Claire Eastham is an expert on panic. She’s not a doctor or an academic, but over a seven-year period, she has experienced 371 panic attacks (and counting), and learnt a lot along the way. Here, in an extract from her new book, she lets us inside her mind during that first panic attack.
The events described in the extract below extract took place in December 2012. I was working for a globally recognised publisher at the time and, after weeks of prep, I entered the meeting room that morning to be interviewed for a promotion. I’d been living with undiagnosed social anxiety for a decade by this point, which I suppressed. Little did I know that I was moments away from my first panic attack and, ultimately, the start of my journey with mental illness.
Something’s wrong, I know I say this a lot, but I REALLY mean it this time. Shit, this is bad, VERY bad.
I continue walking, ignoring the voice in my head. We’ve had a volatile relationship at the best of times and today is no different. It’s just nerves, I hiss, while entering the meeting room and greeting the colleagues who will shortly be interviewing me for a promotion. Taking a seat, I grin manically and faff around with my notes.
I’ve been prepping for this moment for over a week, 28 hours to be exact, and all I have to do is get through the next 30 minutes. Then I can go home, eat that giant stuffed-crust pizza and drink all the wine required to transport me back to my happy place. The wine flows freely there, and the bath water never gets cold. There’s a steady supply of true crime podcasts, Pinterest boards dedicated to 1930s dress silhouettes, 18th century military jackets and Kurt Cobain’s love of knitwear (my style is changeable). Oh, and a nice dose of cute dogs being naughty in YouTube compilations. If it’s been a particularly good month, there’s champagne from Aldi too, or at least cava. It’s cracking!
I suck in my stomach and straighten up, as I always do to regain control, but this time I notice that my arms feel heavy and my mouth is dry. It’s fine, it’s fine, I whisper again, shaking my head and attempting to take a deep breath, but the air catches in my throat. I inhale again, without success. Instead my lungs tighten and burn as I try to force the air down. Surely, one deep, satisfying breath would sort everything out. So why is my body rejecting it? What’s wrong? The fear that started as a tingle mutates into a roar.
Then IT happens. A warm, not unpleasant tingling sensation flows through my body like an electric current. I feel it firing down my legs and to the very ends of my fingertips. When it reaches my chest, everything erupts. My heart isn’t just beating any more, it’s pounding, punching violently at my ribcage, demanding attention. Have I been punched in the chest and not realised? I blink furiously as my eyesight blurs and my lungs contract even more.
Please, please stop. My stomach gurgles and twists uncomfortably as sweat pours down my back. I haven’t lost control of my bowels since I was a baby, but I’m not so confident now. But most of all is the overwhelming feeling that something is Very wrong. You’re dying. Fuck, you’re having a heart attack, or is this a stroke? You’re going crazy, You are right this second losing your mind. It’s game over. Get out.
When the second wave strikes, I feel detached from my body, suspended in a state of numb terror. This is it. This is the end. Nothing will ever be the same. I don’t care about anything any more. All the work I’ve put into preparing for this meeting, my job, my career, money, future: it all seems insignificant next to a burning desire to get out of the room and run.
What happens next confuses me. Sure, it fits with my ridiculous back catalogue of weird reactions over the years, but still. In this moment, in the interview room, I stand up and this sentence comes out of my mouth: ‘I have the norovirus … and must leave AT ONCE!’ I deliver this statement in the purest Queen’s English which, considering I’d never used the phrase ‘at once’ in my entire working life and the fact I’m from Bolton, is a surprise for everyone.
I’ve gone from saying ‘all right?’ as a greeting to bidding them farewell like I’m Jane Austen. Still, in all its ‘oh my god, we’re dying’ glory, that is what my brain does to get me out. This is the great escape plan, a line that could have come from a regency costume drama. I don’t wait for their reaction. I bolt from the room and I run. Down the corridor, the stairs, past the two snooty middle-aged blondes on reception (why are they always so fucking snooty? Receptionists that is, not blondes) and all the way down the street. I have completely lost control and it is terrifying.
The first question to surge into my head is ‘What just happened?’ Or rather, ‘What the fucking fuck just happened?!’ Am I dying? Am I losing my mind? Why is my body reacting this way? All reasonable questions to ask. The brain is after all hard-wired to look for cause and effect. Or, as Paul Li, a lecturer of cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley, explains: “The parasympathetic nervous system works with the rational part of our brain to identify a situation and then stabilise the sympathetic nervous system.” (Basically, the panic part.) Therefore, when there isn’t an obvious external cause, as with panic, we freak out (for want of a better phrase).
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I run for around 40 minutes, about halfway home, before my uncomfortable footwear forces me to hail a black cab that I absolutely can’t afford. Luckily, even though I’d thought I was dying, I’d still managed to grab my handbag on my way out of the office (the rational part of my brain was apparently lurking in there somewhere!).
You might be losing your shit, Claire, but you still need your purse. I climb inside the first taxi that stops, immediately missing the relief that all the running had provided. ‘I don’t know whether I want to go home or to the hospital!’ I blurt. No doubt used to emotional outbursts, the driver takes it all in his stride.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but that ride was the beginning of my journey with panic attacks… and boy was it going to be a bumpy one.
F**K, I Think I’m Dying: How I Learned to Live with Panic by Claire Eastham, published in paperback by Square Peg, Vintage is out now.
Images: Unsplash/book cover and author photo courtesy of Square Peg, Vintage