Waiting in examination room #5 for the skin doctor, I suddenly felt separated from the real world. Where was everyone? Was I in the right place? The right day? The right office? Where was I? Space stretched thin like over-rolled pie crust. I focused on deep breathing but knew I had to get out of there fast.
There’s nothing wrong with my skin. My mother called it “cheap Irish skin” because the sun burns it bright red, never a gold-plated tan. Splotches of actinic keratosis or “AK” from years of sun exposure periodically scale up on my face. The dermatologist unholsters an aerosol can from her belt and shoots liquid nitrogen on my AKs during twice-yearly visits. It creates instant frostbite on the dead cells, freezing the AKs in place. It doesn’t hurt. There’s no downside, no need for alarm and certainly no reason to have a panic attack.
“Anything else I need to look at?” the dermatologist asked.
No. This wasn’t the time for new concerns about my skin. I was on the verge of collapse.
By the time I got down the elevator into a lobby chair, hyperventilation was threatening to kill me. I thought I’d been in exam room #5 for a few hours but when I checked the time only thirty minutes had passed. Why were my legs so weak? I focused on my breathing until I recovered.
Looking for understanding, I later mentioned the discomfort to a friend, who happens to be a doctor.
“What did they do for you?”
“Nothing. I didn’t tell them.”
“What? Are you crazy? If your blood pressure spiked you could’ve had a heart attack.”
She didn’t understand. It was impossible for me to report my condition at the time. The pinched air sucked the words from my mouth. I couldn’t talk. I thought I was going crazy.
Panic attacks started in earnest a few years ago without any warning (not that I’d have recognized the warnings). I visited an old friend in the hamlet of Baltimore, a sailing community on the rugged southwest Irish coast. Vivienne and her friends were boarding a rubber inflatable one day for transport to a sailboat moored in Roaring Water Bay. She shouted “Get in!” as she crawled into the idling dinghy.
“Yes you can. Get in! Get in!”
“I can’t! I can’t!”
I yelled at her over the roar and hum of end-of-summer harbor noise.
“Go without me!”
I ran to the bait shop restroom, then dragged myself to a wind-slapped bench and recuperated under the shade of a wild fuchsia hedgerow.
Later Vivienne joined me on the deck of the waterfront cafe. “I panicked,” I said. She understood. Convenient word, panic.
Last year I panicked at different times in several US airports. There’s a simple solution to that—stay out of them. Now I face the unpredictability of panic striking at any moment and for no reason. I’ve considered revealing this malady to my friends in case I’m in their company if it happens again. I wouldn’t want anyone rushing me off to the emergency room because they don’t understand. But whenever I mentally rehearse the words, the room sways. I can hear the questions, “what are you afraid of?” and “why do you think this happens?”.
The difference between me and Henry the dog is that as the human animal, I’m able to understand my psychology and articulate that understanding to others. But the stigma of perceived weakness stills me into secrecy.
How would I know if Henry, the non-human animal, encounters panic attacks?