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.1