About ten years ago (in May 2009) I experienced a massive panic attack. I was at work, which was in a very public place: the cosmetics section of a major department store. It was just after my lunch break; I’d nibbled on a chicken salad, but felt the darkness coming in on the edges, which for some reason I associated with eating, so I’d stopped eating. This had been happening a lot lately. Usually, I’d also check my pulse and then freak out some more if it seemed like it was going too fast for too long.
Then I came back down to the job and clocked in, but the malaise had increased. I was sweating and shivering now, heart rate definitely elevated and rising. My mouth went dry, my chest felt tight, and I was a little dizzy. Maybe a little more than a little. It was unpleasant, certainly, but indistinct. Some sort of internal dilemma had seized my system. My field of vision shallowed and narrowed, and when I tried to focus on anything further away, vertigo crept in at the fringes.
That all left me dizzier, sweatier, adrenaline pumping and cortisol dumped into the blood, heart racing now, racing racing… racing! RACING. The space between beats was becoming imperceptible. My hands went numb and my legs were stiff, as if they were asleep without the needles, frozen but hot. So hot. My face flushed, and the numbness began creeping up my arms.
I rubbed my hands together, but couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t see straight, could not stand very well, and a shortness of breath had come on. Plus, my pulse was still rocketing. I could not slow it down, could not catch and breath and hold it deep, could not stop sweating. I truly thought these could be my last moments of life.
That’s when I decided this must be a medical emergency. “I think I need an ambulance,” I said to my Counter Manager. She was kind and wide-eyed and called right away. My distress may not have been obvious to anyone else yet, but it would be shortly. When the news that First Responders were on their way hit the floor, the request for medical attention to treat an abstract malady spread like dry inland brush.
Nobody knew what was wrong or that I’d asked for treatment myself. That included the EMTs, who arrived quickly and found me seated in a reclining beauty service chair in the brow bar. They removed the bottle of water someone handed me and began screaming in my face, “Have you taken drugs? What drugs did you take? Are you on drugs?”
I shook my head vehemently, eyes bugged out, pinprick pupils unable to focus on any of the new or familiar faces hovering around the periphery. “No drugs,” I managed to say. “I just ate some chicken.”
“He ate chicken,” one of the EMTs said to someone. “Says he ate chicken.” Although I did also feel slightly nauseated, that seemed to be the least of my issues at the moment.
Of course, they measured the vitals, which is probably how they determined that this was most likely a mental concern. Still, they strapped me into a chair and wheeled me out. On the way to the door, I overheard my mean Floor Supervisor asking a Department Manager if she had to file an accident report for this incident. She sounded irritated and exhausted, but then she usually sounded like that.
At the time, I was living in a domestic and romantic capacity with Magnolia. She was an American white woman of mostly English and Irish decent, about a year younger than myself, but she had a lot more life experience and was a considerable host of her own psychological traumas from some of that. We were into our fourth year together, which would be our last, though I did not know it yet. She probably did, but that’s only academically relevant.
To say that our relationship troubles were causing me enough stress to manifest itself to this level of anxiety would be inappropriate and incorrect. As I will explore in later pieces, my anxiety had been around a lot longer than Magnolia, and remains with me to this day, almost ten years after we broke up. But I will say that from my experience, toxicity in a partnered relationship definitely does not help any person manage any mental illness.
But back in 2009, I did not know how to see any of that. I was 31, and I’d been feeling some type of internalized anxiety for at least ten years by then. I say “internalized anxiety” because I did not carry any outward phobias that rose to the level of physiological manifestations. This confused me at the time because I did not associate the sensations and reactions I was apparently experiencing randomly with similar responses in those with a fear of heights or spiders or whatever.
Even as the ER doctor explained that this was likely a massive panic attack and nothing more, I wasn’t sure what to believe. That is to say I did believe him, but I didn’t know why it happened and neither did he offer any conclusions. He suggested I make an appointment with my primary care physician just to be sure this was a psychological condition and take it from there. Then he had a nurse bring me a Valium the size of hockey puck, and soon after I swallowed it, everything was calm.
One of the paramedics in the ambulance had also suggested this was probably some form of acute anxiety, and I knew it was not a medical emergency because they drove me to the ER without the siren screaming. By the time Magnolia arrived, I was no longer in distress, though I was embarrassed for having left work that way and ashamed for wasting medical resources unnecessarily.
Of course, I don’t consider use of these services the way I did a waste, but at the time, I was just trying to make sense of it all. Being told that there was nothing really wrong with me, even though I felt like something was wrong, or to be more direct, being told that what I feared was a physical catastrophe was actually a common psychological condition was not very comforting.
Transparency: I was paying into a group plan for access to relatively affordable healthcare through my employer. It was about $50/week plus a $25 co-pay for all scheduled visits in plan at my HMO. The ER admission was covered, but I received a bill for $175 to cover my part of the $1200 ambulance ride. The co-pays and additional costs could be claimed by a San Francisco medical reimbursement fund that employers doing business in SF were required to pay into. I’m not sure if it still exists, but I recognize that I was lucky to have access to these resources.