Have you ever felt like you were dying?
And not the “it’s so miserably hot outside,” or “I totally embarrassed myself in front of everyone I know” metaphorical kinds of dying.
Have you ever felt your chest hurting so bad that you think you’re having a heart attack? That no matter what you do you can’t alleviate the pain? That you scour your medicine cabinets for even a single expired painkiller? That when you can’t find any you try to go to sleep, only to realize you can’t sleep because how can you sleep when something is stabbing you repeatedly in the chest?
So when all else fails, you decide that you should go to the emergency room, because maybe you really are having a heart attack and you don’t want to drop dead in front of your confused dog. You drive yourself, even though you’re not really supposed to, because even through the pain and fear you’re thinking about the cost of an ambulance ride.
When you arrive at the ER, there’s conveniently nobody else there. Front of the line! So of course you promptly break down crying in front of the admin trying to take down your information.
Once you’ve sobbed your way through your birthday and medical history, they rush you back because chest pain is no joke. You’re in a room with three nurses, who bustle around you asking questions and prepping equipment and for some reason that really opens the floodgates. You thought you were panicked before. But the joke’s on you, because now there’s snot dripping from your nose as you hyperventilate, all while the nurse is taking your temperature and asking you to change into a hospital gown.
This isn’t your first rodeo. Chest pain means getting an EKG. EKG means a bunch of thingamabobs stuck all over your chest and arms and legs. Now they’ll find the problem, you think to yourself. Once they can actually get the EKG to work. Because you’re shaking too much to get a good reading. The nurses joke with you, smile, encourage you like you’re ten years old again. You start to take deep meditation breaths like your life depends on it. Maybe it does.
Four attempts later, one of the nurses whisks the results off to the doctor. Another sticks you for blood. Normally, you hate needles, but you can barely feel it through the still throbbing pain in your chest, and the panic still teetering on the verge of hyperventilating again. But then your partner walks in and you can see the concern written on his face and you didn’t think you had more tears in you but here they come again and oh, do you think you can give a urine sample?
Finally, after all of these tests, here comes the good part. They give you something to calm you down (probably because they’re sick of seeing you sob), and something for the pain. When the painkiller kicks in, the sudden absence of pain leaves a weird achy hole in your chest. That must mean it’s real. The medicine works. So there’s something there. Something to fix. Slap a band-aid on me and send me home, doc. You giggle at the thought of a giant band-aid over the top of a giant stab wound in your heart and maybe the Ativan is kicking in now, too.
The doctor does, in fact, come in at this point. You’re calm, ready to find out what part of your body is trying to kill you.
He says that all of your tests are normal.
Normal. No heart attack. No irregularities. Just…normal.
And you think to yourself, well, that can’t possibly be right because an hour ago I was dying.
And he mentions that “A” word, the one you didn’t want to hear because there is no big band-aid for it and that this was all in your head.
So you had a panic attack.
A really bad panic attack.
A panic attack with physical pain and palpable fear and red eyes and snot bubbles and partial nakedness.
Maybe it wasn’t in front of everyone you know, but you still feel pretty damn embarrassed.
That’s anxiety. There’s no magic band-aid. No quick fix. You fight it every day. Some days are good. And some days you end up in the ER with sensors hooked up to your underboob.
But you keep fighting in the hopes that, eventually, it will get better.