Secrets For Surviving Panic Attacks
Well, it’s another Saturday. My avid blog readers might know what that means…I’m at the carwash again for my Inside-Out Wash and Hand Wax. And yes, I know I’m pretty particular about the state of my car, thank you very much, but in my professional opinion there’s no pathology there whatsoever. Anyway, I’m stuck for a minimum two hour sentence at this joint. It’s always the longest two hours of my life, and if I don’t find something to occupy my mind I might just lose it. I usuallly sit inside for the A/C, but the weather was beautiful, so I sat outside on what barely passed as a patio: two of those round concrete table jobbies with the rough curved benches encircling them, surrounded by tall but sparse hedges on three sides. I wasn’t the only one with the bright idea to sit outside- Floridians get very excited in November when the temperature dips below 75 for a second and the cooler breezes make it onshore- we flock to outdoor spaces like Aztecs worshipping the sun. I spied a concrete bench that was empty and sat down with my coffee from my fave place on US-1. There was a dude at my table on the bench across from me, and he didn’t so much as acknowledge my presence when I sat, so engrossed in his phone was he. Fine by me. As I surveyed my company, what struck me was that there were literally zero words being exchanged among the other waiters, even those that were clearly there together. It was like a freaking monestary- if the monestary was right next to a carwash with its particular “music” of Inside-Out Washes and Hand Waxes in the background. I don’t know why I still find the lack of communication, especially in the very most basic sense, to be so alarming, almost disturbing even. I know I’ve gotten into this in so many different blogs and videos, and of course in my book, but it seems like no one talks to anyone anymore. People talk more to Alexa and Siri these days than other people. Anyway, what were my fellow waiters doing while they weren’t talking? They were of course on their phones, just like everyone always is, always on freaking cell phones. I wasn’t the least bit shocked to see what looked like a ten-year-old girl buried in a phone. These days, young kids, I’m talking like age three and up, have phones to play games on, because moms can’t bear to give up their phones to allow the kids to play on them, and if the kids don’t have phones to play on, they’ll drive their moms crazy and make it impossible for the moms to be on their phones. So the obvious solution, nay, the only solution, is to get your four-year-old a phone. I wonder what Dr. Spock or Mr. Rogers or Bert and Ernie would say about the Romper Room set having phones, or even worse, needing phones.
Anyway, as I sat on the hard and scratchy concrete bench on the “patio” surrounded by the sparse hedges, a woman entered the scene. She walked up and asked if anyone was sitting next to me, to which I said no. The way these benches are curved and situated, it makes it a little awkward to sit at one with a stranger, but she smiled and took a seat next to me. She looked about 40 or so, medium height and weight, with jet black hair. I guessed she had more than a little Latin blood in her. She was not dressed Saturday casual like the rest of us waiters: she wore a nice black skirt suit with a bright pink blouse, and I assumed she was on her way to work. At where or doing what I had no clue, but realtor was at the top of my guess list. I noticed she wore no wedding ring, though that doesn’t really mean anything these days. She looked like a woman of means, and she was fairly attractive, but something was off. She looked kind of shocked for lack of a better term, like psyche shocked, and she nearly visibly vibrated, like she was plugged into a light socket. She was clearly very unsettled by something, or maybe several somethings, and it or they were simmering just below the surface. I could see she was accustomed to the valiant effort to keep them there, but they were clear as the day to me. Your average person on the street wouldn’t see any of this in her, but I’ve made my living watching and listening to people as they lay bare their pain and fear, and this woman had plenty of both.
She said her name was Pilar, and that and her slight accent confirmed my previous guess that she was of Latin descent. I knew damn well that something was wrong with Pilar, something that I might be of help with, but also that I might not. My mental machinations continued. She could be in denial, and she could be offended if I offered an opinion. I mean, how many people want to be analyzed by a shrink they just met while waiting at the carwash? I decided that I would not open Pandora’s box. Not going there. I’m just going to sit here in the sun and be polite, but be surface. Mind my own business. Polite, surface. After a moment sitting at the little concrete table, she asked me how long the carwash takes. I dutifully explained that the Inside-Out Wash and Hand Wax took a bare minimum of two hours, especially on a Saturday morning, but that it was well worth the wait. At this, she blew her bangs out on a long resigned sigh. Then motioning to my cup, she asked where she could get good coffee. I gave her directions to my fave spot, which was just up the street on US-1 and told her to ask for “Bailey the Barista, the best barista in the Easta” I had given this name to a barista named Bailey at my fave place because she really is the best barista ever in the vast history of baristas. (ADD side note: what the hell did we call the people who made our coffee prior to the advent of Starbucks?) Pilar laughed and said she’d be back; right after she left, even the guy across from me stood up and said that with my glowing recommendation, he just had to go for a cup as well. How to win friends and influence people…with coffee…who knew, I mused. Maybe the next book? I filed that under ‘Later’ in the grey matter.
I took Pilar’s absence as an opportunity to remind myself not to get involved, to not play the curious shrink role. No matter how bored to tears, how desperately in need of a distraction I became, I would be strong. I would not go there. Be polite, be surface. You may be wondering why I don’t just announce my profession and delve into stuff with people at every opportunity. First, that would mean I’d have to be ‘on’ and wearing my Dr. hat a lot when I’m at social events and such, when I’d really prefer to be chill. But it goes beyond that. Here’s the thing. Unless someone asks me straight up what I do, I don’t usually tell random people I’m a psychiatrist, because invariably I end up spending a lot of time listening to a story about someone’s Aunt Edna from Des Moines who has 53 cats and hasn’t left her home in 12 years because she’s purposely hoarded it with old newspapers, jars full of pee, and her old fossilized poopy diapers, all as an excuse to never leave, and do I think that maybe she’s depressed and can I give her a prescription for Prozac? There’s a lot of that kind of thing. Another issue that can happen is someone tells me their story, and in my opinion they may actually need help, but when I tell them they should seek that help, they get all pissed off at me. Plus, when I talk to people when I’m out and about, they don’t know that they should have no expectation of privacy because they aren’t patients and we aren’t in my office, and they may tell me some deeply private things, and it just gets messy for me that way. So, for those reasons, and a lot more, I don’t generally just announce that I’m a psychiatrist. But there is a flip side. It’s no secret that I hate to do nothing. I hate waiting for my car to have its Inside-Out Wash and Hand Wax because I have nothing to do while I wait. And remember: I hate doing nothing. So sometimes, like during my interminable wait for my car, when I’m bored out of my skull and climbing the walls, I might be less averse to telling people I’m a psychiatrist, because 100% of the time, it starts what might be an interesting conversation, one that might help pass the time until my car is ready. All I have to do is introduce myself and my profession, “Hi, I’m Dr. Mark Agresti, I’m a psychiatrist. What’s up?” and we’re off to the races. People spill their guts. Other times, I don’t use my last name or announce my profession, but I still engage in the conversation. So it’s kind of like the little cartoon with the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other and do I dive in or mind my own business? It’s an internal tug-of-war I’m familiar with. Earlier, I had simply introduced myself to Pilar as Mark. In this case, I knew that Pilar was genuinely troubled, but if I told her that I was a psychiatrist, I wasn’t sure how she would take it; she seemed fragile to me. All the more reason for me to be polite but be surface. But on that flip side, I did have time to kill, and Pilar seemed very nice, and maybe I could help her just as another human rather than as a physician. So much for polite and surface. Maybe she wouldn’t even want to open up to me. But maybe she would. I had the feeling it could get deep on this carwash patio. Guess I’d find out.
With time to kill, I decided to be like everyone else and get on my phone to check my Facebook, or Fakebook as I like to call it. They recently refused to boost one of my posted blogs. Interestingly, it was called “Carwash Psychiatrist” and was all about a different Saturday morning conversation with a steroid-raging mountain-sized man. Fakebook refused to boost it citing inappropriate content. I call total bs on that. I thought it was really informative and interesting, if I do say so myself. It’s on my website if anybody wants to read it and decide for themselves. I re-read it again as I sat there, and still I didn’t think it was inappropriate. I wished I could figure a way to get around Fakebook to boost it. As I considered that, Pilar returned and sat down next to me with her cup of coffee. Her expression was more open than it had been. I think she was more comfortable with me because now we had this coffee connection. Somehow, sitting next to each other drinking coffee together set a mood to talk, a vibe like we were old friends catching up. Glancing at my watch, I saw that I still had an hour until my car would be ready. More than enough time for a conversation, if one arose. I had given up the mental jujitsu match and decided to be polite and open. I could feel Pilar’s dis-ease, referring to her uneasiness, not illness, though she always kept it hidden…or tried to. She looked at her watch and sort of tisked the time, saying that she hoped her car would be done soon because she had to get to work. When I asked her what she did and if she usually worked weekends, she said that she designed and sold high end kitchen cabinetry, and that no, she didn’t normally work weekends, but she was behind because she’d missed a lot of days recently because she’d been sick. This was it. This was the turning point. I could be in or out. Polite and surface or open. I know something’s going on with her, maybe there’s something I can do to help her, so I go there, unable to resist the psychiatrist in me, but at this point still unwilling to tell her there was one. So I went there, I asked her the obvious question that her answer had begged: what was wrong?
She answered, “I thought I was dying.” Okay, I’m looking directly at this woman, and while she looks troubled, she is definitely not dying. I’ve seen dying. I know dying. I decided to take the light-side approach and gave a little non-committal laugh as I said she’d have to narrow that down with some details. She began, “A month ago, I had to go to the emergency room.” I expressed surprise and asked what happened to land her in the ER. She replied, “I woke up one morning and I had this tightness in my chest. I couldn’t breathe, and my heart was racing. I was sweating buckets, and I was so uneasy, like something awful was happening. I thought for sure I was having a heart attack. I had this sensation of pins and needles in my fingers. I didn’t know if I was losing my mind or really actually dying, because I felt like I didn’t know who I was or where I was…I felt like it wasn’t real. Crazy, right?” Before she had even finished her second sentence, I knew that Pilar was describing anxiety, maybe a panic attack, so I said, “Let me take a wild guess, when you went to the ER, they took your vitals, started an IV, drew blood for labs, did a chest x-ray and an EKG and when the results came in, they told you everything was normal, that you just had anxiety.” Surprised, she said yes. When I asked if she’d had other similar episodes, she said, “You know, I have been getting these attacks in the middle of the night when I’m sleeping. When it happens, I wake up and I’m sweating, I can’t breathe, my heart’s hammering, and I feel like I’m honestly losing my mind, because I can’t calm down. I really feel like I’m dying, like I’m having a heart attack, and I’m sure I’m going to die.” When she followed up with her family doctor, he repeated the same tests that the emergency room doctor did and came up with the same conclusion of anxiety, so he gave her 2mg Xanax and told her to break them in half and take a half twice a day. She said it helped a lot, but that she had been living on them for the past 3 weeks, and she was very worried about becoming addicted, because she had read that they are very addictive. She was definitely right on that count. Xanax is very effective at treating anxiety and panic disorders, but it’s a dual edged sword at best and not good as a long term solution. Then she told me that about two weeks ago, she had another attack, and she wanted to try to avoid going to the ER if possible, but she wanted to be close in case she needed them. So she decided to drive to the ER but not go in. She parked and sat in the lot for about 90 minutes, waiting for the attack to subside, but she didn’t go in. She did that same thing twice. Then, she said that she had plans to go out with her friends about a week ago, and she had an attack in her house. She was just about to get in her car to meet them, and she had an another attack. She said that this one was the same deal: shortness of breath, sweating like crazy, feeling like she isn’t real, like she is losing her mind, like she’s having a heart attack and that she’s going to die. It seemed that this had been going on for about a month. Then she said that she was living in a constant state of fear, always scared that she was going to have an attack. And that was why she was working this weekend, because she had called out of work so many times in the past 4 weeks that she was really behind on some projects. I asked her how things stood now, and she said she had stopped all social engagements. She was pretty much confined to her house, only leaving for necessities like going to her office, grocery store, and gas station. It seemed like that was pretty much it, and she needed a Xanax just to do those few things. She was living in constant fear of having the attacks, but now that fear had expanded; now she had fear of getting in her car, fear of driving, fear of being out in public, and even fear of meeting up with her friends. She’s pretty much stuck in her home, only leaving if she absolutely must. So a month into her anxiety and panic attacks, that’s where she stood. It wasn’t good. She’d have to get help to get it under control.
Keep in mind, Pilar doesn’t know what I do, but I kind of needed to push the envelope a little. I asked what her family practice doc’s diagnosis was, and she said he had told her that it was just plain old anxiety. That didn’t jive for me; this wasn’t garden variety anxiety. When I told her that I didn’t think it was just anxiety, she kind of freaked out, eyes wide, asking if she could die from it, if she would be like this for the rest of her life, and if there was a cure for it. And only then did she finally think to ask what it was. I told her with a smile, “I think you’re going to live. I’m pretty sure you have something called panic disorder. I’ve read about it. You should see a psychiatrist, because there are ways to treat it without using addictive drugs like Xanax.” She looked relieved as she asked what panic disorder was. I explained that it’s not a physical illness, it’s a psychiatric illness with attacks exactly like she was describing, and that Xanax works, but that there were other medications for it, and that’s why she should see a psychiatrist. When she asked how I knew about all this, I told her that I had read up on it a lot because I had a sister who was diagnosed with panic disorder. I went on to say that her doctor gave her Zoloft, and that seemed to work really well for her. After two weeks on it, her attacks had basically stopped, and it wasn’t addicting at all like Xanax. When she asked if I knew what caused the attacks, I told her that I’d read that the panic attacks were the result of a false alarm going off in the brain, a suffocation alarm. You think you’re suffocating, you think you’re about to die, but you’re really not. She said she never imagined that something in her brain could cause her to feel like she was really dying, but that she was glad that it was treatable. I told her that when she got on the right medicine, the attacks should go away, just like they had for my sister. She thanked me profusely and assured me that she would see a psychiatrist. Then she lifted her coffee cup, took a big sip, and said she was so relieved. I told her that by the way, caffeine wasn’t the best idea, that my sister had to give it up because it encouraged more attacks. She said she understood, but that between waking up with attacks and taking the Xanax, she was exhausted and needed the boost, but that she would make the effort to stop the caffeine. I reiterated that she should get off the Xanax asap, that it was just a very temporary fix, and she smiled and gave me a funny salute and an “Aye aye, Captain!”
We continued to talk, and she said that she was glad she had sat down next to me. I kind of felt badly about my little white lies, not telling Pilar that I was a psychiatrist while telling her that I knew about anxiety and panic disorder because I’d read up on it when my sister had been diagnosed with it. The next thing I knew, I heard two last names called, mine being one. The other actually turned out to be Pilar’s. We stood up simultaneously, laughed, and then shook hands as she thanked me again. I told her no problem and to be well. And that’s how it was left. As I got into my freshly Inside-Out Washed and Hand Waxed car, I assuaged the bit of guilt I felt by reminding myself that there is risk in telling people you’re a psychiatrist these days. I didn’t tell Pilar. Maybe I should have, I don’t know. I think I helped her despite holding back the truth, and I felt good about that. I was sure that she would see a psychiatrist and make the effort to stop the Xanax. How weird would it be if she actually came to me, to my office to see me? It could happen. If it did, she might be angry. I’d have to cross that bridge when and if I came to it.
Pilar’s panic disorder is not at all uncommon, unfortunately. By some estimates, approximately two million adults in the United States suffer with panic disorder each year. There are two types of panic disorder: with agoraphobic features and without. Agoraphobia is defined as an extreme or irrational fear of entering open or crowded places, of leaving one’s own home, or of being in places from which escape is difficult. Most people with panic disorder start off without agoraphobia, but if the condition persists without adequate treatment, it can progress to include agoraphobia, where people find it almost impossible to leave their homes. It can be very debilitating, but it doesn’t have to be. Emma Stone, Amanda Seyfried, Sarah Silverman, Oprah Winfrey, John Mayer, Kristen Bell, and Caitlyn Jenner… What do these people have in common? They’re just a few of the many notable people that have panic disorder. That just goes to show that having a psychiatric illness like panic disorder isn’t the end of the world, and it doesn’t have to hold you back. You just need to make the choice to seek appropriate treatment if you suspect that you have it or have been told that you have it. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring it with the hope that it’ll just go away, because it won’t…it’ll only progress.
For more “psych stories,” check out my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon.com.