This is the story of the first time I had a panic attack. If you know someone with generalized. read. A panic attack can feel like you’re dying. Paralyzed with fear. You could also be lying awake at night for hours at a time knowing damn well you have to be up in a few hours when the baby wakes up. It’s a real condition, and the people suffering from it are often deeply riddled with fears, and patterns, and THEIR BRAINS THINK FASTER THAN THE AVERAGE PERSON. So much so, that if they aren’t doing enough of their routines or practicing in self care they could really spiral in to a deep depression.
I have Generalized Anxiety. One of my earliest memories is I’m five years old and my mom is driving up to a block buster and handing me a VHS Tape and asking me to run it in for her. And I sat there with the VHS in my hand and I said to her, “What if they won’t take it from me? Because I’m too little?” And she says, “They’ll take it from you. You just have to run in there and drop it in a slot!” And I say, “Okay, Mommy!” And I go to grab the door knob and I get scared again. “What if someone tries to abduct me??” At this point my Mom is like, “Just give me the damn tape! I’ll run it in myself!”
When I look back on it I think that’s really weird that I am so afraid. That I am so new to this world but there is something in my head telling me to be frightened. And it’s a very irrational fear.
So, fast forward three years later and I have my very first panic attack. My mom and dad had me on the swim team and I was at a swim meet of all places. And the gun goes off and I jump in the water and take off–but half way down the lane I forget how to breathe. Which sounds crazy because, how does someone forget how to breathe? My mom notices that I’m going under water and she jumps in the pool after me. And so does the life guard, and my coach. They pull me out of the water and my mom is patting me on my back and crying really hard. She screams, “What the hell was THAT?”
After everything boiled over that night my mom was kind of confused as to what to do. This was a time when people in middle class families didn’t really know anything about generalized anxiety issues. Looking back on it now, my Dad definitely had generalized anxiety issues. If someone knocked on the door he would hide in the bedroom. We were threatened with a beating if we answered the door and told anyone he was home. My Dad wasn’t in to drugs, and he didn’t owe anyone money. So, why was he so afraid to answer the door? What was he afraid was going to be on the other side?
So, my Mom and my Coach get together the next day to talk about what happened. My mom asked my swim coach if he had ever seen anything like this before. “No,” he says shaking his head, and he continues, ” There was a kid in my college dorm that would get overly worked up a lot. Kind of like Mae does. But, he never quit breathing.” I sat there listening to them as they continued talking about me as if I wasn’t in the room. My sleeping patterns, what I had been eating, did I cry a lot when I was a newborn? My mom tells him that I never sleep, I am extremely meticulous about what I eat, and yes, I was a very colicky baby.
Coach says he would feel more comfortable if I see a doctor before I swim again. My mom understands and she gets me in to see Dr. Barnard. So, we are about to go up to Dr. Barnard’s office. Dr. Barnard was a family doctor, and he saw my grandparents, my parents, and my brothers. I had heard a lot of stories about Dr. Barnard. His wife and daughter had died in a car wreck a few years ago. My Dad tells me he looks like Santa. He has a long grey beard, and he drives a 67 Chevy with a Cubs logo on the back. My Mom and I go up to his office and I say to my Mom, “Do you think Dr. Barnard is sad about his wife and daughter?” My moms eyes widen and she puts her hand around my mouth. “You can’t say anything about that to him! Do you understand?” I shook my head yes, but really I don’t understand! If it were me I would be really sad that my Wife AND my daughter died in a car crash! I would want someone to comfort me! I mean even doctor’s need to be comforted!
So, we are seeing Dr, Barnard, and the doctor tells my Mom that I had a Panic Attack. He asked my Mom if anything has changed significantly in our home. My Mom says no, and I say, “Yes it has!” My mom starts to laugh it off and I say, “YES! IT! HAS!” Dr. Barnard starts to chuckle like he’s an uncomfortable Santa, and I say, “My brother Kirk ran away 3 months ago! Everyone has been yelling and mad at each other! And it’s all Kirk’s fault!”
Dr. Barnard looks at my Mom with sympathetic eyes. “Kirk ran away?” My mom starts to break down crying and she nods her head yes.
Dr. Barnard has me go to the waiting room and I hear them talking. My mom is crying, and Dr. Barnard is comforting her. My mom comes out of the office with a prescription, and Dr. Barnard motions for me to come back in to the office. I go back there and Dr. Barnard hands me a paper bag. “Some people are more high strung than others. And, that’s okay. They often go on to accomplish great things. But, when there patterns are thrown off, and their normal every routines change, they can feel like something is off. I sent your Mom home with a very low dose nerve pill for you. Only take it if you feel like you are having a hard time breathing. Also, when you start having a hard time breathing, pick up this bag and blow in to it.” Dr. Barnard shows me how to do it, and I start to panic while I’m breathing in to the bag. “Dr. Barnard! It’s making it worse!” I start to cry. Dr. Barnard says calmly and slowly, “Look at me- look at what I’m doing…” I start to blow in to the bag with the same rhythm that Dr, Barnard is using. The same rhythm I have when I’m swimming. “I get it, Dr. Barnard! I get it!” Dr. Barnard gives me a high five!
My Mom and I leave and I can tell I’ve upset my Mom. She isn’t speaking to me. I’m trying to show her the cool trick with the bag and she isn’t saying anything. We sit in the car and my Mom starts to cry. She says, “Do you think I’m a bad Mom?” I shake my head no. “No! You’re a great Mom!” She says through muffled tears, “Then why did your brother run away? Why are you having panic attacks?” I shrug my shoulders, “I think I’ve always had panic attacks, Mom. I don’t think it’s you. I think there is something wrong with me. But, maybe it doesn’t have to be something wrong. Maybe it can be like a super power.” She starts to laugh and we go home.
This was not the first time I would have a major panic attack. My brother Kirk eventually came home about a year later, but he came home with a huge surprise. Dr. Barnard was my doctor until I was 21 years old. When I was 21 the DEA raided Dr. Barnard’s offices, and Dr. Barnard lost his practice. And my Mom- well-that story doesn’t have a happy ending. But, those are all stories for another day.