Life with Panic Attacks


Panic Disorder can be a problem by itself, or it can be one aspect of a broader disorder. For me, it was part of the secondary post-traumatic stress disorder I inherited from my Holocaust Survivor parents. My first attack occurred when I was about seven and went to the bathroom in Hebrew School. As soon as I entered, I felt strange and there was a strong chlorine smell. The bare light bulb looked bright yellow as I reached for the round brass door knob, darkness closing in around my vision. I just got out before blacking out: "This is what it felt like for them to die." I kept saying to myself about my relatives who died in the gas chamber. I just stood in the hallway, panting and my mother came over and said "You look like a ghost." There ensued much debated among the rabbi, principal, secretary and my mother about whether there was in fact a "funny smell" in the bathroom. I'm convinced to this day it was a toxic mixture of cleaners, but it was crazy making to have only my mother and me smell it. After that I spent weeks having surges of panic attacks. My physician told my mother I was just looking for attention. I couldn't describe it. 

I called it a stomach ache, but to myself I said that it felt like I was dying. For years later, I couldn't enter public bathrooms unless there was someone already in there who was alive and well. During the years of nuclear bomb air raids, I would get them during the siren. At some point, my extremely nervous father developed panic attacks. He would clutch his chest and tell my mother he was having a heart attack. My mother would reassure him, but meanwhile his panic caused me to panic and I would run out the back door and pace around the yard until I calmed down. No one paid any attention to me at all. I got panic attacks when public speaking and so did a lot of it through high school. I was determined not to let panic attacks limit me for the rest of my life. I find it hard to empathize with patients with panic attacks who give up and become agoraphobic, dependent on family members to drive them everywhere and stop working. It's an extremely uncomfortable disorder but it is one of the most easily treated. For some people, the secondary gain of being doted upon makes it too tempting to fight.

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