BY RACHEL WONG
I remember the very first time I had a panic attack, and I remember the “help” that came with it.
I was 16 years old, getting ready for an end of the year production. My grandfather had recently passed away and I wasn’t getting any sleep. Rehearsals had been running longer than they usually did and I hadn’t been eating. One day during practice, I fainted. When I had finally gotten back on my feet, my director was angry at me, saying that I wasn’t pulling my weight. And despite what I told him, he threw probably the worst cliche possible at me – “the show must go on”.
And that triggered my first panic attack.
I was inconsolable. I sat on the sidelines crying, but it was the kind of crying that had no sound, just tears. I was shaking and trembling, dizzy and nauseous, and all the while, I could see people passing by. They were nudging each other, trying to get someone else to comfort me.
“You help her!”
“No, YOU help her,” they pleaded.
It was almost like I had the plague.
While the show did go on that evening after my panic attack, people soon began to treat me differently. One classmate even asked me what was making me so sad. And while the question was certainly valid, it was definitely an understatement of all the emotions that had made up my panic attack that night.
Simply put, a panic attack is when one suddenly suffers from disabling anxiety. Disabling, as in, we can’t react or communicate properly.
There is a sense of being overwhelmed and afraid, and suddenly we are frozen in time. We want to scream but our throats have closed up on us. We want to to walk it off but we are stuck.
For many, panic attacks will be a one-time occurrence in their lifetime. For others, it can result in recurring episodes. These episodes usually take place in public and within similar contexts. For example, someone might experience a panic attack every time they speak in public, enter a crowded elevator, or cross a tall bridge.
My personal recurring horror story? Aggressive confrontations with men.
As a writer and musician, I have been subject to a lot of criticism over the years. Sometimes, this criticism is extremely harsh. But when I try to explain my panic attacks to others, they tend to call me out as overly sensitive or too emotional.
Point taken. After all, I am a female. My hormones rage like it’s nobody’s business. But there is still a very clear distinction between harsh criticism and aggressive confrontations.
After the rehearsal incident, my next panic attack occured when my ex-boyfriend broke up with me. He didn’t care to make it a discreet or private matter. Instead, he went to the most public area possible, spoke incredibly loud, and called me out on being a slut and not fulfilling his needs. When he was through with his soliloquy, I was already curled up into a ball and unresponsive. The panic attack had begun even before he finished listing off his reasons.
Once my ex left and the break-up was officially over, I remained in that unresponsive ball until one of my friends carried me into another room. He sat me down and patiently waited with me. He had assembled an entire city out of salt packets until I finally said something , nearly 45 minutes later.
I’ve had a few more episodes since then, but I’ve thankfully come across people who have – at least, somewhat – understood how to approach me during my panic attacks.
So what is the best way to help someone who is having a panic attack?
Have patience and be there for them. Understand that it’s almost impossible for us to communicate because we are kind of lost in our own world. Our internal wires have been crossed and we just aren’t ready to respond yet – it’s not that we want to ignore you. I can assure you that we are always grateful for your help, even if we don’t initially respond to or acknowledge it. We might feel bad or awkward that you are seeing us in a vulnerable state, but knowing that you care makes us feel a lot better.
Finally, when we are ready to speak, know that the conversation will be rocky at first. Take a walk with the person you’re helping, get some fresh air, and be there to listen. You may not feel like it’s much, but it’s a lot – trust me.
Rachel Wong is a Communications student at Simon Fraser University. She is a slam poem enthusiast, foodie, self-proclaimed music nerd and wannabe photographer. A regular contributor for Student Life Network, Rachel’s favourite thing to do in her spare time is write – anything from haikus to 6 minute long poems, posts on food or changing the world. Her goal in life is to make an impact and help to eliminate the social stigma around Depression and other mental health concerns, one word at a time. You can find more of Rachel’s work at http://rchlcwng.blogspot.com.