I Had a Panic Attack Last Month, and It Felt Like I Was Dying

Illustration for article titled I Had a Panic Attack Last Month, and It Felt Like I Was Dying
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It should be good news when you learn that the episode that brought you to the emergency room at Shadyside Hospital, which is where you drove the day after you felt like you were dying, was neither a heart attack nor a stroke. You’d suspected that what happened to you might have been one of those things, and the doctors tested for whatever they test for when they’re looking for signs that one of those things happened, and they found that your heart was fine and you didn’t have a stroke. Which, again, should be good news. And it is.


But that good news also concocts a psychological turbulence in a way that good news is not supposed to. Because instead of knowing that this dire thing happened to you, and knowing that the doctors know what it was, and them telling you exactly what you need to do to remedy and/or prevent it from happening again, you’re left just as unsettled as you were when you entered the emergency room.

One of my ex-girlfriends would get panic attacks once every two or three months. When they’d happen, she’d start shaking uncontrollably, her eyes would get this glazed and distant and frightened look, and her breathing would get demonstratively heavier. And then shallower. And then heavier again. Sometimes they’d last for three or four minutes. Sometimes they’d last for 15-20. When I happened to be around, I’d just hold her, because she said that helped.

After the second time I witnessed her experience one, I asked her how it felt. She told me it felt like she was going to die. Like the world and her entire being was collapsing. And this is how I felt two months ago as I was driving to Ross Park Mall.

It was an unseasonably warm day, so I might have even had my windows cracked a bit. As I neared the mall’s parking lot, I began to plot out what I planned to do while there (stop at Nordstrom and then hit the food court, and then maybe Foot Locker and the Apple Store).

And then, out of nowhere, I felt a rush of dizziness and nausea. And then my vision got blurry. And then my heart started pounding so quickly, it felt like it was taped to my chest. And then I began to sweat. All of this happened within 30 seconds.

Luckily, I was already in the lot instead of still on the road, so I parked in the first space I could find. And then I called my wife because I believed I had maybe 15 seconds of consciousness left, and I wanted her to know where I was and what was happening while I still could.


I was able to reach her, and she asked if I wanted her to come get me or call an ambulance. “Not yet,” I said as I opened all the windows in my car because it felt like it was 120 degrees in there. “Just let me sit here for a while.”

So I did, for the next 15 minutes, and the symptoms, except for the dizziness and nausea (which were still slight), gradually faded, so I put my windows back up, got out of my car and did what I needed to do in the mall.


I went to the ER the next day, thinking that maybe I had some sort of stomach virus and fearful it might have been something more serious. But aside from that now much-slighter-but still-lingering dizziness, I was fine. Well, fine physically.

I shared all of this with my primary care physician, whom I saw a couple of days later. And after she took me through the litany of doctor’s office exams—blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, etc.—she asked me a few questions.


“Have you been sleeping well?”

“Not really. Usually don’t get to bed until after 2, and I’m up at 7:30.”

“Anything giving you unusual stress?”

I laughed. “Shit, everything. The book I’m writing. My dad’s health. My sister’s health. My health. Being a parent and dad. Taxes, Trump, being a black man in America. I feel like I’m always behind everything. Like I’m always on the cusp of being overwhelmed.”


“I don’t think you’re on the cusp.”


“I think you had a panic attack. Actually, I’m quite sure of it.”

I left my doctor’s office less unsettled than I’d been that week. It made sense. I finally had an answer, I think. But it just didn’t compute that a panic attack could have such a physiological effect on my body. A culmination of stress is enough—is powerful enough—to make me feel the way it did?


The answer, of course, is of course it is. Panic attacks are powerful enough to make you believe that the world is collapsing around and on top of you, as if you’re standing on a giant sheet of paper that’s getting balled up. Or as if you live inside a TV that was just turned off. Or as if you’re in a boat that was just swallowed by a sperm whale.

Since that day, I’ve been making more of an effort to get more sleep and streamline my days and thoughts than I had before. Also, therapy is an option I’m considering. I believe I’m doing better now. Which is reassuring, but only partially. Because I believed I was doing fine before.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)



It is so incredibly fucking stressful to be told you need to manage your stress.

I started getting panic attacks in my 20s (I am 60 now). For me, what worked was what I thought of as riding the wave—I would try to take deep breaths and focus on that, without worrying about WHAT NEXT.

I also tried hypnosis, which worked quite well for me. The doctor gave me a series of physical clues, including dropping or unclenching my jaw, that helped me self-hypnotize. It’s been 35 years or so and they still work.

Now I think of the attacks as my body pulls on me when I just won’t listen to it. You’ll get through this, Damon, you really will.