Finnian Burnett

Author, Educator, Cat Person

I have a confession to make. I’m not perfect. I know, most of you will find that difficult to believe. I mean, between my incredible good looks, my charm, my wit, and my awe-inspiring humility, I get mistaken for perfect a lot.

But there’s something pretty important about me that most people don’t know and I’d like to open a dialogue about it. I get panic attacks. I am actually in the midst of one right now. I’ve had panic attacks for probably fifteen years. Sometimes, they come for no known reason. Sometimes, I can point to too little water or too much caffeine combined with not enough sleep and a racing heart that leads to paranoia that I might be having a heart attack. Sometimes, I can reason myself into thinking I know what caused it and promise myself to take steps to rid myself of them forever. Panic attacks are the main reason that I quit smoking cigarettes in 09. I read somewhere that smoking makes them worse. I don’t know if that is true or not. I know that when I smoked, I was having more like a panic attack at least once a month, and now they’re more like 3-4 times a year, but that could have a lot to do with other things going on in my life at that time, as well.

Physically, this is how I feel: My lungs feel too tight, like something heavy is sitting on them. I can’t get a full breath, not one. When I concentrate on trying to get a full breath, my lungs feel like they’re going to explode. My head is pounding in a not-quite painful sort of way. It feels as if there is a hand on my brain, squeezing it, causing me to get dizzy in waves. Sometimes, the dizziness goes away for long enough that I almost think it’s over until it slams back into me causing a fresh wave of tears and heart palpitations. Of course, all of the crying clogs up my nose, making it even harder to breathe. My mind can’t stay on any one thing. I can usually throw out a blog post in about twenty minutes. This one has taken forty-five minutes so far because I have to stop every few minutes to sit up and take stock of my physical condition and spend several seconds trying to convince myself that there is nothing physically wrong with me, that I’m not dying, that I don’t need to be rushed to the emergency room.

Emotionally, it’s worse. I’ve made a practice in the past few years of living my life in joy and gratitude. Even when I have the occasional grouchy flare up, I’m usually able to cajole myself out of it by counting my blessings and reminded myself of how lucky I am to have all that I do. During a panic attack, counting my blessings doesn’t help. I feel scared and sad and on the edge and I waiver between full blown tears to abject terror that I am in the midst of a stroke or a heart attack to long, self-doubt filled bouts of anxiety that my daily Beth knows are logically unreasonable, but that my shadow self can’t put way.

My every day attitude is happy and positive. During a panic attack, I can’t get it back. I can’t bring myself back to the positive. I’m convinced that I’ll never finish my third novel, that I’ll be broke forever, that people will find out the terrible truth about me and stop loving me, that I’m about to die, that everything sucks right now and it will never be okay again.

In my real life, I think I am amazing. In a panic attack, I berate myself for *failing* in my self-growth. I think that I should be able to meditate myself back to normal. I think I should be able to get back into a good mood – that I should be able to bring myself back to the joy that I promote so heavily. I feel so dark and so down that I think that anyone who had to be around me right now would consider me a fake and a phony for putting off such a positive and happy vibe. All of that happy feels like a lie in the middle of a panic attack… it’s like, while I am in the midst of that, I can’t even remember that I was happy before this happened. I know I was. I was looking at pictures of myself with some of my good friends in Palm Springs last week and there is genuine joy on my face in every single picture. There’s a picture of myself and my friend from just yesterday, smiling and joyous.  I mean, in my brain, I remember walking into the house, throwing my arms around her, and laughingly telling her how much I enjoyed our twelve hours in the car. I meant it. I feel joy. I felt joy. And from past experience, my logical mind knows that when I get past this attack, I’ll feel that way again. But in the middle of an attack, it feels like I’ve lost it forever and that was it – I got my share of joy and now it’s over.

i was trying to explain it to my friend and the best I could come up with is this: It’s like there’s a battle going on inside of my brain between light and dark – and for the majority of my life, the light and glowing and happy fairy dust side of me is on top with its boot firmly planted in the dark side’s throat. Sometimes, though, the dark side gets out and the two of them battle violently. A panic attack, for me at least, isn’t a solid, unwavering thing. The physical and emotional symptoms kind of come and go over the time that I am having the attack…. so much so that sometimes, it is so long between bouts that I feel sure the attack is over and just as I start to see the light, the dark jabs back in and makes me feel worse because I thought I was so close.

It’s been an hour and a half since this attack started. I am mostly getting a full breath every time now. My heart started to skip a few beats about five minutes ago and I started to get anxiety that something was wrong with my heart, but I was able to talk myself down before I went back into full blown panic again. The sky is mostly blue with a few scattered clouds, but it isn’t a storm anymore. This ending can be credited to my friend who, when I described the battle between dark and light said,” I thought all authors have that. Isn’t that why they write?”

Oh. Duh. So I wrote. This is a panic attack. I couldn’t make myself publish this ten minutes ago – I thought I was posting a deep, dark, and shameful secret that would change everyone’s opinion of me. But, as I’ve come further out of the attack, the real Beth is coming through… and the real Beth thinks that there are others out there who get panic attacks and might want to read about this. This is a panic attack. I get them. If you get them too, write to me. I’d love to hear other people’s stories. Maybe together we can stomp out the darkness. Or at least make the patches of light bigger.

11 thoughts on “In Fact, I’m Terrified

  1. Jan F Walsh DVM says:

    Hugs and love and energy that the next one be years, at least, in appearing and be only seconds long. I’m so glad Jes is there to be an anchor.

  2. Gina Rochman says:

    Beth, I have them also..that is part of what my dog helps me with. I know how they feel, this was a very good blog post. 🙂

  3. laycegardner says:

    Yup. Me too.

  4. karen cayer says:

    Oy~ Thanks for describing a very difficult thing. I can’t think when my heart is pounding either. I appreciate you and your gift. And yes we need to share and talk about it. Great job getting discussion going. Peace

  5. Patsy Onatah says:

    Thank you Beth for your honesty in sharing! While we may not all experience panic attacks, we all (pretty sure it’s all of us) have something deep inside that we believe we’re all alone in experiencing. By your sharing, we know that we’re not alone.. that just maybe, if we say something, anything… we’ll find others just like us. Love & light to you & Jes.

  6. ohshecooks says:

    I get them. Usually it’s just my heart racing, and a feeling like you get when someone jumps out and scares you. It happens mostly at night when I’m in bed, sometimes I fall asleep during a panic and attack and wake up still having one.

  7. “That” was a panic attack and you faced it head-on and didn’t just survive it, you wrote about it… and published the danged thing. Next time you pass a mirror, please look at that person and say, “This is a marvelous creation.” You rock.

  8. Beth I know we have never met but I also get panic attacks to the point I feel like I am just going to shatter and break. My heart races and skips beats and I am so sad and can’t stop crying. I don’t get them real often but when I do they are so scary. I love your pictures and your beautiful smile. Your joy shines thru and inspires me to work on the positive and cut the negative from my life. Thank you for sharing with us. I know a fair number of people who also have panic attacks and it really does help to know that there are others beside yourself out there.

  9. darcie says:

    Sounds so familiar. I have this panic attack/asthma attack thing. Outside of sheer panic, I only have asthma attacks with extreme cold or someone nearby with way too much cologne. Sometimes my panic is panic and sometimes it’s an asthma attack in disguise. I don’t have typical asthma, I’m not always conscious of having an attack but my body knows it’s not getting enough air. That leads to a spike of adrenaline, thus faster breathing and that makes the pressure on my chest so much worse. It also leads to this cascading release of panic related brain chemistry that takes me into gloom and doom, wracking tears, can’t stop crying, and everything feels so hopeless. Taking my inhaler usually brings it to a nearly immediate stop, when it’s asthma induced. The inhaler still helps when it starts off as panic (which always leads to an asthma attack) but when the panic is genuine ( not a product of the asthma), the brain chemicals that are released can stay with me for days, or even lead to further panic attacks, thus more depression chemistry and it has a snowball effect that can last for weeks. Having both panic attacks that induce asthma and asthma attacks that induce panic has given me some insight into how drastically those brain chemicals affect my mood because with the asthma it ends so quickly I can really feel the difference. I quit smoking too. So much better. I have fewer attacks, but the ones I do have tend to be genuine panic/PTSD, so, fewer, but worse. Hope you feel better soon.

  10. Lauri says:

    Beth, I have been battling panic attacks, depression and anxiety my whole life. I felt everything you wrote here. Warm hugs and love to you. Love you to the moon and back.

    1. bethsnewlife says:

      You are not alone. Not now. Not ever. I love you.

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