I remember the moment exactly: The way the car smelled, the song on the radio, the road ahead of me.
If I close my eyes, I am there again – in that moment stopped in time. It’s as if I’m “floating above myself”; watching as the first beads of sweat trickle down my forehead. My chest pulsating faster. My hands gripping the steering wheel. And my mom next to me, oblivious to the whole thing. I remember my first panic attack almost minute by minute. My parents and I were driving to my college. I was just about to start my junior year.
It was 16 years ago, yet even writing this article, my heart begins to race as it did that day.
My first two years in college were great. My school was three hours away from home, so not too far away but close enough to home. We were driving in two separate cars that day. My Dad was in the SUV lugging all the unnecessary stuff I had packed for my apartment. My Mom and I were in my car. We had just left McDonald’s where we had stopped for lunch. “La Isla Bonita” by Madonna was playing on the radio.
I remember thinking about the upcoming year. I was excited. I was elected the previous spring to the Board of our college’s volunteer organization. I was living in an apartment with three of my closest friends. Most importantly, I had another nine months of freedom from my parents.
I was singing along to Madonna when all of a sudden, my heart began to pound. I could feel sweat on my forehead. My knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel too hard. I began to feel nauseous. I actually thought I was going to die yet I kept my struggle quiet from my mom.
I learned later that an average panic attack lasts ten minutes with the peak of the attack hitting at the five-minute mark.
Ten minutes doesn’t sound like a long time, but when you are having a panic attack, you feel as though death would be a welcome relief.
When it was over, I pulled into the next rest stop. My mom was surprised because we had just left McDonald’s forty-five minutes earlier. I told her that I had an upset stomach and needed to use the restroom. What I really needed was fresh air. I felt trapped in my car. I needed to get out.
After pacing in the rest stop bathroom for a few minutes, I asked my mom if she could drive the rest of the way to school. She asked if everything was okay. Again, I told her that I had an upset stomach and after a while, that’s what I chalked the entire episode to: a bad fast food meal.
However, that moment changed my life forever.
In the month following that first panic attack, my family and friends could see a difference in me. I no longer wanted to go out. I barely made it to my classes. I insisted on driving everywhere. I didn’t want to ride in anyone else’s car. I needed to be in control. I didn’t want to feel trapped. The thought of having another episode (which I still had no idea that it was a panic attack) scared me so much that I slowly became an introvert.
I had excuses, of course. I couldn’t carpool with my friend back home for Labor Day Weekend because I had a paper due. (Who has a paper due after the first week of school?) I felt sick so I skipped class. I didn’t have any money so I couldn’t go to the mall.
Finally, one weekend a month later when I was back home for a visit, my mom confronted me. She suggested I make an appointment to see my doctor to get a physical. Perfect, I thought. My doctor will take my blood, do some tests and we’ll figure this thing out. Maybe I did have a heart problem. Give me some meds and I’ll be back to the old me. Except, that’s not what happened.
My doctor suggested I see a therapist. What? A therapist? Why?
Only crazy or rich people need therapy. I was so adamant about not going to therapy that my doctor prescribed an anti-anxiety medication. She advised combining medication and therapy and to appease her, I agreed all the while thinking “no way.”
Although the medication worked in that I felt calmer, I was still so traumatized by that first panic attack, that I didn’t want to leave my apartment. I resumed my classes, but after each class, I went straight back to my apartment – my comfort zone.
By Christmas, my parents had had enough. I was barely hanging on to my 3.0 GPA. In fact, passing my classes that past semester had been close to a miracle. My parents gave me an ultimatum: find a therapist in January when I go back to school or don’t go back to school. I loved school so I really didn’t have an option. Come the New Year, I was going to have to find a therapist and face my new demon head-on.