Everything's Fine: How I Recovered from Panic Attacks

Everything's Fine: How I Recovered from Panic Attacks

By Jaimie Seaton 12/19/18

Even when I understand that what I am experiencing is a panic attack, I don’t dare say the words—not even to myself—for fear I will give it more power.

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Woman lying in bed with head in hands, panic attack
My biggest fear, the thought that terrified me to my core, was that I would never emerge from this state.

I am lying back in a leather chair. The windows are open and I can smell the frangipani; its sweet scent drifting in from the garden. An occasional car passes by outside on the street, speeding down the road that intersects the cul-de-sac on which the house sits.

My bare feet are resting on a soft leather ottoman and I curl my toes and squeeze the tissue in my hand, and look up at the face of the woman sitting in a chair next to me. Marielle is always brightly dressed, wearing large earrings that match a bracelet or necklace, her short blonde hair brushing against her long neck. She exudes kindness and empathy. From the first moment we spoke on the phone, when I called to ask if she could treat my panic disorder, I could feel that she had special gifts.

Marielle was my last hope. I had been to therapists, talked to doctors, swallowed Xanax like they were vitamins–and still the panic persisted. We had recently moved to Singapore; my husband and two small children and I packed our house in Connecticut and crossed a continent and the vast Pacific to begin our life together in an exotic land. I wasn’t anxious about the move; I wanted to go, longed to break free of the confines of suburban life with its Sunday barbecues and evenings waiting at the train station for my husband to step off the 6:05 from Grand Central.

Please Don't Let Me Die Here

My panic was not about the move; I knew that. Or, I thought that. I didn’t know anything really. For three nights in a row I awoke in a cold sweat, my body tingling as if I had been doused with eucalyptus. For the first few moments I was disoriented, and then the familiar wave of panic would crash against me. I’d reach for my husband; shake him awake.

“It’s happening again. Help me.”

The sound of my own voice startled me. Who was that person? The sound didn’t seem to originate from my body, but came drifting in from the corner of the room. The disassociation had begun. That was the worst part: seeing everything from above, watching the scene unfold as if watching a film of one’s life. My biggest fear, the thought that terrified me to my core, was that I would never emerge from this state; that I would never return to my body, that I would spend the rest of my life watching it from afar, startling at the sound of my own voice calling out for help.

“Please wake up,” I pleaded. “Talk to me, please start talking.”

I needed to hear his voice. He had been talking me through these episodes for five years, ever since the first time I awoke to the deafening sound of bells and a certainty that I was having a heart attack. Our daughter was a few months old and we had left our home in Johannesburg to enjoy a weekend in the African bush. We had spent the day in the pool, cradling our young girl in the cool water.

“We have to go back to Joburg. We have to go back to Joburg. Don’t let me die here in the bush. Please don’t let me die here,” I implored over and over, as my husband kneeled on the floor in front of me. He rubbed my knees and tried to smooth my hair. I flinched at his touch, jumped up and paced, sat back down again and rocked, begging to be driven home to Johannesburg.

Just 24 hours earlier I sat in our doctor’s office and explained that there was something off. My skin was tingling, I was especially nervous. He listened empathetically and said it was natural for new mothers to feel anxious. My husband sat next to me, trying to hide his own concern through a practiced look of confident authority.

In the house in the bush my husband called our doctor, nodding his head while I rocked on the bed.

“It’s not a heart attack, you’re having a panic attack,” he said when he hung up.

“No, I can tell,” I argued. “It’s a heart attack, I’m going to die. Oh, God, I’m going to die and leave Elizabeth and I’m in the bush and we have to go back to Johannesburg.”

“Everything’s going to be okay. I promise.”

“You promise? Is everything really okay?”

“Yes, it’s really okay.”

“And everything will be okay?”

“Yes.”

Our conversation repeated like that until the tingling began to subside and I felt myself begin to drift back into my body. I curled up in the big bed and my husband sat next to me, repeating that everything was going to be okay until darkness closed in on me and I drifted off to sleep.

***

In our temporary flat in Singapore my husband reaches through the night for my hand. He doesn’t open his eyes.

“Everything’s going to be okay. You are fine. The kids are fine. I’m fine.”

“You’re sure? The kids are fine?”

“Yes, they are sleeping. Everything’s fine.”

“I need to take a Xanax. Where are my Xanax?”

My husband lets go of my hand, climbs out of bed and walks to the bathroom. He comes back with my pills and a bottle of water.

“It will take 20 minutes for this to work,” I say before swallowing the pill. “Will you watch TV with me? Can we see if Friends is on? Do they have Friends here?”

He reaches for the remote control and I sit on the edge of the bed praying that the Xanax takes effect quickly, willing my skin to stop tingling and my brain to reconnect with my body. Nothing on TV is familiar. We wait. Every few minutes I ask again if everything is fine and my husband rubs his eyes and says yes.

And then the second wave hits, this one stronger than the first. My skin is on fire and my brain floats above. I can’t breathe. It’s not going away. The Xanax isn’t working. I’m going to be like this forever. Who will take care of my children? What if they see me this way? They will be so afraid.

The thoughts crash against each other and I say them out loud. I listen to this strange sound that is my own voice. My husband tells me to take another Xanax and I do. We wait. I make him repeat over and over that the children are fine, that I am fine, that he is fine. The relief I long for, that I focus on in my mind’s eye eludes me. It is only after the third Xanax, hours and thousands of “everything is fines” later, that my skin softens and I drift back down to my body as I lie on the bed curled up in a fetal position.

Counting Backwards from Five

A few days later, I read about Marielle in a magazine. I am beyond exhausted: afraid to sleep, fearful of being alone, terrified that I will have another episode in front of my children. I dial her number and explain the situation. She gives me her address and tells me to come that afternoon.

“Have you ever been hypnotized before,” she asks as she pours me tea.

“No, never.” I’ve never really believed in hypnosis, but at this point I’ll try anything.

We talk for over an hour, and I tell her about my life as I would a new therapist. She listens actively, she looks me directly in the eye; she shakes her head and furls her brow when I describe my most painful memories.

Then she explains that she is going to try to hypnotize me, but that not everyone can be hypnotized. She tells me that I will always be in control, I will be aware of everything that is happening, and I can stop at any time. She is going to put me under and induce a panic attack, she says. I feel my body tense.

“I’m afraid,” I say quietly.

“I know you are afraid, but I’m going to be right here with you, and I’m going to walk you through the panic. And if it becomes too much, you can say stop. If I think it’s too much for you, I will bring you out. Are you ready?”

I close my eyes and settle in the chair and listen to the sound of her voice]. Marielle speaks slowly and calmly. She tells me to reach back, back into my own mind. I can feel my body relaxing as she starts to count backwards from five. When she gets to one I am in another state. I am completely aware of my surroundings; I can still hear Marielle speaking to me in her tranquil voice. But I am somewhere else.

She starts to describe my panic. She says very little, but within minutes my skin is tingling and I can feel myself disassociate. The fear rushes in. I call out that I am afraid, that I don’t like the way I feel.

“You are safe, I am here,” Marielle says soothingly. “Keep going, let yourself feel it. Don’t turn away from what you are feeling. You are in control.”

I focus on her voice and try to withstand my own discomfort, but after a few minutes I say I want to stop, I need to leave that place. She calmly tells me she is going to count again, and as she moves from one to five, I can feel the panic lifting, feel myself rising back to the surface; to the chair and the frangipani and the sounds of cars outside.

We sit and talk for another 30 minutes. Marielle tells me I did very well for my first time, but that it may take a few more sessions until I learn to control my panic completely. I drive home feeling as if I’ve had a long, restful nap, and by the end of the day I feel better. Not cured, but better. I return for another session a few days later. This time I am eager to be put under, to experience the panic while wrapped in the warmth and safety of Marielle’s voice. I understand that the more I do this, the less power the panic will have over me.

The worst part of the attacks is the feeling of helplessness. When I awake in the middle of the night with tingling skin, the panic holds me in its grip and rules with terror. Even when I understand that what I am experiencing is a panic attack, I don’t dare say the words—not even to myself—for fear I will give it more power. Marielle teaches me not to run away and hide, as I want to do, but to turn and face the panic and call it out by name.

Within weeks I am beginning to feel like my own self again. The overwhelming fear and trepidation is replaced with assuredness and joy. I continue to go for my sessions, until one day Marielle puts me under and the panic tries to find me, but I am bored with it and shoo it away.

***

That was 13 years ago and I’ve not had a full-on panic attack since. Over the years I’ve woken a few times to the familiar tingling and my heart racing. For a split-second I am disoriented, and then I realize that I am awake and panic has come calling. I name it in my head and then quietly chant to myself that I am fine, that everything is fine, until I can feel my body relax and I fall back into slumber.

At times, the panic tried valiantly to return: through six more moves and a painful divorce it found me in the darkness and tried to grab hold. But it had lost its power, and the terror and feeling of helplessness were replaced with mild annoyance and a sense of control.

Eventually it gave up and slunk away, defeated.


Have you ever had a panic attack? How did you get through it?

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Based in New England, Jaimie Seaton has reported from Africa, Europe and Asia. Her work appears in numerous publications, including The Washington Post, Newsweek, Glamour and O, The Oprah Magazine. She holds a BS in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts. Find Jaimie on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.

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