By Jack Smith
I felt it coming like a freight train barreling down on me and I was hopelessly strapped to the tracks.
My mouth dried out within seconds. My pulse quickened. My hands started to tremble. Even my legs shook as though it were the dead of winter and I were standing naked in the snow.
My wife realized what was happening, so she looked me in the eye and said go where you need to go. I scanned the area looking for an escape, which I usually plan out in advance for times like these.
You would have thought I were in a war and the enemy was after me.
I was really just attending a football game with 80-something thousands of my closest friends, as the t-shirt goes, when I had an anxiety attack.
I did what my wife and my instincts told me to do when it got out of hand. I got as far away from that huge mass of people as I could.
The best way I can describe a panic attack is that it feels like jumping out of an airplane…and then realizing you aren’t wearing a parachute. I feel fine one minute. Then all of a sudden I’m in free fall, the ground getting bigger and bigger by the second.
When panic attacks hit, I’m suddenly overcome with angst. It leaves me with two choices: fight or flight. Sometimes I stay and fight. Other times I get the hell out of there to gather myself.
When it happened yesterday, I walked away from the crowd to the safety of open space and a lonely bench. I tried a mindfulness exercise that I learned in treatment. It worked more or less.
I closed my eyes for a moment, took some deep breaths and focused on my senses. I listened to the roll of drums from the band playing in the distance. I felt the weight and the coolness of the wrought iron bench on my thighs and back. I drank in the smell of meat sizzling on the grill. I inhaled deep breaths through my nose and exhaled them through my mouth.
I soon felt sane again, relaxed enough to enjoy the game and the time with my family.
I’m not sure if what I experienced Saturday afternoon was a full-blown panic attack or just social anxiety I sometimes get when I’m surrounded by too many people.
I once coped with these episodes by working or drinking. Neither was an option on Saturday, so I had to fight through it.
My guess is a lot of you reading this blog have had similar meltdowns. I’ve been having them for years.
I remember another time maybe 10 years ago when I bailed on a newspaper banquet before it even started. It was one of those times when I had quit drinking cold turkey with no support group. I didn’t know how to handle being sober and being one of only a handful of people not drinking.
I was holding a glass of water when my usual hand tremor turned into the full-blown shakes. It was like Ted Striker’s “drinking problem.” I couldn’t raise the glass to my mouth without spilling water everywhere. So I just got the hell out of there.
I jumped in my car and drove over two hours to my home without telling anyone I was leaving, including the hotel. I avoided phone calls from my mother because I was too embarrassed to admit the truth.
I have it easy compared to others. Some have unrelenting anxiety so severe it makes daily living a nightmare. God bless them.
Instead of asking why in the hell a grown man can’t just suck it up and deal with it, my wife is usually patient and compassionate.
I’m harder on myself than she or anyone else is. I get mad at myself and wonder why I can’t just be normal.
I don’t have many answers, except that I was born with an anxious disposition. That’s what one one anxiety specialist told me anyway. He said I’ve developed some maladaptive coping mechanisms over 40 years-plus years, and I won’t be able to fix them overnight.
I’m sure going to try, though. Life isn’t supposed to be lived this way.