Panic attacks: a history.

Ibiza lasted less than 48 hours.

And now that we’ve got the suspence out of the way, let’s proceed.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my stay in AA, is that you should always plan an escape route.
This very bit of common sense is supposed to make yourself feel better about facing social gatherings without a drink in your hand, and it does. Which is why you might be tempted to boil it down to something like “never attend a party in an isolated location without a fully charged mobile, a bona fide chaperone, a list of excuses for disappearing, an overabundance of cab fare, a .45 and a shovel”.
But it also comes with a sliver of abstract truth in it: no matter where you go, you’re bound to be fucked over again and again and again.

Many missteps were made during the planning of the trip.
First of all, I trusted a network of acquaintances over photographic evidence, and I found myself in quite an undesirable situation.
You’ll understand why I’m wary of whipping out details in a blog post – suffice it to say, there was no way I could live there for five weeks.
Second, I assumed that the sheer newness of a place was worth any possible discomfort, if only for the experience points.
I underestimated my need for comfort.
“Comfort” has become such a bad word lately – maybe because we’ve come to associate “comfort” with “luxury”, “overspending”, “narcissism” or, Heaven forbid, “bling”. (Textbook Depression mentality, if you ask me, but the next couple posts will prove how much of a Regent junkie I am, so there we go.) It’s a slippery path: if you’re not willing to make a few changes, you’ll never experience the pleasure of roughing it out; if you can’t rough it out, you’re bound to get over-attached to material items, never enjoying any peace of mind; and if you can’t deal with the healing powers of poverty, then you better take your ungrateful ass home. (Spoiler alert: why, yes, I did. But hear me out.)
Third, the world’s grittiest display of disposable-camera pictures would have never prepared me to the ugliness that we call Ibiza Town.
The first waves of anxiety hit me exactly 24 hours after landing.

And now, our feature presentation.

As, I gather, 90% of my generation, I grew up with a passing knowledge of panic attacks. What they were supposed to feel like, what the most common triggers were, what kind of damage there were likely to cause in an otherwise sound, rational mind: we had it all down. Which is why, later on, I was able to fake one, in order to break away from a vacation with a boyfriend I’d just found out I didn’t want to kiss in the first place. (I’ve sort of gotten better with age on that count.)
Truth be told, I had had an episode all of my own maybe a year before – but I couldn’t repeat that performance even if I tried: I lost consciousness in a public place, having dinner with people I didn’t know; said people dragged me to my parents’ house because their address was still listed on my ID; said parents took me to the ER, which is where I woke up, later that night, with very little recollection of the events that just transpired. A doctor said I might have experienced panic, other than a mild case of alcohol poisoning: were something wrong with our choice of drinks (it could have been the case: other people in the dinner party felt sick), my body would react in a violent, hostile manner, and my mind would decide to just shut off and call it a night.
Wise words that I then chose to read as public hospital drunk tanks: oh, do go there if you get the chance.
It took me a lo-o-o-o-ong time to live that down.

(This for the “I swear I’m not making that up” files: years later I ran by chance into one of those nice people from that night, a woman who just chirped “oh, we should get together and get smashed again!”. Which speaks volumes of the hidden desperation of people who work in advertising. Also: escape routes, plan at least one.)

Then I was 28, I was getting sober, and it all started to crash down on my body.
I learned to cope with anxiety, but when something troubled me it always chose to manifest in physical terms. Alcohol withdrawal meant no painkiller could sedate menstrual cramps; work-related stress begat severe bouts of insomnia; relationship issues resulted in sudden over- or undereating weeks. It was all good. As long as my mind and my body kept seeing each other I had an ok chance of staying alive.

And then I was in Ibiza.

I’d spent the day rearranging stuff to make the house a little more livable, buying groceries to keep up with a semblance of ordinariness, placing my laptop in different rooms and corners just to be extra sure there would be enough light for me to work during daytime. I had vague plans with my landlord’s girlfriend to meet up later that night. I had everything under control. No matter how dismal it all might have looked from the outside, I would make it work. I had no regrets: I was going to enjoy myself. Five weeks would go by in no time.
6 PM rolled in.
I stopped and went, what the fuck am I supposed to do here exactly?
And something else went, well, you won’t write a word in here, that much’s for sure.
Any anxiety I’d felt until then came down to a series of well-worn scenarios: me not meeting enough people, not being daring enough, not being able to push myself out of my comfort zone. And yes, me not landing the boy who was waiting in vain, somewhere beyond the sea. All fell safely within the “no pain, no gain” borders.
This was a whole other thing.
I had not envisioned any AU where I’d not be writing. Not enjoying the process. Not happy, or getting there.
Remember? It’s what you do. It’s who you are.
My lips were shaking. My pulse started to race and didn’t slow down.
It took me half an hour to reply to a friends’ email, and it reminded me of how painstakingly accurate my drunken emails and texts had been – how I used to double-check ever word so nobody would know.
At 8 PM, I went for a walk.
It’s just post-performance jitters, I thought. Some fresh air will settle this.
I had nowhere to go.
I had nothing to come home to.
Someone was following me. (Maybe he was, but come on.)
The scariest thing was, I was suddenly unable to make sense.
Sentences, and then single words, would come out fractured beyond recognition. Like a banged up record that skips from Song A to Song C to Song Z to Song F and all over again, never pausing long enough for the scratching noise to subside.
I couldn’t even ask for directions.
I went back in, shut the door, freaked out.

There came the time-honored staples of panic – you might find them in the DSM, I guess, but Wikipedia will do the trick if you’re in a hurry. Check them out.

I finally understand why it’s call “panic”. You’re not there anymore.
No – you’re in there, somewhere, and you won’t get out.

The attack didn’t really stop. It subdued after midnight, after five+ hours of shaking and crying and not eating and not breathing and needing ten different beats to break one “hallo” down, after my second anti-anxiety pill, after I had been laying down for hours, planning my escape route.

The day after, in the smoking lounge of the Madrid hub, safe in the knowledge my luggage was being misplaced along the way, I thought of locked-in syndrome.

A panic attack is your body’s way of saying, alright, I can see where this is headed, I must be logging out now.
And I thought that blacking out was all the fun I could handle.

(Of course, I’m only saying this because ten-odd days are passed. My feelings at the time, if I remember correctly, made for a dizzying array of GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT. Too bad I couldn’t.)
[For the record: I had maybe three tablets of Lexotan on me (fairly common anti-anxiety medication, works for insomnia as well, will not be sold over the counter), but I ain’t no Valley of the Dolls denizen, nor do I look forward to become one. If “being able to do normal shit” means “keeping yourself under the swoony influence of mood-altering drugs”, that’s not how I roll. Hand over the seal of FAIL, if you must.)

In the end, I did manage to get home, and no one seemed that sorry.

I started thinking, I’ll need some major regrouping after this.

The thing that saved me was a four-hour BBC special.


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