Or How a Panic Attack Stole my Superpowers
My husband Mike and I were winding down from an uneventful Saturday, catching up on some televised drivel that made me appreciate how DVR’s have stolen the last bit of my functioning gray matter, when I suddenly felt flush. I’d been struggling with heartburn all day, but this was a new sensation, more akin to nausea. I stoically sat through an episode of House Hunters, waiting for it to pass.
By the time they said “man cave” for the third time, I knew that things were not all right. I was breathing, but it didn’t feel like breathing.
“I think I have to go to the hospital.”
Mike jumped from his chair, terrified and fussing as we grabbed insurance cards and headed for the emergency room. Arguing over the most direct way to the hospital, a terrified Mike interrupted to tell me how much he loved me. I wanted to comfort him and say all was well, but found myself unable. Worse than the shortness of breath, worse than the nausea; I was scared. That was something horrible and new.
By the time we reached the hospital, (translation for my British readers: “By the time we reached hospital”) I’d begun shaking. My shoulders jerked. I felt cold. Waves of nausea continued; my scalp tingling, my breathing ineffective. I walked through the emergency room’s automatic door expecting people in white to sprint towards me, screaming for crash carts and jerry-rigging tracheotomy tubes out of ink pens.
No one seemed to notice me.
“What’s wrong, dear?” asked the reception desk nurse, as if I wasn’t obviously dying.
“I’m having trouble breathing,” I said. I felt my eyes tear. In my head, I told myself to shake it off and stop being a little girl. It had the opposite effect.
The nurse handed me a form and motioned to the waiting room. Mike tried to take the pen from me, but focusing on the paperwork helped distract me from my distress.
I was angry. Television taught me that “I’m having trouble breathing” was the passphrase to instant hospital admittance, and yet there I was, trying to recall my social security number. Could it be television hospital dramas weren’t entirely accurate?
Across from us sat a man with stained gauze wrapped around his arm, his pant leg soaked with blood. Scattered across the waiting room, other pale-faced people sat flanked by loved ones. How funny that the one moment when you really think you should be the center of attention, is the same moment a dozen other people in the room feel the same way. I realized the nurses must be numb to almost every horror. I could bowl a human head through the front door and they would just place a pen and a proof of insurance form in its mouth.
Five minutes later, I lay in a curtained cubical attached to an ECG machine searching for signs of a heart attack. In my younger days, the idea of a heart attack would have been ludicrous. Now, a little over 40, I realized the nurses thought a heart attack was a very real possibility.
I felt humbled.
“Hm…” said the nurse, reading the ECG results. “Hm…” She tapped the machine and knitted her brow.
Great. I thought. I’m dead and they just don’t know how to break it to me.
“I don’t think this machine is working,” she mumbled.
Two more people stopped by until someone realized the blankets meant to keep me from shuddering were skewing the readings. They repeated the procedure, and, satisfied with the new results, unclipped the sticky pads from my body. I continued to fight nausea and take slow deep breaths to stop the shaking. Things were starting to feel a little better.
“You don’t seem tacky,” said the nurse.
I looked down at my cheap “Dunder Mifflin” novelty tee and traffic-cone-orange sweat shorts.
“Have you seen this outfit?” I asked her.
She had already disappeared, having mentally filed me under “not dying.”
Michael held my hand and rubbed my shoulders to keep me warm. By the time they took blood samples, I felt much better. The nurse fingered the crook of my elbow, looking for a vein.
“Do you care where I put the needle?” she asked.
“No. Either way my career as an elbow model is probably over.”
She laughed. “You have really tough skin.”
“I know. That’s why I don’t do heroin. I kept bending all the needles. It was frustrating.”
She laughed again. Mike gave me the stink-eye. You just scared the life out of me and now you’re a comedian, said his stare. Not funny. Not yet.
I nodded and fell silent. Never again could I tease my husband with his blood pressure medicine and cholesterol concerns about my superior genes. I used to tease him by saying, “I am strong like bull!” in a thick Russian accent. Now, I had lost the right.
They gave me a saline drip and sat me in a room, Mike and I staring at each other, catching our breath.
“Aren’t you glad we didn’t go to dinner tonight?” I asked, remembering deliberations from earlier in the evening.
“Oh yeah,” he said, his eyes tired. “This is much better.”
Eventually, the doctor stopped by to discuss my test results.
“Thyroid is fine. You’re not dehydrated, your electrolytes are good, and blood is perfect…” she told me. “Your symptoms resemble a panic attack.”
A panic attack? Me?
“A panic attack!” I scoffed. “We were watching television! I’m not stressed at all.”
The doctor shrugged. “Sometimes you can’t know why panic attacks happen.”
I sighed. The only thing worse that falling ill for a reason was falling ill for no reason.
“Get a check-up,” she said. “But I’m 99% sure you had a panic attack.”
I sighed, disgusted with my treasonous body.
Exhausted and up way past our bedtime, Mike and I signed a few more papers and headed home.
The next day I told my mother about my panic attack and she seemed baffled. Two months later, she let it slip that my father had a panic attack… or 12. Oh, and once SHE had a panic attack.
“You didn’t think to tell me this when I HAD a panic attack?” I asked.
She shrugged. I think she wanted me to think my distress was caused by too much drinking. Moms are sneaky like that.
So, I had a panic attack. I’m not dying, yet. That’s good. But, apparently, I’m not indestructible anymore either. If I can have a panic attack, who knows what other perfectly human things can happen to me.
Discovering you are not a super hero is not something I recommend. Avoid it as long as possible.