Am I Having a Panic Attack?

Am I Having a Panic Attack?

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.images-3

“I can’t!”

“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?

Irish DNA: Inheriting A Stigma

Irish DNA: Inheriting A Stigma

Irish DNA seems to have a gene actively predisposed to alcoholism though there’s no scientific evidence that it’s hereditary.

The first ugly secret in my family is that my twenty-three year old mother, Agnes Donnelly Ryan Burke, was drunk in the Georgetown Inn in Washington with my father at the time her mother died. She wasn’t located until the next day. Later that year my parents were married in Key West where my father, Bill, flew reconnaissance planes across the Florida Straits to Cuba. Their married life began with Bill spending two weeks in the brig after a drunken brawl over Agnes.

Alcohol addiction begins with an immature reaction to the emotional and physical pain of adverse childhood and young adult experiences. When and why did Agnes and Bill cross over from heavy drinking to alcohol disease? Bill’s mother died when he was three so he had early trauma. Agnes was prescribed Guinness Stout when she was twelve for anemia so she had early permission. Their chaotic, calamitous alcoholic marriage intruded on the childhoods of my three sisters and me but as far as I know we are not all alcoholics. We all manifest common characteristics of growing up in an alcoholic home: fear of emotions, conflict avoidance, perfectionism, compulsive behavior, depression, melodrama, overreaction to change, and the denial of all these traits and their connection to alcoholism.

In the forty-one years I’ve been in Alcoholics Anonymous, there have been ongoing, persistent discussions, “Is it hereditary? Is it a disease?” Since the1900’s the language describing alcoholism has screamed out to the non-addicted populace, WE CAN’T HELP IT. The world has been given plenty of messages to enable it to accept us alcoholics as normal people with medical problems. Currently, the community that studies these questions is
untitledpromulgating the idea that addiction is a biological disorder from a dysfunctional brain – not inherited and certainly not a moral failing.

This past year I had coffee after church with a new acquaintance. In swapping little tales about ourselves she told me she had a match.com date who told her he was in AA. “Isn’t that disgusting?” she said. I abruptly excused myself saying I had forgotten to walk my dog and had to run right home.

Alcoholism was shameful before I was born, shameful in my family growing up, shameful in myself, and shameful now. All the work that has gone into trying to change negative thinking against alcoholics has not shifted the stigma one iota. Two million recovering alcoholics still sneak off to life-changing, life-saving AA meetings, keeping their recovery a shameful secret.

Agnes died of alcoholic brain syndrome (wet brain) when she was seventy. Bill joined AA when he was forty-five and stayed sober for 35 years until he died. He was proud to be part of a recovery community and thrived by helping others. But he never felt as though he quite measured up to the world outside of the AA fellowship. He wasn’t secretive about his alcoholism, nonetheless, the stigma hounded him until the end.