Author’s Note: My recount of experiencing a panic attack is not a general model that all sufferers of panic disorder experience. Panic attacks can occur at any time and the triggers and signs of a panic attack are unique to each person experiencing one. However, many people have trouble describing what it’s like to experience a panic attack after it’s over. People who have never experienced a panic attack often wonder what’s “really happening” in someone’s head during a panic episode. I wrote this to answer that question: to show what’s happening in my head during a live panic attack.
In bed. I need to get out of bed. I’ve been in bed all morning and I have so much I need to do. I need to put in my transfer application; I need to rewrite my resume; I need to check my email. But I’m so warm and comfortable and safe in bed. I don’t want to leave this comfortable, safe haven. I can wait a little longer…
In bed. I really need to get out of bed. I’m starving and I need to pee. Fine, I’ll get up. I just don’t feel good: my stomach hurts, my back hurts, my head hurts, it all hurts. But I don’t want to stop feeling safe and comfortable. But… ok I’m getting up, I’ve really got to pee now.
Bathroom. Alright, come on girl. Just wash your hands, brush your hair. Ugh, my teeth are disgusting. And I’m breaking out again. I swear, I don’t get why people say I’m pretty; all of these zits are disgusting. I don’t think it would make much of a difference if the zits weren’t there. Why would anyone think I’m pretty? Zit-faced, overweight, out of shape, small boobs; I don’t even want to show my face in public. People will know as soon as they look at me; they’ll know I’m screwed up, they’ll never help me. Why would anyone help someone like me? No one would bother helping me; they’ll just watch as I get yelled at again.
Kitchen. Cereal: check. Milk: check. Coffee: check. I should check my email…I haven’t checked it in three weeks. How many emails do I have? Don’t think about that. I bet the statuses of those job applications are in, I should probably check to see if…Why would they give me a job? I screwed up college, I don’t even have an official degree yet, I look disgusting. They’ll just be rejections anyway, like all the others. And there’s probably a ton of other emails I have to answer. I don’t want to see that number on my inbox; I can’t look at it. If I see that number I’ll know just how much a failure I am. Why do I even need to see that number? I already know I’m a failure.
Dining room with laptop. Ok, I can do this. I need to put in my transfer application. Put in contact information, done. Income and taxes, done and done. College credits completed…crap. I don’t want to know.
I have to pull up my school’s student portal and look at my grades to find out how many credits I’ve finished. All those B’s and C’s and two F’s, and so many class withdrawals. I can’t see those grades again; they’re just proof that I’m a failure and I can’t even take a freaking class and do well. And withdrawing from everything last semester…that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had him as a professor. He was so scary; he was just like her…No, stop! Don’t think about her, don’t do it. She’s in the past, just click save and go take a shower. Yeah, a shower will help.
In the shower. Breathe in, two, three, four. Out, two, three, four. In, two, three… It feels really small in here. Maybe if I open the curtain a little bit that’ll help, but then I could get hurt. If I open the curtain the water will get all over the floor.
Mom will be mad and she’ll yell; I can’t risk that. I can’t get yelled at, not again. I’ll get hit if I get yelled at. Everyone already knows I’m a loser and a failure and ugly; don’t yell at me because of that! I can’t breathe, I can’t, she’s going to hit me again, he’s going to yell. Sit down girl, just sit down, head between your knees like you learned in first aid training.
I’m not safe, they’re going to hurt me, they’re going to yell – *A gray-haired severe looking woman wields a hardcover textbook as I struggle to find the words. What was the question again? What do I like to do? “Me gusta… me gusta bailar, no, baila, no. Me, me gusta.. bailo?” Her face contorts, she walks to my desk, raising the textbook. “Repita!” I can’t remember how to start, what did I even say? “Me… yo no sé.” I see the book coming – SMACK. My head spins, I can’t stop the tears. “Repita!” I just cry harder, I can’t speak. “Repita!” More tears, everyone’s watching, I can’t move my mouth, I can’t even move my tongue, why doesn’t someone do something? SMACK. I can’t see, I can’t breathe, please God – SMACK.* Stop thinking about that! Just breathe in, breathe out. You’re just sitting in the shower breathing, it’s all ok, you’re ok. I breathe in; how long am I supposed to count for?
Do I count for breathing in or breathing out? Or both? Oh God, please help me, don’t let her hurt me! I need to get out, I need to get somewhere safe. If I stay here she’ll find me, she’ll make me cry in front of everyone, she’ll make me stay after everyone leaves like before, no one will be watching, no one can keep me safe. I need to get somewhere safe…
In bed. Breathe in, and out. Breathe in, and out. I’m safe here. It’s warm, no one can hurt me if I’m in bed. My chest hurts; am I having a heart attack? No, no I can’t be, that’s ridiculous. Just calm down. I don’t know how to be calm. All I can do is panic; they’re just going to hurt me again. Where are those pills for panic episodes? It says take one…but I feel like my world is ending and I won’t feel like this if I’m asleep. I’ll just take two. I wonder how many it would take for me to never feel like this again…
In bed. It’s so much darker than it was before. What time is it? 5:30pm. I just want to stay here forever…I haven’t done anything I was supposed to do. Nothing. Mom is going to be so mad; I’m just a useless lump at home that costs money and I’m too scared to even open my laptop and try to find a job. I don’t want her to yell; I hate that. I don’t want to screw up, I don’t want to be a failure. But if I stay in bed, I’ll be safe. I can’t get hurt if I’m in bed, under warm blankets.
Living room. I hate that I have to get out of bed to get food. I don’t want to eat; I can’t even finish this orange. My stomach hurts so much, I feel like I’m going to be sick. It sucks that I’m starving at the same time. Wait, that’s the garage door. Mom’s home. Crap, I haven’t done anything. She’s going to ask, she’s going to get mad, she’s going to yell. She’s coming up the stairs.”Hi sweetheart. How was your day?’ I can’t breathe, my vision blurs. I can’t do it, I can’t answer, she’s going to think I’m such a failure. “Sweetie, are you ok?” It’s coming, she’s going to yell because I fail to do anything right.
I can’t even check my email because all it shows is a number saying I’m a good-for-nothing failure. No one can help me, no one understands. I can’t even taking a damn shower without bursting into tears and streaking back to bed.
She’s using her sharp voice now: “Sweetie, what’s wrong? What’s going on?” I can’t do it. She’s going to yell, when she finds out I didn’t do anything; she’s going to call me out just like he did. In front of everyone watching, making sure I know just how little I’m worth; just let me have the illusion that I’m worth something for God’s sake! I know I’m a pathetic failure but let me pretend I’m someone worthwhile! Don’t yell at me, don’t – *He’s asking me a question about the homework.
I have no clue, I spent last night studying for last class’ test. “I didn’t do the reading.” He looks at me, unsurprised. “Well then, you aren’t prepared for class. Shouldn’t you leave so you don’t keep your classmates behind with your negligence?” I just sit and stare; I don’t know what to say. Am I even supposed to say anything? He looks at me and says, “I think any student who fails to complete the required homework shouldn’t be allowed to take a class where others’ work hard to learn; do you agree with that?”
Of course not! Everyone said before he walked into class that none of us had done the reading; why is he singling me out? “You haven’t shown any inclination to put any effort into this class at all. I think that someone like you who only cares about finding a husband in college should drop my class. I only teach students who have something worthwhile to offer to the world, and you clearly need to learn a few lessons from them.”
My jaw drops, the tears well up. “Professor, I just- “What? I don’t need to hear your pathetic excuses! If you had done the work you might have had the chance to earn a B in my class; not many girls are willing to take a class this challenging and I think we can all see why from your poor example.” I start crying as I look around at my classmates; they’re all looking back at me silently. No one’s going to stand up to him, no one’s going to report him, not even the one other girl in the class. “I’m – I’m sorry…” “You’re disrupting this class. If you’re going to be this emotional you should drop this class and see a therapist. Although based on the effort you obviously put into the necessary work, you should drop this class anyway.”
No one will help me, no one will believe me, just like with her… no one will ever help me. I can’t breathe, I’m literally choking as my tears fall in my mouth. He gets up and opens the door. I can’t go near him without knowing…there it is, he left his textbook on the table. He’s not holding it. If I run he won’t have time to hurt me. I get my backpack and run. I can’t ever see him again.
He’s right. I’m just a failure and it doesn’t matter how hard I try; I’ll never stop being a failure.* I start crying and shaking; I’m not safe. I can’t feel my legs, I can’t get somewhere safe. Mom is going to yell, she’s coming closer. God please help me, please dear God help me, I can’t have her yell at me, I can’t handle this, please God! She knows I didn’t get anything done today, she knows I’m a failure, she’s coming closer just to yell at me even louder, God protect me please! Mom comes over and sits next to me.
I’m shaking, I’m crying, I want to be strong but I just can’t, I can’t handle her disappointment. I’m in trouble, I need to be in bed, I’m not safe, I’m never safe where they can find me. She envelops me in a warm hug. “It’s ok sweetheart, it’s going to be ok.” I shake even more. “I love you.” I crack. Those words mean I’m not alone. They mean that those people can never hurt me again.
They mean that I’m finally safe.