A Secret Worth Sharing
Guest post by Jacquelyn Middleton
Posted Oct 19, 2016
Guest post by Jacquelyn Middleton
I have a secret.
On a bustling Saturday afternoon under the bright lights of Toronto’s busiest and most famous department store, my secret revealed itself—publicly. It didn’t just happen on any floor of the six-story shopping monolith. It wasn’t up on the fourth floor, tucked away behind a stack of fridges, or hidden behind a jungle of push-up bras and underwear on the sixth floor.
It happened in a fish bowl. It happened in plain view where it was impossible to hide, on display in the luxurious haven of sweet scents, expensive potions and beauty lotions marketed to boost your self-confidence, conceal your flaws, and highlight your best features.
I have no clue how many people witnessed it, how many shoppers gasped, or stared, or how many store employees laughed behind their makeup brushes and fragrance displays. Unfortunately, none of the life-changing products in the cosmetics department worked their magic on me. They didn’t heighten my self-esteem, or save me from one of the most embarrassing episodes of my life.
In the middle of what was supposed to be a relaxing, mother-daughters makeup consultation, I collapsed with a thud to the cold tile floor.
I fainted in public … in a ground floor cosmetics department swarming with shoppers. Oh, the irony. It wasn’t enough that my carefully hidden secret be exposed publicly. No, it had to be unveiled in a shoppers’ paradise famous for peddling carefully plucked, buffed, and concealed ideals of what it means to be a confident, in control woman.
My mask had slipped. I was anything but in control.
I wasn’t hungry, dehydrated, or taking a new medication. Before my face plant, I had been wrestling with a panic attack, my throat closing in, breaths ragged and shallow. The sweats, pounding heartbeat, pins and needles in my hands, and wave after wave of stomach cramps pushed aside all thoughts of lipstick, eyeshadow and cheek contouring. All my mind cared about at that moment was whether I was going to die, right there and then, held aloft in a director’s chair for all of Toronto to see. Mid-blush application, while my vision fogged and the cavernous room swayed, the makeup artist’s voice, just mere inches from my ears, distorted into an underwater squawk. Someone told me to put my head between my knees, but it was too late. I woke up in a heap, a fuzzy brained floorshow underneath the high-heeled perfection that was the shocked makeup consultant. The worried expressions of my mum and sister hovered overhead. Ta-da! Welcome to my nightmare, folks. If you’re going to reveal your secret, go big or go home.
To this day, only a few people know about this cringe worthy fainting episode. I mean, who would want to brag about that? But time rolls on, and the worst experiences can make for fantastic fodder for a writer, so I gifted this humiliating episode to Alex Sinclair, the main character in my new coming-of-age novel, London Belongs to Me. Alex has anxiety. Alex has panic attacks. Alex has given me a lifeline to come clean and tell others that you are not alone. I am one of you.
For a very long time, I felt like I was alone.
Like most people carrying around a secret, I’ve become an expert at hiding it. I bet if you asked most of my friends, coworkers, or bosses, they’d think I was making this panic thing up. Through out my life, I’ve always shown up. I excelled at school with top marks, landed my first TV broadcasting job while I was in my first year of university, and ran the very public official fanclub for the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club. I even appeared on national TV speaking about hockey and fans. What panicked person does that? I was in control, confident, and successful. Who knew otherwise?
I travelled across oceans and continents, married my long distance boyfriend, and changed career paths to become a writer. And through it all, I battled panic attacks. I could probably count on one hand the number of people who had any clue about the war raging inside of me.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) explains that researchers have found several risk factors can be at play in panic disorder as well as its associated conditions, general anxiety disorder, and social anxiety disorder:
Being female? Yup.
Exposure to stressful life events in childhood and adulthood? Where do I start!
I was my mum’s shadow. I followed her everywhere as a toddler. She even took me to her job when she returned to work when I was four. I cried on the first day of kindergarten. Separation anxiety was my bag. By the age of five, I had lost two of my four grandparents. I became the poster child for abandonment issues. My mum was in and out of hospital. The grandmother that remained would sometimes babysit my sister and me. She would tell me that my upset stomachs, and tears over wanting my mum to come home, were babyish and all in my head. “What’s wrong with her?” she would bark at my sister. Ever my protector, and the first person—next to my mum—who understood that I was an anxious ball of blonde fluff, would retort back, “She misses mum. Leave her alone.” My sister was only eight-years-old. Bless her.
As a kid, I suffered from debilitating stomachaches and eventually migraines as I navigated through my teenage years. By the time I reached adulthood, panic attacks and headaches were part of my repertoire. Sometimes a major life event would set them off. On other occasions, I would just be minding my own business, riding the subway, in a cinema, walking down the street, when one would swoop down and have its way with me, suffocating, stealing all my control, and leaving me exhausted, embarrassed and ashamed.
I never told anyone. I didn’t tell my physician. Even ten years ago, people looked at you differently if you mentioned panic attacks. You were mental, unstable, and unable to deal with normal life stresses—broken. Why would I mention these attacks at work where it could derail my chances for promotion? Why burden friends? Why become the weird girl who had strange, unexplainable meltdowns over the most random things? So I didn’t say a word. I carried on, on my own. Sometimes hiding in the bathroom at work, sometimes going for an impromptu walk. I felt that I had to get through these attacks on my own if I was going to be seen as a normal, functioning adult, and not a freak of nature.
And I did it on my own. I created a mantra to get through the shakes, the sweats, and the choking sensation squeezing my throat closed. I also realized that if the worst happened again—ugh, fainting in public—someone would come to my aid. I wouldn’t be abandoned. I was not alone. Someone would help me. My new mindset worked, surprisingly. Panic attacks became a thing of the past. I never mentioned it to my doctor, went to therapy, or took medications. I still had spells of anxiousness, moments of extreme sensitivity, and mega migraines, but all the classic symptoms of panic attacks picked on someone else. I was cured!
Well, not quite.
Two years ago, a strange illness plaguing my throat brought back my old nemesis again. Oh, joy. The pins and needles, the swaying room, the flop sweats. At the time I was writing freelance articles about the fear of flying, and the mental health experts I interviewed told me that you’re never really cured of anxiety. You just learn how to manage it more effectively.
This time around, I felt more empowered. I rode out the symptoms, knowing I wasn’t going to die. And there was no way in hell that I’d allow an attack to rack up another fainting episode on my watch. I also let a few trusted friends know about the secret I’d carried most of my life. No one shunned me. No one laughed. My disclosure felt freeing.
Eventually after several months, the illness slowly faded, taking with it the attacks. Once again, my anxiety was only a featured player in my life, lurking around in the background, an uninvited guest who could knock on my door at any time.
I have no clue if, or when panic attacks might return in full flight. That’s the thing about anxiety; the great unknown creates more worry. That fear is almost as bad as the actual attack. But when you name it, acknowledge it—own it—you take away much of its power. I may still fall victim to its horrible wrath, but I no longer have to be defined by it, or feel the need to hide it, and that’s one secret worth telling.
Jacquelyn Middleton is a writer living in Toronto. Her debut novel, London Belongs to Me, is published by Kirkwall Books.