Hi everyone! Here on the blog today is Shalena to candidly talk about one of her experiences having a panic attack. I hope you will all enjoy this honest post.
CW: detailed discussion of mental illness including depression, panic attacks, and suicidal ideation; use of drowning metaphors; detailed description of a panic attack, asthma attack, nose bleed, calling and interacting with emergency services, and going to the hospital
Over the last ten years I’ve had a handful of panic attacks. Most were mild, and when they weren’t, regaining stability usually involved curling up into a blanket burrito in my safe place until the panic passed. Sometimes I reached out to loved ones and they gave me additional support and security that helped me through.
Nothing beyond my general depression and anxiety seem to trigger my panic attacks; they just happen. Luckily, they are few and far between and while sometimes painful and inconvenient, not too difficult to manage.
Except for once, when I had the granddaddy of panic attacks on October 16, 2016.
The day started out a little stressful. I woke up later than I had intended, so I dressed and ran out the door to make it on time to the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, Tennessee. Thankfully I made it with a little time to spare and had a great day listening to and meeting authors (and buying books, of course).
I was done at the event around 4:00pm, and I was tired and hot from all the walking, but happy. As I walked back to my car at a nearby parking garage, I answered a phone call from a loved one and we got into an argument. I got upset, and my body’s natural response to this is to start crying.
Even after the call was done and with the car’s A/C blowing in my face, I couldn’t get a handle on my feelings or my body’s reaction to them. It was about that point I realized I hadn’t taken any of my daily medications because I’d rushed out of the house that morning. This meant I was fighting to control conditions – depression, anxiety, and asthma – which I always need medication to alleviate.
I tried a few different methods of calming down, but nothing worked. My brain and body fixated on every bad thing, creating an ocean of every terrible thought and feeling I’ve ever had about myself; an ocean I was lost in. Wave after wave of panic tossed me about. Whenever I thought I’d gotten my head above water, another rolled over me and down I sank again.
My sobs turned to wails then to howls. Drowning in my own brain and howling with anguish made it difficult to breathe. That ocean of terrible thoughts pressed against me. Every muscle in my chest ached, and with every tiny inhale, my chest caved, like my sternum was trying to meet my spine.
The mental and physical pain were severe and I couldn’t stop them. Then it happened. I thought about killing myself. I visualized ramming my running car into the nearest wall of the parking garage, could feel the gas pedal inches from my foot, waiting to be smashed down. Thankfully, some small part of my brain had separated itself from the panic and pain.
It’s a strange thing to have two brains at once: the one that has been taken over by something you can hardly name, and the other, the true you, clinging to sanity. That part of me stood on the shore, screaming, “We survived this before! Keep fighting!”
That part of me made me turn off the car and take the keys out of the ignition.
While this was safer, it also turned off the car’s A/C, which didn’t help my physical condition at all. But I wasn’t about to roll the windows down for some air. I didn’t want anyone to see me like this. Just the thought of some well-intentioned stranger coming up to my car worsened my panic because of the potential embarrassment. I say this as someone who never gets embarrassed by anything; that’s how bad it was.
Amid the gasping for air and trying to stay sane, I had to keep blowing my nose and wiping my face because of all the snot and tears rolling out of me. But then I missed a big droplet of snot that hit my t-shirt. I looked at my shirt and noticed it had changed color. It wasn’t snot.
My nose poured blood. I hadn’t had a nose bleed in well over a decade and this was no simple bleed; it was a gush, strong and constant. I was freaked. On top of the panic, all I could think was that my brain is drowning, I can’t breathe, and now I’m bleeding. And none of this was about to stop anytime soon.
I had to get help.
I couldn’t get out of my car. Because I was so crumpled by the panic and lack of oxygen, it was difficult to move anything but my arms. But I had my phone. I was in Nashville, not my home, and I didn’t know anyone in the city well-enough to call on them.
I only had one real option. It took me a few minutes to finally do it, but with whatever little courage I could dredge up, I dialed 911.
I’ve never called 911 in my life before this. But I did it.
The voice on the other end of the phone was friendly but to the point, “911, what’s your emergency?”
The rational part of my brain had figured out what to say, so between heaving breaths I said, “I am in extreme emotional distress and need help.” That was all it took. The operator seemed to understand what that meant and started getting details from me about where I was. Luckily, I was in the parking garage connected to the Nashville Public Library and could see the level number on the wall in front of me. I described my car and answered questions as best I could. She spoke in a calm voice and tried to soothe me and had me stay on the phone until help arrived.
The first people to arrive at my car were police. I remember three or four officers being around, but two mainly spoke to me. One was on my side of the car, shining a flashlight around the interior and relaying my condition to the other officers which were radioing whoever they radio. This officer immediately noticed the blood on my shirt and I told him about my nose bleed. One of them asked if I was suicidal and I explained why I’d taken the keys out of the ignition. They seemed to understand that while I’d had a suicidal thought, I wasn’t in immediate danger of self-harm.
The officer on the other side of my car asked if I had any weapons and it was then I remembered a box cutter in the glove compartment. He removed it. They complimented me on doing the right things and calling for help.
All the while I was still in panic mode, crying and struggling to breathe. They had the security guard drive one of those ATV vehicles up to my car and helped me into it. They drove me down to the main level, but some issue was keeping the ambulance away and another officer gave me a paper bag to breathe into and tried soothing me. All of the officers treated me with care and didn’t make my situation worse, something I was extremely grateful for.
I finally made it into the ambulance and the EMTs were also nice and helpful. They had to ask me a bunch of questions, which they apologized for, but they talked to me like I was a normal human being, even when I had trouble focusing and talking. We got to the hospital and the EMTs explained my situation to the ER nurses and then left, wishing me luck.
At this point, I was so exhausted that I’d stopped gasping for breath, but I was still intermittently crying and my chest felt like I’d been run over multiple times.
Finally I was in a hospital bed in the emergency room. I’m not sure who I saw first, a nurse probably, and I had to go over everything that happened again. Then a doctor came and I had to repeat a lot of what I’d just told the nurse. An administrative person came in and had me go over and sign some forms.
The doctor returned and gave me some medication that helped calm me down. I actually chuckled when she told me what it was called because one of my characters in the novel I’m working on takes it. That’s really the only time anyone looked at me funny during this whole ordeal.
Then another nurse or tech came in and administered a breathing treatment. What I hadn’t realized was that the reason I’d had such trouble breathing and why it hurt so badly was that the panic attack had triggered an asthma attack. The nose bleed they chalked up to my blood pressure skyrocketing from the panic and asthma attacks.
I continued to lie in the hospital bed, letting the medicines take affect. Everyone was efficient and to the point, but no one seemed to judge me. After I was better an hour or so later, though weak and in need of food and rest, I left the hospital and took my first ever Uber ride back to my car.
It’s been almost a year since that panic attack, but looking back on it is still a little difficult. It was a harrowing experience that I don’t wish on anyone. However, if I am glad of one thing, it is that I can share this experience with others. Not the panic attack; I know many people go through those every day, but the experience of calling emergency services to get help.
It was scary but absolutely worth it. I’d had no occasion to know how the Nashville police, EMTs, or hospital staff would react to someone having emotional or mental suffering, but they all surpassed my expectations. It felt like they’d all been trained in how to handle someone like me, someone who was in distress and needed medical attention but couldn’t get it on her own. They were all calm and reassuring and I couldn’t have asked for better treatment.
I don’t know how other places handle emergency calls for mentally distressed people, but I imagine calls like mine are common. I hope my experience is standard for this type of situation, but I realize that people of color, queer people, or other marginalized groups may have different and worse experiences with emergency services. I wanted to share my experience because it gave me hope: hope that the people who are supposed to care for us in times of need know what they are doing and are willing to help however they can.
It also gave me hope for myself, that I was able to reach out for help when I needed it. If you find yourself in a similar situation, reach out, however you can to whoever you feel safe reaching out to. It will be difficult and it will definitely feel scary, but it will be worth the effort because you are worth it and you deserve to survive.
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