Out of the panic

By Claire Hettinger

This is the story of my struggle with panic disorder. One that made the fear of death a constant companion in my life. 

But I am just one of many. Approximately 450 million people currently suffer from mental disorders around the world. But the World Health Organization reports that two out of three sufferers never seek treatment for their illness. 

The National Institute of Mental Health says “people with panic disorder have sudden and repeated attacks of fear,” called panic attacks. Panic attacks are “characterized by a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger.” This disorder makes carrying out a normal life difficult and terrifying for its sufferers.

Complete terror is not frequent in my life. Well, six months ago it wasn’t. Since April 10, I’ve had countless panic attacks, but the first one is burned into my memory.  

I was attending a show at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts when the lights went down. The crowd and I laughed and enjoyed the show. Suddenly, I became completely distracted by the racing thoughts in my mind. I tried to ignore them, and I was doing OK until the right side of my face felt numb. The numbness then spread down the right side of my body. I freaked out, thinking I was having a stroke, and I got up and ran from my seat.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

I ran outside and began to panic. I started to cry and looked desperately around for help as I called my parents. I told them what was happening as best I could through my hyperventilation and tears. They told me I was probably fine, but that I should go to McKinley Health Center and get checked out. McKinley was closed, but I called Dial-A-Nurse — the after-hours medical advice service. I explained my symptoms to the nurse, and she asked me question after question. All the while, I was so scared and trying not to cry as I spoke with her. I was shaking from fear and couldn’t get the terrifying thoughts of having a stroke out of my mind. The nurse suggested I go to the hospital just to get checked out, but by this time, the panic had started to fade, and I realized I wasn’t going to die.

Even now, it’s hard to think about that first panic attack. I can’t remember it for long without feeling nervous and fearful. It was a life-changing moment that defined the way I have interacted with the world these last six months. It was the first time I actually thought I was going to die, and it was something that I have been struggling to get over. I felt like I had no hope, and it was awful. 

I was so afraid all the time, and I couldn’t stop panicking. I cried for hours every day and worried for the rest of it. Going to class became painful and terrifying. I hated being in public places because I didn’t want to lose control. I wanted to hide my illness because I was ashamed.

I created a plan of escape from almost every building on campus. I wondered if I had a heart attack on the Quad if anyone would stop and help me. I stayed up late every night because I was afraid that if I fell asleep I wouldn’t wake up. I lived my life always worrying that I was going to die. Any moment, every moment. I knew I could be dead in an instant. The cliche goes that once you realize the cold, unavoidable truth of death, you start living life to the fullest. But it’s not true. When you actually think you are going to die, you try to find a way to stop it.

It wasn’t a stroke that first night, nor was it any of the times after that. My brain made me feel the symptoms having a heart attack, stroke, allergic reaction or some other disease that would kill me, but they were never real, and yet I always believed them.

When it’s all in your head with no real symptoms, you begin to fight yourself in a battle you don’t win. Your mind tells you to act, and you can’t tell yourself it isn’t true because it is true. It is the truth your brain believes and is acting on. You feel it in your gut. It is being repeated in your brain, “I am going to die. I am going to die.” And there is nothing I can do to stop it.

I ran through my list of checks, a system I created to check if I was dying or not. I would pinch my fingers to make sure that I could still feel them, and check my heart rate to make sure it was still beating. I did this to assure myself that I didn’t need to call 911. They made me feel better sometimes, but other times, I couldn’t find my pulse, and my hands were cold and looked swollen and discolored. I convinced myself that I really was dying. I would sob and beg for help, for someone to take me to the hospital. But no one ever did, and we’d been through it too many times before.  

It became a routine. Every day, this was my life. People would ask me why I got scared every single time I had an attack. I had never died before, so why would this be the time? But to me, there was never any chance in believing otherwise. That’s the thing about chemicals in your brain — they can make you feel anything and believe it is true. 

The carefree social person I used to be was gone, and I didn’t know how to get her back. Life became extremely hard and every day, every hour was a struggle. I stopped living the life that had once made me so happy. That was the saddest part of all. Beneath the panic and confusion, I lost myself.

Claire can be reached at [email protected].