A panic attack boiled up out of nowhere while I was working in an office earlier this week. I knew the employees there quite well and am usually comfortable in the space, but there was a lot of negativity going on in my head and my hands slowly began to shake uncontrollably.
I knew speaking was going to be difficult, so I quietly powered through the rest of my work while practicing what exact words I would use to say I was done and heading out.
Playing it in my head did not make this very basic sentence any easier. I awkwardly fumbled over the words, not quite sure how to string them together in a meaningful way. I clutched the stack of work I’d completed to my chest after putting on my jacket, holding in my trembling as I attempted to answer the other workers’ questions about what I was up to for the rest of the day.
I kept repeating in my head that I was going to be okay. Most people have been unable to tell when I’m having a panic attack, so I assured myself that they probably didn’t notice anything. I tried to respond normally (which I do not think I did) and then did my best impression of a calm human being walking out of the building.
I sat in my car, calling and texting friends to see if anyone could help me drive my cat to the vet later in the day. When my heartbeat slowed down and I felt it was safe, I put ‘er in drive and got my butt home. Throughout the day, I had several smaller panic attacks. I comfortably spoke with my lovely vet and a server at a nearby restaurant, before breaking down on the restaurant’s patio with my ex-partner across the table from me.
There was a lot leading up to this.
Shortly before my partner and I broke up last month, I told him details of a time I was raped so he would understand why I am vehemently opposed to camping in Riding Mountain National Park, which he’d teased me about because he did not know the true reason. While it made me feel a little more okay about that incident, it brought others further to the surface and since then I’ve put a lot of energy into pulling my mind to happier times.
At a potluck dinner I hosted last weekend, a friend told us about the tragic passing of her sister. After, she said that was the first time she had revisited that memory without crying. It’s therapeutic, she said, to talk about traumatic experiences with people who make you feel safe and loved, because it retrains those brain paths. I don’t think I’m explaining the science quite like she told it, but however that works, her statement made me cry.
Not just a little, like I’m apt to do, but uncontrollably. My friends starred at me and reshuffled table positions so the more comforting of my dinner guests could me next to me. I bawled for a few minutes before excusing myself to the bathroom where I sat up on my counter, leaning against the wall. I cried as hard and as satisfyingly as a person can cry until someone came to check on me.
That’s one of the first times I’ve let myself cry like that over the memory of being raped. Usually, I push the thoughts down or drown them. I’ve quit drinking because alcohol was definitely a tool I’ve used to help with this. Without booze, I’ll crawl into bed for a few days, trying to assure friends I’m bailing on that I’m fine through texts that I don’t have the energy to punctuate or spellcheck. As you can imagine, I’ve lost a few partners who weren’t understanding about my pain and inability to deal.
It was two days after my dinner party that the anxiety sneak-attacked me at the office. My first impulse was to give in to grief and crawl back into bed. I wanted a cigarette. I wanted a beer. I wanted something to take away the pain immediately. But, more than that, I wanted something to dull the pain more longterm. I didn’t want another relationship impacted or another sunny day wasted in bed. I wanted to never again spontaneously bawl with my friends sitting around me, confused about what my problem is and how to help me.
So, forcing myself to continue eating and drinking water, I kept working and texted people who I know love me. I called my ex and told him what was going on. He offered to come over immediately, but I didn’t feel quite ready for what I knew I needed to do so I asked him to come by after work.
That evening, on an empty patio, I dragged my ex-partner through the details of an awful time in my life that still replays in my head. Crying and avoiding eye contact, I told him things I’ve never told anyone. I told him how much I hate myself for letting it happen. I told him how much I hate myself for wishing this person wasn’t around anymore to hurt other girls or for me to run into. I told him about the images that flash into my mind and how I can’t stand them anymore.
He held my hand on the walk home and assured me that I’m okay now. He said the right things that I never knew I needed to hear and he took care of me until I fell asleep, exhausted but no longer trembling.
It’s been 10 years since the first time I was raped. Drugs, alcohol, obsessions with work and running and other weird things were tools I used to try to erase my pain. It turns out, the only thing that works to quickly make me feel okay is giving in and telling people that once my life was awful. Once, I was a vulnerable 18 year old girl who shared a room with a man nearly 20 years older than me. More than once, he got drunk and crawled into my bed at night. Way more than once since, I’ve felt him on me, smelled his sweaty skin and had the shivers of intense disgust ripple through body.
What I’ve learned is that the experience has had a huge impact on the level of anxiety I suffer from. Those feelings and the anxiety are my problem, but they’re not my fault. I’m okay and I’m going to be okay, thanks to all the people around me who love me.