This article originally appeared on VICE US.
My chest hurts. It has hurt for more than a week. In that time, I have begrudgingly become used to the sensation. My heart ceaselessly pounds, like a hummingbird struggling to exit my ribcage. I periodically gasp for air. In these moments, I must consciously remind myself to breathe, my body seemingly unable to instinctively perform one of life's simplest tasks. I have developed an anxiety disorder in my third decade on this planet, because life apparently wasn't hard enough.
It began while I was hosting a comedy open mic—sitting at the bar, nursing a lukewarm O'Doul's while half-listening to one in an endless cavalcade of clowners, it overtook me. Breathing became harried and difficult; my skin, unspeakably cold. I had felt (and subsequently ignored) a similar sensation a few days prior, so it appeared to be business as usual. It will pass, I thought, as it had before, and I would regain something akin to homeostasis. It did not. I did not.
I muttered, "I think I'm going to be sick," and rushed to the restroom. There, I gripped the sink and heaved—in, out, in, out—all while staring at my pallid reflection in the cloudy mirror. I could not shake it. I walked into the night, thinking fresh air would be the cure. It was not.
I rushed back into the bar. "Can someone drive me home?" I implored to no one in particular. "I can't breathe." The look of horror and concern on the faces of the people I posed this question to reinforced the fact that I was, to put it mildly, in a bad way.
I had felt a similar sensation only once before, on my way to doing something I was not supposed to (apply to make my then husband an American citizen, for those keeping track). We were on the I-5, late at night, when an overwhelming and inescapable weight suddenly affixed itself to my chest. Breathing became an impossibility. I pulled over at a vista point and hyperventilated. I begged my husband to drive the rest of the way—it was a straight shot, sans traffic, one I had done in near-sleep countless times. He patently refused, having never learned to competently drive on account of being a chickenshit little boy of a man. We sat in silence as I leaned my seat back and struggled for air. After 20 or so minutes spent gathering my bearings and developing further contempt for my partner, we continued on. I continued on.
No longer feeling in control of your own body is heartbreakingly difficult.
In this moment, however, I could not continue. Two kindhearts offered me a ride—but once we neared my home, I knew I was too terrified to enter it alone. I had no idea what was happening inside of me, or if it could kill me. "Christ," I said, "I think I need to go to the hospital." My pal Chris altered his route accordingly. I reclined the seat and took the hand of Kevin, who sat behind me, in mine. I breathed deeply like he told me to. It did not help.
"Fuck it," I wheezed as we pulled into the hospital parking lot. "Even if they send me a bill, I'm not gonna pay it." The hospital was called Silver Lake Medical Center. "What, do all the doctors have handlebar mustaches?" I quipped. Even while debilitated, apparently, I remained incorrigible. "Yeah," Chris said. "I was going to the ER here before it was cool."
Too weak to walk, I waited for Kevin to procure me a wheelchair. "Do you have a blanket?" I asked Chris, freezing to my bones. He dashed to his trunk and came back laughing. "No," he replied, "but I have some bootleg Lakers shirts you can use as a blanket." I piled them on.
"Can I hold your hand?" I asked Kevin once I was finally ensconced in a wheeled bed. "I'm scared." He offered his up. I death-gripped it. " I've been drinking alone again and not telling anyone," I confided in him.
The nurse asked if I had been drinking that night. "No," I truthfully replied (no one partially sane would think O'Doul's counts as drinking). "Did you yesterday?" he asked. "Yes," I replied. "A lot." I did so, naturally, as a comically oversize tear rolled down my cheek. How perfectly pathetic, right?
Kevin and Chris visited my deathbed in shifts. I also told Chris I had been drinking again. "Life's really hard," he offered as a response. "I've tried to quit smoking ten times. I just can't." Life is, indeed, unspeakably hard.
I asked him to read the side effects of the antidepressant I had been taking off his phone. Buried deep in the laundry list were hallucinations. The day before, I had become upset by something I have now convinced myself did not actually happen. As I related the details of the event to him, I saw a mix of confusion and concern emerge in his eyes.
Once I was back home, I let the pedantic trash that is internet news wash over me like a warm wave. Staring at an image of an interchangeable young actress, I noticed she was moving, albeit slowly. Must be a GIF, I thought. But why? I inspected the image. It was a still JPEG. Fuck. I was losing it.
I've always been of the mindset that the phrase " panic attack" is overused in the modern parlance. Feeling overwhelmed by one's own popularity at a social engagement does not a panic attack make. True panic attacks render you utterly powerless. They are incapacitating. They fill you with an inability to talk yourself down from the ledge they have placed you upon independent of your will.
And that's the thing—the powerlessness. No longer feeling in control of your own body is heartbreakingly difficult. I hold mine now in contempt. Staring at it in the mirror, I feel wholly removed from it. When you are generally able-bodied, there is nothing more uncomfortable than feeling as though you are not in complete control of the systems that function within you. Sitting, sighing, you struggle to regain the control you once took for granted. You know there is no logical reason for feeling this way. And yet, in spite of it all, you do. It is like a caricature of a rapist in the night, creeping up behind you and grabbing you by the throat. You are carried away. Overwhelmed, without agency.
There is no feeling more isolating than being in the throes of a panic attack. You feel completely, utterly alone, adrift in a nightmarish sea of your mind's own design. You, however, are not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in America, affecting 18 percent of the population (a staggering 40 million people).
A panic attack can occur at any time, and for seemingly no reason. Logically, you know the feeling is insincere, irrational; logic, however, cannot help you in this instance. The Mayo Clinic's definition of a panic attack echoes this truth: "A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause."
My newfound anxiety disorder, I am told, is the result of my antidepressant dosage being unduly upped. Too much of a good thing is currently coursing through my veins. I've never had an inverse reaction to any medication—I've been lucky enough to always answer the question, "Are you allergic to anything?" in the negative. Now I cannot.
I'm told that Xanax helps, but my psychiatrist refuses to prescribe it to me, due to my "history of substance abuse." Cognitive behavioral therapy is a non-medicinal way of dealing with anxiety issues. I don't make CBT money, though. I do, however, make "hyperventilating in my closet" money.
I now move incredibly slowly—I'm talking Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu slow. Because any kind of exertion results in anguish. Whenever I leave my apartment, I regret it. Driving a car has become a near-impossibility. Housebound, the only joys I have in life are eating Vegenaise out of the jar with a spoon and yammering into the telephone while laying prostrate in my bed, which is located in my closet.
Follow Megan Koester on Twitter.