Ever had one?  You may have had one without even knowing it.  One website I found estimates that approximately 2.4 million adult Americans suffer from panic attacks.  I’m not sure how they measured this number, but I’m willing to bet it’s much higher.

Some people have recurring panic attacks due to stress.  Others have them in response to a scary event or a thought they can’t shake.  Still others think they are having a heart attack, a seizure, an allergic reaction or that they’re choking, and they are never able to identify that what they experienced was momentary, irrational, and due to anxiety, whether or not something scary at the time brought it on.

I’ve had panic attacks.  I’m not sure when I had the first, though maybe it was while being prepped for an invasive outpatient medical procedure about five years back.  The nurse left me alone and I couldn’t tell whether I was having an allergic reaction to something topical or if I was having a panic attack.  Here’s what happened.  My heart began beating VERY very fast.  So fast that I could barely breathe.  I thought I was going to die.  I writhed, touched my face, my chest, and tried to take deep breaths through my nose to slow my heartbeat down.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t call for a nurse in the position I was in and was too afraid if I screamed I would stop breathing, so I closed my eyes, continued breathing and prayed the nurse would come back in before I died.  A few minutes later, it was all over.  Lesson learned – whether I’m nervous or getting any kind of new medication before a procedure, I’m never letting the nurse leave again.

I realized that I was for sure having panic attacks a few years ago.  I had just found out that an old college friend had passed away alongside his girlfriend after their car was hit by a drunk driver.  It’s important to note that we weren’t close; hadn’t spoken since the end of my sophomore year.  He was two years ahead of me, and I would never have known him if I hadn’t tried out to be a writer for the campus sketch comedy TV show – and failed.  He was the director at the time, and I was encouraged to audition to be one of the show’s actresses instead.  Because of him, I ended up finding my college niche.  Thereafter I spent nights and weekends surrounded by a talented and devoted group of comedians and filmmakers, as well as enthusiastic crew members who just wanted to be a part of the family.  We were like a family, for sure.  It was not without drama; some didn’t always get along, me included.  It was stressful at times.  But I have memories to last a lifetime, songs that remind me of scenes I helped edit, quotes that still sneak up on me today as inside jokes…it was my college life, and this friend gave me that gift.  If it weren’t for NSTV, I’m not sure how my college experience would have panned out.  I may have floundered, trying out different student groups, but I’m not sure any of them would have been my home quite like NSTV.

Sam (that was his name) had moved out to L.A. just like I had.  I often thought about getting in touch with him, but to be honest, I wasn’t sure he’d remember me, and wasn’t sure we really had much in common anymore without the cloak of NSTV.  So I never found him on Facebook.  And a part of me regrets that, though it’s not like we’d have formed a new friendship or bond.  I’m just sad at how things turned out.

I attended his L.A. memorial service which definitely gave me some closure, but after that, I had these horrible images in my head that I couldn’t shake.  Did he see the car coming?  Did he try to swerve away?  Was he in pain?  Did he know he was going to die? 

For reasons I still can’t explain, I requested to be Sam’s friend on Facebook after his death.  I knew the request would never be accepted…I guess maybe I wanted him to know, wherever he was, that he was not forgotten and that his life, and the very brief moment I was in it, meant a lot to me.

The panic attacks started after that.  I’d be driving on the freeway, thinking about Sam or not thinking about anything at all, and there’d be this flash, like I’d blacked out for a second, and then I’d start sweating; my heart would beat fast.  Sometimes I’d think part of my face was going numb.  I’d get “dry mouth” and then I’d find it hard to swallow.  I’d become hyperaware.  One time, I actually called my husband Greg when I got home to tell him I couldn’t swallow and was looking at my throat to see if it was swelling.  The sad part is that I was pretty sure I was having a panic attack.  But I became irrational, lost in the swirling whirlpool of my fear, and I couldn’t fight my way out.  I watched TV till Greg came home and the feeling went away.  But every so often it returned, always while I was driving.  For a long time.

Sam’s death also made me afraid of car accidents.  I might have been afraid of them before, but the feeling intensified.  I don’t like going fast.  I like leaving space between me and the next guy.  Bluntly put, I don’t want to die in a car accident, and I don’t want to take anyone else’s life that way either.  And I’m afraid of it because I saw firsthand just a portion of the lives that Sam affected – at least a hundred or more – and how sad they were.  I know many accidents are just that – accidents.  No one’s fault; a split-second mistake.  Not intentional.  Just a thing that happened.  But how many lives that affects…the very thought makes me panic.

I haven’t had a panic attack while driving in a very long time.  I think talking to my parents (while using my Bluetooth, of course) helped distract me from my thoughts and enough time has passed that the images in my head of Sam’s accident have dwindled away. 

But for those of you who have suffered from panic attacks, know that you’re not alone and you’re not crazy.  It IS possible to talk yourself through it, and one of the best remedies I’ve ever heard is to wear a rubber band around your wrist.  The next time you feel a panic attack coming on, snap it.  Your brain will focus on the pain and you may just snap out of it.