At the time my first panic attack hit me, I was around 21 years old and living the life I thought I wanted. I had a job, an apartment, a boyfriend and made my own decisions, which would later play a role in my disorder.
I remember the day it hit. I was on my living room couch spending time with my then-boyfriend, smoking marijuana. Waiting for the high, I began to feel a strange sensation in my left arm. It felt like waves of numbness from my hands to my shoulder. My heart began to race. Immediately I knew something was very wrong. This shouldn’t happen with pot. Could it have been laced with PCP? By this time my thoughts were hazy, and I was scared.
Me: “Call an ambulance.”
Me: “Call an ambulance!”
He fumbled to get the phone, dialed 911 and handed it to me. He didn’t stay very long after that. I was left alone talking to the emergency dispatcher, and I remember their tone of voice changing when I told them I had been smoking pot. They didn’t seem to care now.
The hospital ran tests, and fortunately, the marijuana had not been laced. But then why did I feel like I was having a heart attack?
The fuzzy, hazy feeling in my head that one gets when smoking pot wouldn’t go away days after that incident. I wasn’t able to think straight. It felt like my thoughts were cloudy. I called into work and asked for an immediate two-week vacation because I honestly could not concentrate. I halted any form of substance abuse in order to feel normal again, and almost 10 years later, I credit that experience for keeping me away from street drugs.
My stepmother noticed the difficulty I was having and told me to go with her to Mexico for holistic treatment. I was in a constant state of worry, and I went with her in hopes of getting better. I left my apartment, my boyfriend, my job and the country.
A holistic specialist gave me a little bottle of pills that didn’t seem to help much in the end. I stayed in Mexico for a short time, and I felt like I was in a movie while walking through the streets. Detached from myself. It felt like I had no control over my body and even wondered how I was able to perform simple functions like walking or moving my arms. I didn’t understand involuntary body movements like breathing. At times, I would consciously try to breathe in and out, as if my body wouldn’t think to do it on its own.
I never did go back to my job, the apartment or the boyfriend.
Once back in Texas, I went to live with my dad, and throughout a period of about 6 months, things got worse. I had developed an inability to sleep throughout the night. Falling asleep alone was a horrifying experience. I felt a constant dread, an irrational sense of doom. I thought I was going to die in my sleep, so falling asleep was difficult.
Then a panic attack would wake me up. Imagine being in a deep sleep and someone violently shakes you awake. That scared, racing-heart feeling was what it felt like. I had to sleep wherever people were just in case I had a panic attack. I was essentially a little kid again sleeping on the floor of my parents’ bedroom or on the couch during the day so people would be around me.
The tipping point was one night when I tried to fall asleep. My body felt like it was a balloon floating away from itself. My thoughts were racing so fast that I wanted to bang my head against the wall just to make it stop.
I called the cops.
I was prescribed Buspirone, an anxiety medication that allowed me to be weaned off of it over time.
It took time to figure out the triggers for my panic attacks. I learned how to manage them, and along with therapy and lifestyle changes, the frequency of panic attacks was reduced. I haven’t had one now in years, but I still have times where I place two fingers on my neck to check my pulse if I’m starting to feel some form of anxiety. I guess some habits are harder to break.