It’s all over.
That’s the only thought I can grip onto, as my chest and throat pulse with pain and I struggle to fill my lungs with air. This feeling has come out of nowhere, except it’s been gathering all day as my mind spirals with ‘what if?’ scenarios and worry. Sometimes I can catch the thoughts in time, but sometimes not; it’s on the latter occasions that they grow into panic that’s like the world wrapping around my throat.
This is the end.
Except it’s only the beginning. Within a few minutes the pain and my struggle for air have subsided, and breathing has once again become a natural state – but then there’s facing up to what I call the panic hangover.
I’m not alone - 5% of Australians live with a panic disorder, one in four with anxiety, and undiagnosed panic attacks like mine are even more common – and yet there’s no lonelier feeling than the days After The Panic.
First, there’s an immediate and overwhelming desire to collapse, to wrap tightly into a cocoon and sleep. There’s just one problem: that would require me to shut out the world and, as my husband (who is so often the one talking me down from the wall that separates my everyday worry from the panic) reminds me, that’s the worst thing I could do. To wrap myself up will keep me stuck in this moment.
So onwards I push into the world that has no idea how I’ve just struggled. And I’ll encourage that, with a mask in the form of sunglasses to hide the pain and a smile that looks like any other.
On this occasion, though, there’s no ignoring the fact that my panic impacts others. My kids have noticed.
"Mum, I heard you crying; were you hurting?" my daughter asks.
"Well, sort of," I try to explain. "My mind was hurting."
“Take some deep breaths, Mummy,” my little one says, echoing her dad’s words to me. I wrap my arms around her as she takes big breaths with me, as though teaching me to take in air once again.
I struggle to talk about the panic, but I can write about it and this can be divisive. Let’s just say the people in your life fall neatly into categories when you talk about mental health. One lot will be understanding and, if you choose to speak out, will hold your hand as you count yourself lucky for having them in your life. The second lot becomes a symphonic chorus of eye rolling; seriously, you could set your clock by the reliability of this mob’s pessimism. The third category have a bleary eyed confusion about them, and they’ll try their best but really have no idea what you’re going through. And that’s okay.
But the most challenging part of a panic hangover is the process of forgiving myself, of self-compassion. There’s a lingering realisation that I’m not unbreakable as I’d like to believe I am, and worse: that others – like my children – have seen I’m not what they perhaps hope I am. It takes a long time to forgive myself – for losing control, for (what I perceive as) letting others down.
But as long as a lack of forgiveness grips me, so too does the tightness in my chest, and so I must work hard to allow some peace in.
It will come, eventually.
This is a part of life for so many of us: the everlasting worry, the culmination to panic on occasion, and dealing with the aftermath.
The one thing I ask is for people to not see me as weak for experiencing panic attacks. See, this is my superpower: I’m strong not because I don’t deal with worry and panic, but because I do deal with it and I still stand here afterwards.