I had my first panic attack when I was fourteen, in the locker room after gym class. One of the girls – I think her name was Sarah – started screaming that I was choking on something. A few class heroes tried to dislodge the object from my throat using the Heimlich Maneuver. Someone ran to grab the gym teacher, an old lady named Mrs. Darlene who had gotten breast reduction surgery when she was young. They had clipped a nerve, leaving her nipples erect and crooked for the rest of her life. I was fascinated by them when I went to her class for the first time. I couldn’t stop staring and comparing hers to mine, wondering if she had ever tried to tape them down or tried wearing padded bras to mask them. She came into the locker room, nipples leading the way, and I stared at them as she stood in front of me, trying to calm me down. The concentration worked, and my breathing slowed to a normal pace. I stared at them the entire walk to the principal’s office, terrified that if I looked away my chest would tighten up again.
The school called my mother, and she left work to take me to the doctor’s office, simultaneously worried and frustrated. The visit was quick, with a few small tests and minimal lab work. Everything came back normal, and the doctor stepped into the room with a smile as he explained to my mother and me that I had just had a panic attack. The term felt strange because I hadn’t been scared when it happened – there wasn’t a giant spider crawling up my leg or a ghost pulling my hair. The word panic only meant “fear” to me at the time. My mother’s face pinched, and she started asking questions that I didn’t understand. She wanted to know about medications and repercussions and if this was going to be an ongoing part of my life. He assured us both that “generalized anxiety” was a manageable condition, and we left with a prescription for a low dose of Xanax to use “as needed.”
My teenage years came and went, and I didn’t have another panic attack until college. I was alone in my room when it happened, and I didn’t have Mrs. Darlene’s nipples to save me. I choked and gasped for air, feeling my chest tighten up and the room start to spin. I half-walked, half-crawled to the door, stepping into the fresh air and sinking onto the sidewalk. A few girls were walking my direction, and I tried to call out to them, but I couldn’t make words. One girl noticed me, and she called 9-11 as I passed out on the sidewalk.
When I came to, I was in a hospital bed with an IV needle itching in my arm. I started to pull it out, but a nurse walked in and swatted my hand away. I asked her what had happened, but she didn’t seem to hear me. She was busy checking machines and writing things down, oblivious to my confusion. An hour later, another nurse brought me a lunch cart with a small, paper cup housing two different pills. I asked her what they were, but the names didn’t sound familiar. She told me I had to eat the lime green Jell-O and swallow the pills. She checked my mouth afterwards to ensure I hadn’t stuffed them in my cheeks or under my gums before leaving.
My mother came in shortly after, flustered and sharing in my confusion. Before I could explain my story, a short doctor with round, thick glasses let himself into the room. He flipped the pages of my chart, making small, almost inaudible noises as he went through the pages.
“What happened to her?” my mother asked, “Is she dehydrated? Was it an allergic reaction?”
“It was a panic attack, Mrs. Sellers. A rather potent one, actually,” he said, never looking up to meet our eyes.
He asked if it was my first one and I said yes, but my mother quickly corrected me. She explained the incident from my middle school years, assuring him that it had only happened once. He looked up at her and nodded his head before turning to me to ask about the moments before the panic attack. I explained that I had been reorganizing the furniture in my dorm room when I felt my chest seize up, and I passed out on the sidewalk trying to get fresh air.
“Well, it doesn’t sound like anything particularly traumatizing or stress-inducing was happening at the moment, but that’s not always how it works,” he said, “I’m going to refer you to a counselor. We have an excellent one on staff, Mrs. Young, but you should feel free to visit someone else under your insurance plan if you choose.”
“I don’t understand,” my mother started, “How did this happen? What if it happens again, while she’s driving or asleep? Is she going to need a daily medication to keep it under control?” There was a worried edge in her tone I hadn’t heard before. She looked over to me, hazel green eyes moving back and forth, brow furrowing, and I realized that she was worried I might be “crazy.”
“I don’t want you to worry, Mrs. Sellers. Heather will be fine,” he nodded in my direction, “I just want her to spend some time talking to a therapist to get to the bottom of what triggers these random episodes because I don’t see any red flags. She’s perfectly healthy.”
With that admission, he left the room and my mother grabbed my hand tightly. She promised that we would find the best therapist in our insurance plan, but I told her I was fine visiting the woman there. It was close to campus, and I didn’t want to make a lengthy drive. She waited until I was discharged before kissing me on the cheek and leaving. She felt uncomfortable around me – I could feel it. I was no longer the daughter who wore her hair in pigtails and a blanket as a cape. I was suddenly an enigma, suffering from something she didn’t understand.
Mrs. Young was a tall, lanky woman who wore jeweled-rim glasses and gaudy necklaces. She had a long nose, overdrew her lipstick, and her front teeth had a small gap that I couldn’t help but notice when she talked. She looked like a cartoon character. I imagined she would play a tarot reader in a tent full of silks. I sat across from her on our first visit, soaking her in, while she asked me narrative questions – did I go to college, was I in a relationship, did I have children, and so on. I answered them happily, trying to look as normal and well-adjusted as possible.
After getting a portrait of my life, she dismissed me and scheduled another appointment the following month. I didn’t leave with any medications, and I felt a little jaded. I had hoped one visit would cure my “problem.” On campus, I was known as the girl who passed out on the sidewalk. Our dorm building swarmed with rumors ranging from eating disorders to drug abuse – at least those were concrete answers. Instead, I still didn’t know what had triggered my two panic attacks, and I didn’t bother correcting anyone in their assumptions.
Six months into my therapy visits, I had another attack in her office – seemingly unprompted, just like the first two. Mrs. Young instructed me to breathe deeply and focus on one object in the room while she went into the hall to find a sedative. I tried her method, but the room was moving too quickly, and I couldn’t find anything that caught my attention. I took the medication, and its effects were almost instantaneous. She calmed me down as my breathing returned to normal, reassuring me that everything was “okay.” It didn’t feel okay in that moment, however. I felt powerless and angry.
I considered ending our therapy visits after the incident out of embarrassment, but my mother talked me out of it. She was still concerned, so I neglected to tell her about the attack during my visit. She urged me to continue going to therapy, even insisting that I seemed “better.” I didn’t know what she meant, but her words were heartfelt and poignant.
My mother had never been the affectionate parent – that role had belonged to my father, who died when I was six years old in a boating accident. She loved me, but her love didn’t come in the form of hugs or reassurance or affirmation. She loved me by taking care of my needs. Our kitchen was always stocked, and I never had to worry about clothing or new shoes. She picked up a second job after my father died, and the work combined with the grief aged her. Her hair lost its shine. Her teeth yellowed from coffee and the smoking habit she had acquired. The wrinkles around her mouth started to spread to the corners of her eyes and the middle of her forehead. She worried about me constantly – was I eating enough, was I warm in the winter and cool in the summer, did I have gas in my car, was I getting enough sleep – but she didn’t coddle me.
I continued therapy, but the panic attacks grew in their severity. I was prescribed an antidepressant and another round of Xanax, but they didn’t seem to help. I was wary of too much stimulation. I went to class and went home, cutting off my social ties. During our sessions, Mrs. Young would ask questions about my outlook on life or my aspirations, but the only thing I wanted was the promise that there was some miracle drug that would take away the panic attacks and the stress they brought into my life.
It wasn’t until a year into our sessions that she suggested something “unconventional” – hypnosis. She assured me that it was safe to engage in, trying to dispel the look of horror from my face. I wasn’t worried about my safety, however. I was worried that there was something so fundamentally wrong with me that not even a trained specialist could uncover it without resorting to waving a watch in my face and counting to ten. I protested, but the attacks persisted, and I finally gave in.
I drove to her main office on the outskirts of the city, where she escorted me into a dimly lit room housing a small couch, a recliner, and a speaker playing soothing music. She explained the session in detail, batting away my skepticism gently. The couch was lumpy. I shifted and stirred, trying to get comfortable, but I couldn’t relax. I tried to stall with more questions, but she politely refused to answer.
Her tone changed. She started speaking slower, more deliberately, asking me to relax and conjure images of hammocks and beaches. She told me how to breathe – in my nose and out of my mouth rhythmically – and asked me to “empty my thoughts.” I resisted the urge to laugh, but I couldn’t take her seriously – I was waiting for her to pull out incense or tell me to fall into a deep sleep. Then, without warning, I felt my body slack into the couch. I disconnected from the sound of the music, tuning into my own breathing. I felt my eyes start to droop, and I couldn’t focus on the lights or the ceiling. Everything had started to fade away, and I feel into something similar to sleep. It felt like a dream, except I was half-awake and able to respond and remember every detail. She asked me simple questions at first, getting an idea of how receptive I would be, before diving into my memory bank headfirst.
I had read about memory repression in my Psychology class, but it seemed far-fetched. The idea that a brain would “turn off” a memory in order to cope with its severity or save someone’s sanity seemed like something out of a science fiction novel. I read the stories of patients recovering traumatic memories from their childhoods – memories of molestation or abuse – but I couldn’t conceive that they had actually “forgotten” those moments. I reasoned they had simply selectively ignored them.
Mrs. Young started asking me questions about my childhood, but I was too far under to find the irony of the situation. Instead, I started relaying details about vacations to the lake or birthday parties in my honor. I recalled each moment with startling accuracy, watching it play behind my eyes like a movie on a projector. With each question, I simply changed the reel.
When she started asking about my father, I noticed holes in my memory. There were some moments that were sharp, but most of them were incomplete. He had died when I was young, and I didn’t have a strong enough memory bank at the time to document and label everything. I could feel the frustration in my voice, despite being half asleep. She continued asking, repeating certain questions and jotting down my answers. We were no longer recounting happy moments. Instead, every question involved my father in one way or another.
Then, it hit me. It was like I had found a dusty reel in the corner of my mind, something tossed aside and forgotten. She asked me about what he did on our vacations, and, instead of grasping at small pictures of us on the boat or fishing off the bank, I remembered the smell of bourbon. It was strong, almost overpowering. The images that had been incomplete started to fill in. I remembered my father’s drinking and how he would yell at my mother for small mistakes. I saw him yelling at me while I peed on the floor in fear, his voice booming in my head. I recalled the night he left us there – storming out in a moment of rage and taking the car, leaving my mother sobbing on the couch and relentlessly calling him to ask if he was coming back. She thought he had stranded us there.
Those memories were hard to replay. My father had always been the loving parent, hugging me before work and kissing me goodnight on the forehead. He carried me on his shoulders while we walked around the lake, laughing when I tried to grab leaves. He tickled me on the floor until I was crying from laugher and rubbed my back when I felt sick. He wasn’t a drunk – at least, not that I could remember. When she asked if he had ever touched me inappropriately, I felt myself coming out of the daze. The anger at her question bubbled in my stomach. I wanted to walk out, but I couldn’t regain use of my limbs. I was incapacitated and throbbing with hurt, and I couldn’t understand why she would ask such an outlandish question.
The session continued, with more of my father’s drunken moments swimming to the surface, but she came back to the question of molestation over and over. I knew she was digging, trying to uncover something that wasn’t there. I couldn’t stop her, so I sternly batted it away every time she brought it up – until another dustier and moldy reel caught my eye in the corner. I put it in the projector and sat back, almost scared of what it might hold. When the question of molestation came up again, I pressed play.
My father and I were on the couch, watching a movie, and I was roughly five years old. It was just before he died because my hair was cut into short, uneven bangs – my own handiwork. I was giggling, watching the characters on the TV, and he was sipping something dark in a short glass, staring at me intently. I saved Mrs. Young the exact details and later did the same with my mother, but she had been right all along. As we sat there that night, he did touch me inappropriately, under the guise of a game. I watched in my daze as he fondled me, paying close attention to the confused look on my face. I couldn’t turn it off.
Mrs. Young asked more questions, which I answered with as little detail as possible, before waking me up. I had been crying. My face was wet, and she wrapped me in a hug while I buried myself in her shoulder. I felt conflicted. I wished she had never brought up those memories. I wanted to shove them back down and forget again. I wanted to remember my father fondly, as a gentle giant. His memory had been tarnished. However, I also felt relieved. There was something wrong with me, but it wasn’t something medication could fix. I wasn’t “crazy” – I was confused.
She explained to me that the repressed memories of my father had started to break through their protective barriers, subconsciously, causing the unprompted panic attacks. It was a lot to process at once, but I managed to calm down enough to go back to my dorm and sleep off most of the shock. I planned a dinner with my mother, where I told her the details of my hypnosis session. She was shattered. She thought I had forgotten about my father’s drinking. When I confessed the molestation, she crumpled out of her chair and folded into the floor. We decided to take counseling sessions together to work through the information. I’ve learned there is something cathartic about the truth. It’s painful, but it’s the type of pain that bleeds growth. I’ve grown around my memories, encasing the repressed episodes behind layers of bark like the rings of tree. Now, I’ve hacked that tree down, exposing everything, every ring. I’ve pruned myself, and now I have to grow into the hollowness I’ve spent so much time ignoring.