I’ve not experienced them a lot in my life – or if I have, they’ve been so few and far between and not as frightening – so I haven’t had much chance to remember them…but the ones I’m having lately? I will never forget.
They suck balls.
I got my first one the other day.
I was okay to begin with. Tired from recovering from the dreaded flu during the week. It has amazed me how much the flu has completely knocked me off my feet. I haven’t felt this unwell in a very long time, you guys. It was awful. I was in such pain all over my body and had a banging headache that just alternated from ‘really bad’ to ‘a lot worse’. It did not get better throughout the week. I had the chills and a fever and felt like I was freezing all the time. My eyes were gritty and sore and my throat honestly felt like it had been cut deeply from the inside, that’s how much it hurt. I had absolutely no energy and even the smallest things – like having a shower – would exhaust me for the rest of the day. Just walking to the loo and back to bed felt like a marathon. I’d be gasping for breath, covered in sweat and have to stop to rest a few times between the bathroom and our bedroom because it was so hard to just move my body. Everything hurt. So much.
The next time someone tells me they have the flu, I’m going to slap them square in the chops and say “No you haven’t, it’s just a cold!”
When you actually have the flu, buddy – you’ll know about it.
Anyway, I’d had the flu for about a week and I was starting the recovery process of being able to walk for more than 5 minutes without having to lay down. There was a light at the end of the tunnel. Yay! Excited about this and wanting to ‘run’ before I could ‘walk’, I asked Alun if I could come with him into the city when he went to work. I had these amazing daydreams of me sitting in San Churros, nursing a gorgeously thick hot chocolate and people-watching for the afternoon, then leisurely walking to the train station and heading home to bed. It was going to be so lovely. I had been indoors in bed all week and was bursting to just get out of the house. This was going to be so much fun!
I had no idea how much reality was going to change that plan for me. No idea at all.
In the car on the way to the city, I was feeling quite good. Tired – and surprised at how I still had to catch my breath even though I wasn’t moving – I was a passenger in Al’s gorgeous Audi…but still, it was more tiring than I expected.
This is okay, though. Totes fine.
Al parked at my Mom’s and we started the 10 minute walk from Mom’s apartment to the hospital so Alun could start his shift.
My hands started sweating and I was having to focus on literally putting one foot in front of the other.
What is happening to me?
Alun was talking. He was smiling and gesturing at something ahead of us with a gorgeous raise of one eyebrow. I wasn’t hearing anything but garbled sounds.
What is going on inside me right now?
I didn’t want Alun to worry, so I nodded and smiled in response.
Al nodded back and continued walking and chatting happily. I still couldn’t make out what he was saying. My vision was getting blurry and my legs – they felt as if with every step I took, they were heavier. Like someone had been adding weights to my ankles without me knowing.
What is this?
As I was walking beside Alun (and struggling to keep up, even though he was just strolling), I was wiping my hands on my denim shorts and gasping for breath – as if I’d been running and needed to stop to pull air into my burning lungs. I felt a prickly, horrible sensation work its way quickly from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head…like a thousand spiders were crawling on me and biting me. It was awful. I was so scared. I looked down at my body but everything looked fine. Frustratingly, it looked more than fine. I registered that it was a lovely Autumn day and the sun was shining. The sky was blue and clear and the breeze was gentle and cool. My skin looked smooth, even and healthy in the sun’s glow.
But the itching! My body was being attacked by invisible spiders.
I looked up and Alun was saying goodbye. He leaned in, hugged me, then kissed me on the forehead.
“See you later”
But in my world at that very moment, everything had slowed right down. Alun’s voice was louder, lower, deeper and longer than I had ever heard it.
“Seeeeeeee yoooooouuuu laaaayyy terrrrrr”
In real time, I guess things were happening at a normal pace. Alun winked, turned towards the hospital entrance and was gone before I could blink.
I looked back down at my legs, now bearing white scratch marks right across them.
I was scared to breathe because suddenly, I was hyper-aware of the city. Of just how incredibly dirty it is. The germs. Germs are everywhere. Suddenly, it was like I was looking through a magnifying glass at the city. I could see splotches of dirt, grime and God alone knows what all over the roads, the pavements, the walls…I could see dots of saliva on the ground, drops of blood…smears…so many smears…in the panicked state I was in, I imagined I could smell them. I could smell human waste. I was convinced if I breathed it in, it would hurt me somehow. It would fill my veins. All the dirt.
So my breathing became shallow, panicked and very, very fast.
My head started spinning.
Is this it? Is this how I die? Like this? Out on this dirty, busy street in the city?
Tears were welling in my eyes because I felt so frightened and so helpless. I couldn’t control the heat, the strange itchiness all over my body, the strange hyper-awareness of all the sounds, sights and smells of the city – it had all overwhelmed me like a huge wave pushing me down and holding me under.
I’ve never gone through anything like this so I didn’t know what to do to make it better.
My brain was racing through everything I’ve seen, heard and read – trying to grasp onto something – anything – like an anchor in the storm of fear I found myself in.
“3 things you can see…” came to me. An article I’d read about having an anxiety attack – something about looking for things you could hear and see around you to settle your anxiety.
I could see dog poo. Seagull droppings. Saliva. Blood.
Oh Lord. This wasn’t working at all.
My breathing continued at a rapid rate. My heart was pounding so hard and so fast, I would have not been surprised if it burst right out of my chest.
Calm down, JD.
“3 things you can feel...”
My heart, for one. It’s going nuts.
Two more, JD.
I can feel the heat – this terrible, itchy heat – it’s all over my body.
One more, JD…hang in there.
I can feel the wind gently moving my hair.
What does it feel like?
Like someone caressing my head. It’s actually really nice.
Okay. Hang onto that.
Father God, thank you for the wind.
Yep, I’m losing my mind. I’m thankful for the breeze. I have completely gone crazy.
Yet, as I forced my mind to grip onto the feeling of the wind across my face, my cheeks, my lips…I found I could force my feet and legs to move.
My breathing was still ragged and I was crying now and holding my stomach because it hurt so much. I was struggling not to vomit. I felt so sick. The smells around me were so intense…and so nasty, it was making me want to hurl.
Take another step, JD.
So I did. They must have been the smallest, wobbliest steps ever, but I took them.
So I did.
So I did.
Wiping my tears and struggling to make any progress at all, I resorted to swearing at myself.
“For f**k’s sakes, JD. Get on with it. You’re okay. You’re fine. Just a little panic attack. You’re absolutely ok. Keep f**king moving. Don’t give up. Take another f**king step! And another. Another! F**K yes! Another. Another!!!”
My shallow, fast gasps weren’t great, but at least I was getting oxygen into and out of my body.
I took tiny steps all the way to Myer and then I stopped. I still had ages to go before I reached the train station.
The itchiness and heat all over my body felt so awful. I felt so dirty. So covered. So confined and so scared…like a giant, dirty hand had me in it’s grip and was squeezing me. Squeezing the life out of me.
I had tried at the beginning of my panic attack to call Alun. Now he was trying to call me back.
My hands were shaking so much, I almost dropped my phone.
I struggled to swipe across the screen to answer.
“Gorg? You ok?” Alun’s worried voice.
I couldn’t talk. I was so scared that the words wouldn’t come.
“Your breathing. It’s too fast, Gorg. Slow it down. Calm down…are you ok?”
Still no words.
Alun, I think I’m dying.
“Take one deep breath in…and then one deep breath out…You’re okay, Janet – you’re ok” Alun persisted, even though I still hadn’t said a word.
It hurt like a bastard, but I forced myself to obey Al and I forced myself to take a deep breath in, hold it and let it out slowly.
“Ok, good” Alun said “Hey, want me to come and get you?”
I nodded and tears streamed down my face.
I’m so scared, Gorg. Please come and get me.
Out loud, I said “No no, it’s okay. I can make it home from here on my own”
I held my breath after I spoke so Alun wouldn’t hear that I was crying.
“I’m a bit shaken up, but I’m ok” I reassured him.
“I know you’re not” he said gently “get yourself home and text me when you’re home safe so I don’t worry”
I managed to get myself – one very painful step after the other – to the train station. I sat on the metal bench and waited for the train to arrive – marvelling at how damp my clothes were from all my sweating and struggling.
I caught the train home, focusing on my breathing the entire time:
“Breath in…and hold…and breath out”
over and over until I was shakily pushing the key into the front door.
My heart had been racing the whole time and the fear hadn’t left me. Convinced some monster was out to get me, I raced inside and slammed the door shut behind me, leaning on the door as I caught my breath.
What was happening to me?
I hobbled over to the sofa, laid down – and fell immediately into a fitful sleep.
It’s almost 4 days since that panic attack and I haven’t fully recovered.
Instead, I’ve found that walking through the city isn’t fun anymore. I’m scared every time I leave work and journey home. Days of smiling at strangers, people-watching and wondering where everyone is off to, days of daydreaming on buses and trains; humming, silently mouthing the lyrics to favourite songs playing on my phone and through my ear plugs – those days are gone.
I walk as fast as I can with my head down and my bag clutched tight to my chest so that I cover the distance between my office and the train station as quickly as possible. When I get to the station, I am always covered in sweat. Sweat that has a bitter smell to it – the sweat of a frightened, anxious person. I get onto the train and I don’t stand anymore so that ‘someone who needs it’ can sit in comfort, I race to find an empty seat and I sit there – with my head down and eyes locked on the tops of my feet…until my station is called over the loudspeakers.
I rush home the same way I rush through the city – head down, clasping my bag to my chest, puffing breaths out with force so that I don’t die but thinking the entire time that somehow I will.
And I get home. And I go to bed.