Panic attacks, the extreme form of which I first experienced two years ago and subsequently suffered with on and off since then. They came out of nowhere, literally knocked the air out of my lungs, and there began my anxiety disorder.
The first time I had a severe panic attack I didn’t know what was happening. One minute I was in my bedroom talking to my husband, the next minute I couldn’t breathe. My chest constricted, I couldn’t get any air into my lungs, I was gasping for air but it didn’t feel like I could get any into me. I grabbed at the furniture trying to move my body into a position to get air into my lungs, I was making loud gasping sounds, terrified.
My husband called an ambulance as I fell to the floor still unable to breathe.
After a few minutes my lungs relaxed slightly, I managed to get a few shallow breaths into my lungs. The paramedics arrived.
The emotion then washed over me, and the tears started rolling. I felt numb and felt like I was existing outside of my body. But the hot fat tears just rolled.
The paramedics did their checks, making sure my heart and lungs were ok. They could hear a slight tiny wheeze on my lungs so referred me to an out-of-hours clinic. It was a Saturday.
Feeling fragile, exhausted, and scared, not knowing what was happening we sat in the waiting room at the clinic. There a doctor saw us after a long wait and diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder, he prescribed diazepam to keep me calm and an instruction to see my GP.
The following week my GPs prescribed beta-blockers to keep my heart rate down but my request for a proper mental health assessment and therapy were turned down for the moment.
On I plodded in a daze, trying to get through work and the various speaking gigs I had. For the most part, I handled my work ok, but sometimes out of nowhere I would have a panic attack.
I could be casually watching TV and suddenly my lungs would constrict, I would leap up and grab the side of some furniture or the window sill and try to expand my lungs whilst I wheezed and gasp out loudly trying to get air. It would last for a few minutes at a time and then the uncontrollable tears would just pour.
It was scary and disorientating.
So how did I end up as a heap on the floor Birmingham New Street station?
It was a Saturday in November. I was booked to speak at a large blogging conference in London. I was speaking on behalf of another organisation, something I had done numerous times over the years. I was a pretty confident public speaker and had done this presentation many times before.
As usual, my husband dropped me off at Birmingham New Street station. I was due to meet my friend on the train, a fellow blogger speaking at the conference. We had booked seats on the same carriage of the train, and I was looking forward to having a natter on the journey down.
I queued up at the ticket machine to pick up my pre-booked tickets. An error message appeared. I took to the queue at the ticket office. It was a busy Saturday. There were a lot of people there. It was busy. The time was getting close to my train departure. I needed to be quick. I’d probably have to run to the platform, not ideal but something I’ve done many a time.
The ticket lady informed me that my ticket had already been issued. Confused I rummaged through my purse but couldn’t find anything. I pleaded with her to reissue my tickets but she couldn’t. A new ticket was going to cost another £50/60. I was now panicking, I couldn’t remember getting my tickets already, I didn’t have them on me, my train was about to depart along with my friend on it.
I was asked to move along.
In a daze, I walked out of the ticket office and it all became a blur. The next thing I know I’m on the floor of the train station trying to breathe, gasping loudly for air. People walk past. A few ticket agents glance over. Eventually, a police officer finds me and asks if I’m ok, I must have called Raj at some point as I handed the policeman my phone and he spoke to Raj who told him I was having a severe panic attack.
I don’t remember much else except that my face was hot and wet from the tears pouring out my eyes. I somehow ended up in the customer services area and an ambulance was on its way.
As my consciousness comes back I become aware of what’s happened. I try to tell the staff I’ve had a panic attack and we find my medication in my handbag. I beg them to turn the ambulance away, I can’t bear the feeling that I might be taking up valuable ambulance time. I try to speak as calmly as possible to reassure them that I don’t need an ambulance, and thankfully they believe me.
My husband arrives, and I’m not quite sure what happens after. What I do know is that I make it down to London that day and he comes with me.
I feel horrendously guilty for letting my friend down and not making the train we had booked onto. I feel guilty that my husband has to take a day from his own plans to accompany me to London. And I feel guilty that I don’t feel present at the conference. I experience this detached, out-of-body experience as I attempt to talk to people I know, my peers in the industry. I also meet several celeb-types in the green room, but it’s all just a blur.
My time to run my session comes around, and thankfully a different part of my brain steps up and I host a great presentation. It’s one of the few things I know I can do well. In the end, I don’t let anyone down professionally and I’m able to hold my head up high there.
But that would be the last time I do any public speaking for a while.
For two years since then I’ve been passed from doctor to doctor, being constantly ‘assessed’, ignored, made to wait, re-assessed, ignored some more, not listened to, and ultimately left untreated.
I still take beta-blockers which artificially keep my heart rate slow. This keeps most of the panic attacks at bay, but I do get the odd one every now and then. They are deeply unpleasant experiences, they are scary and disorientating and every time I have one I feel like I lose a little bit more of myself.
The knock-on effects of this are how withdrawn I’ve become. The scare of having such a public and severe panic attack is almost debilitating. Even unknowingly I have actively avoided situations where I might be at risk of a having a panic attack. I mean, it’s not surprising, my panic attack at the train station made me vulnerable, I blacked-out, and couldn’t take care of myself, even if it was only for a few minutes. I never want to feel like that again, let alone in a public place.
I’ve been to a few social activities over the past two years. I don’t really do blogging conferences or events.
I’ve avoided anything that might upset me, just in case it triggers a panic attack.
Writing this all down is an almost cathartic process. I wanted to share the realities of panic attacks, anxiety disorders, and how that looks in a real-world situation. But writing this down has helped me realise just how debilitating this illness has been on my entire life. And that’s kind of sad.
Every now and then I become aware of how withdrawn these panic attacks have made me, so I’ll try to challenge myself and do something independently. Sometimes it works such as a day trip down to London on my own. Other times, such as a press trip to Thailand, I have another panic attack (yeah, that was not fun either).
But as always, when I share things of a personal nature like this, I do so because I am pretty sure I am not alone in this. I want to share my experience so that maybe you might not feel so alone if you feel this way. Or maybe you want to understand someone who goes through the panic attacks and anxiety disorders.
Either way, I want mental illnesses to be talked about in a frank, open, and matter-of-fact kind of way.
We need to lose the stigma. I am not weak, I have an illness. An illness that has been mistreated, ignored, untreated, and stigmatised for too long.
I have finally found a therapist to work with. Albeit we have had to go private as the NHS has repeatedly let me down, and I am very aware of the privilege I have to be able to pay for private healthcare.
I am still in the very early days of therapy and I know there is a long old road to travel down. And I think if I am totally honest it might get worse to get better.
However, I am committed to the process, and I have hope for a fully functioning healthy brain at some point in my life.
Mental health needs to be a top priority for us as human beings. As much as we are aware of our physical health, we must take care of our minds.
I am on this long old journey figuring out what works, what makes for a healthy person that includes physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. And I passionately want to share with you the amazing discoveries I make. But I can only do that by sharing where I come from.
If there is anything you can take from my story today it’s this, be kind to yourself and be kind to others. Who knows what we are all going through. So let’s start from a place of kindness.
Thank you for reading some of my story.
Until next time…
If you think you might have a mental illness please get in touch with your GP or call 111 (the non-emergency healthline in the UK)