In 2013, months before my fourth book came out, I had a panic attack. I was getting ready to do something conference goers refer to as an author speed date: an hour of going around to tables of attendees and talking about our books for three or so minutes until a horn sounds, and we dash to the next table. That’s enough to make anyone anxious, but I hadn’t even made it there yet. I was in the green room, with other authors and their agents and editors. There was a good, excited vibe to the room. But as the happy chatter got louder, I felt a tightness in my throat and all at once the temperature seemed to jump into the low hundreds. I was going to throw up. I needed to run. Or punch something. Or…flashdance.
Instead, I turned to my editor and calmly asked if we could step into the hall, because I was having a panic attack.
It was mortifying, saying that. Admitting it. This was a large, national conference, and I had just met my editor, whom I had adored from afar, in-person for the first time. She was wonderful, but to this day I’m not entirely sure if she knew I meant this literally, that I was having a full-blown adrenal response, or if she thought it was just a strong case of butterflies.
It wasn’t the first panic attack I’d had. I’d been self-managing for a couple of years at that point. But that was the one that did it, the one that finally pissed me off enough to go and get some help.
I have panic attack disorder. I tend to know what my triggers are, and am better now at recognizing the first signs of a full-blown attack. I would describe my condition as “under control." Possibly even recovering. But sometimes attacks still get me. They come out of nowhere, and there’s nothing to do but to ride them out. It doesn’t matter that I know what it is, and understand what’s happening. It is still sheer panic. Chest pain. Restlessness. Adrenaline. Feeling unable to get enough air. Panic, about nothing.
Stupid, right? Well that’s what I think about it, hey anxiety, you’re stupid. See, I’ve always been a mind-over-matter person. Maybe that’s why anxiety singled me out.
The truth is, I don’t know what caused my disorder. At first I didn’t even recognize it for what it was. It took months and months, and for those months I thought I was just going crazy. Even afterward, I hid it from most people. I didn’t like to talk about or acknowledge it. I wouldn’t be talking about it now, except that over the past few months, anxiety has started to feel like a growing epidemic in my life and that really pisses me off.
I’m a writer by day (radioactive crime-fighting snake by night), and over the years I’ve gotten to know many writers. Lots and lots of them have anxiety issues. So many that I wondered for a while if it wasn’t some weird, occupational hazard. I could deal with that. If writers were deemed a high risk group, that would at least be some kind of explanation.
But then one of my best friends began to have troubles too. Not a panic disorder problem, but a more generalized constant buzz of worry that kept her from tackling her day-to-day. It surprised me to hear it, since she is a serious Type-A control-is-my-party kind of woman. And it got me thinking about how widespread it was. My other best friend struggles with it too, in a different form: anxiety related to a phobia, in her case wintertime driving. It seems to get worse as seasons go by. And a few months ago, Generalized Anxiety Disorder got my mother.
My mom is in the worst shape of us all. She is no longer herself. She can’t focus or carry on a conversation. A woman who eight months ago was independent and by all accounts too spunky for her own good is afraid to drive, unable to sleep, and feels she needs to be taken care of like a child. In July she was admitted to a facility and placed on suicide watch.
I typed that paragraph and almost deleted it. To protect her from shame, I suppose. Because she’s embarrassed. We’re all embarrassed to some degree. But we should not be. We should be pissed. I like being pissed much better than being ashamed anyway, and there is nothing to be ashamed of. Anxiety happens. And hiding or denying it only delays recovery. There are professionals who can help. Social workers. Caring therapists and friends. Volunteers and support groups. We’re just starting to mine the resources as we rally around my mom, but so far I’ve been encouraged by the help that we’ve found.
Encouraged, but still pissed. I want to know why. I want explanations and I want anxiety itself to do the explaining. Why is it more common in women? Is it a product of our culture? Are we cracking under the pressure and the weight of our expectations? Or is it just a blatant a-hole that likes to complicate things for fun like my old boyfriend Roger?
I’m kidding. I never had an old boyfriend Roger, and if I did I’m sure he was lovely.
Look, I’m not good at being inspiring. I’m good at crude humor and writing horror and dark fantasy fiction. But anxiety is trying to take my mom. It’s messed with my friends and it’s messed with me, and now it’s going to taste my pain. Keep an eye on your loved ones, especially those who are older, isolated, or have long-term health problems. The symptoms are wide-ranging, and can be mistaken for a host of other things.
And if you yourself are struggling: feel no shame. No stigma. Feel some pride actually, that you’re trying to punch it in the face daily. Feel the group high-five from me, my mom, and my two best friends. From my colleagues. There are a lot of us, with lots of feet. Maybe enough to one day drop-kick anxiety into a deep dark pit where it will never be able to return.
That sounds nice.