When I was 20 I withdrew from college. I had a mental breakdown and my parents and I decided that I was not “healthy” enough to be in school. My parents moved me out of my off-campus house and brought me home where the only things on my agenda (and the only things that would be for the next six months) were therapy, therapy, and therapy.
My psychiatrist referred me to a psychologist named Dr. Rena (name changed). I had seen multiple therapists, psychiatrists, and other mental health workers over the previous 7 years so I was more than skeptical. She conducted her sessions from her office in her home near my dad’s house. I don’t like going to people’s houses I don’t know (it’s weird, I know) so it took a while for me to feel comfortable around her. She ended up being one of the most helpful people I have encountered in my life.
During one of our sessions we talked about panic attacks. I’ve been getting panic attacks since I was in high school, if not earlier. When I was middle school I used to hyperventilate and put my hair in front of my face so people couldn’t see I was crying, so that’s kind of the same thing. My math tutor was not amused when I did that during our sessions. Anyway, Dr. Rena asked me what panic attacks feel like. Keep in mind, this is just how I experience them. I’m sure they’re different for everyone.
It feels like I’m stuck in a box, locked in tight chains, with water rising around me, and I don’t know how to undo the chains. I feel like a bad magician.
For me, panic attacks feel like there is no escape. It feel like, “Well this is it, I’m going to suffocate and pass out or die.” They feel like they last for hours and when they’re over they leave me feeling scared, alone, and exhausted.
That session was six or seven years ago and I still get panic attacks. Most of the time I’m able to push them away through deep breathing and refocusing my thoughts, but doing that leaves me completely drained which is incredibly inconvenient when they happen at work. I’ve had to leave meetings or conference calls to run to the bathroom, pray someone isn’t in there, and try to calm down. It’s not something I can do subtly as I tend to shake rapidly, cry, and hyperventilate. Not suitable behavior for my open office. I don’t want to frighten the engineers.
Panic attacks suck but they’re just something I deal with. I started thinking about the bad magician metaphor and I thought of another way “the crazy” makes me feel like one; the art of illusion.
I have not told anyone at my job about “the crazy”. I’ve told my other bosses in the past about it (usually after something unfortunate happens and I have to explain myself), but I don’t feel comfortable enough yet. Thus, I have learned the art of illusion. I’ve been doing it for years; everything is fine and I am a normal, functioning person. I got particularly good at the art of illusion (i.e., the happy face) when I wasn’t in school, and it was just easier for my parents and I to say, “School is great. Friends are great. Everything is great,” rather than, “I have no future. My friends hate me. I am mentally unstable.” It kind of ruins the mood at Christmas.
Although I’ve tried to master the art illusion, the fact that I’m a bad magician always gets in the way i.e., I cannot hide my mood. It’s painfully obvious to anyone around me when I’m in a bad mood. I have an expressive face and I’m typically very upbeat and silly, so when I’m quite and still it raises an eyebrow. If something is wrong (I’m stressed, I’m tired, my burrito is disappointing) I have no problem expressing that and it’s usually received, dropped, and we move on. However, when “the crazy” kicks in and I get severely depressed, anxious, or upset for a reason I can’t identify, I have trouble communicating that. When some asks “what’s wrong?” it usually doesn’t bode well to yell “I have no idea I’m bipolar go away leave me alone.” Calmly saying, “I experience rapid mood swings and while I’m generally self-aware about what causes my swift in mood, I’m unable to identify the current trigger. Please bare with me and wait for this one to pass,” is not easily digestible by everyone.
What I’m working on now (with the help of my new psychologist) is identifying what triggers those bad moods, which can turn into panic attacks. I think if I can identify the problem, it will help me understand my reactions and I can try to learn how to deal with those feelings in the future. It’s not easy since I’m convinced some of them are totally random, but it’s worth a shot.