For the first time in 34 years, I had a panic attack. It was truthfully one of the scariest moments of my life. A few months later, I feel compelled to share that experience mainly for two reasons. The first one, to break the stigma around mental health, which I think is a big issue, especially for men. The second one to show myself and others how harmful negative self-talk can be. “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” Buddha
The Sordid (Yet Insightful) Tale of a Panic Attack
It was a Wednesday.
That morning, when I woke up, I fell “off.”
I was tired.
I did not want to get up but I had too.
I had to take my son to school and to get started with my day.
I had big plans for my day.
First swimming, then writing one piece, then working on a project, then going at my son’s school for a year-end celebration.
“Get your ass up you fucking fat fuck!”
This is the voice of “Billy the bully”. Let me tell you a little bit about him.
“Billy the bully” is the douchebag that lives inside of me. I gave him that name to help me identify him and to dissociate myself from him. If I had to describe him, Billy is not very bright. He is tall, physically strong and mean AF. He usually shows up in times of high anxiety. He is the type of guy that pushes your head down the water when you’re drowning. If I had to represent him in a human form, he would look like the 1955 version of Biff Tannen, the notorious bully from Back to the Future.
Billy’s voice had been louder and more present than ever weeks prior to my panic attack.
His favorite insults generally revolve around body shaming. For him, nothing is ever enough: whatever you do, you’ll still be a piece of shit.
All words from Billy will be identified in this format.
Back to the panic attack tale.
“Get your ass up! You’re fat and you have things to do. You slept more than enough already.”
So I executed. It was 6:00 am. I got up, and got myself and my son ready.
As I was preparing my gym bag, Billy continued:
“…and don’t forget anything in there. Don’t look for an excuse to not workout. And hurry up.”
As I was walking my son to school, Billy’s voice took over my thoughts entirely. As we hopped on the bus, Billy says:
“The least you could do is walk to school instead of taking the bus. Don’t you think you’re fat enough?
We still got on the bus. By that point, my son sensed that I was not having a good day. He asked me if I was okay, and I explained to him that I was not feeling great this morning.
After I dropped him off to school, I started making my way to the gym.
I felt tired. I felt exhausted. My body definitely told me not to go. Instead of going swimming, I decided to start working instead. As I made my way to the coffee shop, Billy went:
“I knew you would not go. You are a fucking loser and you’re lazy. You better be productive for work, at the very least!
And so, I started writing a post for wokedaddy.com. As I was trying to find my way through inspiration, Billy pursued his beatdown:
“Oh come on man! Don’t you think you’ve lost enough time already? Write shit down! And why are you writing anyway? Nobody gives a fuck about your opinion. You have no fucking talent. Why aren’t you more pragmatic with your time? Why don’t you try to make some money or find an actual job? Be responsible for a change. You are letting your family down.”
Therefore I wrote faster. As inspiration still struggled to flow, I started writing a second article, anxious not to waste anymore time. I was completely victimized by Billy’s words at this point. Yet, I was not even aware of it.
As the time passed I kept my head down, trying to focus despite the emotional beatdown. As I looked at the clock moments later, I realized that I won’t be able to make it to the swimming pool: I had to be at my son’s school for the end of year celebration. At this point I felt overwhelmed by shame and something inside me urged me to get up.
As I stood up from my seat at the coffee shop, I felt very dizzy.
I was getting lightheaded and my vision got blurry.
Instead of sitting back down, I felt the need to storm out.
In my mind, I was running low on sugar. Therefore my goal was to find a sweet (and healthy) source of nutrition. I didn’t want to just eat anything because I didn’t want to get anymore weight.
As I made my way to my traditional juice place, (which is a good 10-minute walk from my departure point) I felt that I might not make it.
My heart started racing.
I started getting tunnel vision.
I was on the verge of collapsing.
“Oh come on now! You are not going to faint now, are you?! And on the street like that???? Your son is waiting for you. You can’t just collapse on the sidewalk like that. Pull yourself together!”
This was actually the first time that Billy’s voice appeared quite clear in my head.
I had no choice but to ignore him as my entire energy was focused on staying conscious. It was also the last time he spoke to me that day.
As I got to the juice place, I was desperately trying to keep myself together with the use of fresh orange juice and bananas.
Nothing was working. I could not breathe. I felt like I was having a heart attack.
I decided to call my wife who luckily was not far. I explained to her that I was not feeling well and that I did not know what was going on with me.
As she arrived in a cab, I pondered if I should go to the doctor or just go home.
After initially deciding to go home I stopped the cab after 10 seconds and got out of it.
As I got out of the car I laid down on the sidewalk, completely desperate and unable to catch my breath. I told my wife: “I think I am dying. Please do not let me die.”
I told her that repeatedly.
We then decided to go see the physician who luckily was across the street. To quote Tony Soprano when he talked about his panic attack to his doctor, I felt like I had ginger ale in my brain. I sensed that something was really wrong with me.
The state of panic was real.
The sensations are indescribable except that I was unable to calm down.
I felt the need to run away.
While the doctor took my blood pressure and performed an EKG, the intensity of the anxiety was coming and going, but still remained really high; to the point that the physician decided to send me to the emergency room. She did mention the high probability of a panic attack.
After checking-in to the E.R. I got a full blood test and an EKG. The doctor that check me ruled out the hypothesis of a stroke based on my symptoms, so he did not perform a brain scan; which worried me because I had odd sensations in my brain.
The official diagnosis was dehydration, stress and panic attack. After 5 hours spent to the ER between tests and waiting, I came back home, pretty shook but basically back to normal.
The two weeks that followed the panic attack were very challenging. As I was not entirely sure that nothing “physical” was wrong with me, I lived in a high state on anxiety.
I felt completely off somedays, almost unable to do anything.
I stayed inside a lot, terrified with the idea that this could happen again.
After a lot of medical tests which included a visit to a brain surgeon, we ruled out all physical causes.
I was finally getting better day by day.
After a great long vacation spent in France with my family, I am now able to share my experience.
This episode forced me to really get introspective.
Here are some of the key insights I got from my panic attack
1. Self-care is everything and it includes mental health.
This episode really prompted me to go back to some of the great habits I formed in the recent past and that I unfortunately slowly gave up. Meditation, mindfulness, limited media consumption, gratitude practice and healthy eating are now back in my routine; maybe not as much I would like, but I am getting there.
Before getting my panic attack, my wife bugged me for weeks to get a full physical; which I had not done in years. How sad that it required me getting into such a high state of anxiety to finally see the doctors I needed to see. It is important to point out that, as men, we often tend to brush off our symptoms thinking that we are too strong to see a doctor.
The unspoken truth is that we are so afraid that the doctor finds something wrong with us that we’d rather stay in the unknown. We refuse the idea of facing an uncomfortable truth.
2. It is crucial to ask for help, especially for men.
As men it is sometimes very difficult for us to ask for help; to admit vulnerability, our doubts or sadness. The stigma around mental health is real and needs to be broken. After my panic attack experience, I had a nice talk with my insightful friend Mark Greene (follow him everywhere!), who pointed out how lonely and hopeless I felt. He showed me that I did not have a strong male support system that I could rely on, for moments of distress, which ultimately led me to the ER.
To illustrate this point, I will give you two facts:
- Loneliness is killing millions of American men. In an article for the New Republic titled “The Lethality of Loneliness,” Judith Shulevitz writes “Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused by or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer — tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.”
- According to an article for Very Well Mind, “In recent years, there has been a steady increase in the numbers of men who elect to end their own lives prematurely through suicide. Over 41,000 people die by suicide each year in the U.S. and suicide is the seventh leading cause of death for all U.S. men. Men are four times more likely than women to die from suicide.” The first 3 risk factors mentioned are: Using drugs and/or alcohol to help cope with emotions, relationships, the pressure of work or other issues; Social isolation or living alone; Not being able to form or sustain meaningful relationships.
Maybe I am not as out of the Man Box as I thought I was…
3. Self-love is everything especially when you are not at your best.
Unconditional love is a big ideal that many of us claim to have reached. Yet, when we feel that we are not performing at a certain level, that love seems very conditional. At least this is the case for me. I am 100% convinced that repetitive negative self-talk led me to the emergency room. The introspection that occurred on the aftermath of the panic attack helped me identify Billy and I am grateful that I did. Up until that day, I had no idea of the emotional abuse I was subjecting myself. I always knew that I was perfectionist, but at this point, this is no longer perfectionism.
This is abuse.
This is self-sabotage.
There is no one that is meaner and more destructive than the bully that lives inside of you.
Billy does not come around very often now, because I am learning to ignore him and to stand up for myself. Please know that if you have a Billy that lives inside of you, you are not alone. Know that he is much smaller than you think and you have the power to make it go away. And if you need help getting rid of this motherfucker, don’t hesitate to reach out. There are plenty of good men and women out there who will help you defeat the asshole!