So, I had a panic or anxiety attack last week. The third one in three months. Truthfully, I cannot recall having a game-over feeling in my body quite like this. For those who have had them (and I’ve heard from many), you know how intense and terrifying it is. For those who’ve never had the horror, it’s like this:
Your face starts to get hot. Your heart starts to feel like it’s pounding out of your chest, out of control. You get very short of breath, and your breathing cannot sync or keep up with your heart. Your face starts to tingle, as well as your hands. You start to get dizzy, lightheaded. As you panic, you start to feel another level of panic about this uncontrollable panic you’re feeling – panic on top of panic. You want to loosen your clothes or undress as quickly as possible. But it doesn’t work, because you cannot get comfortable. You feel like you could pass out. Or die.
The first one happened this past November when I went to see To Kill A Mockingbird on Broadway. It started just as the show began and had me wondering if I was going to be that person who literally stopped the show and left the theater in a stretcher. It lasted for about 40 minutes. I was fine by intermission. Really shaken, but fine.
The next one happened in early February while I was walking my dogs in Central Park. It was a little less intense than the one in the theater, but frightening nonetheless.
The one last week happened in the middle of lunch at P.J. Clarke’s with my friend Patrick. I had to cut out early and get my lunch to go so I could slowly walk home and try to get some air. It lasted for 30 or 40 minutes, during which I repeatedly debated walking straight to the nearest emergency room. I didn’t go to the ER, but I did march over to CityMD that night for a quick check and an EKG. No physical problems detected.
The next morning, I saw my doctor, a cardiologist and a therapist. Again, no physical issues were detected. My heart and lungs sounded fine. But I am booked for a stress test later this month.
A few things about this situation… Off and on over the past three decades (mostly on), I’ve smoked. Each of these panic/anxiety attacks was preceded by a cigarette. After I left P.J. Clarke’s in the middle of that last episode, I threw my last pack of American Spirits into a trash can on Park and E. 59th and haven’t smoked since. As of this writing, it’s been nine days.
Also… caffeine. As anyone who’s been following me knows, I love coffee. Lots of it. Each of my attacks happened within an hour of a cup of coffee. I’m still loving coffee, but I’ve cut my consumption in half.
Other contributing factors? Grief. Stress. Fear. The past year has been a lot. Less than a week before my first attack in the theater, the day before Thanksgiving, my sister-in-law died. The heartache, not just for me but for my family and most specifically my wonderful brother, was immeasurable. Also, on the very day that I went to see the show, I’d learned that someone I love very much – someone with whom I’d recently “broken up” – was in the city, less than a mile from where I was having that first anxiety attack. Tricky feelings on a myriad of levels. That was also my first time in a Broadway theater since the pandemic started in March of 2020. So we can add that anxiety to the pile.
On the stress front… I had recently quit my steady income job and started making a full-time living on subscriptions and contributions from patrons. It’s going well, but it’s still scary. It’s all on me. There’s pressure there.
Then there’s the fear. I’ll be 52 this year, which means I’m closer to a coffin than a crib. I don’t know where things are going for me, and I’m very uncertain about the future. It really frightens me.
And then, of course, there’s the pandemic and all the ways it’s fucked with me and everybody else.
The good news is that I have good friends, one of whom sent me a subscription to the Ten Percent Happier meditation app, which works with breathing, being calm, reducing stress, relaxing and boosting focus. It’s been extremely helpful. In fact, as I felt the signs of an attack coming on a packed subway the other day, I was able to calm myself down pretty quickly. Thank you, Chely.
I also got a book about breathing from my friend Paul called Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor. I actually remembered Nestor from Terry Gross’s interview with him last year on NPR’s Fresh Air. The interview made a huge impression on me, and I’m really looking forward to reading the book and learning even more tools about breathing better. (Listen to the interview.)
That’s what’s been going on. As I sit here writing this, I’m feeling alright. A little better with each day, actually. I’ll keep you posted.
Thanks for reading.
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