Death in the Driveway
One literal symptom of a panic attack is to think you’re dying, known medically as feeling an impending sense of doom. Experienced veterans with panic disorder still feel this, but are better at sitting beside it, watching it pass while reminding themselves they’re not dying at all.
The first panic attack can be the scariest because you actually believe death is in the driveway. It is not a symptom, but a spot-on prediction.
That night I had the panic attack I didn’t know was a panic attack, I kept thinking about the cliches I’d collected regarding mortality—especially stories of people knowing they were dying right before it came.
You know when you know. And at 22 and a half, single and living in a messy apartment with strangers, feeling a nasty molly comedown and the failure of not having a single poem published, I knew I was going to die.
Even though I believed it was petty, I couldn’t stop thinking my ex would feel like she’d won. Then, I’d obsess about the fights we’d had, again.
My first 40 or 50 panic attacks I didn’t know were anything but dying. I didn’t even know what a panic attack or anxiety were, conceptually.
Instead of moving to New York or Los Angeles to become a freelancer with an essay and poetry and novel manuscript, I was in a daily loop of waking up with depersonalization, panic because of the depersonalization, more depersonalization because of the panic, more panic because of the more depersonalization.
Over my first year out of college I spent hours looking in the mirror, lifting my shirt, looking for my chest skin to jump as a sign of a heart attack. I would flashback multiple time daily, an imaginary overlay in front of me: that pale, thin-bloated boy from the night he saw his own body as a stranger.
Even sleeping my favorite coping trick since my depression that started in my teens—wasn’t working. Only more fear: will I fall asleep tonight? Especially now that I’m thinking about it? Less sleeping means more anxiety means less sleeping means more depersonalization. But, even sleeping meant nightmares and constant waking.
This is an excerpt from Opposite Phantom Limb, an essay by Austin Beaton in Hindsight 20/Something, a collection of perspectives on the quarter-life crisis. Read the full version and learn more about the collection here.