It’s the end of a glorious summer’s day in London! Leaving work at 6.30pm I am pleased that the sun is still shining and it is still warm. Keen to enjoy the remainder of the day, I wander off down the broad, magnificent streets that surround my place of work. An ice cold coke zero is what I need, and I stop off at a local store. I pick up a well known gossip magazine on my way to the checkout with the intention of reading it quietly in the sunshine, perched on a wall, or perhaps even at a table outside one of the local coffee shops. More and more, London in the summer is developing a very lively “café society”, giving us all a sense of being on holiday somewhere wonderful and vaguely decadent in Europe.
Settling on a bench in one of the local parks not far from my place of work, I open my magazine to find one story after the other of celebrities I will never meet, about whom I am only mildly interested and for whom I have very little, or no, admiration at all. But the pictures are fun, and I am enjoying this mindless enterprise. It’s just what I needed today. Happily I thumb my way through the pages until my eye falls on the headline of an article on page 61. It is written by Eleanor Morgan and is titled: “My anxiety is always there. Sometimes shouting, sometimes whispering. But always there.”
Thirty minutes later I make my way to the station with a headful of memories and a story to tell of my own.
My story is of another summer in London – perhaps 20 years ago now. I was married, and working in Soho in a showroom very different from the one I work in now. Lovely as it was, it was more about character and less about the prestige of my current location. I greatly enjoyed the company of my colleagues, with whom I would often go out for after work drinks or coffee.
One particularly glorious summer’s day, drinking coffee in an utterly ubiquitous Greasy Spoon somewhere in Kings Cross, my colleagues and I were locked in deep conversation. As always, our coffees were very strongly flavoured with an intense, intimate sharing on matters of the heart and very souls of each of us. Soon it was time to part. Cheerfully enough, happy to have shared this time and ready to return home, I skipped off into the station and headed down the stairs to my platform.
WHOA!!! Suddenly I was sweating. Shaking. Gripping the handrail, I gingerly but determinedly made my way down the stairs. My heart was racing so fast I thought I might be sick. WOW, that coffee must have been really strong! Whew! Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Dizzy now, I leaned back against the station wall, helplessly watching trains arrive and depart before my eyes, quite unable to contemplate catching one, waiting, hoping, waiting for this to pass. I noticed my hands were wet. I noticed I was shaking. My knees had turned to water. What was this! God, I felt so sick! My mind raced through my recent history: Coffee. Conversation. Coffee. Hadn’t eaten anything. Was the coffee bad? Why was I suddenly so ill? Finally, arriving at a thought about a particular virus currently floating around London, I consoled myself with the idea that perhaps I had caught something. I should get home. It would pass. Trembling, I boarded my train and headed home. To this day I remember how the train swayed as though we were driving through an ocean storm. To this day I remember how the seats rotated before my eyes, how people loomed large before me, how I shrank to the size of a small mouse beneath their feet, how the doors appeared to be twice as thick and heavy, and how when I stepped out onto the platform at my station, the ground rose and fell beneath me as though I were indeed aboard a boat, far, far from dry land. Most of all, it seemed as though people were moving in slow motion. I was leaden myself, struggling to move my legs at all. Strangers were visible to me only through a very thick wall of plastic “glass”. As I later read in a book on this subject, this “glass” appeared like the shield between ourselves and a cashier in the bank. Everyone and everything was just over there. There was a deafening buzzing in my head, and when I tried to speak, my tongue was too large for my mouth. Suddenly, I wanted to cry.
Walking into my apartment that afternoon, I had no idea it would be three full months before I would be able to leave it again.
The following morning, unable to get myself out of the flat at all, I asked my, then, husband to please beg the doctor to come to me. Something was clearly desperately wrong. It was a while ago, and in those days, the doctors did come to your house. A grumpy, rather irritable and clearly frustrated doctor was soon sitting opposite me telling me I simply had a really bad cold. Yes, there was a virus going around. My dizziness was merely due to the fact I was hyperventilating, and I should cease to do so immediately. I needed a couple of paracetamol and a lot of sleep. I would be fine. There was nothing wrong with me at all. Very relieved, and satisfied with this diagnosis, I called in sick.
No better at all, and in fact a great deal worse, two weeks later, I was unable to leave my bedroom and head across the short hall into my own living room without holding onto the walls, trembling, sweating and crying as though someone I loved had just died. I was in complete despair – convinced I was going to die, I was now also in a state of absolute terror. About what? I did not know at all. Trying to manage this sensation, eager to get back to work before I lost my job and desperate to just end these sensations, I spent my days watching childhood DVD’s, cartoons, sitcoms, anything as long as it was light and required no concentration at all. Soon these DVD’s became painful to watch – the unreality of unicorns and legends merely accentuated the absolute unreality I was experiencing within myself.
My colleague came to visit me one day, to see how I was doing. She brought me a book and best wishes from my other colleagues. I became aware that in this present state, I had no desire to see them or hear from them or about them at all. Overwhelmed, I steered the conversation away from work altogether and we attempted to chat about the weather. I could see her only vaguely and faintly through what seemed to be a haze. I could also see her frowning deeply, and realised entirely how strange I must have looked to her in my current condition. I had no diagnosis to offer her, I could not explain why I couldn’t walk her to the door and up the stairs to let her out onto the street. I could not help her understand why the world was spinning and why I was shaking so. As my husband walked her to the door, I knew it would be the end of my job.
It was. At the end of the third month of being unable to leave my apartment I received a letter from my employer. While kind and sympathetic in tone, I recall the words ” due to your unstable condition…” and realised they believed I had gone nuts. That I had had a complete nervous breakdown. Was unfit for work. Well, in that condition, I was.
There was one thing, and only one thing I truly understood about myself at that time. I was indeed afraid. Terrified. But I was not depressed. I had an inner voice that was still very much alive and positive, despite this extreme distress. There was a piece of me left that I did recognise, and that piece was not depressed. Tearful with frustration is not the same thing as depressed, for me. With this in mind, I resolved to seek help and was taken by my now very concerned and not altogether sympathetic husband, to my doctor.
It was on this visit that I first heard the words: “Panic Attacks.” I had never heard of such a thing in my life before. I was stunned. Panic?? What about? Why? The doctor was gentle, calm and very firm in her reply: Apparently, I displayed all the symptoms of an: ” A Type Personality. ” I was pushing myself too hard at work, I was a typical “high achiever” and as a child had obviously been a little too intelligent for my own good. I had experienced a troubled childhood. I had driven myself too hard throughout my life, and now, approaching 30, it had all caught up with me. I had been displaced by having left my country of origin five years earlier, and I was indeed hyperventilating. I needed to breathe into a paper bag. I did not need a shrink. I did not need tranquillizers. Good, because I had no intention of taking them. I was to take Beta Blockers, which would help me get through the day. The shaking would stop. I would manage just fine from there.
While I am very aware that medical opinion relating to this form of medication has changed, I can only truly and honestly say a heartfelt Thank You to those Beta Blockers. I came back to life. One day at a time, one step at a time, I ventured out of my flat and into the street. Step by careful step, I made my way from my front door to that wonderful shiny red post box at the end of my road. Unable to yet consider public transport as an option, I was soon in a taxi heading out to job interviews. Soon I was in a new job. Here, I took my first step onto a ladder that elevated my career from a lowly and grossly underpaid position at work, to a rich, successful and lucrative career within the heady world of fashion.
Recently bereaved, I experienced what I recognised immediately as panic attacks. A friend of mine asked me if they manifested in the same way as they had done before. Could I leave the house? Was I agoraphobic again? Was I sweating and shaking? No. No longer an “unknown” terror, these panic attacks, while uncomfortable and more than a little disconcerting, hold absolutely none of the terror they previously held. I recognise them, and with this, a great deal of that extreme terror is dispelled.
Flight or Fight? In bereavement I find there is an element of both. As I explained to my partner the other day, I flee from this grief, unwilling to surrender to it. I instinctively resist the fact that my lifelong friend is no longer with me. I fight the reality that while we are in the midst of life, we are in the midst of death. I think a great many of us do. It is no wonder then, that fleeing from pain and denying the one absolute reality we all face, some of us might indeed feel a little shaky, reach out for a wall, breathe into our handbags, wipe a sweaty palm against our jeans and experience more than a little panic as we make our way gingerly through the challenges our lives present.