The first big one happened on a Friday last year, just after midday. I was on the balcony helping my wife to hang out the washing, with nothing in particular on my mind. Without warning my head suddenly felt like it was on fire, my heart began racing, sharp pains stabbed at the left side of my chest and my breathing became shallow and difficult. It was the most terrifying experience of my life.
As I grabbed hold of the open patio door for support and begged my wife to call for an ambulance, reasoning that I was having a heart attack, she declined. She could tell exactly what was happening. I was having a full-on panic attack.
I knew about these things. I’d seen every episode of The Sopranos and I had known people who’d experienced them in the past, unsurprisingly as the result of serious emotional trauma. But me? Impossible. I mean, when it happened I wasn’t stressing about anything. Life was ticking along quite nicely, thank you. Or was it? With a year’s worth of hindsight, I’m surprised this hadn’t happened much sooner.
It was all over within 15 minutes. However, so bullishly convinced was I that this episode was not a panic attack, I made an appointment to see a cardiologist. I reasoned that, if there was nothing physically wrong, I could get the mental stuff sorted out in my own time. The following day I was on a bed having my ticker scanned and was relieved to be told it was perfectly fine and functioning normally. Happy days.
Only they weren’t happy at all. The following day I had another one, half-way through eating my lunch at home. A wave of deep depression swept over me as I was having a completely normal conversation with Mrs H, causing me to spontaneously burst into uncontrollable tears. Yet, once again, I hadn’t been thinking or worrying about anything. There were more over the ensuing days, each one less severe than the last, like aftershocks following a big quake.
Why? What was happening? None of it made any sense, to me at least.
The physiology, though, is remarkably simple: as my wife had explained to me time and again, there is a direct correlation between our emotional well-being and our physical health, no matter who we are. But I’ve always found it difficult to accept this as something other than cosmic hocus-pocus.
Yet the fact is, stress causes our bodies to produce increased levels of adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones. They return to normal once the source of stress is eliminated but, if that stress remains, those chemicals build up in our bodies until the inevitable physical reaction. Panic attack, acute anxiety disorder, call it what you want but the results are debilitating and frightening.
The episodes soon stopped but every now and then I could feel my body trying to transform itself into Anxiety Man. The blood pressure tablets, prescribed by my cardiologist (which stop the body producing adrenaline), kept it at bay. Eventually, though, they weren’t enough and the panic attacks returned with a vengeance. It was time, nearly a year after the first one, to seek professional psychiatric help.
Deep down I knew what was at the bottom of all this and I knew, too, what I needed to do to get back in control. I needed to exhume the emotional stress and trauma that, over the years, I’d ‘buried’. I needed to because everything – family relationships, work, you name it – was being negatively affected by my stubborn refusal to deal with my past.
Recent work stresses had taken their toll. I had left journalism behind and ended up in a marketing role that caused no end of self-doubt and an identity crisis of sorts. I was paid well but nothing else about my job fulfilled me.
Another major life upheaval had been the birth of my second son, nearly 21 years after my first. As much as I love and adore him, the impact of this on my mental well-being is difficult to put into words, but I knew I’d end up having to do just that. I’d also been through an emotionally draining break-up of my first marriage and was wracked with constant – and unmerited – feelings of guilt.
After verifying with my health insurance provider that the Dh700 sessions for psychotherapy were covered by my policy, I took my first steps to recovery.
The liberating feeling of opening up to an understanding stranger, safe in the knowledge that you can say anything without being judged, cannot be overstated. Sometimes I arrive home after a session feeling like my heart has been ripped out, old wounds having been opened up wide. But they heal faster these days because I know how to cope with all those demons.
My family life (as well as my career) are now firmly back on track. The panic attacks have stopped, too. Happy days? Finally I’m getting there, yes. I just needed to ask for help.