel to my oldest brother’s house to celebrate. I’d been dreading it for days, knowing full well in my mind that I would probably suffer another episode of panic and anxiety and I didn’t want to be a burden to my family because of that. What I did not anticipate was the severity of the attack and how it would change my life from that point onward.
Traveling in the car were myself, my mom and my brothers Adam and Kevin. All of them were aware of my issues with panic and predictably, they encouraged me to go, as any loving family member would do to their sibling/son in such a situation. In the past, I used to bring a small pillow with me whenever I’d go somewhere so I could hug it to my chest and try to focus my mind elsewhere, rather than harping on the fears addling my thoughts. This trick worked for me most of the time, but on this day, the pillow trick failed to keep me calm. For a majority of the car trip, I felt sick to my stomach and couldn’t stop shaking, but in addition I was experiencing a feeling of disorientation and full out panic. I yelled and screamed to be let out of the car; I cursed and I cried, wanting nothing more to be relieved of this mental agony that gripped me so strongly. To make matters worse, I felt horrible when we arrived at my brother’s and spent a good portion of the time in the bathroom, shaking and wishing I were safe at home. Even when we returned home, the feeling lingered and I remember laying in bed, depressed and stricken from the experience all together.
Never before had I felt so shaken up and lost as I had that day; it is the event that stands out most in my mind and the one I think scarred me most. However, there is one thing I can say that could possibly be more scarring than experiencing an attack itself; dealing with the social consequences and lost opportunities that come with it. I have missed more birthday parties, family gatherings, chances to hang with friends, and other social events than I care to admit to because of my panic. I’ve even missed my brother Dan’s wedding and not a day goes by that I do not harbor guilt and depression because of it. I often wonder what path my life would have taken if I haven’t had to deal with this problem. Panic attacks are physically, mentally, and emotionally debilitating when left untreated, as proven in my case.
Yet in spite of the downward spirals I have faced in my years since high school, there have been glimmers of hope that have restored a modicum of faith in my ability to eventually overcome this trial. I’ve managed to get my driver’s license and have made small strides toward getting out, though performing these tasks were not easy for me at all. I’ve had the luxury of possessing a great support system with my three older brothers and my mother, as well as the few friends I have managed to stay in contact with since all of this began. Their encouragement, love and understanding are the foundation in which keep me afloat. My family understands too well the effects of panic on a person; it is genetic from my mom’s side and I’ve heard stories about my uncles, my mom herself and others facing similar issues in their life.
Without them, I am not sure where my mind would be or how worse off I’d be and to be honest, I’d rather not let my mind wander to such a dark place. What I do know however is that I will never lose hope for myself. A day will come when I’ll wake up and be able to travel from home without worry or stress, and accomplish other simple tasks that I know I’m capable of. I feel as though overcoming this trial will define me to some degree and that I will be a stronger man at its end.
What more can a person hope for than that?