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What It’s Like To Have A Full-Blown Panic Attack

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I had my first panic attack the day after my twenty-first birthday.

I was getting lunch at a sports bar in the great city of San Marcos, Texas with one of my best friends, sipping a beer in an attempt to drown out my first legal hangover. The next thing I knew, my hands and feet started tingling before going completely numb, I couldn’t breath, my vision blurred, and the room was spinning. I genuinely believed I was dying.

I stumbled up to the bar and demanded the bartender call an ambulance immediately.

“What’s going on, man?” he asked calmly, scanning the room for an issue that would require medical assistance.

“I DON’T KNOW SOMETHING IS WRONG I’M FUCKING DYING,” I replied.

Long story short, the guy convinced me to chug several glasses of water mixed with cranberry juice while I continued freaking the fuck out, none of which helped, and all of which I puked up outside the bar and onto the side of my buddy’s SUV on the way back to my house, because my body wasn’t even capable of digesting non-alcoholic liquids in that state. The panic didn’t end when I got home though. It would subside momentarily, and then come roaring back in violent waves for the next ten hours or so until my brain finally became so exhausted that I passed out. It was Hell.

When I woke up the next day, I was fine for a few minutes, until I started thinking about what had happened the day before, and then it happened all over again. It was terrifying. I couldn’t keep food down, could only sleep for a few minutes before waking up gasping for air with a stomach full of butterflies, and couldn’t really communicate to my roommates what was happening to me. At some point that afternoon, I called both my parents and explained to them that I was probably dying.

After roughly 48-hours of nonstop panicking, puking, pacing and praying, I decided I should go to the student health center. At that point, I didn’t have the slightest fucking clue what was wrong with me, and had convinced myself that I had an inoperable brain tumor.

I knew panic attacks were a thing that existed, but prior to experiencing one myself, I had zero understanding of what having a panic attack actually entails, and figured it was probably something only someone fit for a straight jacket would deal with. It took a couple weeks after that initial attack before a doctor properly diagnosed me with panic disorder and sent me to a psychiatrist, and from there my journey down the weird road of learning how to adjust my life to these mildly annoying circumstances began.

I’ve wanted to write this column for a long time, but explaining what a panic attack is to someone who has never had a panic attack is incredibly difficult. Everyone who deals with really intense anxiety or panic disorder has tried, and failed, to convey to friends and family exactly what it feels like to experience that phenomenon. It’s a little like trying to explain what it’s like to trip your balls off on acid to someone that’s never taken LSD.

But hey, I wrote this anyway, because someone out there might read this and say, “Holy shit I’m not crazy! I just have whatever this random asshole on the internet has!”

Some people have specific things that trigger their panic. For me, I’m much more susceptible when hungover, which I discovered over, and over, and over again in college, and decide to remind myself of on the weekend fairly often. Oddly enough, I’m also incredibly prone to panic attacks when driving on the highway. I have to be driving though. I’m fine in the passenger seat. And it almost never happens on a normal road. Has to be a highway. It makes zero sense, and I have no idea why being hungover or driving on the highway sends my brain into a fucking frenzy, but it does. One time, I combined the two, and was driving on the highway while hungover, and ended up in a hospital bed in the middle of nowhere. That being said, I’ve had many attacks that didn’t involve driving or highways or hangovers.

It’s been six years since my first attack. I’ve flaked out of weddings, bachelor parties, camping trips, and countless nights out, all in the name of avoiding a crippling episode of inexplicable suffering. That’s just a part of my life now. I’ve been called a “pussy” by most of my best friends roughly one million times. Wherever I go, I know where the exits are, I know where the bathrooms are, I watch everyone, I see everything, and I always have my Xanax on me and know where the nearest hospital is. That shit just makes me feel more comfortable.

I’m also not a moron. I realize that out of all the shit in this world that you can be afflicted with, it could obviously be worse. I’ll take panic disorder every day of the week. After all, it only feels like I’m dying. Sure, it’s incredibly inconvenient at times, and if nothing else, it forces me to live a healthier lifestyle. But it is a thing that I deal with, and a shitload of other people deal with, on a regular basis.

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*freaks out just from writing this column, takes Xanax, gets into fetal position, falls asleep*

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Ross Bolen

Ross Bolen is a New York Times Bestselling author, co-host of the Oysters, Clams & Cockles: Game of Throbes podcast, co-host of the Back Door Cover sports podcast, 2017 Masters attendee, bigger and more loyal Rockets and Astros fan than you, cheese enchilada aficionado, and nap god.

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