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Panic Attack: A Few Thoughts

A week and a half ago, I found myself in front of students, teaching my lesson, and starting to lose my train of thought. I knew this feeling that was interrupting the dialogue in my head and not allowing it to be transferred to my voice. My lesson ended prematurely without anyone noticing. I have become good at acting over the years and cutting my script short when my brain becomes flooded.

I took a few moments before we departed to the hospital for the student’s work day and did what I have taught them, breathe. It calmed me enough to focus on the present moment, but I could feel the tingling, pins and needles sensation in my hands and face. It is a sign that my anxiety is getting worse.

The week prior to this day, I noticed my mind was starting to race a little more. I was submerging in the dread of anxiousness, even becoming light headed and dizzy while hiking in the woods. This experience brought me to thinking that it was something else, a heart condition perhaps, or a neurological disorder, and that the stress of life had caught up to me and I am now ill. Of course, these thoughts then produce more anxiety and so it begins. The riptide of emotions started pulling me further away from calmness.

I dropped my students off and parked the school van. I turned the key and sat there for a moment. My head became extremely dizzy and then it happened. The sensation of not being able to breathe led to me feeling like I might faint. I made a feeble attempt to get out of the van, knowing my kids were starting their work, but my legs seemingly could not function well. I had to hang onto the van door for balance. It was then that I sat back into the driver's seat and broke. It was an uncontrollable combination of crying and hyperventilating. I struggled to compose myself because there was a storm going on in my mind and body. A strong enough storm that all I could do was hang on tight and wait for it to pass. It didn’t!

I realized I needed help. Asking for help is so incredibly difficult for many of us. It is something we offer freely, but to admit to ourselves, to come to the reality that, “I can’t do this!” is difficult. I reached for my phone and started making calls. My thoughts were, “I need someone to cover my kids.” and then, “I need to go to the emergency room.” At this point my chest was hurting, the dizziness was debilitating, and my panic was not stopping. The worst part was this strange, heavy vibration going on under my skin, in the bones of my fingers. Two of my co-workers answered my calls. One came and checked in on me as I sat in the van, hardly able to talk, and I was able to get the words out, “Please go to my kids.” It gave me relief to know someone would be there with them. Though they are independent enough to care for themselves, I couldn’t help thinking while I was in the midst of panic that I was failing them. Another coworker came to get me and take me to the emergency room, comforting me along the way, helping me check in, and then waiting until my wife arrived. I cannot thank them enough. It makes me emotional when people care about me. Call it past trauma, the dreadful dialogue in my head, or maybe knowing that there is hope for the human race, but I swell with emotion when people actually care.

Even in the midst of the horror of panic, my stigmas started to fill my head. A list of thoughts: I am embarrassed. I am weak. I am useless. I am not a good teacher. I am a burden to anyone around me. I took three people away from their jobs to help me when I should be able to do it all myself. I am selfish! And then, the vanity when I was asked to take my shirt off to hook up the EKG in the emergency room. “I see these nurses daily,” I thought, “and now they have seen me shirtless. My old, fifty-three year old body is on display. They must be laughing.” Our minds take us to some dark places in the midst of panic, when the world seems to be spinning out of control and you wonder for a brief moment, “Am I losing it? Is this it? I am going insane and I will now be committed.” I told my wife about my vanity and she said, “Well, you gave them a treat.” It was a moment to chuckle with laughter before I sunk again into desperation.

The drugs to calm me started working and I went home and slept for four hours, and when I awoke I started to look within, at what was really happening to cause my panic. I took the following day off to regroup, reflect, and evaluate myself. I dove into what I believe, which is that I am accountable for my thoughts and I need to hold myself accountable to do everything I can to help myself. It is not a time to dwell in self-pity or become a victim. No one is coming to save me. Certainly, I had a group of women who rallied around me to help in the actual moment of panic, but it is me that has to put in the work to heal and to bring awareness to what led to this situation so it doesn’t repeat itself. I had to sit with my thoughts for a while and ask, “What is at the root of this? What is within my control, and what is not?” On a side note, I have often found in my life that women are the ones who bring calmness to strenuous situations when empathy and compassion are needed. Maybe men need to step aside and let them lead nations for a while.

During my reflection, I understood immediately that the stress of losing my beloved mother had reached me deeply and my “Stress bucket” was now overflowing. I had jumped back into life, work, social events, trying to smile and laugh and be cheerful, and not take the time to say, “This is all I can do right now. This is all I have energy for. I am grieving.”

See, many people in our society want you to return to normal, whatever that may mean. They want you to be who you were before death because it makes them feel comfortable, and as my therapist said, “Our society has struggled to understand grief and we want to put a timeline on it.” Is two weeks enough? A month? A year? The truth is, there is no timeline. It is perpetual. I am now in the process of learning how to live life without my mom. With that, it takes time. Perhaps, I was judging my own grieving process. I was forcing a grin. I forced myself to return to that actor on stage and perform for others. They don’t want to be around death, and I was now affected by it. My mother’s death was being carried on my shoulders and the weight was visible. It has only been two and a half months and when people ask me, “How are you?” I cannot reply with, “I am good.” It seems disrespectful to my mom because I am not good, and I am an open book with who I am. However, they want the “me” in front of them, which is “good.” That would be fake and false.

Yet, when I tell the truth. When I say that I am grieving for my mom, the subject changes quickly. There is often an uncomfortable silence or a squirming posture. People want to avoid death, which is interesting since we will all die one day, which means they want to avoid talking about grief. To avoid grief and death is to avoid life.

Two days after my panic, I found myself in front of students. They all knew I was in the emergency room two days prior and were concerned. One young man sent me a text the day after and said, “I hope you are okay?” My lessons on showing empathy and compassion are paying off. I was transparent with my kids. I turned my experience into a lesson for them to learn from. We talked about stress and what it can do to us physically and mentally, and then I had them create their own “Stress bucket” and start writing everything that weighs them down with stress on the page in front of them. This led to a conversation on stigmas and how to cope. I told them that they have to do the work to help themselves because no one can do it for them. “You do not have to feel alone, and you can have all of the support in the world, but you must be the one who ultimately takes care of yourself.” We also talked about forgiveness, which I told my kids is one of the most powerful things they can do. Forgive those that have harmed us. “Forgiveness is for ourselves,” I told them. One young woman told me the following day that she never thought of forgiveness that way. This is when you know your lessons are impactful, when kids go home and think about what you taught.

What did I learn from panic this time around? I had reached my limit and stress and loss took hold of me, and even with attempting to use all of my coping strategies it was difficult to halt the overwhelming nature of a full blown panic attack. If you’ve had one, you know. If you haven’t, just try to understand and hope you never do. I also realized once again how harsh my mind can be towards myself. I am my most critical judge. I needed to start reframing my thoughts and understand what was happening. Reframing your thoughts is powerful. I also needed to realize that it’s okay to ask for help. I would do the same for anyone else in that situation, so why am I being so critical of needing help? In regards to asking for help, my director contacted me a couple of days later and I was transparent about what happened to me. She was gracious and empathetic. This was new to me. It was different to what I have experienced in the past with a few supervisors. A few years ago, after I was experiencing horrible anxiety, I had an assistant principal smirk at me and tell me it was time for me to look for a different job. He was trying to intimidate me while I was vulnerable, which did not work. He underestimated who sat across from him. This graciousness from others was a new experience while having panic at work, and my coworkers and boss gained even more trust and loyalty. Loyalty makes you want to go to work. It makes you feel like you have a safe place to be who you truly are. Though I have never covered up who I am. What you see is what you get. In my reflection, I also realized that the coping strategies that I practice often did actually work. I recovered from my panic and was able to regroup quickly, accessing the nature of it and using that knowledge to my advantage. As always, I will offer what I can to those that want to listen because panic can come to anyone at any time. It just depends on when your stress bucket decides to flood over the top and drown you.

Anxiety stayed with me for a few days after my panic attack, which is normal. I woke up on a Saturday morning and knew what I had to do. I put on my shoes and went to a hilly trail and ran, pushing myself up the steep inclines. I then came back to my truck and strapped a weighted pack on my back and put my bands around my shoulders and hiked those same trails, stopping to do a series of strength circuits along the way. This was my test. My way of saying to myself, “This is either going to make me feel better, or if the doctors missed something, I am about to die.” I felt better. I don’t recommend this to anyone. It’s just how I sort through panic and anxiety. Actually, it’s how I sort through a lot of bad shit in life.

In my reflection, I also realized that I cannot expect others to understand how I am feeling. Even if they lost a parent, we all grieve differently. I have decided that when someone asks me how I am, the people that I know don’t want to hear the truth, I will say, “I am good” and move on. It just seems easier than for someone to reply, “Just okay” or “You don’t seem your happy go lucky self, Chuck.” This is what happens often in society. We have come to a point where it’s just easier to say we are good because most people don’t want to hear the truth. They don’t want to take the time for real talk. We are too busy thinking about what is on Netflix or the latest TikTok trend. It’s why I look out my window and see parents in minivans racing down the street with their kids in back and I hope like hell they don’t hit a child waiting at the bus stop. It’s why you put yourself in danger rolling a cart around at a grocery store because everyone is scrambling to get their needs met. They need their crackers. We have become mice in a maze. Everyone seems to be in a hurry, and for what? Someday, when you have a hospice nurse changing your bedpan, will you look back and be glad you rushed through life, missing meaningful dialogue with someone you love or even a stranger who has an interesting story to tell? I don’t think so.

Grieving is lonely. However, my grief, like my anxiety, panic, and depression, is my responsibility. I am the one who needs to deal with it. How I grieve and handle the stress and insurmountable weight of a devastating loss, is in my control. I get to respond to it the way that I feel necessary and that may mean taking a mental health day when needed. It could mean sitting in a dimly lit room and crying. It could also mean my circle of people will grow even smaller in order to protect myself. Mostly, grief is teaching me once again that I have a life to live. I have people that care about me and I must be mindful of them and show them love. I do not have time to waste on trivial bullshit that does not matter. I want to absorb life, the simple things, the feel of the cool fall air and the touch of my wife’s hand in mine.

I am responsible for my life and how I live it. My choices and actions will dictate much of my path. It already has. I will choose to grieve and stay true to my process that is needed to heal, and then if people want to listen, they can take the journey with me. I offer my words to help others because if you have not already, it is a matter of time before death comes to visit you and then you will start the grieving process that will last a lifetime. You too will struggle to answer the question, “How are you?” and you may find your stress bucket has overflowed and landed you in the emergency room. When that happens, you may think back and say, “I know someone that went through this and he was strong, and he had to ask for help and it was okay. He had to set limits and boundaries, and that was okay. He took responsibility for his grieving and cared for himself, and that too was okay.”

I leave you with this, I care about people. I share my experiences and my thoughts, for better or worse, because I like helping others. My hope with everything I write or say, whether it sounds critical or hopeful, is that it helps even one person. Long ago, I decided to take my experiences with death, trauma, depression, anxiety, panic, and grieving, and use it all for good.

A good friend recently said to me that when he gets panic attacks and anxiety, he feels he has no right to talk with others about it. It’s as if he’s an imposter because he doesn’t have it all figured out and still suffers. My reply to him was, “People listen because you are going through it. You are real.” I would never listen to someone talk about the horrors of a panic attack or the darkness of grief if they never experienced it. That would be like telling a person what the taste of chocolate is like without ever tasting it.

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