It’s no secret: I suffer from panic attacks. But recently, they’ve been pretty well controlled to be honest. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had a really scary one for a looooong time.
Until last night, that is.
There they were again. The fear, the sweating, the heart racing, feeling unsettled, a little queasy, jumping at the slightest noise, the feeling of imminent doom. Not wanting to take off my glasses in bed, not wanting to be in the dark, not wanting to lie down. Not wanting to go to sleep. Being scared of going to sleep. No rest. Distracting myself with Candy Crush, sitting upright in bed, trying to breathe, and trying to count backwards from 1,000 over and over again. Failing at that. All the while panicking.
What triggered it?
I don’t really know. But with me it’s always “health”. I think it has been a combination of a lot of stuff: a friend’s husband suddenly being taken very ill, and he is still in hospital months later. I myself having to have some biopsies (which, so far, turned out to be all okay, thank goodness, but I had flashbacks to being at the breast clinic in 2012 when I was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer), then someone who had been so very kind to me after my husband’s death in 2009 dying suddenly in very similar circumstances – heart attack, completely unexpected, young. Just gone. His funeral taking place at the same crematorium where we had Martin’s cremation with a similar crowd of people. So many flashbacks. Another very young person – teenager, whose aunt I know so very well, younger than my own son – dying suddenly. So much grief. One of my best friends spending the time between Christmas and New Year in hospital, very ill, having lots of tests done. Then my own family feeling ill with various things over the holidays. Sore throats. Sore tummies. Coughs. Fevers… My dog throwing up. MINOR things, I get it. BUT…
You know this strategy many psychologists use of “What’s the worst case scenario?” – (queue hysterical laughter) Well, I don’t need to think about it, because – trust me – my head is already there, whether I want to or not. In less than a nanosecond. And constantly. Could this be Strep A? Children have been dying from that. It’s been all over the news. And they said there’s a shortage of antibiotics. Could it be Covid? People die from that. And last time we had it my husband was really ill with it – despite having had all of the vaccinations. And the hospitals are full, the NHS is struggling. That’s where my head goes. Straightaway. Death. Threat. Terror. Grief.
EVERY little thing feels like a constant, imminent, dangerous threat to my family. Because I know just how quickly life can change. Completely. In an instant. Have been there more than once. “Statistically highly unlikely”, they say. But what good are statistics if you are that low percentage?
I have no official diagnosis, but I’m convinced I have PTSD. Or at the very least, an overactive amygdala. Or maybe they are one and the same. Because to me, all these minor things feel like a horrific, dangerous, imminent threat, and everything in that moment scares me so much that I shake uncontrollably, feel an very real sense of doom, my heart races, I feel sick, I don’t want to be here, wish I wasn’t – and had never been – alive, and I have to force myself to keep breathing, to keep moving, to keep bringing myself back to the present. I have nightmares. Almost every night, so much so, that, in the past, I have been frightened to go to sleep. It’s ANNOYING. And UNHELPFUL. And I DON’T WANT TO FEEL THIS WAY. I don’t want to “pass this on” to my children. I can already see it happening. And I don’t want to feel like this any more. Never again.
I had done so well these past few months, possibly even years. Back in 2012, when I was still on active cancer treatment, I had some amazing support from Maggie’s Edinburgh, including some one-to-one support from a wonderful psychologist. She once said to me – after my successful treatment – “So there are three rooms; the cancer room, the waiting room, and the well room. You are in the waiting room. Why are you choosing not to sit in the well room?” Over these past 10 years, I had worked so hard to sit in the well room. To not constantly expect the worst to happen. To not constantly look over my shoulder. To not be frightened to be happy, because ‘this is when it catches you unawares’… And I had succeeded! I was much improved. But something happened over these past 4 or 5 days that lowered my defences. That made me lose my resilience. My trust in the universe. I don’t think it was any single one thing, but rather a combination of ‘too much’, too many examples that had proved my constant fear right. That ‘the worst’ can and does happen all of the time…
I know the amygdala is there to protect us. To spot danger and to react quickly. But how can I calm it down again? How can I tell her that it’s okay? I feel like the Japanese soldier who refused to believe that World War II was over and didn’t surrender until decades later. Who didn’t trust that everything really WAS okay.
How can I trust again? Because ultimately bad things will happen. My family, my friends, and even I will die. We all will. I get that. But I want to enjoy the bits in between. Want to enjoy the ride. Want to be my best authentic self. Want to experience joy and lust and love and laughter and craziness of the best kind, spontaneous adventure, skinny dips, sunrises, sunsets, good talks, holding hands with no words, hugs, sparkling eyes, and laughter lines that show how good life is and can be.
And therein might just lie my answer.
Focus on the present.
Focus on facts.
Focus on what IS, rather than what COULD be (all the while my head screaming ‘what WILL be!’)
Don’t believe everything I think.
Reminding myself of all the times I felt threatened AND IT WAS OKAY. The worst thing didn’t happen.
Reminding myself of feeling well. Of being happy. Feeling joy. Feeling carefree. In German, there is a great word: “Kopfkino” – it literally means “head cinema”. I want the film I’m watching in my head to be all the best bits, the cheeky bits, the joyful bits, the bits that make me grin with pleasure, intimate moments, precious memories, special people – with only a sprinkle of the bits that weren’t so good. Because if you add them all up, that’s how life truly is! It’s only my head that gives the hard bits most or all of the space…
The word ‘life-altering’ popped into my head whilst writing the previous sentence. Interestingly enough, it was in relation to ‘the hard bits’. Why?
Firmly deciding to focus on the good bits in life, to live in the present and to live well is also life-altering. For the very much better. So I shall (try and) do that.
Love and hugs.
Published on Jan 3, 2023
Thanks for posting this vulnerable blog post. I can relate to catastrophizing for sure. I’m glad your books exist to have those hard conversations that are so needed with kids when life takes an unexpected turn. Wrestling with both the short and long term effects of death and grief is a journey and grateful to have guidance.