Labor Day weekend in our small town had always been uneventful and relaxing, so it came as a shock when I suddenly experienced heart palpitations and lightheadedness. A panicked call to my physician determined that exposure to paint fumes from painting inside our home was probably the cause. After getting some fresh air, I did feel better.
But the symptoms returned two days later while I was waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store. Somehow, I managed to load my groceries in the car, then I drove home quickly, gripping the steering wheel with sweating hands, praying I wouldn’t pass out.
The symptoms continued over the next few days with even more severity, causing constriction in my chest and throat and trouble breathing. Finally, I called my husband, Brad, at work and asked him to take me to the emergency room. While I waited for him, I found myself crying uncontrollably. It was unlike me to be so out of control emotionally—and that frightened me just as much as my physical symptoms. I’d hit a wall that had come from nowhere.
The emergency room physician ruled out life-threatening causes of my symptoms, such as asthma and heart problems, and then ordered an electrocardiogram (EKG). He finally reentered the curtained-off room and said, “You’re having a classic panic attack.” He nonchalantly wrote out a prescription for a tranquilizer. So that’s all it is, I thought, relieved it wasn’t a heart attack, thinking once these symptoms settled down that would be the end of it.
Instead, that was only the beginning of a bewildering, frustrating journey as the attacks continued. One would come while I was at a movie theater or out to dinner, leaving me desperately wanting to return home. I’d awaken in the middle of the night with my heart pounding, and end up in the living room, crying out of fear and discour-agement that this wasn’t going away. Often, disturbing symptoms such as a choking sensation or chest discomfort would occur as I did normal chores around the house. So began the most difficult year of my life.
I had joined 40 million adults in the U.S. who suffer from an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety has many faces. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, panic disorder is one of several anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and phobias such as social phobia and agoraphobia. Panic disorder typically affects women and young adults with workaholic, “type A” personalities, but it can also be found in children, or can begin later in life, as in my case.