In September, I think it was, in 1978 I was on the big island of Hawaii. I was in an area known as “the saddle.” It’s the valley that lies in between Moana Loa and Moana Kea, the island’s older and dormant volcanoes. It is an area where the temperatures can actually reach the freezing point. The 25th Infantry Division, of which I was a part, did its annual maneuvers there. One very dark evening I was taking a shower. We lived in tents while there but there showers at least was a permanent building. At some point I experienced the first panic attack of my life. Of course I had no idea what was going on. I wandered out of the shower not knowing what to do. The nights sky was clear and filled with stars. I got back to my tent, a large thing that slept maybe ten of us, and I lay down on my bunk waiting for the panic to pass. Mercifully it did in a relatively short time.
That was the only such occurence for some time. But a few months later, back on Oahu, another one hit one evening. The guy I lived with took me to the hospital at Schofield Barracks where I was assigned. Once the doctor saw me he asked me what drugs I had taken. I was appalled by this question. I did not do illegal drugs of any sort. Not even marijuana. He gave me a shot of something, probably diazepam, to calm me down. That was not the last time I had such an attack while in Hawaii but it was the last time I went to see a doctor about it.
In September of 1979 I was separated from active duty in the army. I didn’t have another episode until some months later when I was living with my wife in Leominster MA. Then they started coming with some regularity. I was finally prescribed medication to deal with it. I was given imipramine, an antidepressant, and Valium to deal with the attacks. The Valium worked, but not very quickly, and it was not unusual for me to get on the phone with a doctor who would always tell me to be patient.
I have had to live with this condition ever since. I used to let it control me but no longer, I control it. Still, it sneaks up on me.
What is a panic attack? My understanding is that there is a part of all of us that is very primal This is the part of us that fights for survival when danger approaches. It quickly sends a signal to the adrenal glands and we get a shot of adrenaline that sets out heart to racing. It is sometimes called the “fight or flight” instinct. Regardless, it sets the body into an immediate state of high alert, every nerve stands at the ready, and the mind races seemingly aimlessly, desperately seeking out the danger. But sometimes, in cases such as me, another part of the mind tricks us in to believing there is a real and present danger. It is of course an illusion, a lie, but the protection part of the mind does not realize this and always leaps into action.
The problem is, even knowing these things does nothing to dissipate the panic attack. The knowledge that there is no danger seems to have no affect upon a panic attack once it starts. And at least in my case, left unmedicated, the panic attack can go on for hours on end.
I think it is very important for those who have never had this sort of panic understand what it feels like. Most people, I believe, have something in their life that they are intensely afraid of. Most people can summon up the basic feeling simply by imagining they are looking over the edge of a cliff or from the top of a very high building looking down at the street below. A knot quickly appears in the stomach and the desire to back away is immediate. Now all you have to do is imagine the worst of that feeling and that it does not go away in a second or two. It stays. I cannot be run from, cajoled, or ignored. The whole time it is going on the ability to focus is impossible. Worse, the intense feeling that flight to safety must take place immediately and yet that safety exists in some unknown place so you do not know where to go. Someone holding your hand does no good. Talking about it does no good. People touching you not only does no good but can make it worse.
What I have found over the years is the panic attack is fairly common in society. Those who have never had one do not seem to have any understanding of those who do. Worse, those who have them feel a huge amount of shame surrounding the condition. The people who suffer from this condition need not feel ashamed, it is a real medical problem, not something imagined. Those people who are with people who have panic attacks need only know that their presence is all the afflicted person really needs.