My first panic attack took place in Norway in July 2003. It was a Sunday morning and I had been at a wedding the night before. I had drunk quite a bit of alcohol, had very little sleep and, when I woke up, had lots of coffee. Needless to say, these three things didn’t mix very well at all!! I was sitting at a café with my boyfriend and his family when suddenly I felt my head ‘closing down’
….. My arms and legs started to shake, my eyes were darting back and forth and my boyfriend had to hold me so that I didn’t fall out of my chair. I could feel everyone in the café looking at me but no matter what I did, I couldn’t stop shaking. When it finally stopped after what seemed like an eternity, but what was realistically around a minute, I felt completely drained. I could barely think or walk. The worst thing about it was that I couldn’t simply go back to our hotel to relax. Our flight back to England was due to leave within a few hours and we had to get to the airport. I will never forget that flight for as long as I live. A two hour flight seemed to last days. Although I was both mentally and physically exhausted, I was unable to sleep because of how panicky I felt. I honestly thought I was about to die.
It is perhaps at this point that I should explain something. In October 2001, I was a student at a University in France. I was walking down a street with my boyfriend on a Saturday when I suddenly felt my head ‘closing down’. Within a few seconds, I was unconscious, I was shaking all over and my eyes had rolled into the back of my head. An ambulance was called and I was taken to the hospital. The doctors came to the conclusion that I had suffered an epileptic seizure. An MRI was done and the results came back normal. The doctors assured me that my seizure had been a one-off and that it was very unlikely that it would ever happen again.
It is because of this that when I had my first panic attack in Norway, I assumed I was having another epileptic seizure. At that time, I didn’t even know what a panic attack was! When I arrived back home in England, I slept for twelve hours and woke up and decided that I would try to carry on with my life as normal. Unfortunately, this didn’t quite happen. Within a couple of hours, I once again found myself shaking. An ambulance was called and I was taken to hospital. My heart was beating exceptionally fast, a symptom that I now know is caused by panic attacks. They decided to keep me at the hospital overnight so that they could keep an eye on me. I felt horrible and found it impossible to sleep. When I was released the next day, I went home and slept for three days, waking up only to go to the toilet. When I finally got up, I realised that I was unable to do things that I had before considered to be ‘normal’. My main problem was that I had become agoraphobic. Whenever I tried to leave the house, I would get to the corner of my road and turn around. I felt dizzy all throughout the day and my biggest fear was that I would have another seizure at any moment.
Although I live in England, I am originally American. I had booked a trip to the US months before this had all happened. I was going with my parents and they insisted that I still go. They had rung up our doctor in the US and booked me into the hospital for some tests. The nine hour flight was unbearable and there were many times when I was sure I was going to faint. I felt much better once we had got there though as I hadn’t seen my relatives in years. I was dreading going to the hospital for the tests as all I wanted to do was pretend that it had all never happened. In the end, I had both an MRI and an EEG done. Once again, the results came back ‘normal’. However, the doctor decided that I must be epileptic and put me on medication for epilepsy. This medication made me feel dizzy; for the first few days that I was on it, I was walking around like a drunk!! I was aware that it wasn’t making me feel any better and my anxiety was increasing. This happened in August 2003.
In November of the same year, I decided to go see another doctor here in England. I had become increasingly agoraphobic and at one time, I didn’t leave the house for three months. My boyfriend tried to get me out, but every time he did, I would just burst into tears. This doctor was the first person to ever mention panic attacks to me. He decided to refer me to a psychiatrist in the area. She put me on a medication called Cipralex and suggested that I see a counsellor. Once I realised that it was actually panic attacks that I was suffering from, things became a lot easier. I knew that I was on the appropriate medication and it slowly started to help me. Before long, I was able to go to the supermarket again and into town to walk around. After around six months, I started driving again and since then, I have slowly got my life back.
I have just come off my medication, thirteen months after going on it. Although it has been the toughest twenty months of my life, I now feel like a much stronger person because of what I have been through. I have been very lucky to have the support of my boyfriend and my parents. I still do have bad days and I do still sometimes get nervous about going to certain places like the cinema or the theatre but, on the whole, I am able to lead a ‘normal’ life compared to twenty months ago. I have realised how important it is for people who suffer from panic attacks and anxiety to tell themselves that they CAN get better. It does take a lot of work but it is definitely worth it in the end.