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“Breathe. All is Well” — How I Dealt With My Panic Attacks

Shikha Aleya writes about her experiences with panic attacks, and travelling with her dog Dusty

By Shikha Aleya

This year I’ve driven down national highway 48 from Pune to Rajasthan twice, with Dusty and a couple of friends. Two cars. Lots of peeíng behind bushes or between car doors’, dhaba paranthas and the odd traffic slow down where highway maintenance or construction work is underway.

Dusty’s about ten years old, she has a comfortable large cushion and pillow arrangement in the middle section of our Ertiga, and she takes the three days, three nights road trip well. I’m fifty two and quite pleased with my highway adventures. I learned to drive when I turned eighteen. Did many road trips with my folks when I was in my teens, and then many more over the next few decades, with partners, friends, film and work crews. All part of being the intrepid adventurer and explorer I knew I was, brought up on stories of Scott and Amundsen, Amelia Earhart, Captain Cook. Then of course, there were the cowboys. I lived those stories of the romanticised Wild West in my heart and spirit, thinking I could have been one of those cattle trail boys, lassoing longhorn, strumming a guitar under the stars. I knew if I could, I’d make it to the moon in a rocket.

I wasn’t afraid.

Not of these things.

I had an attitude to fear and any expressions of fear in others around me that was dismissive. This, to be kind to myself, did not come from uncaringness, it came from ignorance.

I was afraid of other things that I relegated swiftly to the realm of the not-my-life, not-my-story, while I put on my well-worn chaps, or my spacesuit, or my Amundsen ski boots, and went to school, went to college and then some more college. I took up the kind of work where travel and adventure were a part of the routine occupation. Cameras, sound recorders, jungles, fields, spiders, tigers, cranes, owls, circuses, industry, dam sites, hydropower plants, traveling through underground tunnels in jeeps, up and down vertical shafts in a cage with miners, wearing a hard hat just as they did.

Then one ordinary day, on my way to a meeting, in the very ordinary city of Delhi, I experienced my first panic attack. It froze my arms from shoulder to finger tips, messed up my heart beat rhythm, choked my breath and knocked me out. I had no clue what it was so I got out of the jeep, lay down by the side of the road and prepared to die. I was about twenty six or twenty seven at this time. Passersby gathered swiftly to gawk. So I got up and lay myself down in the back of the jeep and told my panicked partner to head to the family doc. The memory of this remains in my body so strongly that even as I write this, I need to breathe and remember that today is different, that I am far away from then.

I need to breathe because the inability to breathe is always my first signal of an episode of distress. Learning how to breathe through panic, and out of it, has been a part of my life now for years. To believe that I will keep breathing even it feels that I may not, is an act of faith in my therapist!

This strange thing stayed with me a long time, and scared me far more than anything else I’d ever known in my life. It took away all sense of control and intrepidity from me, I lost myself. For a while. A short while that seemed very long then. I feared leaving a corner of my room, I feared leaving the house, because I didn’t know where, when or in front of whom I’d have my next episode of panic. Many things happen during such episodes and these things take away your dignity.

You want to grab hold of people and tell them to save you, you want to run, you want to cry, pee, puke, and fart, you want the nearest doctor, you want to go home and never emerge from there again. You want to crawl under the covers and you want all the noises outside to stop because everything makes your heart hammer, palms sweat and body shake. You stop entering enclosed spaces and when you walk into a room, no matter how large it may be, you walk out of it a couple of times just to make sure that you can. If the light goes out in the department store you run to the exit to make sure the sliding doors haven’t sealed you in.

Look, as I write these things, I am aware that amongst those who read this story will be some who know me but don’t know this about me and others who don’t know me but have experienced this to varying degrees. To everyone I want to stop and say, remember how I began this story. I’m a roadie, I’ve remained a roadie for decades, I didn’t stop the adventures and I’m still me.

This is how it plays out for me. From then to now. I was lucky, I had amazing support, the very best. A partner who never let me stop doing the things I loved doing and ensured I had the help and chuff-chuff I needed when I needed it, never let me forget who I was, so though I lost myself for a bit, I found myself fast. I met docs who were great, they explained what they could and what they knew about what was happening. They kept medication to the minimal necessary and stopped it as soon possible.

A therapist who walked with me and talked with me through a different kind of adventure that needed a different kind of intrepidity. I had friends who loved me and showed that they did, as often as they could. Sometimes they couldn’t, or some of them couldn’t. I don’t care to dwell on any of that now. The friends who stood by me, well most of them are still right here. I had animals and birds being what they have always been to me. I had work teams and associates across age groups who, some knowingly and some just by instinct, created space for me to work despite all this stuff that was going on.

Interestingly, my connection to spiritual things suffered many knocks though. Went up and down between faith and anger and questions I couldn’t get answers to. Overall, I had a lot of help getting it together again, then keeping it together, then re-building the space suit. The ones who didn’t treat me any different, and created an environment where this huge, strange thing slowly became more manageable, pretty much like an invisible broken bone that needs time to set, to heal.

It took years, it took decades. We tend to think of time by the clock, pressure cookers, instant coffee, peak hour traffic, birthdays and new years. We don’t realise that a lot of life and experiences don’t follow the clock, either as they settle into your bones, or in the time it takes to shake out the dust of things gone by; things that you no longer want in thick layers like sedimentary deposits caking your soul. To the often asked question of why some mental health issues sometimes take years to heal, I do have an answer from personal experience. It’s a bit like the difference between a quick three day flu and a chronic illness. They need a different kind of acceptance, a different handling and management.

Dusty entered my life when she was a grown up dog. She’d lived on the streets for about three to four years before coming home. One of her issues was panic disorder. Odd that. I recognised it because I’d experienced it. I worked on it with her and she’s got her life sorted out too. People look at her and do not imagine that she was ever afraid of anything. I chat a lot with multiple gods and higher beings of the non-human kind and I tell them that I know this Dusty-and-me business was done on purpose. My faith is stronger and my every day connection to a world of soul and spirit, not peopled by people, is integral to my life today.

I’m unbothered with these things that happened in my twenties, through my thirties and into my forties. I know that I am who I am, I do all the things I do, because these things were as much a part of my life as the cowboys and Armstrong and Earhart. I learnt to try and respect another person’s fears, and another person’s feelings, whether or not I shared them. I understood the difference between feeling and action. There are many filters and processes possible between the two. I learnt that support is a massive part of all relationships, particularly relationships where care and caregiving are crucial, and the presence or absence of such support tips the balance on the healing and recovery scale.

I also learnt that support doesn’t necessarily mean doing or living for another, but is often about doing and living with another, as they do and live at their own pace, in their own ways, for themselves. My work over the past decade or more has shifted towards adventuring, exploring less visible territories, relationships with self and the world known and unknown, and identifying what it takes to be brave and go step by step, when the person you think you are has taken a pass to sit out the game for an unknown amount of time!

Life, work, relationships and road journeys with Dusty continue, sometimes with many scrambled prayers and much practice of 478 breathing – and phone calls and Whatsapps to my tribe, my friends, every day, about ordinary things and extraordinary ones.

I am not pleased about everything that happened, but I accept that these are my experiences. I accept that I have grown through them, built more invisible muscle. Most of all I accept that it is with the help and support of a diverse array of souls, relationships, and ordinary chuff-chuffing that I can do and be many of the things my spirit is; my life is more than the parts that panicked, and I accept and look after those bits too. I may not be thrilled, but I am proud of all of it and deeply hope that this little account of some of what I know, is of use to you.

Breathe. All is well.

Shikha reads, writes, does Sudoku, grows plants and walks with dogs as a reasonable option to running with wolves. She is a consultant with TARSHI, focusing on health, disability, gender and rights issues. She is also a post-graduate from XLRI, graduated from Hindu college, Delhi University. You can find her on InstagramFacebook and Twitter.

Pictures have been provided by the author herself.

This post was originally published on Feminism in India

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