My first panic attack occurred when I was 22 years old. I was a driving instructor and had just broken up with my fiance, the love of my life. I was out teaching a student when waves of energy started shooting up my spine. I was terrified for no apparent reason. Although the panic only lasted a few minutes, the fear of being terrified consumed me.
This was in 1976. It was shortly after I saw the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” When our doctor told me I should go to a mental health clinic, I freaked out. Going to a mental health clinic confirmed my fears that I was going crazy. All I could think of was the scene where Jack Nicholson received electroshock therapy. Of course reality eventually took over and I found out the local mental health clinic dealt in drugs and group therapy. I spent my days playing ping pong, doing art projects and feeling out of place among those who had tried to commit suicide. As the drugs took effect I began to feel better and got on with my life.
Fast forward to 1985. I was married with two young sons and the panic was a thing of the past, or so I thought. My father was very ill and I lived thousands of miles away. My wife and I decided to move back to Arizona, so she flew back with the kids and I was going to give my two weeks notice and move all our belongings back. I was lying on the couch watching “Miami Vice” when it felt like the back of my head exploded. I actually heard a loud pop, and the panic came back. I couldn’t get it under control, so I started drinking heavily. It numbed the panic somewhat, but it was always there, ready to bubble to the surface. I went to a local drug store and bought some over the counter nerve medication, hurriedly packed the truck and started the drive from Mississippi to Phoenix. I consumed many beers, didn’t sleep much and spent the next two days in an almost constant state of panic.
It was back to the mental health clinic, back to the drugs, back to the ping pong and the panic was subdued once again. I vowed to continue to see a therapist on a regular basis, but work and life got in the way. I was feeling better, so I went off the medication and did fine for awhile.
Panic came and went for more than a decade. I went on and off medication, tried group therapy, hypnosis and individual therapy. Every time I thought I had the panic whipped, those old familiar electrical charges started crawling up my spine. I finally took a consulting job in Los Angeles, away from wife and family, when the last bad experience hit me in 2006. I gone for a walk by the beach when my wife called to tell me my son was in trouble. He had forgotten to take a box cutter from work out of his backpack when he went to school. The school had a zero tolerance policy and he was in danger of being expelled.
I couldn’t get him out of my mind. Here I was, 400 miles away and I couldn’t do anything to help him. Thoughts of him being expelled and taken to jail raced uncontrollably through my mind. I was lying in bed when the waves of electricity started again. It felt like the old Frankenstein move where you can see the electricity shooting through the room. Nausea overcame me and I spent hours throwing up and cursing the panic that had come back to ruin my life.
The anxiety was worse this time and it was coupled with uncontrollable thoughts. I was making $100,000 a year and I was going to lose it because I was out of control. I wondered how I knew the things I knew. I doubted my own reality and began to question the things I had taken for granted for so long. I tried to remember the layout of my boyhood house and what I was doing at certain points of my life. I’d read a headline about a murder and wonder “How do I know I didn’t do that?” Of course, I did know because my underlying reality never really went away, but the panic response to my body enforced that I was in trouble.
I tried a double-pronged approach to the problem this time and it paid off. I went to see a highly-rated psychiatrist who started me on Effexor XR. I’d been on several different types of drugs in the past with varying results, but the Effexor seemed to straighten me out in a few weeks. At the same time I started seeing a therapist who also used hypnosis. She was certain I had trauma in my childhood that I’d forgotten. We never found any, but the therapeutic process made me feel better.
I’m still on Effexor and haven’t had a panic attack in about 3 years. I still have uncontrollable thoughts now and then, but for the most part I’m living a normal life with a grandson and new granddaughter. The worst part about the panic was the thought that I was the only one in the world this was happening to. That’s not true and you are not alone. It will probably take some experimenting with your doctor to find a medication that works for you, but stick with it. A better life is out there for you.