I don’t remember my first panic attack. I do remember one in particular, the one I think of when I tell people: “Sometimes I have panic attacks.” I was maybe 16 or 15, I lived with a family that wasn’t my own. After my parents moved me and them to Florida, I promised to give it a year and I did and when the year was up I decided it might be better for everyone involved if I packed up my things and moved back to the middle of the country. I’d spent my sophomore year of High School trying to adapt to a place which felt like it was trying to purge me. I didn’t run away, I just gave in to the idea of leaving.
I moved back to the middle, where I’d come from, and slept in a room in the basement of a ranch house. The floor was black and white checkered linoleum and the closet was large enough to be a room of its own. I liked it down there because it was dark and cavernous and that’s how I felt most days, because it’s difficult to exist in High School and not turn into a cliché.
There were panic attacks before and there were panic attacks after, but this one hit me in the gut, hard, sucking the air out of my lungs until I thought it might be best if I dropped to my knees, as if there would be more oxygen the lower I got. I was alone in this house that wasn’t my own, in a hallway, on the other side of the long galley kitchen, around the corner from the tiny half bath stocked with the thin toilet paper. The other bathrooms had the plush stuff, but for some reason when the mother went to the store she bought a single roll of paper wrapped Scott for this little inconsequential bathroom.
On my knees, my head resting against the carpet, the scent of baking soda filling my nose, I felt the thump of blood from my heart beating out a message in my ears. Something bad is going to happen. Something. The early years of panic attacks always went like this, an increase in blood pressure, a conscious effort to conceal my breathing, the sweat running down my flank, my skin itchy and tight. The absence of a specific incident that might have triggered the fight or flight response, I turned to the paranormal; I imagined I had the ability to vaguely predict an awful future event.
Covering myself in blankets helped. Holding my breath and letting it out in a stream until my body screamed for oxygen did too. I could point to a million tiny wrongs these battles with panic were the result of, but none fit quite right. Nothing ever felt like it warranted the extreme response. Nothing which required me to run or fight. It was disappointing to realize I wasn’t a prognosticator either, that there wasn’t a simple explanation for why my body felt threatened. Threatened enough to flip the switch to survival mode.
There were other panic attacks, some worse, some mild. Sometimes they’d piggy back with vertigo, my eyes unable to focus without succumbing to the visual trick of finding disorienting depth in flat surfaces, the patterns coming to life and tricking me into a need to steady myself. To grab a wall or a bench to stop myself from falling into the illusion. I don’t remember how it stops just that it feels so good when it does.
My panic attacks are smaller now, and far between. My heart still races, my eyes still dart, and I still wonder if I’m having a response to a future event, my body prepping me for eventual danger, for a surprise I’m not ready to accept. It’s easier to believe I have a super power than to admit I am at the mercy of my brain.