I was 22 and sitting in a tuk-tuk in Cambodia on my way back to the hotel after spending the day at The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The day had been heavy, filled with heart-wrenching images and stories of suffering. I was emotional but I was feeling something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Earlier, while I was standing in one of the classrooms-turned-prison-cell, my chest had begun to tighten. It was about an hour of a pressure I could only describe as twisting, like someone had reached between my ribs and was squeezing my lungs. I couldn’t get a breath deep enough to keep it at bay for long but I kept trying, suddenly terrified because I wasn’t breathing properly. A deep breath, and then another and another, and before I knew it, I was hyperventilating. The next 5-10 minutes were awful. I had no control over my body, I was in a rickety moving vehicle in a foreign country, and I had no clue what was happening to me.
Although I already knew I had an anxiety disorder, I know now that I was experiencing my first panic attack. Panic attacks are defined as sudden periods of intense fear that may include palpitations, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, numbness, or a feeling that something bad is going to happen. I will probably never know why I get them and others don’t, or why they waited until that day to show up. I do know that as awful as it is in the moment, I am not in any medical danger and I am not going to die – that took a few emergency room visits to begin to grasp. The how and why is still a little murky, but over the last 3 years I’ve started to notice the triggers and patterns that lead up to them. Learning these triggers means that I’m able to be a little gentler on myself. Sometimes I have to sit in the car and not go into the busy grocery store, or take a different route home because of an irrational story I’ve written in my head. There are days when I have to cancel plans or stay home from class, and those days are the worst. There are also months that go by without a single attack, which I am always grateful for.
For a long time I didn’t talk about my anxiety or panic attacks with anyone outside of my close circle. I wouldn’t say that I was ashamed of them, but it made me feel incredibly vulnerable to reveal that part of myself. If I could feel one coming on I would wait it out in a bathroom or my bedroom, fix my makeup when it was over and head back out with my best face forward. I was afraid that they made me less resilient or limited me in some way. It was only recently that I made the conscious choice not to hide it and to start talking about my experiences more. As soon as I did it became clear that I have people around me who would kick down the door to show up for me. Through talking about it I’ve come to learn that panic attacks are very common – at some point or another, most people will experience one, or have already. I have also learned that vulnerability is awesome when you’re being vulnerable with the right people. It allows for deeper connections, stronger relationships with more acceptance and understanding, and starts conversations that are tough to have. Opening up about my mental health struggles helped me to accept them, facilitated some great chats with friends and family, and has made me feel worlds more supported than the days when I’d hide in bathrooms alone.
Don’t get me wrong – panic attacks suck. Anxiety sucks. Talking about mental health struggles with the wrong person can make you feel like you’re standing naked in front of a crowd of people who have never seen a body like yours. But watching the reactions to the suicides of public figures who seemingly have it all (Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade) and the predictable stream of “reach out, ask for help” advice, I’m reminded of that feeling that kept me hiding in bathrooms. There’s self-inflicted shame, stigmas – real or perceived – and a lifetime of messages urging us to be strong that can keep us quiet when we feel weak. I had internalized all of that, and it’s what kept me quiet.
So yes, it’s great to encourage folks to reach out when they need help, but it’s also about noticing when a friend is struggling and reaching out to them. It’s about checking in, showing up, kicking down the door if you need to or just sitting outside of it until they’re ready to come out. The onus can’t always be on the person struggling to ask for help, especially when they feel like needing help makes them weak, or that they don’t have anyone to ask. Check in, and if you think you see someone struggling, just letting them know you’re there can make all the difference.
If you are struggling, here are some resources available for you.
Kids Help Line
Kids Help Phone is there 24 hours a day 7 days a week for kids in need of help and hope. When you buy time you are helping to ensure Kids Help Phone’s professional counsellors are able to answer the call.
Phone Number: 1-800-668-6868
Many Rivers Counselling Yukon Distress & Support Line is toll free, confidential, anonymous, and available throughout the Yukon from 7 pm – Midnight. 1-844-533-3030
Canada Suicide and Crisis: 1-800-448-3000
Yukon Crisis Prevention “Youth Against Violence” 1-800-680-4264