Here are some real-life stories taken from interviews with patients who have suffered from Panic Disorder
Age: 27 years old
Interests: Outgoing, active
Occupation: Former nursing student. Now secretary.
“Well, I was a very outgoing person. I was very fun. I mean I did everything. I wasn’t afraid of anything. I traveled, I knew how to play hard and have fun, and really was fearless. I mean, I wasn’t afraid to try anything—at least once.
Well, I just felt kind of unreal and not in control. My biggest fear was passing out while driving. I just felt real dizzy and my vision was real blurred and I couldn’t catch my breath. And basically didn’t know what was going on with me.
I had just had my wisdom teeth out and it was three days later, and I was driving back to Arlington in a car. I started feeling kind of funny at first, and then I felt like I was going to pass out. My heart was racing, and I thought, ‘something’s happening.’ I really thought it was related to getting my teeth out. I thought, ‘maybe I tried to drive too soon.’ I made it back to a friend’s house and called for help from there.
I was afraid to do anything at that point. I was afraid to go out—I was afraid to stay in. I was afraid to ride in a car. But my biggest fear was being alone. My life changed substantially in that I went from a carefree, outgoing, fearless person to one that was afraid of everything.
I did get an appointment with my internist and they checked everything out as far as my thyroid and EKG. Everything came out normal. And that bothered me a little bit because I felt, it can’t be normal—something’s wrong with me. I went to a lot of specialists— cardiologist, endocrinologist—to keep ruling out anything physical, because I wasn’t convinced even then that there wasn’t. Maybe I had a brain tumor and they just couldn’t find it—and maybe that had caused it. I would have been so happy if they had found a brain tumor, because there was a cause.
The doctors that I went to—as far as the internist and the cardiologist andthe medical doctors—they would just give me various diagnoses of anxiety and would never find anything physically wrong with me. Most of them seemed to treat it like it was stress-related—that I just needed to get a grip on things.”
Interests: Outdoor activities
Occupation: Pre-med student. Now secretary.
It was physical pain—your heart feeling like it’s about ready to jump out of its chest. And it really hurts. It’s like it’s in a knot—like someone’s taking your heart and squeezing it. Your heart is going crazy. And your fingers would tingle and the tip of your nose would tingle.
You can tell something weird is going on with your body, but you have no idea what. But that’s not even the scariest part of what’s going on with your body—it’s what’s going on in your mind. You really feel like you’re losing your mind. Like they’re going to come take you away—you’re going to be in a mental institution for the rest of your life.
People talk—but it’s not as if you’re really hearing their voice. Everything’s different and remote. All you can focus in on is yourself. It’s very dramatic. The worst part of it can last only maybe 10 or 15 seconds, but then that fear that it will come back keeps you all stirred up.
I was in college and I was a pre-med major. I was taking about 18 hours in calculus, in physics, and all the really tough ones. There was a lot of stress within my own family. My sister had developed this Panic Disorder and all the attention was kind of thrust on to her. And at that point, my dad lost his job and they were telling me that they weren’t going to pay for my college anymore. So I was really living a pretty high stress life at that time. And that’s when they (the attacks) started coming—and wouldn’t stop.
They just did not let up. It was every day. I could count on at least one and sometimes there would be three and four a day. I was afraid to be alone—afraid to take care of children. I was afraid of the rain. I was afraid to drive in the rain. I was afraid of highway overpasses. I was afraid of highways in general, but highway overpasses were worse. I was afraid to be around anybody who had phobias. I was afraid of elevators. I was afraid of not having my family stay in town. I mean, I was afraid of just about everything.
Before? I felt so in control of my life. I had felt like I had a good life. And then to have my dreams of going to medical school shattered. The dreams of who I was going with shattered—and the relationships with my family that were so close. I was so close to my sister and that fell apart. Everything was just falling apart one by one by one. I think that’s a large reason why I got so depressed.
So finally I went to the doctor and she said that I was having trouble with my nerves—too much stress—just calm down. But it wasn’t working. With the psychologist, we were going over things from my childhood and what was going on in my life. But I knew that it wasn’t just stress. I knew something else was going on. But that was the part that was frustrating—you can’t get anybody to believe you.”
Interests: Social activities, politics
I was sitting—eating dinner with a banker—and in the contracting business. The business wasn’t going too well so there was some pressure on me. And as I was eating, my ears popped. I felt very dizzy, couldn’t eat anymore—had to get up and excuse myself. I had all the symptoms. I couldn’t breathe. So I excused myself to the rest room and came back and couldn’t hardly remember anything we had talked about. I mean it was very frightening.
I get like a buzzing in my ear. My ears will start ringing. You have to kind of pull yourself together. You don’t know where you are. You start hyperventilating—you’re losing the oxygen to your brain. You’re real-light headed. Your chest just feels like it’s being crushed. You get heavy chest pains.
You start sweating—sitting there in a nice cool restaurant somewhere. And this starts happening to you. You have sweat pouring off of your forehead. It will scare you. You think you’re dying. You think you’re just losing your mind. You don’t know what to think.
So I get to the hospital, they check me out—chest X-rays…blood test—they run everything. I’m probably in there six hours. Then the doctor comes in and says, ‘Son, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re fine. You can go.’
I was referred to the internist from the emergency room doctor. I made the appointment, went and saw the gentleman. He asked me a lot of questions. He gave me an examination—no blood work or anything like that—this is just an examination in his room. He said all this is rather common. When he was asking me about my personal life, I was telling him it was pretty unstable at this point. And he said, ‘Well, that’s the problem—it’s your emotions. You need to just find another job.’
If I was diagnosed in the beginning from the first panic—or from the first emergency room visit—my life would be totally different. I lost two years of my life. I wouldn’t fly anymore, I wouldn’t drive long distances, so I missed two Christmases. I missed two Thanksgivings, which are very big in our family, because it’s a reunion. I didn’t see my family for two years, I quit associating with my friends that I had had for a lifetime.
The suicide rate of agoraphobics and panic attack individuals is very high. You lose all self-worth—desire. And when the desire is gone, then it’s usually ‘give-up time.’ If a person doesn’t have that flame going, then there’s no reason to live. So you become depressed. I mean, you get clinically depressed.
The correct diagnosis meant everything. I think the correct diagnosis can save lives.”
Interests: Active in church
Occupation: Financial consultant
Then all of a sudden—just out of the blue—I feel like I’m having a heart attack. And fixing to pass out. The only thoughts were just trying to inch the car back to the office.
Not long after the first attack, I had another attack. I think the second attack happened in church. I’ve gone to church my entire life. It’s a very important part of my life. And I’m sitting there in church and I’m feeling the same thing. I left and went to the back and there’s a doctor there, who went to our church. He laid me down on a table and tried to get me relaxed.
At the bank one day, I’m sitting there at the teller window, and this same thing comes over me again. I mean, just total. A guy laid me down in the back seat of his car and drove as fast as we could to the doctor’s office. I mean, again—all the appearances of having a heart attack—dying. And you get there and it’s like ‘instant cure’ once you’re there. You’re fine.
There was a tram at the front of Fair Park—to take you back to the stadium. I wasn’t even thinking about fear. From the second that thing left the ground, all I’m saying is ‘I’ve got to get out of this thing!’ Well, the only way out is to jump. Thank goodness there was locks on the doors. You couldn’t have gotten me back on that tram to save your life. There’s no way you could have forced me back on that.
So there was an immediate association with that, which I think then translated to things like bridges—like being trapped in anything, whether it’s an elevator, or in a public speaking situation—that loss of control. It’s so much more than the fear of the tram. It’s being trapped and anything that relates to being trapped.
Even the job I would take—it had to be something that I could control. It either had to be limited to working in a specific building where I didn’t have to go out anywhere, where I could control every aspect of that day—how I got from Point A to Point B and control every single thing that I did. I guess I feel like I’ve never even come close to approaching what my real potential is.
I called the doctor, and he said, ‘Come on over.’ So I called my father-in-law and he came and picked me up and took me to the doctor. He did a bunch of preliminary tests there in the office—and he said everything’s ‘totally perfect.’ I’m fine.
In every situation, they immediately slap on the EKG machines and take all your vital signs and ask you these questions. They treat it like you’re having a heart attack. And in every instance, of course, they would say there’s nothing wrong. And it was like once I knew that, I was okay.
So that’s when they start saying, ‘OK, what’s going on emotionally?’ They start trying to ask if you ever thought about suicide. Well, we’ve all thought about suicide, you know. And so the answer’s ‘yes.’ So they start picking up on these little catch phrases and looking for the pressure—looking for whatever.
The agoraphobia—it’s just like a crippler, it’s just a shackle, like being in chains. You’re just a slave to this thing and your whole life is ruled by your slavery to this. If the knowledge of agoraphobia had been there at my first hospital stay 20 years ago, I have no real idea where I’d be.”