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Guestwords: Life With Panic Disorder

Wed, 05/01/2024 - 17:43

I had my first panic attack in seventh grade. I didn’t have a name for this frightening experience at the time and, in fact, wouldn’t until years later, but I have suffered on and off ever since.

One afternoon, I was reading a Nancy Drew book in bed when suddenly I couldn’t feel my heart beating. I was lightheaded, like an untethered balloon floating off in the sky. I believed I would die in the next few seconds. This strange sensation reoccurred several times over the weekend. I told no one. I worried that I might be going crazy.

In the following days, I fretted incessantly about having more attacks, but as quickly as they had appeared, they disappeared. Still, I felt nervous, afraid, and self-conscious. My parents said I was high-strung.

A couple of weeks before heading off to college in Iowa City, I was tense, apprehensive, and bedridden with mysterious stomachaches. But I recovered and soon made friends and enjoyed the hustle and bustle of college life.

Fast-forward to my first career job four years later. I had been hired as a psychometrist in a top child guidance center in Minneapolis, where I administered I.Q. and other assessment tests to children who were underperforming in school or having more severe psychological problems. I learned to write up reports for the clinic and occasionally assisted social workers in group therapy programs for teens.

I enjoyed the job tremendously until panic reared its ugly head once again. The first episode occurred as I was giving the Stanford-Binet I.Q. exam to a young boy. I felt clammy and started to perspire. I asked the child if he felt hot. He didn’t. Nonetheless, I rushed to open a window, then felt faint and hurried down the hall to my supervisor’s office. She took over and finished the testing for me.

Later, she said I was just overwhelmed and stressed, but when I had another episode a few weeks later, she recommended I see a physician. I complied, but the doctor wasn’t overly concerned (this was the late 1960s). He said it was “just nerves,” and wrote out a prescription for Valium, the latest miracle drug for the treatment of anxiety.

Valium worked its magic. I felt great, relaxed, and eager to get on with my career plans.

As I had graduated from the University of Iowa with a double major in psychology and elementary education, I decided it was time to give up what seemed like a dead-end job at the clinic and pursue teaching.

Winters in Minnesota were brutal, so a friend and I decided to move to California. In August of 1970, we enjoyed a long, leisurely road trip west, ending at the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica. I was soon employed with the Los Angeles Unified School District, first as a substitute teacher, next with a full-time position teaching first graders in the inner city.

I loved everything about Southern California and sprawling Los Angeles County. With sunshine every day, palm trees everywhere, the beautiful beaches within walking distance, and lots to see and do, I found my place in paradise . . . until panic attacks hounded me once more.

Around this time, my L.A. doctor would no longer write refills for Valium. He said it was addictive and would cause withdrawal problems, so I was weaned off it. My anxiety soared. It was almost constant and severely affected all aspects of my life. I was afraid to live alone, I stayed in relationships (roommates, boyfriends, etc.) that weren’t healthy. I sometimes endured stage fright at school, got the jitters driving on the freeways in heavy traffic, and hated standing in lines, among myriad other problems.

Things got so bad that I began self-medicating with alcohol. At my worst I was drinking half a bottle of wine every day after school. 

I felt so broken that I finally went to see a psychiatrist. It was there that I heard the words “panic attack” for the first time. In fact, by then (1980) panic disorder had been listed as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, third edition. My illness was real!

Panic attacks generally come from out of the blue, when no immediate threat or danger is present. The first signs of distress include a racing heart, profuse sweating, and dizziness that can quickly escalate to fear of losing control and/or dying, along with feelings of a need to escape. Panic disorder constitutes a recurrence of these attacks, along with the endless fear of having more of them.

Driving to my primary doctor one day, I panicked so severely that I contemplated turning my car around and going back home. Once in the waiting room, however, I picked up a magazine, flipped through the pages, and found a page highlighted with these words: “Do you fear driving? Do you rationalize staying home from parties and other social events? Do you worry about what other people think of you?”

This described me to a T. At the end of the article, I found a referral to the director of a phobia program nearby. Help was a phone call away. My relief knew no bounds.

A few days later, I received a questionnaire in the mail. I filled it out and mailed it back. The return letter read in part: “I have reviewed your Phobic Evaluation and believe that you are agoraphobic. The condition seems only moderate in intensity, but you seem to be experiencing many effects: depression, self-doubt, fear of being left alone, and so on. Once you can begin to decrease your anxieties, desensitize yourself to life situations, and express yourself more comfortably, the depression and self-condemnation will diminish. You’re an excellent candidate for our program.”

I took a leave of absence from teaching the second semester of that year so I could participate in the doctor’s “territorial apprehension” group.

The eight-week program was eye-opening. I felt heard for the first time in my life. I met many other interesting, successful women experiencing similar fears and anxieties, with varying degrees of complications. With weekly inspiration, discussions, activities, optimism, and tons of support, we learned to accept one another and ourselves. We were encouraged to engage with members outside class through weekly telephone calls. The program also involved a therapist who made house calls once a week, if needed. Mine aided me with gradual exposures to what I feared most. I was on the road to recovery at last.

The program also urged us to no longer hide behind silence and shame, to talk about our illness with loved ones, family, and friends. Ironically, two of my best friends responded to me by saying they would be more sympathetic to a physical disorder, like cancer or a broken leg. Both thought I should be able to control my nerves. Once my own mother asked me, apropos of nothing, “Hey, how’s your agoraphobia?”

I wanted to scream at these thoughtless, insensitive remarks, but I held my tongue and continued with my self-acceptance rituals: relaxation tapes and daily meditation readings.

Over the ensuing years, I have continued talk therapy, as needed, along with deep breathing and relaxation techniques. I also take a low-dose medicinal regimen twice a day. I still experience panic attacks now and then, but they don’t derail me or send me into tailspins as before. My condition is a documented, diagnosed mental disease. I am not crazy. Discovering this was the key to recovery. With tried-and-true techniques to control the panic attacks, I looked forward to the future.

Forty years have passed since those anxiety-filled days and nights. I quit teaching permanently in 1987 and moved to the beautiful seacoast of Southampton. I’m retired now and keep busy writing poetry and picture books for children. I am happy. I feel free from shame and accept myself, faults and all. 

Dianne Moritz, a contributor to the “Guestwords” column for many years, lives in Hampton Bays.


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