A couple of weeks ago, I experienced a garment malfunction that left me with a very red face, though civilian casualties were thankfully zero. I’d gone to the loo in the Castle Mall in Norwich, and as I reached for my bag to leave the cubicle there was the shriek of fabric ripping and a sudden inrush of air to my nether regions. My jeans had split right up the arse, making me so glad I’d chosen to wear a longer coat that day and my blushes were unseen.
I’m not interested in clothes much, fashion even less, and jeans are worn till they are worn out. I’d not been paying much heed to this pair but once I got home and looked at them, I could see the fabric had become worn to tissue paper thinness and it had been inevitable they would give way before too long. The other pair I’d bought at the same time as that pair were duly inspected and it became a wonder that they too had not ripped before now.
I have a horror of breaking down in public, of crying in front of people, of having a complete meltdown. Most people who’ve suffered with depression and anxiety worry about this, especially when you are in the middle of an episode of unstable emotions. But the truth is, even though anxiety attacks seem to come out of nowhere like summer rain, there are both triggers and warnings to let us know that our souls are unravelling and wearing thin and that we might rip right open at the slightest stress.
I’d like to share two accounts of panic attacks, taken from the same unpublished novel (the second sequel to The Bet). On both cases the trigger for the panic attack is something quite trivial; the first is set off by a pen breaking with a loud noise in the middle of a lecture and the second by the loss of car keys when he needs to make a swift exit from home.
“Dr Collins’ voice carried on beyond his spiralling thoughts, like distant birdsong, irrelevant and disconnected from his rapidly diminishing world. He could feel the faint tremors running through his entire body and he began to think he might even be making the whole row of interlinked seats shake too.
Take a deep breath, he told himself sternly. Get a grip.
It was a matter of pure chance that Dr Collins paused for breath at that moment; his hand gripped the pen convulsively and the barrel snapped apart with a tight sharp report like a tiny gunshot. In the quiet lecture theatre the sound was bright and distinct and like a Mexican wave, heads turned to see where the sound had come from. Face reddening, he dropped his gaze and saw that ink had covered his hands and the surface in front of him.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
He could feel his breath coming in short sharp gasps that rasped and caught at his throat as if he were about to throw up. Somewhere there were drums pounding. Why are there drums in a lecture theatre, he thought and then realised the drums were the sound of his own heartbeat pounding out of control.
He felt a tug at his sleeve again and looked without seeing that Gemma was pressing a handful of tissues into his shaking and ink-stained hand. He stared at them blankly, doing nothing. Numb, he watched blankly as she leaned over and scrubbed first at the desk surface and then took his hands and wiped the still running ink from them.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. For God’s sake why can’t I breathe? There’s no air in this place, why is there no air?
The pain in his chest reached an unbearable level at the same moment he became aware of it and he knew it was because all the air had vanished from the room.
I have to get out of here. Now. Or I am going to die.
He dropped the remains of the pen and struggled to get to his feet, stumbling as he did so, and ran from the lecture theatre, letting the door bang behind him.
Outside, he emerged into the drizzle and blindly rushed on, not knowing or caring where he went. He was dimly aware of bumping into people as he blundered along, and of people saying or even shouting things but he didn’t seem to be able to understand a word anyone said.”
“Ending the call, Ashurst entered his bedroom, and did his usual flat-on-the-floor drop to glance rapidly under the bed before packing an overnight bag and heading back down to collect his laptop and the bag he usually carried into the university. His mouth was dry and he was finding it hard to swallow, so when he suddenly couldn’t find his car keys, the baseline panic rocketed into a full-blown panic attack.
He curled against the stone-cold Rayburn, shaking so completely he was aware of his body causing the metal to shake too, his breath coming in snatches and deep shuddering gasps. His vision blurred and he realised he was crying, uncontrollably.
It passed slowly but it passed. His most important discovery had been that these attacks were time limited, that eventually ordinary breathing returned and that however awful it felt, he wasn’t going to die of it. Sometimes this knowledge alone was what got him through quicker than if he fought it. Eventually, he found himself becoming still again, his body still trembling but these were only after shocks and as he wiped his eyes, he looked up a little and saw his car keys exactly where he had left them on the kitchen table.
He laughed out loud, at his own reaction and for sheer relief. He ran some water at the sink and splashed his face with it and drank some from cupped but still shaking hands and then hesitantly made his way out of the house to go back to his car. He glanced around the area of land around the back door but he didn’t have much sense of fear as he shut and locked the door behind him; leaving the house never had as pronounced an effect on his psyche as returning. He’d often wondered about that. It was as if his fears centred solely on going into a place and not on coming out. Well at least that meant he wasn’t likely to add agoraphobia to his growing list of neuroses, and despite the pounding headache that was the usual after effect of a panic attack, he found himself chuckling slightly at that last thought.”
Now, as the author, I can tell you that Ashurst is suffering with depression and also with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, both with good reason. It’s easy enough for me to pinpoint why his meltdowns occur. Yet applied to my own life, if I have the sufficient focus to look at things, I can see where the fabric is wearing thin enough to give as soon as it’s put under a different sort of pressure. Too often I don’t look properly. Denim like my jeans wears differently to a wool jumper that might show wear by developing small holes or snags. The truth is that with both jeans and life I don’t want to look. I don’t want to face the reality of either needing to buy new jeans (I loathe clothes shopping) or of altering and adjusting my lifestyle to give me more breathing space and less stress.