Home Personal Stories Hard is hard: The story of my first panic attack

Hard is hard: The story of my first panic attack

by Cait

When I had my first panic attack I thought I was dying. With no idea what was happening, I thought ‘this is it, this is a heart attack’; I have a penchant for the dramatic, and I’m a self-diagnosed hypochondriac, but putting both of those things aside, it felt like the real deal. 

It was the 3rd year of my degree, the holy grail of days – May 1st – (for anyone who hasn’t had to go smash out a 10,000 word essay, that’s dissertation hand-in day) and I’d arrived at my friend’s house triumphant-ish. Uni? Done. Nearly completed it mate. Just one exam to go. A weight lifted off my shoulders, but in its place, something hollow shifted in my gut. We proceeded to do what we did nearly every day, smoke a joint and eat some donuts around the chipped Ikea kitchen table. I took my second drag and something felt different. Now, I’ve always been a lightweight (could never smoke or drink in typical student quantities) but even so, two puffs and done wasn’t like me. A cold sweat pressed against my whole body and the bite-sized jam donuts felt lodged in my chest. My vision blurred; I reached to take off my glasses, assuming they were smudged, and realised I was shaking and it was definitely my eyes. I took myself off to a bedroom and spent the next few hours perched on the edge of an open (ground floor) window hyperventilating, while my pals continued to smoke in the kitchen without concern for what looked to them like a bit of wavy weed induced sickness. 

The next week and a half was the scariest time of my life. I was in a permanent state of exhausted terror. I couldn’t go outside, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t be around someone smoking or drinking, and a sip of beer or a toke of a cigarette myself would put me in a state of pure, animal panic. I had no idea what was happening or why, but all of a sudden, I felt like my whole world had crashed in on me. My head was firmly in the proverbial shed and through the fog I couldn’t work out why. Luckily, I had no need to go to uni until my exam a few weeks later and I was in between part-time jobs, so I could hole myself up in my house and not get fired or fail. If nothing else, my breakdown had perfect timing. 

That week is a bit of a blur in my memory, but I remember one night pretty clearly. I was curled up in a ball in my bed at 3am in a sweaty, crying, fizzy state of anxiety and panic, desperate to talk to someone but not wanting to wake my housemate and admit I wasn’t ok. I have no idea how, but a poster popped into my head: The Samaritans. I remembered there were helplines I’d seen advertised in dirty club toilets and on the side of bus stops. I could ring The Samaritans. But could I? I didn’t want to hurt myself, I knew I wasn’t depressed. Weren’t those services for people who needed coaxing down off the literal ledge, rather than talking away from a mental ledge? I pushed those assumptions aside and called, desperate for someone, anyone, to talk to and tell me I wasn’t dying of a premature heart attack at 21. A long night followed. I made three separate calls to The Samaritans and three wonderful, patient, kind people on the other side of the phone talked me through the scariest episode I’ve ever experienced. That was the first time I asked for help and the first time I was told what a panic attack was. They taught me breathing techniques that night that I still use now, years later.

They also validated what I was feeling and told me anyone can have mental health problems, no matter what their background. Hearing someone tell me 1 in 4 people suffer with a mental health condition (source: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/statistics-and-facts-about-mental-health/how-common-are-mental-health-problems) and millions of people struggle with anxiety made me feel less scared and alone. 

After that night I knew I needed to do something, but I still felt like I wasn’t deserving of help and that other people needed mental health services and doctors more than me. For me, telling the important people in my life needed to come first. Asking for help and telling my friends and family that I was suffering from severe anxiety and panic attacks was a mixed bag. I won’t sit here and tell you that everyone was overwhelmingly compassionate and supportive because that wasn’t the case. Some ‘friends’ didn’t like that I wasn’t up for partying anymore, they didn’t respect that I couldn’t be around smoking, they didn’t think I had a ‘real’ problem. And at the time, I thought they were right. How could I have a ‘real’ mental health problem? I’m from a kind, loving family who I have a wonderful relationship with. My parents were, and still are, two of my best friends. I had a great childhood, did well in school, had friends, had skinny/blonde/white girl privilege and was primarily sunshine fucking yellow. Life and soul of the party, uni seminar, or pub quiz. That’s me. So telling people I was now dealing with such a severe breakdown that my parents collected me from uni in my slippers and I had to take Beta-blockers to calm my racehorse heart rate, kind of shook the social-circle-boat. It sure shows you who your real friends are though! My best mates and my parents were amazing. My mum was there every step of the way. I approached supermarket trips with her like a marathon every week. Everything felt so damn hard. Leaving the house meant facing the possibility I’d have a panic attack in public. Some weeks I’d sit in the car, other trips I’d attach to her like a barnacle in the salty snacks aisle only to have a panic attack and go sit in the car trying to breathe. Mum spent nights sleeping in her 21-year-old daughter’s bed distracting her with talk of books and holidays and normal day-to-day life because she was so terrified of being alone at night. Big up to my mum, what a legend.

It’s taken time, counselling, writing, reading, talking and listening to come to the realisation that I deserve help, whether I’ve lived a privileged life or not. I needed help, I still need help, understanding how moments in my life have affected the way I see the world and in turn affected my noggin. Turns out I’ve always had anxiety, there are also signs I can now recognise from childhood and my teens that indicate I have mild OCD: pulling out my hair, rituals I needed to do in my head otherwise I thought someone would die, intrusive thoughts, making triangles on the floor with every step I took – fun stuff like that. I wouldn’t have realised any of these things had I not continued learning about mental health, following amazing bloggers/Instagrammers, reading books written by people with mental health problems (Bryony Gordon – look her up) and talking openly about my issues with people I trust.

I read something once that resonated with me so much that I considered tattooing it backwards on my head as a constant reminder in the mirror – hard is hard. We can’t spend our lives comparing our struggles, keeping our thoughts locked up, deeming them ‘not important’ or saying things like ‘it’s nothing really, I’m fine, so-and-so has it much worse’. If what you’re dealing with feels hard for you, it’s hard*. You have as much of a right as the next person to get help. 

*Disclaimer: a healthy dose of perspective is always needed. Some people’s idea of ‘struggle’ is questionable (I’m talking to you, Instagrammers moaning about their cancelled flights to Dubai due to Covid, whilst lounging in mansions surrounded by toilet roll and Deliveroo orders). 

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