30 September 2015

I Witness Something I've Suffered Myself, A Full Blown Panic Attack, I Try to Help


I watched someone in the throes of a panic attack today. While I’ve experienced far more than I care to contemplate (one is more than I care to contemplate) I’d never seen someone else having one, at least that I was aware of. The titanic kind that I’ve experienced are rare. But that’s what this young lady was suffering.

This took place in the school where I teach. It is an English language school that draws students from all over the world. I was on my way to the teacher’s room during a ten minute break between classes. I saw this woman, who it turns out is a 19 year old from France named Michelle*, in great distress. Naturally I stopped to see what was the matter. There were a few people around her including a friend who was trying to tend to her. When I asked what was the matter the friend said that Michelle was having anxiety. I could tell it was beyond that and I also recognized immediately that, based on my experience in this area, I might be able to help.

I tried to take charge of the situation. The poor girl spoke very little English but her friend was able to translate. We got her seated. Through her interpreter I assured Michelle that she would be fine, as impossible as it may seem at the time, panic attacks do pass. Of course people started to crowd around and I had to shoo them away. Someone gave her a paper bag to breath into and like an idiot I didn’t stop her. Breathing into the bag made it worse. Much. Later another person came over with a bag and I dismissed them from the scene with extreme prejudice.

Michelle could hardly sit still. She didn’t know what to do with her body. During this level panic attack you feel like reality has been turned upside down. The world is not as you normally perceive it and this is terrifying. It is not unlike being under the influence of a psychedelic except there is no drug in your system and there is no pleasure in how you are feeling. Far from it. The greatest fear is that this will never end and that you will completely lose your mind. The word panic is appropriate.

We eventually got Michelle to an office and onto a sofa. Through the interpreter I advised she breath normally, focus on something positive and get as physically comfortable as possible. I could have given her one of my Ativan as they are perfectly safe (I do not normally suggest giving a prescription drug to a stranger). But she calmed down rather quickly. An administrator made a doctor’s appointment for her which is a necessary step. Through her translator I learned that Michelle had experienced attacks before in France. Adjusting to a new country where you will be staying for a few months, especially when you don’t speak the language well is a recipe for panic attacks. These attacks are physiological in nature but can be set off by circumstances. Worse, one attack can lead to anticipatory anxiety, the fear that an attack is eminent. Anxiety like this can cause attacks that mirror panic. They are not as bad as real panic but bad enough, I assure you.

I would think that Michelle needs to have some sort of medication on hand and perhaps, as I do, may need to take something on a regular basis. I was first diagnosed with acute panic disorder about 30 years. Since then there has been significant improvement in the understanding of the affliction and the best types of medications to counter it. I was a veritable guinea pig for 20 years before the proper medicine and dosage was found. Many people swear by holistic treatments and I don’t doubt there effectiveness. A person has to find out what works best for them and this usually includes some sort of psychiatric treatment or counseling.

One of the most devastating consequences of severe panic attacks is that they leave one feeling depressed and vulnerable. There is a sense of powerlessness in the aftermath of an attack that is almost as awful as the attack itself although truly nothing I’ve ever experienced in life is as bad as the moments during an attack. I have learned from my experiences and know how what to do when an attack hits, which, thankfully, is not very often anymore.

It is fortunate for Michelle that I was at the right place at the right time. Understandably no one else knew exactly what to do. It was revelatory for me to see someone else have an attack. My empathy level was through the roof. But as I left work today co-workers recalled my actions and hailed me for them. I understand the impulse, its what people do. But it made me terribly uncomfortable and still does. (This discomfort is my problem and not theirs.) It is akin to how I feel if applauded for reaching a sobriety anniversary, as is done in certain places at certain times. In most circumstances I welcome and even solicit hosannahs and pats on the back and standing Os. But for something like what I did today or for eschewing alcohol I’d much rather not be praised or singled out. I can’t tell you why but it’s a real strong feeling.


*Not her real name

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