My First Panic Attack

The first time I had a name for my problem was when I was teaching Spanish at a local high school. I had just finished my most stressful class: a overcrowded room of adolescents who feel entitled to their futures because Mommy and Daddy know the right people. After two years of sting in front of a room, teaching Spanish to a wall because the students are Instagramming and Snapchatting. They know very well that if I try to excercise the no-phone policy, they could fight with me and then get a free trip to the office, where the administration wouldn’t enforce it anyway. Besides, if the phone DID get confiscated, a simple text or call to the principal from Mommy and Daddy would get it back.

I had been nervous about that class all day, just like I always was. I could count on at least three disruptions, and no help from anyone. E-mailing the parents always backfires. I once sent one of the students to the office for her disrespectful attitude. I decided to follow up with an e-mail to her mother, who responded, “Thank you. I will talk to her about this and get this resolved.” Not even five minutes pass before I am carbon copied onto an e-mail to the principal from the mother, demanding that her precious daughter is removed from my class.

I’ve felt this way before. My body would feel like it’s shaking uncontrollably. There would be a coolness- not a pleasant one- starting from my chest, and branching outward. I knew my eyes were dialated. My senses were hightened, but there was a terrible sense of overarching fear- that word is not strong enough, it’s more of a sensation that everything is about to come to a fiery ending. For a while, I would inexplicably return to being an infant. All my education and training was temporarily suspended, and I only felt scared. Too scared to be an effective teacher.

That feeling came in the morning, as I woke up in a sweat, realizing I’d have to deal with such attitudes in my classroom again. There became a point where the disruptions we almost traumatic to me, and I would plan my lessons so that they could be avoided. I lost faith completely in the behavior plans, so I started to ignore behaviors that could be ignored. It was no longer a job I enjoyed. I realized I was teaching the wrong age level. I had zero tolerance for this kind of constant disrespect. And it was about to get worse.

That afternoon, the class went surprisingly well. There were no behavioral outbursts, and I didn’t have to eject anyone from the class! Furthermore, the rest of the day was free for me. Next came planning time as per my regular schedule, and the last class of the day was gone on a field trip. I could decompress and focus on other things, like where I could go that weekend.

I was sitting in my office, reading my e-mails, when it started. I noticed the usual cool feeling radiating from my chest. I felt weak and shaky. I couldn’t control my pulse. I felt…small. Insignificant. But- I couldn’t control my pulse. I had meditated before, and I thought I was pretty good at it. So, I laid on the floor in the corner of the room, and breathed. I tried so hard to wipe my mind free from all the negative things currently happening in my life, but I still couldn’t control my pulse.

Walking out of my office, I noticed that I would make irrational, erratic moves. I walked down the hallway, stopped at one point to check my pulse, took a few deep breaths, and then decided it wasn’t helping. So I abruptly turned about-face and briskly walked the hallway again. I did this on the 2nd and 3rd floor for about 10 minutes before deciding I need to swallow my pride and seek help. I can only image what I looked like on the video cameras. I snake my way down to the nearest teacher, who always greeted me with funny stories and smiles. She knew something was wrong. I asked her to feel my pulse, and she walked me into the office to speak with a “first responder”.

I thought I was having a heart attack. I had been coping from a divorce, but that had been finalized. The house we had together wasn’t selling, and that was a stressor that constantly poked at me. I felt like my world had just been torn apart, and I was drinking heavily and eating terribly. I thought maybe this was maybe the result of a sudden leap of cholesterol and alcohol.

The dean sat me down and felt my pulse. She looked at me and said, “you aren’t having a heart attack. You are having an anxiety attack. I need you to take some deep breaths.” I went through some deep, slow breathing before discussing the issues going on with my life. The marriage had failed. I couldn’t do much about that. But I was worried about the social ramifications. And the fact that none of the students knew what I was going through and treated me terribly made it all much worse. The house kept me up many nights. It was getting tough paying for electricity and water in a place I didn’t want to even exist anymore, maintaining the property only added to me anxiety as memories inundated my head, and nobody was biting. I went through a few realtors before finally finding one who specialized in short sales, but still…nobody was biting.

It may have been an hour before I left that room drenched in tears and exhausted. My plans to go out for drinks after work transformed into a tranquil, sleepy evening. This was, essentially, my first session of therapy, albeit with unlicensed psychologists. I was by no means satisfied; my problems were far from being resolved. But finally having identification to that unease that had been derailing me on a daily basis was refreshing. It was a silver lining similar, I suppose, to cancer patients; at least there was a diagnosis, and now I could consider my options to manage the pain. It wasn’t great news, but at least the enemy had been identified, and the war within could start on a more level ground.

Over the next couple years, I would still suffer panic attacks, make large gains against anxiety, and suffer setbacks. It would get better for a short time, and come back with a vengeance. I would go to therapy, and try new techniques and oils. I am sharing these stories in part because of the therapeutic nature of writing these. I am sharing these stories because it is therapeutic to readers who may identify with what I have gone through and am still going through. I am sharing these stories to initiate a deep conversation about not only anxiety and education, but also the problems with health care, and the stigma against mental health, among other things. This is the reason why I am sharing. I will be back with more. Please feel free to comment and ask questions. My story just started to be told.

Thank you.

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