My favourite panic attack was the last one I ever had.
Sitting in a restaurant in Hangzhou, China waiting for my order, a familiar sensation overcame me. Panic, breathlessness and flashbacks enveloped me, and I struggled not to lose all composure in front of people who were routinely told by their government that mental illness did not exist. By all accounts, it was a standard attack in an unusual place.
Nothing was different about that panic attack, but there was something different about me.
For nearly a year I had traveled South America and China with the aim of blowing my mind in a good way, for once. I had jumped on a plane to Lima with a backpack and my future husband with the intention of witnessing incredible things, eating crazy foods and maybe even discover something about myself.
What these travels gave me changed my life forever: steel-plated inner strength.
My first panic attack happened when I was 12 years old. It came out of the blue, as they do, after a day out at the swimming pool with friends. As the on-site paramedic helped me control my breathing, and the feeling that I might die began to subside, I wondered where on earth it had come from, and why. How was it possible to become so panicked when out having fun with my friends?
Little did I know this was the start of thirteen long years in which I would be plagued with anxiety, depression and mental health problems. As I wrestled unsuccessfully with adolescence, the panic attacks took on a whole new dimension and started throwing up horrifying flashbacks from nightmares I didn’t remember, and would never again once the attack was over. Sometimes standing in a queue at the store, or studying in the library, I would relive violent terrors as the rest of the world went about its day.
Every episode resurrected a worrying question that I couldn’t answer: could I survive all this?
In that year of travel, I was plucked out of my life and all its responsibilities and burdens, and for the first time, my view of the life I had led could not have been clearer. My victories felt more triumphant, my failures no longer a reflection of me but part of a learning process that made me stronger. More importantly, I was able to detect the toxicities that I had unknowingly allowed to damage my self-esteem, my ambitions and my sense of self.
My next course of action was a no-brainer: I cut away those toxic elements and cast them into the past, where they belonged. Two months later, I was in that restaurant in China having what would be my final panic attack.
Anxiety doesn’t just disappear.
Anxiety gets enough skepticism. Anyone who has anxiety knows how difficult it can be to manage, and I would never want to give anyone the impression that panic attacks can be turned off with the flick of a switch. My anxiety is still there, making me question if I’ve said something wrong in conversations and keeping me up the night before interviews, but it has lost all its violent qualities.
My panic attacks had a root cause that was so familiar that it never occurred to me that it could cause so much damage. It took years of thought, reflection and being physically removed from my old life to pinpoint what caused me the distress that fuelled these panic attacks.
Jump back seven years, and I couldn’t answer a question. An important question that, in my mind, decided whether or not I would last in this world. Today, I don’t need to, because I answered it two years ago, the day I had my last panic attack.