How I Learned to Live with My Panic Attacks

I was 35 and certain I was going to die.

when panic attacks
(Image credit: Harvey Gould Harvey IV)

When the ambulance arrived, I was hunched over on my front step, clutching at my heart. It was the summer of 2006, the shadows long on the lawn. The trees stood full and heavy, their leaves wet with light. I was 35 and certain I was going to die—and on such a glorious morning.

Within minutes, an EMT was taking my pulse. "Yeah," he announced, "178 is pretty fast." He wanted to know if I had any history of heart problems. I didn't. Had I taken any medications? I hadn't. Was I on drugs? I wasn't. I'd simply been sitting at my desk when a strange vertiginous sensation jolted me, and my heart began stampeding. That's when I grabbed the phone and ran out the front door.

"You ran out the front door?" he repeated. A smile came slowly, as if he'd just unearthed a clue. According to him, my blood was 100 percent saturated with oxygen, my lungs were clear, and my heart, though fast, was beating in a normal rhythm. He told me not to worry, saying, "We have a lady who calls all the time with panic attacks."

Panic attacks? How could something so physical—the pounding heart, the shaking hands, the tunnel vision—have been a product of my own mind? I wanted to call my husband, Larry, but he was in the operating room, removing a tumor from a patient's brain. So after the ambulance left, I Googled my symptoms and stared at words like hypoglycemiathyroid diseaseheart arrhythmia. I also looked up panic attacks. There again, my symptoms matched. I was surprised to find that panic attacks can strike out of the blue and are often initially mistaken for heart attacks. But in reality, a panic attack is a fight-flight response that occurs at the wrong time—like a fire alarm going off when there's no fire.

When Larry came home, I told him my news: "I think something's wrong with my heart. Also, I may have had a panic attack." Larry went about his usual habit of unloading his keys and wallet onto the front table before asking, "What happened?" After I told him about the palpitations and the paramedics, he exhaled audibly. "You're fine," he decided. I couldn't entirely blame him for dismissing me—we each had hypochondriacal tendencies. In fact, it was when we discovered that we'd both taken a semester off from college after diagnosing ourselves with MS that I fell in love with him. Since then, we'd both gone the neurotic route on occasion, thinking our headaches were tumors, our stomachaches cancer, our fevers malaria. But that night, everything seemed different, as if the earth had shifted by a degree so that nothing was quite as I'd left it.

All I could think about was what would happen if another attack came. And then, probably because I was worrying about it, one did come while I was peering noncommittally into the refrigerator. My body trembled, and my breath came short, and my heart rattled against my rib cage. My sense of space warped so that with each step, I thought I was falling. Everything around me had gone fuzzy. There was only pounding, pounding, and the inescapable feeling I was going to die. I called 911, but when I remembered how the men from the day before had smiled at me, I couldn't bear the thought of facing them again. I told the operator that I'd misdialed, and hung up.

In the weeks that followed, my panic attacks proliferated like mice. I simply woke up one day, infested. I began to fear things I didn't know were possible to fear: open spaces, small spaces, heat, crossing a street. I panicked in the shower, in the car, in the grocery store, for no apparent reason—each time feeling slightly more battered than the last. When I wasn't panicking, I was worrying about all the grisly calamities that can befall a person. A plane will crash into the living room. You will choke on a bite of sandwich. A mosquito will infect you with Eastern equine encephalitis virus. Even going upstairs to make the bed or taking a shower by myself became insurmountable. So I planned my showers for when Larry was home. I avoided the stairs as much as possible. I stopped driving on the highway.

My life was overrun. I panicked my way to the bookstore, because I knew the only way to get my life back was to understand what was taking it away. I learned that about 40 million Americans are affected by some kind of anxiety disorder, and that there's a distinction between anxiety and panic. Anxiety is like a sky full of ominous cumulonimbus clouds, while panic is the lightning crack that sends you running for cover. When a person is in fight-flight mode, several physiological events occur at once. The nervous system sends out a shot of adrenaline; this gets the heart pumping vigorously, filling the major muscles with blood, while blood is directed away from less essential places, like the stomach and the skin, which is why people go pale with fright; respiration increases, pulling needed oxygen into the body; pupils dilate to let in more light, and certain muscles in the eyes relax so that even the farthest predator can be seen; hearing becomes sharper; glycogen stored in the liver is turned into glucose, which gives us the sugar rush needed for energy and endurance; our sweat glands go to work to cool us and to scare off predators with our scent—all of this makes the body strong and fast, in preparation for a lifesaving fight or a high-speed chase. Whatever the cause—from major life event to no provocation at all—once a person starts panicking, it's hard to stop.

When a psychiatrist at an anxiety center said she could treat me, relief washed over me. We would use a technique called cognitive-behavioral therapy, which for me meant running in place until my heart rate went up enough to trigger a panic attack. Over time, this was supposed to desensitize me to panic, but after several weeks of awkward jogging, the psychiatrist noted, "Your symptoms seem to be getting worse." Though the program boasted a 95 percent success rate, I was the trembling, inconsolable 5 percent.

So I tried alternative therapies. I found a talk-show-celebrated expert on anxiety who reminded me how to breathe deeply and who attempted to rebalance my energy on a wobbly table. I visited a massage therapist who placed rose quartz over my heart. I took pottery lessons to ground myself, cooking lessons to nurture. I chanted with Zen Buddhists, sang hymns at a Unitarian Universalist church. I tried talk therapy, smile therapy, creative visualization. Some of these techniques helped; some only made things worse. But in the end, all roads led to the past, and I found myself confronting the part of my life I'd usually kept hidden: my years as a runaway.

I had grown up in New York and Maryland as a relatively normal kid—I loved my stuffed animals, played Blondie's "Rapture" until the record skipped, and won an award for a third-grade poem—but my parents staggered from rage. My father was a smooth-talking salesman who had quit college to support his parents; my mother was a soft-spoken housewife who, at the behest of her new mother-in-law, had cut off her golden waist-length hair and, with it, what little identity she had. I was an accident—seen as one more loss of freedom—that came two years into their marriage.

I don't know all of the reasons they were angry, but by the time I was 9, I knew violence the way some kids know bedtime stories. I knew how it felt to wake up and go to sleep afraid. It wasn't only me they hit: My parents fought each other with a vehemence one could almost mistake for love. Except it wasn't love. Sometimes you could hear them fighting all the way down the street.

That's how far I would go some days. I collected caterpillars and dandelions then, pressed my face to the grass and felt the warmth of the sun. I skirted the edge of the woods, or ventured back to the small creek. No matter what happened inside my home, the world outside wouldn't stop being beautiful. And I was learning that there was a certain power in assigning my own direction in my small but tangible piece of that world.

When I was 11, I ran away for the first time. My father had just ransacked my room, and I was scared I would get a beating. I didn't stop running until I reached a grocery store a couple of miles away. When the police found me three hours later, I begged them not to take me back, to no avail. Life quickly returned to its tumultuous norm, and my parents didn't change. But I did. Feeling the wind rush over me as I bolted, I got a sense of the distance I could put between them and me. So I kept running away, kept getting caught and taken back. Eventually I wastaken to group homes, psych wards, and detention centers, and I ran from those places, too.

I was 13 when I left home for good, finding ways to survive. Sometimes I slept on staircases of apartment buildings; more often, I slept in the beds of questionable men and women I met along the way. There was never a shortage of people aiming to take more than I was willing to give. I spent years moving between the streets and various state-run institutions until a merciful judge sent me to a place in the Cumberland mountains, where I met big-hearted kids full of dreams who were, like me, simply born unlucky. It's where I met adults who were kind to me without asking anything in return. And it's where I looked out at the distant blue peaks of the Appalachians and knew that finally, my life was changing. I was almost 16 when I left that place, the last institution I lived in. And for the first time, I felt free.

The few people I've told have asked the same question: How did I get out of it? I've never had a good answer, in part because there was no one thing that lifted me from the muck of it. There was my first job in a restaurant, my first apartment on the top floor of an old Victorian, and my first real boyfriend, who was tender and funny. There was a friend who brought me chocolate cake and poems. There was an older man who introduced me to the ocean and Joni Mitchell and beurre blanc sauce. There were the books I should have read in high school—Steinbeck, Salinger, Plath. There was the day I passed my high school equivalency test. And there was the day I went to my first college class—on a campus where I would later teach—ready to learn. Although my parents lived nearby and I saw them occasionally—my father now on his third marriage, my mother alone, both of them still angry—I held the gift of distance that running away gave me. It took years, but eventually I created the life I wanted. And now, inexplicably, fear was keeping me from living that life.

One day, I did not panic, though I did the next. But to have a day free from it was a message of its own: I was heading in the right direction. Sometimes we don't trust ourselves, so it's easy to believe that the power to heal lies in someone else's hands. But whether by supernatural means, or by our own inner wisdom and our own vibrant wills, we can get better. For me, the act of searching for answers, of trying one thing and then another, was more empowering than any other single thing, because I was taking control of my life, and that stood in direct opposition to the helplessness of panic. Simply, we change by trying to change; we heal by trying to heal.

Though running away from home nearly killed me more than once, it also saved my life. I didn't always make the right choices, but what mattered was that I was making choices, that my intention for love and health and balance was a kind of love and health and balance. It was what gave me one whole day without panic. Of fight-flight, it was the fight.

I stopped keeping my panic a secret. Each time I told someone about it, I felt myself get a little stronger, because I wasn't alone: Almost everyone I told either had panic attacks or knew someone who did. And in my compassion for them, I found compassion for myself. Once I truly understood that panic attacks weren't actually going to kill me, they began to lose their hold. Sometimes I would start to panic, but then I'd say, "No, you're OK," and the wave of fear would flatten out and recede. Sometimes I'd laugh when an attack started (it's nearly impossible to laugh and panic at the same time). Slowly, my brain began to relax, to stop perceiving everything as dangerous, and the more I put myself in situations that had once frightened me, the easier it became to continue reclaiming my life.

Aside from a residual fear of driving on certain highways, I don't have panic attacks anymore. I occasionally get anxious at other moments, but when I feel that familiar stir, I slow down and think about what might be triggering it. Sometimes relatively small things (a challenging conversation, a worry over some future event) can become the pea under the princess's mattress. And when it's more than that—when life deals real and inescapable struggles—I know that I can figure out how to move through them.

Adapted from Let the Tornado Come: A Memoir by Rita Zoey Chin (Simon & Schuster), to be published June 24.

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