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.
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