This post is nearly a short novel, and it's incredibly personal but in order to end stigmas we have to keep talking.
Panic attacks are never convenient.
It’s barely been two weeks since I started exercising again (primarily through my Peloton that collected dust for the better part of the year while I had my 8 surgeries. The nice thing about Peloton FOR ME is that, unlike a gym (nothing wrong with them at all!), you are with a group and with an instructor that, if the right fit, speaks to you on a level that feels supportive physically AND mentally. You get the privacy of dying, sweating, and breathing real heavy, while also feeling surrounded with support. This isn’t an ad for Peleton haha, but I’m trying to explain it as it’s part of the whole experience I’m about to tell you about.
Panic attacks are traumatizing.
For example, I loved boats!… had a panic attack on a boat that I wasn’t in control of and now the idea of getting on a boat that isn’t predictable or giant (like a ferry), scares the hell out of me and the idea of having another panic attack…well…. gives me a panic attack. No longer love boats.
This has been a theme for as long as I can remember and it’s incredibly frustrating. In fact, there have been times in my life where this cycle has been debilitating to the point of being truly concerning. In 9th grade, while eating, I was blindsided by a panic attack and like many others also experience, I was convinced I was going to get violently ill and your body damn near follows suit just from the rush of adrenaline. As crazy as this sounds, I literally started getting triggered when I would sit down to eat. I was frustrated and exhausted and this went on for quite some time… loved ones, people at school, and even a therapist said I had an eating disorder. I suppose you could call it that at the time, but I knew it had to do with panic rather than body image. Friends close to me know I have never been 100% cool with certain situations with eating and I’m now 33.
Why the fuck am I telling you this? Well… because it’s important to explain just how much panic can grab hold of you and throw you in a cycle that can last a week, months, or years depending on the severity, the support you have in the moment, and the support your have long term (therapy, support groups, medication… whatever). This is how things like anxiety-related agoraphobia and OCD can take shape. Panic attacks in public when you can’t get to your “safe” place, which starts with being at home for many, can trigger a cycle that means you feel safer just not leaving your home. It’s easy to criticize if you have never experienced it, but I wanted to explain this before I tell you about my evening.
When I get that feeling, I almost always run. Get that sudden flood of adrenaline? Get the hell out of wherever I am and get away from everyone. You learn that 99.9% of people just don’t understand and you absolutely don’t feel safe no matter where you go… even if I’m in my home, trying to find the area I feel most safe is not always obvious, but it’s almost NEVER where I was when the sensation started. I have made a million different excuses for disappearing in the middle of something, bailing on plans…etc.
Tonight I was like 8-10mins into the Coldplay ride with Emma Lovewell, and I got that disruptive and terrifying flood of fear. My stomach started to cramp and I was ready to unclip and “run” all before I really had a min to think about what was happening. My saving grace was that I’m competitive and didn’t want to stop the class as my rank would plummet to last (and it’s not like you can write a little note that says “I’m not this bad at my bike, I just had a panic attack”) and it takes a little effort to unclip your shoes. I also JUST found my way back to this bike with the support/community that goes with it and I knew if I bailed, the next ride would have that weight of “what if it happens again” which is when an isolated episode, turns into a pattern and then straight up avoidance. There was ZERO chance I was going to keep up the resistance and cadence the class was calling for, and I knew I was still going to drop way down in the rankings to an embarrassing level but I just didn’t want to have this bike turn into another place to avoid so I turned the resistance way down, slowed my legs down and made a commitment to shut my eyes and just listen to the instructors voice and the music. 15ish more mins to go is a god damn century when you are panicking but I just wanted to keep my legs moving, no matter how slow…. I could freak out or whatever, but NEEDED to stay in that seat.
Conveniently, the song “Fix You” came on right at the peak of my hell and when I was pretty sure I was going to unclip and like a Lifetime/Disney movie, Emma starts talking about feeling broken and I can’t remember the the details of what all she said, but I heard her crystal clearly when she said “I’ve got you”. As corny as this story is getting, the truth is, we all just want to hear those words and I have wanted to hear them over and over again during panic attacks where I rarely find the courage to stay put and be cared for. Let me be crystal clear… the remaining 8-10mins were still absolutely daunting and I was ready to unclip many, many times. I kept moving my legs and for once I stayed put.
The second it was over, I unclipped, turned the shower to cold and sat there until the water was miserable enough to distract my mind enough to stop overflowing my body with unnecessary adrenaline. I eventually took my medication, and now I’m sitting here thinking about how little shifts and victories like this can bring change. Mental health is exhausting… no way around it… I never will be “cured” and I’ve stopped waiting for that moment, instead, I just add tools to my kit. I build my toolbox and if I’m honest, not every tool is self-loving, or healthy, but those still helped me survive and be here, so the challenge now is to have small victories that give me OTHER tools, and experiences to rely on.
Tonight, my Peloton didn’t turn into a trigger because I didn’t run away. I can’t promise I can replicate this with other things or on different days, but today I took a little step forward and in the world of Peloton I didn’t win a new badge or keep up with my peeps (riders that I follow, and vice versa), but it was the most challenging ride yet and it was my most epic performance while also finishing dead last. The good news is my heart rate was so damn high the whole time from anxiety, it LOOKS like I tried super hard haha 😂
To my fellow MH warriors… just keep hanging on. Build your toolbox, and even in the darkness, when you feel alone, I’m there and so is a whole army of people that are also fighting. Sometimes it gets so dark that we can’t see one another, but trust when I say, you are not alone. You are NEVER alone.