The Guy Having a Panic Attack

Suffering from panic attacks since college has been bad enough. Even more difficult is the thought that my kids will inherit them.

We had saddled in for the two-hour car ride from Rhode Island to New Hampshire—where I live with my wife and two kids—after visiting my parents for Thanksgiving. My wife was driving, and my son and daughter were in the back seat; the three of them were singing holiday songs along with the radio.

I wasn’t singing “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”. Instead, I was dying.

♦◊♦

From the passenger seat, I felt it coming on. The claustrophobia provoked from being inside a car is commonly an impetus, so I tucked my head between my legs and tried to control my breathing.

As we passed Providence, the “Holy shit, I’m going to die” moment hit. I was convinced that I was going into cardiac arrest.

“Mommy, what’s wrong with Dad?” asked 7 year-old my son.

“He’s fine,” my wife said, eyes focused on the road, calm. “Dad is not feeling well.”

When it comes to describing panic attacks, euphemisms abound, especially when trying to describe it to kids because it’s impossible to rationally explain something so irrational.

Rationally, I knew this: I wasn’t having a heart attack. I’m a 37 year-old man, a jogger and average weight. I have good blood-pressure and low cholesterol; statistically speaking, I’m low-risk for a cardiac arrest. But I couldn’t catch my breath, and to compound the panic attack, my kids were watching their father suffer through an interminable bout of weakness, which is something—to many men and fathers—that is a fate worse than a heart attack.

“Daddy, are you all right?” my daughter, who is 9 years old, asked me.

I lifted my head, turned to her and said, “I don’t know.”

♦◊♦

I had my first panic attack when I was 21 years old, and it landed me in the emergency room. I was in college, and after a long night of boozing, I found myself pacing my apartment the next morning. My heart was palpitating, and I was pale and shaking, unable to swallow my own saliva.

Something, I thought, was seriously wrong.

In the ER, they stuck an IV in my arm, diagnosed me with dehydration, and told me to not drink so much. During the next four years, I wound up in the ER in three more times in three different states, for the exact same symptoms. Finally, an exhausted and overworked intern in Vegas told me I was having a panic attack and sent me home with prescription for Librium.

While sedatives certainly work in curbing panic attacks, they don’t address the core problems of anxiety, which are so ambiguously and elusive that identifying them is nearly impossible.

Since I’ve been diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder—whatever that’s worth—I’ve also been diagnosed with depression, agoraphobia, and I’m probably on the spectrum for Asperger’s Syndrome.

As is the American way, I tried taking Zoloft for a few months in my mid-20s, gained twenty pounds, and felt like I was living inside a cotton ball. So I stopped taking the pills and went back to exercising and writing poetry.

It was just as therapeutic, but the anxiety still went untreated.

♦◊♦

For me, the panic attacks are the worst physical manifestation of anxiety. And, as anyone who suffers from an anxiety disorder will tell you, it is nothing to be trivialized.

As human beings, however, a certain amount of anxiety is healthy and essential for our self-preservation. If we didn’t have fear and anxiety, we’d all be making impetuous and dangerous decisions, running into oncoming traffic. But an anxiety disorder is different. There is an inordinate amount of fear and a Prufrockian paralysis in social situations.

While I’ve always wanted to be the gregarious type in social situations, I’m not. I’ve come to accept that it is how I’m hardwired. But my inability to speak to someone, to say a hello, when my brain is screaming for me to extend myself is—to put it bluntly—fucked up.

With anxiety, the simplest social interactions can become Sisyphus’ rock. Going grocery shopping, ordering at a restaurant, or looking someone else in the eyes becomes complicated, and executing these tasks can be terrifying.

Hence, the panic attacks.

But the worse thing—especially as a man in a society that values stoicism—is the distinct feeling that I’ve lost control of my world. For me, there is nothing quite so emasculating as feeling like a victim, and when the hideous head of a panic attack peeks over my shoulder, that is exactly how I feel: a victim.

When my children are watching me get pummeled by a panic attack, I don’t feel like a man. I feel helpless and pathetic. I feel like I want to die, which, of course, I don’t.

♦◊♦

The other night, I watched my son meltdown at bedtime. He has a somewhat strange and Freudian attachment to his mom and doesn’t want to sleep in his own bed. My wife and I have been trying to get him to sleep alone, but he’s afraid.

I get it.

And were I more of a man, a man less paralyzed by his panic, I’d tell him to stand strong and stop being so weak. But I don’t. I push over in bed and let my son sleep.

Sometimes, when I look at him, I want to cry. I pray he hasn’t inherited whatever I have. I pray it never happens to him. I pray he never has to feel that hideous faces peek over his shoulder.

But I think he might.

And I’d like to think I’d tell him that people won’t see him as less of a man when his head in buried between his legs in the passenger seat and he’s struggling to breathe, believing against all rational evidence that he is dying.

Instead, I’ll probably tell him to be wary of dehydration.

 

Read more on Health, Psych & Addiction.

Image credit: LauraLewis23/Flickr

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About Nathan Graziano

Nathan Graziano lives in Manchester, New Hampshire. He is the author of three collections of poetry---Not So Profound (Green Bean Press, 2003), Teaching Metaphors (Sunnyoutside Press, 2007) and After the Honeymoon (Sunnyoutside Press, 2009)—a collection of short stories, Frostbite (GBP, 2002), and several chapbooks of fiction and poetry. A chapbook of short prose pieces titled Hangover Breakfasts was recently published by Bottle of Smoke Press this fall. For more information, visit his website at NathanGraziano,com.

Comments

  1. I am a woman and have several panic attacks in my life. I appreciated your article as it’s always somehow reassuring to hear stories from others who have gone through the similar terrifying and confusing experience. I would say, though, that is really has nothing to do with being a man or not. We all want to feel strong and confident, not only men. As a woman I also feel weak, ungrounded, and too fragile when I go through that experience. It’s really not a difference between ‘manly or not’. It’s a difference between ‘those who have experienced a panic attack, and those who have not’. If you have experienced that kind of thing, you will know there’s nothing rational about it. It’s a thing that happens for a myriad of unclear and mysterious reasons. I have compassion and sympathy for anyone who has gone through it – man, woman, and child. I can appreciate your perspective – And I also think you add another layer of complexity and stress to your life by self-juding it as un-manly. Take that judgement away, because it doesn’t need to be there. I am sure that anyone who has experienced a panic attack will not be judging anyone else who has. It’s a crazy world out there – Be good to yourself as you would to others, panic attacks and all.

  2. Tom Matlack says:

    Thanks for writing this awesome post Nathan. I struggled with panic attacks throughout my life but most profoundly when I was younger. My other problems (addiction, depression) took me to deeper depths so I have not really written about them. But several times–the first day of school. sleep away camp, getting beat up in junior high among probably a couple dozen others–my panic overcame me to the point that I could not function and physically shut down. It’s good to remember that I am not alone with this problem.

    • Nate Graziano says:

      Tom, it sounds like you also have what I call the trifecta: anxiety, depression and addiction. They really are interrelated and it becomes a chicken/egg conundrum trying to figure out which causes which, and vice-versa. I completely know where you’re coming from. The panic attacks have abated a bit as I’ve gotten a little older, but they still lurk around me, and it is terrifying.

  3. Thank You for this article. As a young university student, who suffers with depression and anxiety – its just nice to relate on some level – living in fear of future panic attacks is somewhat de-habilitating for me at this moment.

    • Nate Graziano says:

      Stay strong, Chris. It’s important to remember—or try to keep in perspective—that the symptoms you are feeling, although very real, are psychosomatic. I have found that yoga has helped me. Nevertheless, you’re not alone, Chris. Remember that.

  4. I like reading through a post that can make people think.
    Also, thank you for permitting me to comment!

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