Anyone familiar with Douglas Adam’s knows that these are the words printed on the front of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And you won’t have failed to have notice the huge range of “Keep Calm and carry on” style merchandise just about everywhere.
They are also the worst words to say to someone who is actually panicking, and that’s what I wanted to write about.
This weekend just gone I had a meltdown. I’ll talk about that a little here, and in Part 2 (the anticipation) write about next steps…
Like everyone else, life is complicated. Parents with health needs, being a part-time carer and full-time mum, adult children seeking work in difficult climate, managing jobs and a blended family, finances, peri-menopause. You get the picture. Everyone has this stuff going on, everyone is dealing with something. It isn’t unique.
While I know all this, I have also been experiencing vertigo, anxiety and panic attacks over the past two to three years. This roughly corresponds with mum’s current ill health. These have, so far, made me a little wary about going to crowded places and avoiding too much stimulation as I get easily overwhelmed.
This weekend was a different kettle of cucumbers.
There’s a road tunnel about an hour’s drive away which goes under the Thames. I have passed through this before and while never really enjoying the experience and occasionally getting a little breathless I’ve always managed it. Not so this time. I won’t go into the symptoms of a panic attack, but if you don’t know what it feels like you can read about them here.
I made my husband stop the car. We were on the last, tiny slip of hard-shoulder before the approach road. Lorries and cars streamed constantly a few feet from the car. At first I want to get out of the car and run. He persuaded me not to, though I couldn’t see how dangerous it would have been at the time to be walking by a four lane highway. Then I froze. A tiny part of my brain was telling me this was stupid. “All I had to do” was just get back in the car and go through the tunnel. But I couldn’t. I knew that if I tried I would lose control. Maybe that is part of the fear. The primal. The fear of falling into a screaming fit, lashing out, “behaving badly.” After a while, which felt like hours, he called for help. A Highways Agency patrol car came and took us through the depot and away from the motorway. My husband dropped me off at the local railway station to carry on by train.
Eventually I made it to our destination. Simon picked me up and we went to the meal with family as planned. I was still on edge and disconnected, but managing to put the face on.
Usually for me, that’s it. One episode and then I’m reasonably ok. Normal service is resumed.
The next day I woke at 4 a.m. full of fear. I couldn’t work out how to get home. Whichever way I chose to go there would be tunnels. As I had other symptoms too we decided the train would be best. I set off at 8 a.m. on a train to London.
It was, thankfully, only an hour’s journey. I could feel my heart pounding the whole time, stomach churning and limbs tight but I made it through that first leg homewards. Next I crossed the road to St. Pancras. There is a fast train which gets me home in an hour. I buy the ticket and board the train. Immediately I am overwhelmed. The air is stuffy and the whole vehicle is sealed, there are no windows to open. I feel my head begin to float and my stomach churn dangerously. I get off quickly. I will walk two miles to another station for a local, slower train.
When I arrive at Charing Cross I buy a bottle of water and head for another train. Same problem. I speak to the guard, who is very helpful, but there are few windows and he can’t control the air-con. I am feeling floaty, like my mind has detached from my body and drifts above me like a balloon. I take myself to a bench to ponder. The main difficulty is feeling closed in, the sense, or fear of the sense, of suffocation and not being able to get out…I ring home and my dad suggests a taxi. But the taxi also is sealed, no windows to open. “It’s ok,” I tell the driver, “I’ll walk.” He advises Westminster Bridge and down through Southwark to the Old Kent Road.
Off I go, Google maps directing me at the junctions. Through Southwark, past the Imperial War Museum (once the Bethlem “Bedlam” hospital – ironic). My ballet pumps aren’t up for serious hiking and my feet are beginning to blister but the movement calms my nerves and the action, the decision, the direction soothe me. I pass Elephant and Castle and head into Bermondsey. I’ve covered about six miles now. If I keep walking for another twenty hours I might make it home…
My family are on the end of the phone, and good friends send Whats App messages to cheer me on. There’s a Tesco’s where I stop and buy strawberries and, with the help of a wonderful pharmacist, some herbal preparations to support me. I have phoned my son and he’s going to drive the sixty miles to fetch me. At this point I don’t yet know if I’ll manage to sit in the car, but I figure one quandary at a time is enough for now. There are a group of homeless guys arguing loudly by the trolley park and I think about how they might have ended up there, how thin the veil is between coping and not.
Forty five minutes later I need to move again, the acid burn of fear in my stomach and limbs is threatening to overwhelm me again. I walk another half mile to a McDonald’s and wait for Jon. When he arrives he gets lunch, I steal two fries, and sip a diet coke. The longer we sit the greater my fear. I feel I’m about to throw up. Walking out to the car I’m in a glass cage, the whole world a strange dream.
Windows down we set off.
And it’s ok. Snaking our way out of south London, across Blackheath with its kites, ice-cream vans and weekend dog walkers. Down through Eltham the road widens and is lined with trees. The windows are down and Jon drives slowly, talking all the time about his job and the things around us. I check in with my body, my legs ache, muscles overly tight and my feet are sore, but I am feeling ok. Soothed by the fresh air and familiar company; I am going to make it home.