The movie was about to start. I had popcorn in one hand and my purse in the other. I immediately dropped both and closed my eyes. It was January 1, 2009, at 6 in the evening. I will never forget that date because it was the first time I was certain I was going to die.
My heart hammered inside my chest. Sweat started dripping slowly down my forehead. My lungs were screaming for help. My brain began to broadcast a display of images—in my mind, my heart stopped beating and everything I had studied about seizures and strokes in medical school was coming to life. Recent news of a 16-year-old who had suddenly died at a party added to the fear. I was paralyzed and numb, and the deafening sound of the movie was no more than a background roar in my buzzing ears.
I managed to grab my aunt’s arm and mumble, “I don’t feel so well.” She screamed, maybe because she saw my ghost-like face, or perhaps because my family handles stress very poorly. We ran out of the movie theater.
An endless parade of consultations followed—the emergency department, a general practitioner, a cardiologist. My heart was fine, even though they loved to remind me I had had a “peak of stress,” a “hypertensive attack” or, my personal favorite, an “almost syncope.” The cardiologist smiled reassuringly as he held the results and pronounced, “You are one of those women who will die of a heart attack at 50 when they get robbed, just for being so dramatic.” I was 19 years old and my heart was fine, but my mind wasn’t.
Heal the healer
After learning about panic attacks in medical school, I consulted with my psychologist. I had started cognitive behavioral therapy the year before because I felt like a shadow was looming in my future and that an iron bar was pressing on my chest. I felt completely helpless every night when worry and intrusive thoughts made a racket in my head. I knew it was pathological anxiety that haunted me, but I never knew it could, and would, forever change my life.
I said to my wonderful psychologist, “I think I had a partial panic attack, because I didn’t faint.”
Her response marked me forever: “What if you had fainted? Would it have been a complete panic attack then? Why are you so quick to put a tag on yourself? It’s not making you feel any better.”
And that was the first time I thought about labels.
Dr Giacobone is a general adult psychiatrist and a psychotherapist specializing in CBT. She is a lecturer in psychiatry at the University College Dublin, Republic of Ireland. She reports no conflicts of interest regarding the subject matter of this article.