I Suffered from Panic Attacks
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I suffered from panic attacks for years. I didn’t learn this until later, but the acute anxiety was a symptom of my alcoholism.
They started when I was around 23 and lasted into my early sobriety at age 31.
I’m going to tell you how I managed to stop them.
When I say I suffered from panic attacks, the words suffer, panic, and attack are all precise. I never feel those words convey what it was like because the term sounds a bit generic. But if you break it down, it’s easy to see past the phrase and hear the reality of those words.
I did suffer. I was lost, and I didn’t know where to turn or how to ask for help. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I only knew I was freaking out and thinking I was dying, that a heart attack was imminent.
I would tell myself this isn’t true. I’d try to close my eyes, take a few breaths, or even meditate. But, I’d be attacked by panic and be right back into the suffering.
It was exhausting to go back and forth. This began a debate in my head as to whether or not I needed to go to an emergency room. Often, I did.
In my early sobriety, I enrolled in an outpatient program at St. Vincent’s Hospital in NYC’s Greenwich Village.
I was still having panic attacks, and I talked about that in our group sessions.
My counselor asked if I wanted to have a referral to see one of the hospital’s psychiatrists. I said yes.
Being relatively new to any sort of treatment, I didn’t understand the distinction between seeing this psychiatrist and the social worker I’d seen for therapy the year before. I thought I was going for therapy.
Within five minutes of starting our first session, she reached for a prescription pad and began to write a script for Prozac. To say I was taken aback is to put it lightly.
I stopped her. I told her that I’d been using pills and powders and smoke and alcohol to change and calibrate my feelings and moods for far too long, and I didn’t want to seek treatment by a pill.
To her credit, she took time to gain more insight into what I was saying and what I thought I needed.
I described what happened when I had panic attacks, and how I feared them coming on. They would happen at a variety of times, so it was unpredictable, and therefore very debilitating.
I was committed to staying clean and sober. I had no intention to try to use alcohol or drugs to mitigate the effects. I knew that was a dead end.
Eventually, during that initial session, I came up with a proposal. I suggested that we meet regularly, and talk about nothing outside of the panic attacks. We would focus our discussions solely on that topic.
She agreed, and we tabled the idea of a prescription for me. She laid out a timeline of a couple of months, and then we’d revisit our strategy.
What a relief it was to have the opportunity to be able to drill down on this single subject! We didn’t go into history and family dynamics and work and all the other things that therapy usually entails.
I felt respected by her, which was somehow vital at that moment. It went a long way toward me becoming whole instead of being in tatters. The fact that she set aside the reflexive idea of writing a prescription, and taking me on as a patient with a novel approach, meant to me that I was seen and heard, which was one of the keys to my early recovery.
Speaking directly about the bizarre fears and mental machinations that I suffered, as well as the physical manifestations of my panic, was liberating. I was able to look at this in the clear light of day and to be witnessed and supported by a professional who personified empathy and understanding.
We did terrific work together.
Also, as part of this outpatient program, we had an extremely thorough physical examination. I’d been smoking cigarettes for 18 years, and had only recently stopped that, along with stopping my alcohol and drug intake.
I was concerned, of course.
It turned out that I had avoided long-term effects from all of my abuse.
Learning this helped me in a couple of ways. One, it cemented for me that I was fortunate to be clean and sober, and that I was out of the woods as far as the physical effects from it. Learning and knowing what I’d avoided made it clear that I wanted to stay that way.
Secondly, it alleviated the base fears that drove the panic attacks. I learned that my heart and my body were not damaged and that I had no elevated concerns.
It worked. The therapy that we did together worked!
That, and continued sobriety, and the counseling in the outpatient group and one-on-one with a Certified Alcohol Counselor, along with slowly piecing my life together, alleviated the panic attacks.