When I tell people I have the occasional panic attack, this is usually met with one of two reactions. The first, something along the lines of “Well, aren’t you diagnosed/treated?” (Answer: no—I’ll get to why in a while) usually leads right into the second: “You just want attention.”
No. No, I don’t. I feel like I freak when I’m shaking uncontrollably, when I’m having trouble breathing, when I tense up to keep myself from passing out, when I start having tunnel vision. It’s embarrassing to have attention paid to me for it, and it’s incredibly distressing when nobody seems to notice. (Incidentally, more often than not, people seem not to notice.) It’s not something I’d imitate for the fun of it, knowing how it feels. The fact that I don’t get them all that often makes it even scarier, even though I know what triggers them: stress (which should be no surprise) and being physically off-balance for an extended period of time.
I’ve never had exceedingly poor balance, but ever since I was little, I’ve always had something a little weird with my balance. I remember vividly reading a pediatric chart (when my records were being transferred from one provider to another) saying that I couldn’t balance properly enough to do the “duck walk” when I was a toddler—something I should have been able to do with ease. I can do it now, but it’s still a little tricky, and I don’t always get it right. However, as I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed that I get motion-sick more easily. I don’t enjoy riding in elevators, especially high-speed ones, because the sudden acceleration and deceleration throws me off.
This quarter, I’ve had a class in a room where the podium and projection screen are on a raised platform. For seven of the ten weeks of the quarter, I sat up front during class. However, between needing to look between my notes and the screen constantly, the up/down motion, combined with the seats being constructed in such a way that I feel as if I am falling backward by sitting in one, I’ve been reeling every day. I would come out of the class sore and tense from trying to hold myself in the position that made me feel least like I was falling. I would have trouble concentrating because I was trying to find a position to hold myself in. One day recently, I stopped trying to do that, and all hell broke loose. The shaking started, my vision started to gray at the edges, I felt like I couldn’t breathe because my body was so focused on trying not to fall backward even though I knew I wasn’t.
Since then, I’ve been sitting in the back of the classroom, which is raised slightly above the level that the podium rests on. I still feel a little like I’m falling backward, but I have to sit more toward the front of my seat, which seems to be a little more level. I haven’t had a problem since.
And it’s not just that classroom. I don’t like movie or IMAX theaters for the same reason. Sitting in the car can be uncomfortable at times.
Even though this has been going on for eight years, I’ve never been diagnosed with or treated for an anxiety disorder. The closest thing was realizing that a mild lactose intolerance was causing constant stomach upset (and thus, anxiety) in my freshman year of high school—after learning that and cutting back, the frequency of panic attacks dropped to what it is now: infrequent. They don’t occur on a schedule; they occur when triggered, and, other than sitting in that classroom, I never really know when that possibility will come up until I’m already in the environment.
I’m not anxious all the time—not even half. While my worries can get out of control, it’s easy enough to talk me down. I don’t think I need to be treated for that. As for my balance problem, I should probably get that checked out, but it’s so mild that I’m not sure anything can or even should be done for it. But just because a doctor hasn’t handed me a jargon-y diagnosis doesn’t mean my experiences aren’t real. I know saying that is a slippery slope; that I could totally be lying, so I guess I just have to ask people to trust me when I say I’m telling the truth. It’s been hard to explain why I’m not sitting up front anymore because I don’t have a handy diagnosis that I can just spit out whenever I get asked why I’m having a panic attack, or why I’m doing something to prevent one, and it’s clear that there are a lot of people who don’t believe me, some to the point that they’re probably thinking something else is wrong with me. It sucks, but, in the end, their beliefs about what I’m saying are their choice, and my coping methods are mine. It’s not that I’d rather cope than have friends—I’m just much easier to be friends with when I’m not busy trying to calm myself down.