Author: Niall Sweeney

In this post, I discuss my own experience with panic attacks. My previous disability interview with Mags McHugh entitled ”Does She Take Sugar?” can be found here.

Early July 2013. Late at night, I wander to bed, nothing major mounting on my mind. In dimmed light, book in hand, I set about escaping to Galway to follow the tale of two orphaned children, Flight Of The Doves. Great book.Rock n roll….. of all the things to trigger a full-blown panic attack, a fucking novel does me in.

Skimming through the pages, I felt a profound loss of concentration. I get this a lot when I’m reading, as I’m sure a lot do. But there was no getting back in the groove this time. A heaviness built up in my chest, the weight of one of those demons from the sleep paralysis illustrations.

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Book down, this wasn’t going to work. I had pondered launching myself back into Finn and Derval’s runaway mission, but it seemed to make me worse. Nothing was going in, what was an engaging narrative was now mere words on a page.  A sip of water and lay down to sleep. Ride it out (alone!).

All the while, I began shaking uncontrollably. I fixed my lips again firmly around the Riverrock bottle like a starved hostage, thinking the solution came at the bottle’s end. Hydrate. That’s what they always do on tv in times of trauma, offer them water. Well, that and booze. I know which one I could use right now.

I lay there,  in what felt like a lifetime, staring into the abyss. I fumbled with my phone to consult Dr Google as to what in the name of God was up with me, but I couldn’t muster up the focus. It was just aimless rambling between articles, and yet again nothing was going in. It was a distraction if anything. The screen was an all too bright attack on my already over-stimulated brain. Switch off. Back to…sleep, with any luck.

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My mind racing with possibilities on my condition, and wondering if I’d even survive the night, I was no closer to peace. I wondered how prisoners did it, locked in a cell with nothing but their thoughts every night. I had autonomy on my side, yet my mind was a makeshift cell in those moments. Was I losing it completely?

Still shaken, I dozed off eventually. I counted enough sheep to keep the local farmers in the black.

The next morning, I had awoken to a new reality. Nothing felt familiar. I felt distant, detached. Now I was tasked with telling my parents what transpired, and the sight of them was an eyesore. Upbeat and bonding over boiled eggs, not a clue as to my mental state, until:

”I’ve had a panic attack”.

It was out there now, It had a name. I had managed to subconsciously absorb some of the frantic Googling of last night, to diagnose myself. The shaking, heaviness in the chest, not knowing where I was. A panic attack.

Knowing was half the battle, and my parents gave me space when needed, with an ear to listen.

What’s It All About?

The after effects were in full force, the strongest being disassociation. I became convinced that a part of me died that night, and now this post – anxiety shell of a man was here to stay.  Going forward, I was now an actor simply playing the role of Niall. It’s the feeling of watching yourself talk, act, make decisions, but you can’t shake the nagging feeling that it’s not you.

My appetite suffered for a while. Never one to turn down a Big Mac or a barbecue, I merely picked at both in the Summer heat.

A doctor’s visit was in order, I couldn’t just wait this out. We talked through the symptoms, particularly the feeling of ”impending doom” as she put it. Part of me felt I was heading towards death, and the events of that balmy July night was a sign.

We also touched on medication, namely beta blockers. No way. Unless The Walking Dead casting team came- a – calling.

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I left the clinic feeling somewhat lighter, better about it all. Ten feet tall, as I put it.

I dabbled in Rescue Remedy and green jasmine tea to dull the anxiety, but I ditched them in defiance against what I now know to be the placebo effect.

I carried on Googling stories and interviews with celebrities about panic disorder, in an attempt to normalise my current predicament. It was a comfort to know even the Hollywood elite have it hard. Ellie Goulding had it bad throughout her career.

I developed a fear of car journeys. The motion, the speed, I felt trapped in this seemingly harmless chunk of metal.  It was all too fast. Like I was heading towards a crash. That impending doom again. Clutching my head, I longed for escape.

Snap Back To Reality

With time, work and patience, my appetite returned,  the shaking subsided, my thoughts became more grounded in reality and I dropped this irrational notion of having lost myself. I calmed down in the car. I was more present.

I’m not diagnosed with anything, nor was I ever medicated. I view this period in my life down as a learning experience.

I liken anxiety to this –  your brain has a wobble, blows apart for a while, and you are left scrambling to sew it back together, to gain some semblance of how you were before. But you can work at it.

Allow yourself time to do this. Talking, counselling, writing, keeping a routine helped me through this period.

Of course, I wasn’t alone in my experiences. Eight to ten percent of the Irish population will experience panic attacks, and 150,000 are affected by panic disorder in Ireland (Indo stats)

If my language comes across a tad hysterical in this piece, that’s what anxiety can reduce you to. It interferes with the brain in that it releases inappropriate levels of adrenaline in a fight or flight response, similar to how you would react to a break-in or assault.

It should be treated with the same significance as a physical illness as it’s a physical process in the body, and looking at where the public conversation on mental health is going, the shame of it is hopefully dying out.

There’s no shame in counselling, it’s a misconception of weakness to ”run to a shrink” with your problems as per American culture, but there is nothing weak in seeking help having exhausted all other avenues. It takes bigger balls to acknowledge the problem and work on it. With me, I questioned my place in the world, and learned to rein in my ”fuck off face”. Not everyone will benefit, but if money is not an issue, seek it out and try.

Ground yourself in the now. I think much of our anxiety is rooted in living in the past or future. Take in the sights. Eat slower. Take breaths. The new mindfulness movement has its critics, but to me, it has its place.

Talking is therapy. Listening is key. Whether it’s you or someone close to you.

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