Tag Archive: panic attacks


Full Disclosure

Sure, I’ve been writing a blog about fears that people in other cities, states and countries have been reading.  I’ve talked about my fear of ziplining, my fear of insects, my fear of driving fast and my fear of throwing up.  And everything I’ve expressed has been true, personal and honest. 

But I think thus far I’ve really only been spewing out fears that I know many people can relate to.  They’re common fears and it’s easy for me to write about them here, without judgment, because in the moment that my words are coming across the page, no one is trying to make me do anything about them.  I can’t see the odd looks on my friends’ faces or hear the creeped-out whistles or have anyone giggle at me and point.  You can only read and listen and I can feel proud that I’ve gotten the words out on the page, no matter how much hemming and hawing preceded them.

But this week I think I truly realized how hard it is having one fear in particular exposed.  Folks, I’ve got a fear of deep water, and perhaps, underneath all that, a slight fear of drowning.

Why

My parents are not to blame.  They forced me into swimming lessons as soon as I was old enough, and at the age of 4 or 5, I wouldn’t put my face underwater…not for a long, long time.  I jumped off the diving board at our community pool only once because my swim instructor PROMISED me she’d catch me at the bottom.  Only she didn’t.  I yelled at her and cried.  How can you break a little kid’s promise when they’re TERRIFIED???  It isn’t like riding a bike.  You can see the sidewalk and you know what will happen if you fall.  But the depths of the rippling pool beneath me were too much to bear.

Despite that event, I continued to go to the pool with my family, even jumping off the side of the pool into the shallow end (frowned upon by many lifeguards).  I continued taking swimming lessons and had perfect backstroke form, even perfect breaststroke form.  There was just one problem:  I couldn’t breathe.  I was told to blow bubbles out of my nose, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t get enough air out, and when I came up for air, I had to exhale before inhaling again, which tired me out after only a few strokes, and I’d have to stand up and start again. 

The result?  I can’t REALLY swim.  And it wasn’t for lack of trying.  I think I was in swimming lessons for 5 or 6 summers, but I could never advance.  And once my instructor told me I needed to start shaving my legs, I was done.

Still, my friend taught me to turn flips in the pool.  Once I learned that trick it’s all I did in a pool…that, and play catch and dog paddle around and float on my back.  I never even learned how to properly tread water.

The Event that Scarred me for Life

One summer, I was entertaining myself in the pool and my mom was sitting over on the lounge chairs reading a book.  I flipped underwater and opened my mouth by accident…and inhaled water.  Instantly my nose and throat began burning and when I surfaced I. COULDN’T. BREATHE.  I coughed and coughed but no air was getting in.  I thought I was going to drown.  I somehow got myself to the side of the pool and eventually choked up water.  But you know what?  NO ONE SAW.  No lifeguard came to my aid.  No other kid in the pool alerted anyone or swam over to me to make sure I was all right.  And I think that was scarier than nearly drowning…the fact that no one was watching.  It’s why I don’t really like swimming in lakes or oceans to this day.  People get immersed in their own thing and even if you’ve got a swimming buddy, they may not notice in time that you’re in trouble.  The thought of knowing that you can’t breathe, that you’re going to drown and someone is within earshot and you can’t call out…honestly, it’s just too much.

To top it all off, a young child drowned while in the kiddie pool at my swim club, just 12 or so inches of water with parents all around.  Years later while in a writing class in high school, one of my classmates wrote a poem about his baby brother and how he drowned.  It was the same kid, and I always thought about him, even though I wasn’t there that day at the pool, even though I didn’t know him.  I just couldn’t believe that in the midst of lifeguards and adults, some poor little boy could have suffered and drowned.

High School Humiliation

Like most kids, I dreaded going to gym class.  The ugly uniforms, the public display of my unathleticism and the daily dance of trying to hide my body while changing in the locker rooms…I think I’ve mostly blocked the shame and embarrassment out of my memory. 

But the dread was worse when I became a junior.  You see, juniors and seniors had to enroll in one swimming class per semester, and not only was I going to have to figure out how to hide my body while getting naked and putting on a swimsuit, but I was going to have to swim.  In front of others.  In a pool that was mostly deep end. 

I was a really good student.  Raised my hand all the time in class.  Participated in tons of after-school activities…speech team, theatre board, plays, band, orchestra…you name it, I was doing it.  I was good at a lot of things, and the things I wasn’t good at, well, I could fake them.  Except for swimming.  My face flushed the first day our gym teacher had us swim laps.  I couldn’t.  With the way I breathed, I didn’t have the stamina.  I didn’t know how.  I was the only kid hanging out with a special instructor in the shallow end.

For an assessment, I actually tried as HARD as I could to swim a lap, but during the test I kicked so hard that I started having a major muscle spasm in my leg and had to stop.  My teacher accused me of just trying to get out of it.  I got a note and limped to my next class, and THAT teacher accused me of faking being late.  She hated me, but that’s another story.  It’s just all part of the gym class swimming humiliation.

No, I Don’t Own Water Wings

I currently have a pool downstairs at my condo that I have, on occasion, taken a dip in.  But I stick to the shallow end for the most part.  I’m NOT afraid of the water itself.  And I’m more comfortable in pools than I am in actual bodies of water with roaring waves to unsteady my footing.

Last year, my husband and I took a trip to Hawaii and decided to go snorkeling.  I pushed that thought to the back of my mind.  Because not only would I be wearing a bikini in public for the first time, not only would I be swimming in the ocean, not only was I going to have to breathe through a snorkeling tube and put a mask on my face, but I was going to have to swim WITH FISH. 

I am not AFRAID of fish.  I think they’re pretty; I also eat sushi.  But what if I touched one?  Ew ew ew ew ew!  What if it brushed against my leg?

All of this and more came to a head at Hanauma Bay, the premier place for snorkeling on Oahu.  I put the mask on, waved to the camera, floated and — NO!  The minute I felt water touch the tip of the nose part on my mask, I was up.  Clearly it was going to go up my nose, I’d inhale it, choke and drown.  I tried again and again and again.  It took me nearly an hour to finally realize that that loud sound coming through the tube was normal — it was not Darth Vader; it was just me breathing air.  Not water.  The cold water outside my mask was just that — outside.  And I wasn’t going to drown in 4 feet of water at low tide. 

Once I got the hang of it, it didn’t stop me from having panic attacks.  The safety video we watched before snorkeling warned us to stay off the corals.  However, it was nearly impossible not to swim over them at low tide and get stuck while trying not to injure the colorful stripey fish.  I had constant panic attacks where I needed to stand up and catch my breath above the surface.  Sure, I pushed through my fear and was proud, but that doesn’t mean I “got better.”  I am not miraculously cured of the fears associated with snorkeling.  I can’t make a panic attack go away or stop hyperventilating within the mask and tube once I start.

Do I WANT to go snorkeling again?  Sure!  But on my terms in a place where I can be comfortable and secure in knowing that I can stand up, pop my mask off and calm myself down again.

For those who have major anxieties and fears, I am sure that even if you’re a great swimmer and don’t fear anything to do with the water, you can agree that your fears are your own.  And you might not want them out in the open, discussed, and probed.  You don’t want to be pushed into doing things that make you uncomfortable; if you choose to conquer your fears you’ll do them on your own terms in your own time. 

This past week, I was a mess over having my fears of deep water and snorkeling exposed to just a few people…and I’m pretty sure they all knew about my water insecurities already.  But here I am sharing them all with you.  It’s not funny that I never became a strong swimmer or never figured out how to breathe properly (I DID find out I have a deviated septum that might make that more difficult, by the way) or am afraid to have fish touch me underwater even though I was totally cool swimming with a dolphin in a pool.  And it’s not sad.  You don’t have to feel sorry for me.  I don’t feel I’m missing out and MAYBE one day I’ll learn or conquer that fear.  And just because that day is not today, it doesn’t mean I’m a failure.  I might just be the bravest person you’ve ever (or never) met.

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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.