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"i Can't See Anything"

I don't know many people who have actually had a panic attack. When I say panic attack, many people will say they've had one too, but what they describe to me is not a panic attack. It seems not matter what words I use to try to explain to them that what they experienced was not the same as what I experienced, they don't seem to understand the sheer terror that panic attacks have often brought on. They describe purely emotional and mental symptoms, while I experienced frightening physical symptoms. It is incredibly frustrating. I want someone to know what I've felt and be able to sympathize, but I guess it's very hard to understand unless you've had one. It's just hard to have someone sit there and think they're sympathizing and that they've had the same thing happen to them when they actually have no idea what you're talking about.

The first time I ever heard the words "panic attack" I was in my freshman year health class. No, public high school heath classes don't normally address panic attacks, but I had Mr. R. Mr. R was an anxious man. He was sickly. He was accident prone and he was awesome. He loved sharing personal experiences and it happens that he had more personal experience with panic attacks that anyone I know. He told us what panic attacks were and how they felt and he explained to us his triggers and symptoms. His triggers were bridges and tunnels. 

The first time I actually had a panic attack was shortly before the day Mr. R first brought them up. I know people talk about triggers, but I don't know what mine was. Maybe it was just because it was during one of the lowest points in my life. I was depressed, I'd just recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and I personally, and many members of my family, definitely have a history of anxiety. I don't know what I was thinking about at the time. Maybe I was thinking about something stressful. I don't know. I do remember what I was doing very clearly, though.

I was just about to get out of the shower. Suddenly I was a having a full on panic attack. Even though Mr. R had conveniently just recently explained what panic attacks were and what they felt like, I had no idea what was happening to me. I couldn't breathe. I was taking in huge gulps of air and it didn't matter. I felt like I was about to pass out. My heart was racing faster than it ever had before in my entire life. I felt like I wasn't even attached to my body. Every noise sounded miles away. I was terrified. I stumbled out of the shower. I made it over to my bed and just collapsed on it. I just lay there until it went away. It probably lasted about 15 minutes. 

Over the course of the next couple months, every time I started to get out of the shower I had a panic attack. I suppose I associated leaving the shower with having a panic attack which created a fear that every time I got out of the shower I would have one. And I guess the fear of having one triggered me to have one. But I still didn't realize what it was. I didn't put it together until later when Mr. R was relating another story about a panic attack he had while driving through a tunnel on the way to a party after his college graduation. 

Later that same year I started smoking weed. I hadn't had a panic attack in a bit. After a couple weeks of panic attacks after showers they got less severe and then stopped all together. But then weed started triggering panic attacks. Weed makes me very nervous and anxious so I suppose that's why it happened. The panic attacks I was having now were much worse than the end of shower ones. I felt like I was dying. No. Not like I was dying. I knew I wasn't, but I wanted to. During every one of those attacks I would have gladly forfeited the rest of my life just to escape the feeling of it. I would rather have died than have to live through them. They were lasting longer now. 

Then I had the worst panic attack I've ever had in my entire life. I couldn't even have imagined such a horrible experience until it happened. I was smoking with my boyfriend and some of his friends. And it started. I felt it coming. I tried to stop it. I tried to breathe slowly and just push it away, but it wouldn't work. It never had, but you can always hope, right? It started as normal, but it quickly progressed to be at least a hundred times worse than ever before. I felt short of breath. Then I started feeling light headed. People noticed and asked if I was OK. I lied and said yes. But soon I couldn't hide it anymore. I was breathing rapidly. I must have been swaying on my feet because I had no sense of the world around me anymore I was so dizzy. I wanted to answer them and tell them I was OK, but I couldn't even talk because I couldn't stop my breathing long enough. Anyway, soon I was hardly hearing what they were saying anymore because they sounded so far away. 

And then I couldn't see.  You know when you look at the sun and you get those spots in your vision? My entire field of vision was those spots and through those spots I could only see vague outlines of the world around me. And what little vision I had was tunneling. I can't even explain how terrified I was at that moment. My boyfriend and his friends must have realized that something was very wrong with me. Before this point, I think my boyfriend at the time thought I was faking or making it up. After that day, he never questioned it again. I must have really looked sick or scared or crazy because they could definitely see something was happening to me that no one could possibly fake. My boyfriend tried to walk me to his car, but it must have been hard because I couldn't see where I was going and I was incredibly dizzy and unbalanced. He picked me up and carried me to the car and put me inside. Soon after that it went away. It lasted for about 45 minutes I think. 

I have no clue what that was all about. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before or since. I've never heard, even from the few people I know who have had actual panic attacks, of something so severe or of a panic attack causing loss of vision. For whatever reason I kept smoking. It still occasionally gave me panic attacks and I still sometimes got them at other times too, but for some reason they were much easier to bear after that knowing how much worse they could be. I got into harder drugs during my first year of college. After one very brief and very memorable experience of having a panic attack while tripping on DMT (an extremely powerful hallucinogen), I swore off drugs forever and I haven't had a panic attack since. I am now in my sophomore year of college. Sometimes I can feel signs that they might be about to come on, but I just breathe slowly and they never develop. 

Then a few months ago, my fiance started breathing heavily. He had to sit down. Something was obviously wrong. He was having trouble talking to me to answer me about what was happening to him. Then, after some repeatedly asked questions on my part and a lot of nodding and breathy yes's and no's on his part, I realized he was having a panic attack! It had never happened to him before. I sat with him and told him that he was having a panic attack and promised him that it wouldn't last long. I told him that even though it feels like he's not getting enough air he needed to breathe slowly because he was hyperventilating. I talked to him to distract him, I got him some water, and it went away after about 10 minutes. It was so strange to me to be on the other side of a panic attack and it felt good to help someone get through it. No one had ever effectively helped me before because they didn't know what I was feeling like, but I knew what he was feeling like so I just did all the things I would have liked someone to do for me. He had never understood what I was talking about when I explained it to him, although he had seen me have them in the past. Now someone understood and I got to help him instead of him helping me. It was an interesting experience. 

I hope I never get a panic attack again, but it is likely I will. It's been a while, but my life has been going well. I'm relatively anxiety free. I'm medicated. But life will get hard again at some point and it's likely to bring panic attacks with it. 

  

finder finder 18-21, F 3 Responses Mar 6, 2010

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Wow, your story is like a dead ringer to my situation with the exception of your bf also having one. It really freaked me out when I lost my vision and couldnt stand or sit up (and when I started puking so hard I was ******* my pants as I lay on the floor in my kitchen. The mail man had came to the door and called an ambulance but the first responders got there first and had portable oxygen and put the mask on until the ambulance came. I still thought I was going to die until I got to the hospital and got a shot of adivan. I am an addict, at the time was a daily weed smoker, so can not get any benzos(which is good) but I've been sober since then and think my med are pretty well fine tuned. Im thinking if this happens to me again the fact that ill be aware of what's happening that it won't completely cripple me. Or I hope anyway. I've dealt with my mental illness all of my life so it surprised me that my first attack didn't happen until I was in my late 20's. I'm lucky my kids were not home at the time as they would have been terrified. Best of luck to u, and to all others who have to deal with this unfortunate disorder. I don't wish this **** on my worst enemy. -sara

Wow - I totally share the same experience with panic attacks. My attacks were/are so severe that other people who say they've had panic attacks where they just feel rapid heartbeat, shortness of breathe, other mild symptoms, don't seem to understand what I'm talking about. My attacks are also influenced by my past hallucinogenic drug use, and include vivid flashing lights, loss of field of vision, auditory hallucinations, along with all the usual breathing/respiratory difficulties and racing panic thoughts; worst of all is that horrible feeling like you're not yourself, or that you've lost your sense of the self, which I learned later is a form of what's called 'depersonalization' - the most horrible state of experience I can imagine suffering, and impossible to describe in words adequately. Reading that you would have gladly forfeited your life to not endure the suffering of a severe anxiety attack echoes exactly how I have felt but found difficult to explain to anyone else.

Thank you for writing this story. I am a long-time sufferer of panic attacks. Sadly, the only people who will ever understand this illness are people who have experienced it themselves. I have tried to get people to understand what I go through, but mostly just get made fun of and criticised. People throw the term "panic attack" around for fun, when really they have no idea. It makes me mad to see people abusing xanax because the people who need them for legitimate reasons, like myself, can't get them. It is very frustrating, especially when everyone likes to think I'm making it all up.