Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

My year of panic

Panic Mechanic

Yesterday I spotted Nianell, the singer, on the front page of a magazine with revelations of her panic attacks and depression. It’s interesting how many celebrity depression stories are running these days, usually in You and Huisgenoot. There once was a time when nobody would come out of the depression closet, but now it’s much more socially acceptable to admit you’ve battled with Winston Churchill’s black dog, and this can only be a good thing.

I know all about panic attacks. I had one a day on average last year, around about the same time every afternoon. Imagine that surge of adrenaline you experience after a near-accident in your car. That sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, the metallic taste in your mouth. Now imagine that lasting for an hour or two. Or seven, which is how long my first panic attack lasted. That was last January. It was the day before a big presentation to a client and clearly the events of the last few months — the divorce, problems at work, the general craziness — had added up. It couldn’t have been PTSD — who gets that from going through a divorce? — but it certainly felt like it.

For seven hours, I alternated between drawing PowerPoint slides and pacing like a caged animal. Eventually, I took a walk around the neighbouring office park to try and work off the overwhelming anxiety. It didn’t help much; the sensation that I was about to be attacked by a passing band of velociraptors only faded at about 9 o’clock that night. After the presentation (which went well), I hauled myself off to the doctor who gave me a script for Xanor, the same brand my ex-husband lived on during the divorce. Later I switched to something not quite so strong. Tranquillisers are not supposed to be taken for long periods of time — they’re addictive after all — but I lived on them for large chunks of 2010. (When I asked about this, my doctor said he thought functionality was more important than worries about not being able to live without them.)

I tried other things, too. I lit candles and sprinkled lavender into hot baths. I ran on the treadmill and went to Thai massage ladies. I bought meditation CDs (but never learned how to meditate). I even went to a woman who taught people how to shiver — the theory is that this kind of shaking helps animals to deal with extreme stress, and should work with people too. I was never able to replicate the effect at home, and in the end I’d always go back to those lovely little Schedule 5 pills, the ones you slip under your tongue.

This year I’ve managed to wean myself off all my medication. Since I was a walking pharmacy, I regard this as my single biggest achievement in recent times, even if I started eating obsessively and went up two dress sizes (carbs promote the production of serotonin, and I wonder whether these two factors are related). The panic attacks are rare now, though I had bad ones during my Cape Town road trip last month, a result of sustained stress, lack of sleep and frustrations with 3G access. I was very glad I had pills with me and I don’t know that I’ll ever feel confident enough any time soon to go somewhere without having the peace of mind of knowing they’re somewhere in my handbag. I had a minor panic attack last night — more a bout of anxiety really — which is why I took myself to the gym to try and avert it. Exercise is now my preferred form of self-medication, and I try to avoid the triggers: stressful situations, lack of sleep and becoming emotionally involved with other people. Men in particular tend to have a negative impact on my weltanschauung, and I have to avoid them.

Panic attacks are not funny. They’re bloody awful. I know what Nianell went through, and I’m glad she feels she can talk about it on the cover of Huisgenoot. The more we can talk about this, the less painful it will be to live with.

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