I was so looking forward to the Jodi Picoult evening – one of my favourite authors, here in Cape Town, and I was going to get to be in her presence and hear her read from her latest book and maybe even ask her a question. I’d looked forward to it all day.
So I headed out alone to Cavendish on Friday evening, and as I stepped into the lift to go down to the lower ground floor I had a flash thought.
If you suffer from panic attacks you might know what I mean – in the middle of all your normal everyday thoughts, even on a happy day on the way to doing something fun, there’s a Thought. It could be related to a physical symptom like “wow I feel a little out of breath for no reason” or it could be a momentary feeling of suspended realism – a déjà vu moment perhaps – or even a weird thought like “what would happen if I fainted? Or screamed?”. Perhaps people who don’t have panic attacks have these random thoughts too but they are so fleeting that before there is even the chance to examine the thought it’s gone and replaced by a regular thought, and they don’t think about it again. Not always so in my case. I have this thought as I get in the lift “huh… it’s been an age since I went to a public event like this on my own.” – not a bad thought in itself. But the thought sends a mini shock wave through me which I try to ignore.
And for a while it’s fine.
Until I get to the bookstore where I need to go to collect my pre-paid ticket for the evening. I stand in the queue and the lights seem unrealistically bright. It kind of freaks me out. And when I get to the counter my voice sounds loud and awkward. But it must be in my head because the assistant doesn’t look at me askance, she hands me the ticket with a smile and tells me where the event is being held, at a tea shop on the same floor.
I head there and it is a small space crammed with lots of people all talking at once, and they all seem to know someone else. I get a drink and walk around aimlessly, trying to ignore the worm of anxiety crawling in my tummy. But the more I try ignore it the more I feel the mounting, pointless feeling of dread rising up.
It really pisses me off.
You see there’s this one part of me becoming mindlessly afraid of basically nothing, while the sensible part, the part knows this pattern so well (I had my first panic attack the week after my sister died in 1989) has its hands on its hips and is saying “Oh this is ridiculous. It’s shadows and mirrors, you KNOW this, deal with it so we can enjoy the evening, would you?” But the other side isn’t listening. It’s too busy noticing that I have found my way into the middle of this crowd of loud laughing women and it’s starting to feel claustrophobic. So I get the heck out of that area and head back to the drinks table just outside the door and then Jodi is introduced and starts her interesting, funny, entertaining and self deprecating talk and all I want to do it listen. But the panic is now set in and there’s no out, there is only through.
Years ago I would have fled by now and found my way back to my car and cried. But I have learnt some coping techniques through the years so the first thing I do is quietly text my mom, who has walked this same path : “Annoyingly, I’m having a panic attack in the middle of this event” She texts back right away “Will say a prayer for you – can you go for a walk for a few minutes to clear your head?” I don’t reply, just knowing she knows, just saying it makes me feel a little better already. But it’s not over. I feel the tide of panic wash over me and I pass through it while eating my way through about 8 mini nougats from a bowl on the drinks table (it helps to DO something practical, and sometimes low blood sugar triggers these things) then when my legs begin to feel like total jelly I spy someone leaving one of the few chairs available and I sit down quickly and a sweet old lady sits next to me and begins nattering about her own book she’s just finished writing. I can’t hear Jodi but that’s ok because now someone has ‘seen’ me, I am not invisible, I really am here and it chases the last threads of fear away. Then I manage to stand again and head back inside and enjoy the rest of the talk, and even stay a while after to take photos of Jodi signing books.
Panic attacks really make me annoyed. They slip in a back door of my mind when I’m tired, or hungry, or perhaps have been dealing with home stress and my guard is down. And they have this habit (if I allow them) of spoiling my fun. Years ago they got so bad I was agoraphobic for a few weeks, but that was before I had educated myself in how to cope and how to fake normality just long enough to get back to normal. And I am glad I learned to deal with them without resorting to medication. Cognitive therapy and self education have given me a way through.
These days I get perhaps 3 to 5 panic attacks a year.