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After-Effects of the Anxiety Weasel at the Wheel

I’m always on guard for anxiety attacks, but they sneak up on me anyway.

In the last post, I described recovering from an unusually severe panic attack I had a while ago on a business trip I took to New York. I’d gotten lost the first night in Manhattan on my way to a dinner at an art gallery in Chelsea, and pretty much freaked out. With the overwhelm, confusion, and fear reaching the red zone, I had to hit my solar plexus with my fist to break the tightening band around my chest and force my misfiring brain to focus only on breathing 10 counts in and 15 counts out. After a few minutes of that, I had enough calm to find my way to a subway stop where I could reorient myself and, with my head down, follow my phone app, get to the gallery only somewhat late, but, I imagine, looking as completely fried and jumpy as I still felt, some 20 minutes after the panic attack had passed.

It seems to me that all of us in the mental health community, with our different brain chemistries, spectrums, diagnoses, prescriptions, and coping mechanisms have sometimes wildly different reactions to similar events in our lives. Some folks in our community have found ways to rid themselves of panic attacks completely; others manage them without too much trouble, excessive drama, or long-lasting effects.

Not me. Even as an ADHD hypomanic alcoholic with anxiety and a mood disorder, I’ve got most of my stuff pretty locked down. Fact is, my coping skills have turned most of my ADHD symptoms to my advantage as a hyperfocused writer and hyperactive house cleaner, tree planter, and yard raker. I haven’t had a drink in 15 years, and 90 percent of the time I pass as a competent, functioning, if kind of twitchy, adult.

I practice mindfulness meditation, go to therapy, exercise, take my meds, watch what I eat, and take any solution or guideline for them I come across seriously, but I find panic attacks the most stubborn, powerful, and destructive of the mind games my brain plays on me. So I’m careful — aware of triggers and signs I’ve catalogued over the years — not let an attack slip in and take over. But all it takes sometimes is missing my afternoon meds and getting distracted, before a particularly stressful evening when I should be on guard, and, bam, my heart’s racing and the anxiety weasel is at the wheel.

Twenty minutes later, exhausted and wary, I do manage to walk into the gallery. I go to the bar, refuse champagne, but take a power drink. (I know, I know, tons of caffeine and sugar on top of burnt-out nerves — but I can’t drink and it’s the Red Bull Studios gallery, so what am I going to do? Besides, it’s orange flavor. Vitamin C is healing.) I eat something-on-a-stick, talk to a couple of nice people, and say I’m also looking forward to tomorrow night’s big opening.

Trouble is, I can’t get comfortable, focus, and be in the moment because I’m still dazed by my panic attack and worried that I might have another one right here in the midst of all the positive, inspiring artists and the gorgeous work they have created. That I couldn’t stand. So after about a half hour I head back to Brooklyn, where I’m staying with two of my oldest, best friends. Luckily they’re coming with me the next night for the opening. I’ll be sure to take my meds, and, with my friends there for support, what could go wrong?

Next post: It’s the gallery opening, an all-around, big-deal intense night. Going fine, then someone hands me a microphone.