I’m racing past the crowds. Darting in and out. Side to side. Out of my way. I need to get past. I need to breath. I’m going. To. Feint. I manage to get past. I’m now running up the road. Trying to concentrate on the task in hand which is to get to a safe place. Or a place where I can relax. When the crowds clear it actually gets worse. I can’t stop concentrating on feeling feint and dizzy because my mind is no longer focussed on getting through the crowds. I start to panic so I start to run. If I don’t concentrate on running my mind will more than likely go back to the fact that I’m about to feint or stop breathing. So I carry on running. Eventually I find the back street where I can walk without seeing anyone and where my breathing can get back to normal. Once I’ve relaxed and broken back out onto the less busy pavements, I manage to calm down and I make it to work.
If you’ve experienced one, you’ll know that I’m referring to having a panic attack. The feelings I describe above were a regular occurrence in my life for about 20 or more years. Fortunately, I don’t generally experience them anymore but occasionally, when I’m feeling particularly tired or in a particularly difficult setting, maybe standing at a concert or stuck in the middle of a row in a lecture theatre, the feelings creep back around the edges.
I can’t remember exactly when I experienced my first panic attack but I do know that I feinted a couple of times when I was about 14. One time, I caught my toe on the kitchen door shortly after I had woken up and gone downstairs for breakfast. As I sat at the dining room table I felt the nausea creeping up on me and then the familiar feeling of stars forming around the outside of my vision and the loss of sound… but the sounds re-appear as if in a dream, until I regained consciousness and found myself lying on the floor at the front door of our house with the local farmer (who was delivering our milk and was a family friend) above me and my brother and mum alongside. I’d pulled the table cloth completely off the table and sent everything flying in dramatic fashion.
It happened again in secondary (high) school during a particularly hot summer’s day in a stifling design technology classroom. The teacher had come to help me and as I stood up to let him sit in my seat, I felt the rush of blood away from my head and before I knew it, I was on the floor again unconscious. I think I linked these feelings of light headedness with feinting so that when ever I was then in a confined space and felt that way, maybe because I suffered from insomnia around that time, I started to panic and had to resist the urge to run for the exit. I do remember experiencing one during my GCSE exams and had to ask for a toilet break. And then they plagued me for the next two or three decades.
Until I went to university (probably after experiencing them for about three years) I hadn’t known what they were or told anyone I was having them. It just so happened that I was studying psychology for my undergraduate degree programme and came across a small section on them in an ‘abnormal’ psychology book which was one of our recommended textbooks. Finally being able to put a name to what they were, I disclosed that I was having problems to my personal tutor who sent me to the counselling service. The counsellor explained that he could help me but that we would have to meet a few times and explore ‘issues which I might not be terribly comfortable with’. Needless to say, I wasn’t willing to explore ‘issues which I wasn’t terrible comfortable with’ so I didn’t attend. I did go to the GP who gave me a clean bill of health but offered no further guidance or referrals.
Unfortunately, they got worse before they got better and I was unable to attend many of my lectures throughout the second year of my degree course. Fortunately, I had formed a very close friendship with someone else on the course who I shared a house with. He was able to attend lectures and bring back the notes for me. This was before there was any funding available for disability services in the UK and well before any campaigns to raise awareness for mental health conditions.